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Russell Crowe as Noah.
Associated Press/Photo by Niko Tavernise (Paramount Pictures)
Russell Crowe as Noah.

Noah nails God’s wrath but misses His mercy

Movies | 
The latest retelling of the biblical epic uses intellect, emotion, and creativity to tackle deep theological issues—but misses the mark

The God central to the latest Paramount film, Noah, is silent. Ever since mankind was driven out of the Garden of Eden after the Fall, God has left his image-bearing creation to rot and fester in their own iniquities. Man eats dog, man kills man, man destroys the earth. Grieved by the devastation of his creation, God decides to wipe out all men with a big flood, but preserves the lives of Noah, his family, and two of each living creature in a massive ark. 

Sound familiar? Not really. Noah will blot out whatever Sunday school watercolor image you may have of a righteous Noah beaming at the heavens as mommy and daddy giraffes duck into a rudimentary ship. Instead, what you get is a dark psychological thriller wrapped up in a horror film. 

To its credit, Noah makes serious attempts at grappling with deep theological questions: What is good? Who is righteous? What is justice and mercy? But Christians shouldn’t be surprised that a secular production would miss the most important and critical element of this Genesis story—the gospel of Christ.

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Noah, which releases today, has been sailing through a media mini-typhoon the last few months. After test-screening unfinished cuts of the film to a recruited segment of professing Christians, director and writer Darren Aronofsky faced some vocal objections to his lavish reimagination of the story. Several Muslim countries, including Indonesia and Qatar, have banned the movie. Rumors flew within conservative circles that Hollywood atheists were attempting to exploit Christians with liberal, pro-environmentalist agendas. It’s worth noting that many such alarmed protests came from people who had not yet seen the movie.

True, Noah minimizes the Bible’s original narrative and rewrites characters and themes through a flawed human perspective. Many parts of the film will vex Christian viewers. For example, God is only alluded to as “The Creator.” Noah’s super-old grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), is a spiritual, magical blend of Yoda and Merlin with E.T. fingers. Noah (Russell Crowe) builds his ark with the help of fallen angels called The Watchers (based on references to Nephilim), who have been flung down to earth as rock giants that resemble Lord of the Ring’s Treebeard. For a story whose main message is sin, Noah shows more concern for environmental destruction than spiritual corruption.

Still, a Christian confident in the gospel should not fear Noah. With its staggering $125 million budget, Noah spectacularly depicts the realistic horrors of the flood and God’s immense wrath against sin. After all, the story of Noah was never a children’s story. It’s tragic and terrifying, and Noah vividly captures those emotional and psychological aspects. This is where Aronofsky’s signature “psychological case study” style shines, as it did in his previous feature films, The Fountain and Black Swan. He does a masterful, intense portrait of the characters as they slide into delirious fear and survivor’s guilt in the claustrophobic, clammy ark.

If you’re planning to watch Noah, see it on the big screen or IMAX. Its redeeming qualities are the strong cast and its ability to breathe life into a full-scale, spectacularly visual epic. The nifty CGI (computer-generated imagery) scenes where clouds of birds swarm into the ark, followed by slithering reptiles and lumbering mammals, are visually and audibly stunning. In a dark theater surrounded by the pulsing sounds of tortured screams and cannonading rain, you can’t help but tremble at the visceral foretelling of Judgment Day. For Christians, it is a necessary reminder of God’s righteousness and justice that points to the grace of salvation in Christ. For the non-Christian, it likely will prompt the age-old question: “What kind of God would do that to His own creation?”

That’s one of the key questions the film asks with dismally unsatisfactory answers. Noah gradually recognizes that the blatant sin he condemns among fellow men reigns inside him and his family as well. “The wickedness is not just in them,” he whispers hoarsely to his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly). “It’s in all of us.” Unfortunately, Noah becomes convinced that the only creatures worth living are the innocent animals, and goes as far as to consider infanticide to end the human race.

Such is the movie’s misunderstanding of sin and the covenant. In previous interviews, Aronofsky reflects a rough understanding of sin as moral wickedness evidenced through rape, murder, pillage, and bad stewardship of the earth, all of which are dominant in Noah’s mankind. But the film fails to capture the more dangerous sins: nuanced, hidden, deceivingly beautiful, flesh-and-ego-pleasing sins that first tempted Eve in the Garden. When Noah finally starts recognizing his own inner wickedness, he descends into a lunatic and irrational state that victimizes his terrified family—revealing a rather biblical truth of what happens to a man who becomes “enlightened” without the promised hope and grace of the gospel.

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