Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What does the Creator want?: a review of Noah (2014 film)

Jewish date:  8 ’Iyyar 5774 (evening) (Parashath BeHar Sinay).

Today’s holidays:  Day 23 of the ‘Omer (Judaism), Feast Day of St. Peter Lorre (Church of the SubGenius).

What does the Creator want?:  a review of Noah (2014 film)

by Aaron Solomon Adelman

The story of Noaḥ (Noah) is one of the most familiar stories in the Hebrew Bible.  This is probably because it is in the early chapters of the first book, Genesis, so  it is one of the most likely to be read, especially by people who fail to read very far in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Due its familiarity, it is periodically dramatized and adapted.  Already on this blog I have reviewed Noah’s Ark (1999 miniseries) and the quasi-adaptation Evan Almighty.  Considering the publicity and number of reviews of the recent Noah movie (titled המבול, “The Flood” here in Israel), I could not ignore it.  As with previous reviews, the story of Noaḥ will be treated as a literal story, even though it is arguably esoteric.

The makers of the film clearly apparently read the original text (Genesis 6-10) and tried to get some things right.  The general outlines of the story are all there—Noaḥ, his wife, his three sons Shem, Ḥam (Ham), and Yefeth (Japheth), building the ark, the flood, the sending forth of the raven and the dove, and the restarting of human society.  The genealogical context of where Noaḥ comes from is correct, including his grandfather Methushelaḥ (Methuselah) and his father Lamekh (Lamech) and there being two competing lines of humanity from Qayin (Cain) and Sheth (Seth).  The ark is correctly depicted as an ark in the literal sense:  a box.  (Think about it.  The term used in the original text, תֵּבָה (tevah) means “box”, and there is no mention of anything one would expect specifically on a boat, such as oars, a sail, or a rudder.)  There was also a lot of work put into the visual effects and some thought about the logistics of life on the ark.

But when one goes into the behavior and reasoning of the characters that the film goes horribly wrong, as the writers violate a cardinal unwritten rule of good religious thought:


And the tampering is not for the better, dramatically or religiously, and the worst of it lies at the very heart of the story.

The writers of the film botched the theology of the original text.  The Hebrew Bible consistently depicts YHWH as clear about what He wants.  Yes, there are some mysterious prophecies about what will happen in the future, but He is explicit about what He wants humans to do in the present.  And when He is angry at humans, it is because humans are disobeying the commands He has given them—and in the age of prophecy, He sent periodic messages about what people were doing wrong.  Being a god, YHWH is quite capable of communicating, so humans do not have to guess what He wants.  (I am well aware of the inherent problems of interpretation.  But when YHWH is ready to smite someone, it is always over “big picture” issues, such as murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, theft, abuse of the sacrificial system, and violation of Shabbath, not minutiae.)  Thus YHWH tells Noaḥ in Genesis 6:13-21 why humanity is doomed, how the doom is going to happen, and what He wants Noaḥ to do about it.  Noaḥ is to build an ark according to a specific plan, stock it with two or seven of each species of animal (the number depending on species), and he, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives are to ride out the flood in the ark.  Humanity is meant to survive.

The film, in contrast, depicts the Creator—His name is never mentioned—as having abominable communication skills; He never says anything.  In the film, the Creator sends Noah a vision of drowned people.  He has to go to his grandfather Methuselah to make any sense of what he saw and discover that a flood is coming.  There is no explicit message of why the Creator is sending a flood, what Noah is supposed to do, or what the Creator plans for the future.  Noah has to fill in the gaps with inference, gut feelings, and sheer guesswork—with the emphasis on gut feelings and guesswork.  This leads humanity to the brink of disaster.  Noah guesses that the Creator intends for those on the ark to be the last humans.  Because of this, he refuses to find wives for Ham and Japheth—or even let Ham bring a girl with him onto the ark.  When Shem’s (presumedly) barren wife Ila gets miraculously pregnant, Noah is determined to kill the child, should it prove to be a girl, lest humanity have a chance of continuing.  This idea is unpopular among the rest of the humans on the ark.  Shem builds an escape craft for himself and Ila, but Noah destroys it.  When Ila gives birth to twin girls, Noah only relents at the last second.  He initially feels unbearably guilty for not killing the babies and lives apart from the rest of his family; he has a cave to himself and indulges in wine until Ila argues to him that the Creator really meant for humanity to continue, thus choosing Noah for his being sufficiently moral to show mercy on his granddaughters.  At that point the Creator shows the rainbow, and the movie ends.  This change in the relationship between the Creator and humans makes some sense dramatically, as it creates serious problems to be overcome.  But the problems it creates only serve to make the Creator and Noah look worse:  the Creator due to His inability to plainly say what he wants, rather than forcing Noah to guess what He wants him to do, and Noah due to him making desperate, misanthropic guesses which could easily be wrong.  For this change alone the writers deserve condemnation.

The lack of clear Divine communication is also evident in the question of why the flood is brought.  In Genesis 6:11, the answer is explicit:  destruction (or corruption) of the Earth and violence; Noaḥ is told exactly that soon afterwards, so he has no reason to express doubt.  But in the film the Creator leaves Noah to figure out what He is thinking.  And the solution that Noah comes up with is environmental destruction.  The Cainites have created a civilization advanced enough to produce iron weapons, and in the process they have wrecked much of the environment.  Part of this is due to mining for a flammable mineral known as “zohar”.  Another part of this is due to the extensive consumption of meat; they are never shown eating anything else on their own initiative.  The Cainites are shown as cruel, enslaving each other to trade for meat, and waging war, but Noah puts the emphasis on their disregard for the environment.  Noah views his mission as an environmentalist one:  once the flood is over, he is to restock the Earth with animals and plants—and humans are to go extinct so that they can never wreck the environment again.  Noah sees evil as inherent in humanity—essentially the Christian doctrine of original sin—thus his insistence on human extinction.  

Moving the emphasis for the flood to environmental destruction, rather than immorality, is not an improvement.  The Hebrew Bible is overwhelmingly filled with laws about and preaching on human behavior, but almost all of it deals with how humans treat each other and YHWH; very little is said on animal welfare, and one has to read between the lines to see any concern for the environment.  The paucity of environmental material is demonstrated by the book Ecology in the Bible by Nogah Hareuveni and Helen Frenkley, which is a mere 52 pages, 30 of which consist of photographs; the actual text consists of material on animals and plants as part of the world of the Hebrew Bible, but not really environmentalism per se.  Environmentalism, to someone steeped in the Hebrew Bible is a matter of human welfare, as we humans have to live on this planet; acting stupidly about our home is something we should not need a deity to tell us to not do, and we are not allowed to act in ways that hurt other people.  The film, on the other hand, inverts the priorities.  Environmentalism is changed from a means to an overriding goal; Noah considers animal “innocent”, unlike humans, so their existence must be assured.  In contrast, human existence, much less welfare, is precariously threatened, rather than assumed.  Furthermore, the flood is not a good way to help the environment.  Yes, the environment sucks, but parts of it are still there.  After the flood there is nothing, and “sucks” is still better than “nothing”.  While all terrestrial animal species are saved on the ark (except those that, according to the film, went extinct there), the populations preserved are very small.  In real life, this is recipe for extinction.  The loss of one member of a species can mean the loss of the whole species, and those which survive end up severely inbred.  And if the animals are truly innocent, as Noah thinks, why do only a tiny number of them survive?  Would it not be fairer for the Creator to instead send a plague to kill off humanity and spare everything else?  Without a doubt, the writers failed to think things through when introducing the theme of environmentalism into the film, and the result is morally perverse.

Arguably the reason for warping the story is to make it more suitable for action and drama.  Noaḥ in the original text is not an action hero.  He does not fight with other humans or struggle with the commands of YHWH.  To transform him into the Noah of the film, he has to have problems which cannot be dealt with quietly and gently.  Hence the writers made the messages of the Creator hard to understand, leading to drama which should not be there.  The Cainites are co-opted as villains, and their leader, Tuval-Qayin (Tubal-Cain, Genesis 4:22), preaches everything which is abominable to Noah, actively fights against Noah, stows aboard the ark, proves a bad influence on Ham, eats animals on the ark, and has a final showdown fight scene with Noah, all for the sake of extra drama and action.  The mysterious Children of ’Elohim (Genesis 6:2) are metamorphosed into the Watchers, rock monsters who are really fallen angels who find forgiveness from the Creator for daring to help humanity by helping build the ark and dying spectacularly fighting the Cainites.  And, of course, the flood itself is depicted horrifically, with the Cainites screaming as they seek higher ground to escape the rising waters and ultimately drown.  The film does succeed in creating an adrenaline rush—but only at the cost of wrecking the letter and spirit of the original story.

Overall classification:  CGI-heavy action movie.

Theological rating:  F.  Darren Aronofsky is hereby banned from making religion-rated films for life.