Wednesday, April 16, 2014

AB at the movies: Noah

I will confess up front that I thought this was a really interesting, thought-provoking movie. I went with all four members of our family, and that opinion was not shared by everybody. PellMel, for example, thought it was too dark and disturbing. We saw it a couple of weeks ago, and at the time I thought I would write a blog post about it. But then a bunch of other stuff happened and I forgot about it until I listened to some fellow church members criticize it today. So I will tell you why I liked it, and try to do it in such a way that I don't spoil the movie for you.

The main complaint, of course, is that it doesn't follow the Bible story, which is found in Genesis chapters 6-8. Here is a link to it if you'd like to go read it. It's not very long, it takes about 10 minutes to read it, so you can go do it right now. We'll wait.

There are obviously major differences between the Bible version and the movie version, no surprise there. But do they ruin the story?

1. "The Watchers." In the movie, the Watchers are enormous creatures made out of rock that were formerly fallen angels. They decide to help Noah and his family build the ark. They're a bit ridiculous, no question. In terms of movie special effects, they're sort of a cross between the Transformers, the Iron Giant, and the Rock creature from Galaxy Quest. I hope we can be forgiven for not-so-quietly quoting various different lines from Galaxy Quest while we were watching Noah ("Rock! Rock! Rock!" and "It's the simple things in life you treasure" and... oh, wait, I'm getting off topic.)

But you know, there are the Nephilim in the Bible story, and they aren't described. We know next to nothing about them. So I'm giving them a pass on this one. Sure, they took the idea and ran with it, but there's a base there in the original story. Anyway--and the importance of this cannot be overstated-- Noah is a story from the Jewish scriptures. The Old Testament is an important part of my understanding of my Christian faith, but this was a Hebrew story long before Christianity existed. The Nephilim are well-established in Jewish tradition as "those that fell from heaven." Watch the credits roll at the end of the movie and you will see that the creative team behind Noah has a number of Jewish names. I think they're allowed to interpret the Nephilim however they want--although of course also we are allowed to roll our eyes that they picked a way that happens to lend itself to big-budget movie special effects.

2. Methuselah. Methuselah does not appear in the Genesis story of Noah, but he's in the movie. So yes, they added him unnecessarily. But in their defense, they got the details right. Methuselah is indeed Noah's grandfather. If you want to read Noah's family tree, it's in Genesis 5. The writer(s) of Genesis very helpfully include everybody's ages in those family trees, so according to Genesis, Methuselah would have been 369 when Noah was born. Ancient of days, yes, but since Methuselah lived to be 969, he still had six hundred years to go. And since Noah was six hundred years old when the flood came (Gen 7:11), it isn't much of a stretch at all to surmise that Methuselah died in the flood. As far as I'm concerned, this is an acceptable change to the story--in fact, I thought it was even pretty creative and required a fair amount of attention to the details of the Genesis story.

3. Tubal-Cain. According to Genesis 4, Tubal-Cain was Cain's great great great great grandson (Cain is the son of Adam who murdered his brother Abel), which means he was probably long gone by the time of Noah. But since there aren't any ages given in Cain's family tree, it's hard to say. In the movie, Tubal-Cain is the representation of all that is evil about mankind and a great example of why mankind must be destroyed. So far, reasonable enough. But later in the movie (avoiding spoilers here), Tubal-Cain takes on a role that is completely superfluous to the story, and really--in my opinion--unnecessary. So yeah, I agree. The way Tubal-Cain is used later in the movie is a bad addition to the story.

4. Noah's sons and their wives (or lack thereof). In the Genesis story, Noah, his sons, and his sons' wives all go into the ark. In the movie, one of the major conflicts of the story happens because two of Noah's sons don't have wives. So, yeah, this one is just wrong compared to the Genesis account. But. It allows the movie to address the problem of human evil in a way that wouldn't be possible if they had stuck to the story. It puts the decision about whether or not the human race should survive directly into Noah's hands. Is the human race worth saving? And since Noah has to decide, the viewer ends up thinking about it, too. It's the moral heart of the story. I found Noah's dilemma and the way it was eventually resolved fascinating. (Although, yes, it's a bit facile to have Emma Watson deliver the morality-tale ending. But big budget movies are rarely known for subtlety.)

This change to the story also partly solves the part of the Noah story that is so distressing to people who weren't raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Those of us who learned the story in Sunday School when we were four years old tend to gloss over the part where God--the supposedly loving, merciful Creator God--kills off what must have been at least several hundred thousand people, people that He created, just because they were bad.

Noah and his family survive because Noah found favor in the sight of the Lord, but what does that mean? Noah, being human, couldn't have been 100% perfect, and human beings being what they are, probably plenty of those people who died in the flood weren't 100% bad. It's a pretty disturbing story if you look at it from that perspective. The way the movie-makers approach this in the movie meets the dilemma head-on instead of sweeping it under the table and jumping to the Sunday School version, where a sheepish, apologetic God slaps a rainbow up in the sky and promises he'll never, ever do it again.

So all in all, I liked it. It made me think, and I even had a minor a-ha! moment while considering the conflict between exacting justice for wrongdoing, and extending mercy to imperfect human beings. Although there are plenty of big budget special effects, unlike the typical blockbuster special effects movie, there is no black-and-white distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. It made me think about good and evil, and justice and mercy. Go see it for yourself and let me know what you think.


  1. Ah, Aunt Bean. Thought-provoking and insightful as always. Thank you.

    1. You know, maybe I am just wrong about this movie. Everybody I've talked to since we saw it has thought it was stupid and a clear attempt to cash in on religious values.

  2. OK, I have to add this. It says much about my ignorance that I didn't get the racial/ethnic implications of choosing a big-name non-Jewish cast. I didn't even think about it until reading about the same issue in the more recent re-make of the Moses story. So.... *blush* ...had to confess that.