Noah has floated through a flood of vocal opposition and doubts, landed a solid box office opening, and planted a victory flag that promises more big-studio biblical epics in the future. The $125 million movie by Paramount finished strong in its opening weekend at over $44 million in domestic box office sales, exceeding expectations. With the additional $51 million it made overseas, Noah (PG-13) seems to be on good forecast for profitability.
To put those numbers into context: Russell Crowe, who plays Noah, also starred in Robin Hood and Gladiator. Robin Hood made about $36 million in its debut weekend, and Gladiator made about $35 million. Both were released in May, a profitable month that marks the beginning of summer blockbuster season. Generally, March is reserved for smaller budget movies, so for Noah to bust a $45 million opening in March is considered a substantial success.
That success came despite initial negative responses from religious groups—a profitable demographic Paramount was hoping to woo. And there is much in Noah for Christians not to like. Director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s Noah focuses on God’s wrath, and it 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 are 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.
Aronofsky minimizes the Bible’s original narrative and rewrites characters and themes through a flawed human perspective. 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 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 Rings’ Treebeard. And for a story whose main message is sin, Noah shows more concern for environmental destruction than spiritual corruption.
Still, with its staggering $125 million budget, Noah spectacularly depicts the realistic horrors of the flood and God’s immense wrath against sin. The story of Noah is 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.
Aronofsky, a self-identified atheist who was “surprised” by the uproar over the film even before its release, said people didn’t acknowledge his “personal passion” in the Genesis story. He spent 10 years of research to create Noah, consulting various experts and studying every text he could find (including some noncanonical documents such as The Book of Enoch, which explains the unfortunate rock monsters). But he’s been mulling over Noahic themes much longer than that.
When he first heard the story of Noah as a child, Aronofsky remembers feeling scared. He asked questions then that he asks again in Noah: “What if I’m not good enough to be on the boat? I have wickedness and sin too.” In other words, the film is asking, “How can we sinners get saved?” If Christians have solid answers to these real questions, need we fear a secular artistic medium that asks them?
Consider this: Just weeks before Easter—a day commemorating Christ’s accomplishment of the ark’s salvation—people all over the world were talking, blogging, tweeting, and texting about Noah. Perhaps some of them are going home and blowing dust off their Bibles, or asking Christian friends about the real story of Noah. And if nonbelievers are asking and pondering the meaning of sin, perhaps they’re one more step toward repentance.