The American Noah: neolithic superhero
By William D. Romanowski
Reports suggest that Hollywood’s sudden interest in Bible movies is driven by economics. Comic book superheroes may be losing their luster and the studios can mine the Bible’s “action-packed material” without having to pay licensing fees to Marvel Entertainment. Maybe this explains why director Darren Aronofsky’s pitch to studio executives was not based on religious precursors, but the fact that Noah’s ark might be “the only boat more famous than the Titanic.” Did Paramount executives picture Titanic meets The Passion of the Christ?
Noah, first and foremost, follows the conventions of the Hollywood blockbuster. The studio is targeting not just churchgoers, but more importantly, the most frequent moviegoers (the under-25 crowd), and foreign audiences.
To heighten the film’s universal appeal, Aronofsky tried to meld the “fantastical world à la Middle-earth” for nonbelievers with a treatment that would please those “who take this very, very seriously as gospel.” The scorched earth magically sprouts a lush forest—lumber for ark-building—with Noah and his family helped by the Watchers, powerful earth-encrusted angels resembling Transformers. For the religiously devout, well, the movie “contains just enough spiritual pretention to make you wonder afterward if you have missed something important,” as Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson observes.
The film is “inspired by the story of Noah” with the Book of Genesis providing characters and setting. Noah is however more centrally shaped by American mythology, which is of course laced with Biblical motifs. In his classic study, R. W. B. Lewis describes the archetypal American as an Adamic figure, his innocence restored by virtue of having shed the baggage of history and ancestry. He is “an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources.”
Transplant this mythic character into Genesis and voilà! There you have it. The American Noah: Neolithic Superhero. Indeed, as Aronofsky said, “You’re going to see Russell Crowe as a superhero, a guy who has this incredibly difficult challenge put in front of him and has to overcome it.” Like the usual action-adventure lead (think of Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator), Noah is stoic, fearless, determined, and not only capable of violence, but adroit in combat. Faith serves as Noah’s superpower with God providing some “magical outside assistance” that makes for amazing special effects (Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America). Forget the forty days and nights; in an SFX instant geysers erupt and the skies unleash a torrent of rainfall submerging the earth in the apocalyptic flood. Wow!
As expected, characterizations are stark and simplified. Conflict results from the different positions that characters embrace on two important Biblical themes.
The Biblical creation account is referred to variously in several scenes. The Creator of all that exists invests His image bearers with the care and cultivation of human life and the creation: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28). Noah understands the Creator’s charge to have “dominion” in terms of creational caretaking. In contrast, his archenemy, the wicked Tubal-Cain, employs it as a divine license for exploitation of people and the creation.
There is much dialogue about whether human nature is basically good or evil. Noah’s wife Naameh stresses goodness as a counterbalance to Noah’s mounting pessimism. He believes he is chosen only because he would complete a task that is “much greater than our own desires.” Noah is convinced there is “wickedness in all of us” and that he and his family will eventually perish “like everyone else.” However, early on, one of the Watchers perceives “a glimmer of Adam” in Noah. This is more than a wistful allusion to pre-Fall innocence and foreshadows the anticipated payoff in the climax.
True to the blockbuster formula, the conflict peaks with a face-to face confrontation between Noah and his evil nemesis, but with a crosscutting twist that puts the fate of humankind in Noah’s hands (like all apocalyptic movies). The scene recalls Abraham’s test with his son Isaac (Genesis 22). At the decisive moment in Noah, however, it is not God’s intervention, but Noah’s “good” and better judgment that ultimately prevails. Such is the film’s deference to American self-reliance and the blockbuster formula that the ending is never in doubt. But let’s consider possible meanings of this crucial, if ambiguous scene.
Perhaps Noah is to be likened to the Creator, who punishes sin and remains faithful by preserving a remnant of humanity. Or maybe it’s just that Noah has seen enough devastation, which appears to have driven him (temporarily) mad, and now refuses to complete what he believes is his “mission.” The story is flawed here with Noah’s apparent—though plausible—confusion seeming contrived. The real effect of the scene is to elicit viewer empathy and admiration for the tried and true hero whose commendable faith turned dangerous. But Noah explains that when it came down to it he has “only love in his heart.” It’s a disappointing and obtuse cliché that I suppose is meant to be a comment by the narrator on both the divine and human nature. More than theological reflection, the line serves a thematic purpose: the American Noah’s autonomy and own integrity trump his trust in God.
Then again, this is an American-made blockbuster designed to attract the largest global audience possible. Among the trailers for Noah was Paramount’s next scheduled release, Transformers: Age of Extinction.
William Romanowski is Professor of Communication Arts and Sciences at Calvin College. His books include Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (a 2002 ECPA Gold Medallion Award Winner), Pop Culture Wars: Religion and the Role of Entertainment in America Life, and Reforming Hollywood: How American Protestants Fought for Freedom at the Movies. Read his previous blog posts.