The question of whether you like the recent Noah film will depend on what you are expecting. If you are expecting only to see what you find in Genesis – which is after all not very much – you will be disappointed. If you are hoping for something so “literal” it misses the point of the story – like the so many Jesus films that turn Christ into a saccharine idol – you will be disappointed. Yet I would suggest if you are looking for something that is thoroughly Biblical, you will find it here, in spite of the cries of the film’s many Christian critics. But all this hangs on what I mean by Biblical, and this in turn goes back to a difference between premodern and modern Biblical interpretation.
The best way I know of describing premodern Biblical interpretation is via Gregory the Great’s Moralia in Job. Does Gregory believe in the historical meaning of the text? Yes. But that is not what he is most interested in. What he is most interested in rather is the way the book of Job communicates within the matrix of Biblical and Christian tradition. At the end of the day, the book of Job is not really about the story of Job at all – the book becomes a touchstone whereby one enters via figural means the entirety of Christianity, understood in terms of Scripture and Tradition. For Gregory, the most interesting thing about the book of Job is the way it associates with all the other stories caught up in the narrative of Christianity.
And this, I argue, is precisely what the Noah film is doing. It is of course not as overtly Christian as Gregory’s Moralia, but then the original story of Noah is not overtly Christian either – it is Jewish first and Christian second. And though it does certainly supplement the story in various ways, the key to the genius of the film is the way it does this. Whereas some other attempts at capturing such stories on film try to simply write modern culture over the story – use it as a skeleton for a piece of modern art – Noah does roughly the same kind of thing that Gregory does. The film is not so much interested in a mimetic relation of the Biblical story as in the question of how that story can become a touchstone whereby we enter the polyphony of Biblical narrative.
How does this work? As one of my friends put it, it does this by cramming most of the span of the Genesis narrative into the tight space of the Noah story. We see the creation and the Fall. We see the Cain and Abel story. We encounter a scene resembling the horrible events described when the angels visit Lot in Sodom. Humans have the technology – and pride – of Nimrod, the hunter who is traditionally thought to have built Babel. The miraculous birth narrative, so present throughout the Old Testament and finding completion in the narrative of Mary, is here as well, and so is the Abraham and Isaac story. Pedantic details are not missed. I once had a Sunday school teacher who bothered to figure out all the ages of the people in the Bible, and who were contemporaries etc., and he discovered that in the narrative of Genesis, Methuselah dies at the time of the flood. This too is not missed. Even imaginative details have roots in some of the more cryptic of Biblical passages. To be sure, the partially fallen angels, the watchers, are apocryphal (from the book of Enoch) rather than Biblical, but stories from Genesis have always spawned mythical offspring who, if done right, may not be there literally but do represent the spirit of the text. Milton, for instance, peoples the first chapters of Genesis with many characters who do not appear in the Bible, and Beowulf imagines Grendel and his mother as descendants of Cain (or Ham, if you follow a certain line of interpretation). And though the watchers are more like these latter than Milton’s former, with an obscure metaphysics leaving more questions than answers, they are perhaps no more puzzling and distracting than Genesis’ own iteration of the mysterious Nephilim, who would seem to be the offspring of a union between humans and angelic creatures. This, then, is the technique of the film – not to represent the story of Noah, per se, but to use the narrative as a framework for entry into the broader Biblical narrative as a whole. The question then becomes one of gauging how the film conceives of this narrative, and I would suggest (as I argue below) that it does a decent job of this.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Perhaps the best way of getting at how the film works is to begin with the thing that worried me for the first third of the film: the problem of the absence animal sacrifice. This I considered a problem because I was worried that the film was simply going to divide humanity into a set of evil meat eaters and innocent vegetarians who escape on a boat. This all looked too hippy for me – not because I dislike hippies per se, but because their explanation of sin and salvation from it is too simplistic. The idea that we can so easily sail away from our sin, whether corporate or personal, greatly underestimates the power of sin. And this is precisely where the Old Testament sacrifice comes in. The point of this was to remind us that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. Salvation is not cheap. And this is highlighted in the original Noah story, not only by the animal sacrifices made by Noah himself, but also by the fact that Abel’s animal sacrifice was pleasing to God whereas Cain’s sacrifice of vegetables was not. That the first murderer is associated with vegetables and the first victim associated with the slaughter of animals makes things slightly complicated for the film’s conception of a world where evil meat eaters are pitted against vegetarian protagonists. And the reason I harp on this is because it does remove one of the typological footholds whereby the Noah story is understood in relation to the sacrifice of Christ – where there are no sacrificial lambs, it is that much harder to conceive of THE Sacrificial Lamb.
Had this been the extent of the film – simply turning the story into PETA propaganda– I would not have been happy, but fortunately what the story takes away with one hand it gives back with the other. It does this in the form of an alteration to the story whereby Noah expects the human line to end with his family, and is faced with the discernment of whether God wills him to complete the destruction of humanity by killing his granddaughters, or to allow humanity to continue, sinful as it is. And it is in this dilemma that everything taken away by the absence of blood sacrifice is brought back – because the choice Noah faces is the conundrum that haunts humanity. It is clear enough in the film that dealing with evil is not simply a matter of easily shutting oneself up in a boat, and the figure of Tubal-Cain, who will be dismissed by some Christian critics as an unnecessary addition, is merely a type of the Original Sin that Biblically speaking is indeed carried through the flood and into the brand new world – righteous though Noah may be, there will always be those like Tubal-Cain and Ham – righteous though Noah may be, there will always be a part of him that participates in the sins of these characters. And the only way of ensuring the complete and utter destruction of sin is through the complete and utter destruction of humanity. Indeed, the scenario is very like the conclusion of Paradise Lost, when Eve proposes suicide – if the human race is fallen, why go forth and multiply, when this simply makes one a breeder of sinners?
The answer to this comes in the form of a mystery: it is only through such propagation and fruitfulness that humanity can be saved. The motif of miraculous childbirths out of situations of barrenness and complication permeates the Old Testament, pointing back toward God’s promise to Eve of salvation through a child who will crush the serpent, and pointing forward to Mary’s unconditional fiat. And all of these characters are collated in the figure of Illa, played quite perfectly by Emma Watson. Here, there is miraculous conception, the birth of twins (reminiscent of Jacob and Esau), and the looming threat of death faced by so many children in the Bible, particularly Moses and Christ. In this segment of the film, Noah’s character gestures toward all the figures that threaten children throughout Biblical history, whether protagonists such as Abraham, villains such as Pharaoh and Herod, or figures of ambiguity such as Jephthah. Noah finally chooses life, and eventually receives divine confirmation in this choice, but the problem – sin – survives along with the human race.
This, then, brings us back to the puzzle that animal sacrifice is meant to bring up – if sin is to die, humans also must die, and hence this is taken care of, if imperfectly and only provisionally, by the vicarious sacrifice of animals. But I would argue that, though this line of the story is not literally present, the puzzle it proposes is palpable in the film– as Milton memorably puts it concerning man, “die he, or justice must.” And, Biblically speaking, it turns out that Justice in fact must die – on a cross. The one who is the very embodiment of Justice steps in in some mysterious way beyond our imagination and does what Noah cannot – in Him, humanity dies, and in Him, it rises again, this time without sin. And this ultimately is what I like about the Noah film.
There are many little things to praise, including typological gestures toward creation ex nihilo, and a visual that evokes the Spirit of God hovering over the waters in the form of a dove; it also is perhaps one of the best filmic representations of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body – the union of the unitive and procreative purposes of sex – that we are likely to see in a very long time. Similarly, there are many things one might nitpick about, and I won’t go into them here because I’m sure there are all too many other Christian critics happy to pick up slack in this matter. However, I, for one, am most glad that, through creative treatment, the story in the main “got” the most important point of the Noah story. This point is that sin is a problem; mass destruction is only a temporary fix, and salvation is not as simple as walling oneself up in a ship and riding out the storm. Something else is needed, and is answered in words conveying that mystery even deeper than sin: “To us a child is born…”