This film is somewhat of an anomaly. Most religiously themed films are either intentionally antireligious or intentionally intensely religious. Also, whenever a film is based on another story, filmmakers always deviate from it for one reason or another. Sometimes it is only because of the difference in mediums – text versus screen.
Then there is the issue of attitude. Evangelicals, because they are human beings, can be judgmental. We want either to affirm the film or to disavow it. And this is a difficult task when others choose to make art with what we find sacred. It is especially difficult when others take our own revealed stories that have their own point and seek to weave into it other points they wish themselves to make.
Let me start with what I liked. First, I think that all of the acting was decently good. Jennifer Connelly and Russell Crowe were a more believable couple in this film than in A Beautiful Mind. The filmmakers attempted to bring gravity both to the intense wickedness of humanity and the strain and careful patience it must take to live in the midst of that as religiously as possible. Their attempt to portray Noah as both an intensely caring and loving man with the capacity for intense strength and even viciousness if necessary was profoundly layered. Although his character is more complex and confused than in the biblical text, the gravity and weight of the story itself demands an added grittiness when the narrative is filled out.
It was inevitable that the producers and writers would go picking through the first chapters of Genesis to determine what to use. Although I didn’t like a number of choices they made, most all of the key characters are actually in the text in some way.
Most importantly, it must have been intensely difficult for Hollywood writers to deal with the story’s central concept of all people deserving death. To their credit, they grappled with it with deadly seriousness, then they questioned it, and then they sort of left it alone. And in all of the film they supported the stern sovereignty of God over all that happened.
The last really good thing is that they tried to grapple with the fundamental human flaw in dealing with Genesis 1:28, translated “fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” The two words in dispute are “subdue” and “rule over,” often translated “take dominion.” Both Noah and Tubal-Cain define their lives and identities on the basis of this verse both in their humanness and in their maleness. And this is why I was fundamentally in favor of their development of Tubal-Cain as a foil to Noah, even though there is no biblical evidence he was any such sort of man, and would have been long dead by the time of Noah. I would have preferred Noah and Tubal-Cain to have quoted the passage using the same words so that an audience that is biblically illiterate could understand that they were quoting the same verse. Noah instructed his sons (especially Ham) that God had put us here to care for the earth, that our authority is to be used as caretakers. Tubal-Cain taught Ham that our dominion represented our superiority and right to use up the earth however we felt necessary. And the struggle between these two views was most intensely felt in the development of the character Ham in numerous scenes throughout the film. The intense and hyperbolic exaggeration of the environmentalist versus industrialist distinction between the two peoples, though it has absolutely no biblical grounding, is used to push this metaphor forward. I think this is the main “redemptive” point the Hollywood producers saw in this narrative, a point that would be agreeable within both the Biblical and Liberal worldviews: whether humans would see in their dignity the right to devour creation or their purpose to care for it and cause it to flourish.
With those good things noted, there is also quite a lot to say about the movie that is negative. First, the writers choose to make God’s revelation of Noah’s place in the deluge extraordinarily vague. And so Noah spends virtually the entire movie wrestling with what it is he is actually supposed to do. In the biblical text, the instructions are painfully clear. God even specifies the measurements for the ark. And there is never any question that humanity is supposed to survive the flood. Nor do his sons require wives. God does not leave Noah without clarity. The introduction of that lack of clarity undermines Noah’s certainty as a prophet and makes him seem like a madman in the end, though at least not a sick religious nut.
The problem really rises from the medium itself. How do you get drama onto the ark? If you’re going to make it a two and a half hour film epic, and if they are going to be on the ark for the better part of a year, how do you make that interesting? How do you make a movie out of it? (though they covered 9 months of it in a 1 second cut).
And this is where I think the movie Noah goes off the rails: by making the original revelation vague, the writers lead Noah to the conclusion that all of humanity has to die. Oddly enough, the moment he reveals this is actually perhaps the best in the movie. In a conversation with his wife, he points out the deep idolatry eating away the character of everyone in his own family, a different idolatry for each person. It is ultimately his wife giving into hers that creates the drama for the ark and demonstrates the godlessness of even the best of characters. Noah has recognized that if any humans survive the flood, humanity will not be fixed. It is the first revelation of the nature of humanity in the Bible (sin’s universality- that there are no righteous people), and for a brief few seconds, it finds its way into the film.
But perhaps the most important theological point of the Biblical story of Noah was that God was clear that, in spite of the universal sinfulness of humanity, it was always his intention that humanity should continue. In this sense, the Biblical story of Noah concludes in the exact opposite way the movie does. In the film, Noah feels like a failure, and then after a helpful speech by Emma Watson, he can conclude that he was a success, or something like it. In the biblical text it is just the opposite. Noah fulfilled everything perfectly throughout the story. He is the perfect prophet. Then, at the very end, the first act of the new humanity is drunkenness that leads to the splitting of a family. It is the biblical text that has the twist ending: sin has survived on the ark in the very man that was chosen, the most righteous of his generation, a man whom Ezekiel counts as among the three most righteous men of the Old Testament.
Ultimately, my advice is for Christians simply not to make much of this movie. I don’t think it should be attacked. It doesn’t follow the biblical storyline all that closely, but the movie doesn’t intend to. It’s a Hollywood rewrite designed to please everyone, and so will probably not become anyone’s favorite movie. I’m not sure that the movie creates all that much opportunity for helpful spiritual conversations, nor does it terribly confuse the biblical story, other than it will probably convince thousands that the line of Seth was a bunch of vegetarians.
In terms of Hollywood capitalism, it would probably be good for the faith if the movie didn’t do very well financially. Hollywood stands ready to market to Christians that which we will buy and they approve of making, and Noah is the 1.0 version of that. It is a film that doesn’t really cover the biblical theme all that closely, but carries secular environmental themes very well. It is an ideological compromise. It is palatable to the subculture, and they would be happy to make 15 more of these if 50 or 80 million is to be made from it. I would prefer not to have to endure such films unless they adhere more closely to the biblical text and, much more importantly, to the biblical message and theme. I for one, can endure much creative liberties in the details and narrative as long as a film is faithful to the intention of the text, the lesson about God. Noah both almost did it and wasn’t close at the same time. They approached it and then departed from it.