All Go Down Together

Noah2014PosterWhile the rest of the world was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I was rewatching Noah, trying to find some profundity there. Like many curious people, I went to see the movie in the theater last spring expecting great things. While the story has some interesting elements, it just doesn’t live up to expectations. Noah is a hard character to like. In the biblical versions of the story, based as they are on older Mesopotamian prototypes, Noah (and his analogues) is a sympathetic character, at least in the reader’s mind. When we read we tend to identify with the main character, and since the builder of the ark is trying to preserve humanity from what seems to be an overly wrathful deity, we can sympathize at some level. What believer hasn’t felt put upon by the divine at some point or other? In the movie, Noah’s decision to end humanity after the flood is based on the silence of God. Indeed, that is one of the more profound aspects of the film—God never speaks to anyone so any action seems entirely human led. We’d expect someone who builds a floating zoo to be sympathetic to the human zookeepers at least.

Evolution, or something deriving from it, encourages species to protect their offspring. Some animals, of course, do this through over-compensation—producing more young than the world could bear if all survived to maturity. Mammals, however, care for and nurture their young. Noah’s ad hoc decision to end the human race, apart from being heavy-handed, is unreasonable and cruel. Who could look at their sons and say, “I’m going to let you age and die alone,” and yet feel that they are doing the will of the Almighty? Indeed, if humanity is made is God’s image, which Noah admits, isn’t this a form of deicide? Is Noah striking back at a silent God?

The movie does give the viewer much to ponder, but writing missteps plague the film throughout. Although wicked, Tubal-Cain is a more sympathetic character than the protagonist. He, at least, wants humanity to thrive. Noah, seeing how women are mistreated in Tubal-Cain’s kingdom, declares he will kill Ila’s children only if they are girls. There is a profound misogyny in the movie, it seems. Not that Darren Aronofsky intends for the story to be misogynic, but the implications speak loud and clear. To clear the world of violence, Noah proposes the most violent action of all. Like Noah, while everyone else was crowding into theaters with their fellow human beings to watch the force awaken, I was sequestered in my private ark waiting for a special message that refused to come. I wonder which is the more spiritual movie?

Ham Awry

Ham, in the movie Noah, is a conflicted figure. I felt a slight chill, I’ll have to admit, when the carnivore Tubal-Cain asked him his name, reminiscent as it is of pork. Of the sons of Noah he alone bears the impossibly stylish short hair his father seems to favor, and yet, he is one of four men alive and the only one without a mate. Japheth is young enough to wait for his twin nieces to grow up, and the ancestor of the Semites, Shem, has already begun his fruitful multiplication, just when humanity seemed at an evolutionary bottle-neck. Ham found a wife but couldn’t keep her. Noah leaves her to be trampled to death as he takes his son to the gentlemen’s club known as The Ark. The rain has already begun to fall.

In the Bible Ham gets short-shrift as well. Having seen Noah naked after he discovers alcoholism, Ham bears the brunt of his father’s wrath. Noah, perhaps still hungover, curses Ham’s son (not appearing in the movie), Canaan. From the biblical point of view, the reason is perfectly clear: when Israel arrived in the promised land, the Canaanites already lived there. Given that the promise was to Shem’s descendants, a genocide was ordered and probably the more liberal among the marauding Israelites felt a bit of guilt about that. No worries—like ethnic minorities in horror movies, the Canaanites were created to be killed. Ham, however, isn’t cursed for his voyeurism. Still, according to later interpretation, he is the ancestor of the Africans as well, and the “curse of Ham” was used for a biblically literate society as a justification of slavery. After all, Ham had had an eyeful, and it was only fitting, they reasoned, that his n-teenth-hundredth generation should suffer cruelly for it. How’s that for air-tight reasoning?

According to the movie, Ham decided to leave in voluntary exile. Perhaps he hoped that like Cain he might find an unlikely spouse in an unpopulated world. He had grown apart from the new Adam, welcoming Tubal-Cain aboard the ark, and keeping him hidden until Noah threatened to kill the future of all humankind. Strangely, it seems that Ham is the proximate cause of the salvation of all humanity, and he become a self-sacrificial scapegoat in the Icelandic scenery. He declares that his deceased chosen mate was good, and Noah had cursed her as well. In the Bible cursing is freely dispensed, and it is considered adequate to its task. Somehow that curse transmuted to a nobility in the film, for Ham is the most like Noah of all his children. And even today that self-same Bible is used to justify a genocide in a world where myth is taken for reality.

Noah doesn't like Ham

Noah doesn’t like Ham

Clash of the Watchers

NoahMovie

I don’t know about you, but I think I got gypped with my Bible. I have just come out of Noah where I saw amazing sights and a seriously troubled Noah to whom God refuses to say a single word. Controversy still swirls around the web concerning the movie, but I honestly have to say that it was more like Clash of the Titans (2010) than anything else. Except a thin part of the plot—and a few character names—that were borrowed from the Bible, this could have been Herodotus rather than Moses. I don’t recall finding any exploding lava angels in Genesis 1-11, and magic rocks that seem to fit better into a Mormon worldview than a biblical one. Gopher-wood trees grow incredibly fast, and Noah sure fights very well for being a six-hundred year-old man. So why all the fuss? This is a movie folks, not scripture. For the price of the ticket you can buy yourself a new Bible and read the entire story in fifteen minutes (it’s just over two chapters long). If it’s an action movie you’re looking for, I thought The Avengers was better.

What struck me most about the movie, apart from the watchers, which were admittedly an improvement on Holy Writ, was the subtext of evangelicalism. Noah, when he decides to build the ark appears suddenly with an evangelically approved haircut. He also had grown decided misanthropic, insisting that the ark is only for the animals’ sake, and that he only allows Shem to have a wife because he thinks she is barren. When he considers finding wives for Ham and Japheth, there is a huge meat for sex kind of deal going on in Tubal-Cain’s city that disgusts Noah so much that his vegetarian righteousness declares that all people will die off once the ark runs aground. And, of course, he will have to kill his granddaughters. This is a dark and tormented Noah who drinks to forget his problems in a world where God only speaks in cryptic dreams and one gets the sense that Noah is very Republican in his lack of compassion. Take out the whole human race while you’ve got the chance.

The movie is filled with mixed messages. Noah certainly doesn’t appear to live up to his name (“comfort,” by simple translation), and although the supernatural is everywhere, a compassionate deity is utterly lacking. Species die off when Tubal-Cain gets hungry. And the very sign of blessing is the skin shed by the serpent that led to the fall. What are we supposed to learn from this? A vague, Avatar-esque “the planet is good” message does give me a little hope, but seeing Noah poising a knife above an infant’s head only because she’s female makes me a bit squeamish. Noah obeys simply for obedience’s sake and people are mere stains on an otherwise ideal world. Before the fall Adam and Eve veritably glowed. Adam stoops to pick up the serpent’s skin while Eve engineers the fall of all. The special effects are good, but the story, it seems to me, is all wet. That’s the gospel truth.