Monday, March 31, 2014

The Surprising Humanist Message in Aronofsky’s Biblical Epic

It is more than a little strange that one of the most violent narratives of the Western/Christian tradition is often dismissed as ‘that nice little story about the animals on the boat.’ The destruction of all life on Earth due to a bad case of ‘Creation Rage,’ is hardly a children’s bedtime story. Or maybe, if Grimm’s works are any indication, it is. For Darren Aronofsky, director of Pi, The Fountain and Black Swan, it is clearly material that can be reinterpreted into an epic fantasy movie.

Reinterpretation is the key. While the film hits most of the same notes as the account in Genesis, Aronofsky takes plenty of liberties with the story. Antediluvian Earth seems magically different from the world we live in now. Stars shine during the day. The planet has been overrun and poisoned by an industrial civilization that descended from Cain. This is your environmentalist message. Noah (Russell Crowe), the last descendant of the line of Seth (the brother Cain didn’t kill), is the vegan defender of what remains of living creation. He doesn’t seem to be doing a great job at that, but then he is outnumbered by the Cainiacs. Soon enough Noah receives a vision of the flood from a God who’s really talented at CGI rendering, and the story gets rolling from there.

Some of Aronofsky’s choices work better than others. Fallen angels called Watchers, who came down to Earth to help man (and indeed taught Cain’s descendents how too make bad choices), were bonded with the stones of the Earth when they hit the surface. Bound by the creator to the earth as part of their punishment, they find a way to redeem themselves by helping Noah on his little construction project. Although the CGI rendering of these rock angels is flawless, they still look rather silly, reminding me of the Excalbians from Star Trek, or that thing Tim Allen fought in Galaxy Quest. And if Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king over the local human population, is supposed to be the voice of mankind, well he’s not in line for any humanitarian of the year awards, and hardly makes the case that humanity is worth saving.

As the movie progresses Noah becomes more and more fanatically devoted to the mission given to him by God, the salvation of all other living creatures and the complete destruction of the human race. A plot twist involving his daughter-in-law Ila (Emma Watson) brings out the worst of this fanatical thinking. At this point in the film I thought this was a really strong humanist message against the kind of fanatical assholery that leads to the stoning of adulterers in Saudi Arabia (and other demented calls for violence that you still find in the more twisted corners of western civilization) or people flying airplanes into buildings. But Aronofsky had an even deeper humanist message to deliver, one universal enough to appeal to even true believers.

As we reach the resolution of this conflict, Noah makes his final choice, and it is not the one that he believes God wants him to make. Like Tubal-Cain, Noah is defying the demands of God; unlike Tubal-Cain he is defying them with the best and most noble of human impulses. For Humanists this represents the triumph of these noble human traits over the blindness and violence of fanatical devotion. For believers the message is similar, the Creator made you human for a purpose, your humanity is as much a part of the design as whatever interpretation you make of divine will. Maybe making the most human choices will yield greater blessings than following a path of strict obedience that leads to violence, persecution and destruction.

Moviegoers looking for an overly strict interpretation of Genesis will definitely be disappointed in this film. As will those who like their movies to feature some semblance scientific and historical accuracy. For the rest of us, Noah is a fairly entertaining big budget fantasy, full of strong performances and stunning visuals. B+

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