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by James Rocchi
April 2, 2014 11:21 AM
15 Comments
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Can Atheist Audiences Enjoy Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Noah’?

Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" has already made $44 million at the box office, and the writer-director’s vision of the famed story from Genesis is big, burly and as expansive as it is expensive. It's prompted responses from a broad spectrum of audience members, film critics, the faithful and -- perhaps most expectedly -- film critics and journalists who are believers, like Justin Chang's excellent piece at Variety or David Chen's discussion at Slashfilm.

The question that isn't being asked in all of this, though, pertains to the other side of the ideas, cultural cues and traditions from which "Noah" springs — namely, do you have to be a believer to enjoy "Noah?" 

I ask this question specifically because I am not a believer in any religious tradition or idea of God; in fact, I dislike the term "atheist" specifically because like, say, "Marvel Cinematic Universe," it's a term that gives way too much unquestioned weight to one side of the argument. People who recognize that, for one example, dragons could not exist and have not existed don’t have to be labeled an "adragonist"; they're just called "reasonable."

And that's pretty much my line of thought on every religion and idea of God, or anything from horoscopes to Ouija boards: Can't exist, clearly doesn't exist, let's move on. For those who say, "Well, science doesn't have all the answers," I would point out that a) it has a lot of answers, with far better empirical proof than religion does, and b) as Carl Sagan famously said, "When someone says, ‘Science doesn't have all the answers,' what they really mean is, 'We don't have all the science.'"

What's all the more interesting is that Aronofsky himself is a non-believer who was raised in the Jewish tradition; he says his aim was "instead of repeating what's been seen before, we looked carefully at what is written in Genesis and then created a setting where those miracles could take place."  Which is to say, bluntly, a fantasy world -- with angels trapped in stone-giant bodies and a God who never speaks clearly but who does send conveniently-timed waterspouts surging up from the ground to smite enemies. (This raises a problem for writing about "Noah" from a critical standpoint: What do you call the deus ex mmachina of a script if it's just, you know, the deus?)

I don't need to bring my thoughts about religion into "Noah" to think it's a not-very-well-made movie; the things that make it bad, interestingly, aren't taken from the Bible but instead from Hollywood's bad commandments for making big movies: Thou shalt have the hero face down with the man who killed his parents; thou shalt create conflict where it did not exist. All of the film's familial struggles about Noah wanting his family to be the last humans -- no wives, no offspring -- is utterly and completely added to the text from The Bible, which mentions the wives of Noah's sons, but not by name, and never mentions Noah's wife. Is that blasphemy? Or, more simply, is it just boring?

READ MORE: A Christian Critic Defends 'Wolf' and 'Nymphomaniac': 'These movies tell the truth'

Of course, Hollywood has always been inspired by myths and lore; the logical follow-up question is what, if anything, ultimately makes the Book of Genesis different from the legend of Hercules or Persephone in Hades or Amazing Fantasy 15, the debut of Spider-Man? The fact is that "Noah" seems more like a risky marketing gambit than anything else: Entice believers with the rare chance to see the foundational stories of their belief portrayed with state-of-the-art special effects; everyone else gets spectacle at a hefty price point and state-of-the-lack-of-any-art screenwriting. Marketing to Christians is nothing new, but it's normally for low-budget, high-piety stuff like "God's Not Dead," or "Son of God," or "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed" --  the kind of thing that involves mass ticket-purchases and bus trips on the first weekend to bolster box-office but usually disappears after an initial weekend of people flocking to see it.

"Noah" seems more like a risky marketing gambit than anything else.

One point of data is an anomaly; two is a trend. "Noah" may inspire a similar theme of burly Biblical blockbusters, to be sure. It had a $43 million-dollar opening weekend, which puts it beneath only "The Lego Movie," "300: Rise of an Empire," and "Divergent,” but a little ahead of "Ride-Along." And there's already another, similar-sounding and already-shot film coming later this year, Ridley Scott's "Exodus: Gods and Kings," starring Christian Bale as Moses, leading the Israelites out of bondage and to the promised land. With belief, this becomes a must-see saga of legendary heroics; for me, the biggest motivation I have to see it is that, considering Ridley Scott's shooting style, I'll get to find out what Moses looks like from a helicopter. And for big-studio Hollywood, again, there's the illusion and appeal of a built-in audience…plus the nice fact you don't have to pay the original writer anything for the rights.

The most interesting numbers to look at in terms of "Noah's" success, in fact, are the numbers making up its CinemaScore -- a letter grade given by regular patrons after seeing the film -- which wound up as an average of "C" even as a 63% majority of viewers gave it an "A" or "B" rating , and a smaller group rated it "D" or "F," resulting in the low score. A Pew research study in 2012 noted that 73% of Americans consider themselves Christians, which make me wonder: What percentage of the people who said "Noah" was an "A" or "B" grade not because it was good, but rather because they thought it was capital-G "Good" for them to do so?

Not all Christians or religiously-inclined persons have to like "Noah," either -- Glenn Beck, for but one example, noted, "If you're looking for a Biblical movie, this is not it" -- but at the same time, these are theological and spiritual questions not raised by, say, the box office and CinemaScore of "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," which, to be fair, also features widescreen destruction and one man who knows the truth while all around him are blind.

I got the chance to review "Noah" for one of my freelance outlets and my feelings about the facts about religion and God didn't come into play; discussing the merits of “Noah” (and, to me, the more significant startling lack thereof) in relation to religion would be like pausing in a burning, collapsing house to note that the wallpaper isn't that great, either. In the end, in the absence of God or religion,  "Noah" is a big, loud film that plays like most other would-be-blockbusters, complete with alterations to the source material and too many special effects, a brief moment from the Bible transformed to be one more part of our modern, muscle-bound, muddled, mega-millions middlebrow moviemaking mentality. 

And why shouldn't it be? In the end, it's just another story.


15 Comments

  • Weismann | July 19, 2014 9:54 PMReply

    The idea that non-believe in God is reasonable .. is laughable .. arrogant. It is the old 'my belief is correct by default' fallacy.

    In the Atheist world-view, in a universe full of non-life, springs up life. That is not scientific, observable, repeatable or reasonable. We have only ever scene life spring from life, so positing 'first-life' is reasonable.

    In the Atheist world-view, in a universe full of the irrational, springs up reason. That is not scientific either. From reasons springs reason. So positing 'the well-spring of reason' is reasonable.

    In the Atheist world-view, in a universe that strive for disorder, is order. Science has never seen the spontaneous emergence of order from a chaotic system (which the universe is), so again the Atheist is asked to believe non-repeatable, non-observable things. Believing that 'the well-spring of reason', and 'first-life' ordered the universe is the more reasonable position.

    Atheist is a fitting label because it contrasts a particular unreasonable world view with a more reasonable, rational world-view.

  • Rob Thomas | June 22, 2014 9:21 PMReply

    Your writing makes me sick.

  • Michael Hansen | April 6, 2014 4:42 PMReply

    NoAH The Movie You DON’T Want To See

    There is a first for everything. Yesterday, on my 31st birthday something happened around me that I have never before experienced. I am not talking about the dinner with the love of my life eating the love of my life, Pizza, leading up to the movie. I am not talking about the romantic walk towards each other that ended up in hot steamy kiss up against the glass of shop on the street outside the theatre. I walked to the street corner after I purchased the tickets for the movie and as I turned my head to my left I saw her, it was like the first time I had seen this woman but I felt the energy from a block away, I knew she had me in her sites. I knew she was determined to run into me, I felt compelled to meet her half way and run into her just as determined. Our bodies collided like two galaxies in outer space. There is no collision more graceful than that of two galaxies. So large, so great, so passionate that when they collide the planets that make them up never hit. The two beautiful forces of our universe dance like they are in love until they settle into one new galaxy. That was us right there on the sidewalk under the streetlight at night just like in the movies. However this is not the first I am speaking of. The night was young and the movie had yet begun. After having a few laughs at the tavern next door, we walked through the crystal clear glass that lead to our horror. With a big bag of mouthwatering popcorn in one hand and a genetically engineered fructose corn syrup soup in the other. Sitting in the third row, we were traditionally set for our feature presentation starring, Rustle Crow. At first I am moved, pulled in by the selflessness of Noah and his sons. I thought I was proud to be in this crowd, so glad to see a movie that did not promote bad. However it was at this moment that I witnessed something I had never seen before! Something that totally made sense but yet none at all. I needed to take a picture so people would believe me when I share it on social media with the world to save them from making the same mistake we made that beautiful night. To save them from not only having to watch this movie but from possibly facing the same fate of those around me. To my right it was happening. Directly in front of me it was happening, I turned to look behind me and it was happening all around me. I thought at first, its ok, this is a dream, pinch yourself you fool this can’t happen in real life. It hurt, I was not sleeping, not yet, but if I subjected myself to this anymore I could end up doing just that. Doing what all the sinners around me were doing, engaging in what seemed to be either a mass suicide attempt or possibly a slumber party. People were sleeping not only around me but on each other. The young couple to my right fell asleep leaning against each other. The mother who sat in front of me separating her husband and son started snoring. People all around were speechless as we were subjected to the glorious acting out of a phycodic script obviously written or directed by a white male animal lover who probably has small ligaments. A white man that feels inferior to woman and children. Scared that one day people will wake up and realize that this is not a white man’s world. But a natural habitat for humanity. Scared that people will realize there is no one greater than our creator who is genderless and colorless. This movie features 100% people with a white ethnic background and a man who tells his sons that he does not believe there should be kings for there is no man greater than our creator. But after the king and his men are killed by the water from above Noah becomes a King, President, Dictator, Ruler, CEO whatever you want to call it, its all the same. He decided who lives and who dies. He decides who will go and who will stay regardless of the thoughts of the people who make up his pride. A man who believes that woman are to serve man and bear children. Only if he wants them to. He cares not what other humans say, he is only interested in carrying out the decisions that take place in his own mind and claims that they are orders from above, from the almighty who works threw no one other than himself. He believes that humans are not animals, that its only ok for lions to eat other animals, for if a human eats another animal he is eating the forbidden fruit. He supports the idea that killing mass quantities of humans is justified for the humans are all sinners. My take on this movie is that if you believe you are getting orders from god, you should act them out regardless of the thoughts of others around you even if it involves killing babies that are one day old or making mankind extinct. That murdering most the world population if not all is not only justified but glorious in the evolution of our Garden of Eden which we of the modern world refer to as planet earth, the third rock from the sun.

  • Mike Winters | April 6, 2014 3:03 PMReply

    The flood myth is a completely made up story so I had no problem with the director taking creative license.

  • mkmk08 | April 5, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    I’m a regular guy in my thirties. I’m a Christian and go to church from time to time. Here’s my take on the movie Noah. First the positives and then its issues.

    There were a few messages in the film I viewed as positive. It doesn’t question the idea of a Creator but rather simply assumes there is a God. The movie also conveyed certain positive values such as the benefit of listening to God, the portrayal of God’s nature as loving and forgiving, and family loyalty. It also does not shy away from the fact that mankind has fallen and needs saving.

    Unfortunately, there are many issues with this film that do not portray the “essence, values, and integrity” of the Biblical account. Many parts were either completely made-up or flat out opposite to what the Bible says. Here are a few examples:

    1) The movie references fallen angels who turned into rock people. Aronofsky may have gotten inspiration from the Nephilim mentioned in Genesis 6:4, but the idea that there were angels who tried to help Adam and Eve in the garden who then fell to the earth and turned into rock people is blatantly made-up and not in the Bible at all.

    2) In the Bible, Noah's three sons all had wives, and they all brought their wives with them on the boat. The scene where Noah lets the girl get trampled while grabbing his son is incorrect - as they all had their wives with them (Genesis 7:13).

    3) The Bible gives no account of the birth of twins from one of the girls on the boat, and Noah certainly did not try to kill anyone. This film portrays Noah as homicidal, while the Bible says he was a just man and walked with God (Genesis 6:9).

    4) The bad guy sneaking on the ship - not in Bible.

    5) The evolution scene is not Biblical. Species do adapt to their environment, but God spoke all living things into being. Nothing evolved from one thing into another (Genesis 1).

    6) Overall - the big error. Noah's was not charged by God to decide whether the human race would continue or not. It was not Noah's choice, as the movie depicts, to make that decision. God’s reasoning behind the flood was not to eradicate humankind. He was grieved in His heart because of man’s continual evil. Noah was charged by God to save his family and the animals and re-populate the planet with humans. Noah accomplished this directive. God desires relationship with us and ultimately sent Jesus as a way to reconcile us to Himself.

    While Aronofsky and Paramount have the right to make and release what they want, there is a huge difference between taking artistic license and completely misrepresenting the facts. Calling this movie Noah is a disservice to the general public. Many people who watch this film will leave the theater thinking the Bible says something it doesn't at all.

    By the way, one last area which is an issue to me is on the topic of faith. Noah was a man of faith. God gave him a vision, and he acted on it, trusting what God told him even though he didn’t understand the why or how. Noah persevered. So, in addition to the above, the movie also misses the role and importance of faith in being led by God. Hebrews 11:7

  • Velma | April 5, 2014 12:14 PMReply

    I watched it a couple of days ago and enjoyed it. I'm not a believer of the bible and thought the movie was more like a fantasy movie.

  • Timothy | April 4, 2014 7:27 PMReply

    Hmmmm, for me beyond the point I simply avoid action dramas, the first time I saw the trailer for the film I found that I was really, really pissed off about treating positively a story about deciding to kill billions of people because you don't like them.

  • Joe | April 3, 2014 10:04 AMReply

    Yes, I did. It's like watching Lord of the Rings or any other piece of mythology or fantasy.

  • joop | April 3, 2014 7:37 AMReply

    "I dislike the term "atheist" specifically because like, say, "Marvel Cinematic Universe," it's a term that gives way too much unquestioned weight to one side of the argument. People who recognize that, for one example, dragons could not exist and have not existed don’t have to be labeled an "adragonist"; they're just called "reasonable.""
    This is 100% right - i feel exactly the same way hearing "atheist"

  • Adragonist | April 2, 2014 6:51 PMReply

    Thanks for the article. I really enjoyed it. Loved the line about the adragonist. I might even watch "Noah" when it gets to Netflix now.

  • sammijo | April 2, 2014 5:58 PMReply

    "If you can make a massive amount of assumptions about the human race, and filmmaking in general, and you have the ability to ignore and dismiss vast amounts of scientific information and historical documentation, you too can write an article for Indiewire! Just use a super meaningless alliterative sentence at the end and 'voila!'; article in the bag."

    Your professed complete lack of any belief system IS your belief system. Or dare I say, your faith? It's based on an assumption that you believe to be true.

    And you need to check your definition of atheism. Maybe you can look up assumption and sanctimonious while your at it.

  • Dragonist | April 2, 2014 5:13 PMReply

    For such an admittedly ignorant person, this writer possesses vast, blind faith in a great many convictions he can neither know assuredly or prove one way or the other. I call that 'unreasonable'.

  • Sanchez | April 2, 2014 1:53 PMReply

    Mr. Rocchi, thank you for your article. I enjoyed reading it.

    I particularly enjoyed the part where you referenced Ridley Scott directing the upcoming film Moses with Christian Bale, "the biggest motivation I have to see it is that, considering Ridley Scott's shooting style, I'll get to find out what Moses looks like from a helicopter."

    I also, very much, enjoyed your thoughts on God and Science. For example, when you said:

    "For those who say, 'Well, science doesn't have all the answers,' I would point out that a) it has a lot of answers, with far better empirical proof than religion does, and b) as Carl Sagan famously said, 'When someone says, Science doesn't have all the answers,' what they really mean is, We don't have all the science.'"

    Going off Mr. Sagan's quote, not having all the Science can also imply that we don't yet have all the science to prove whether there is a God or not. By the way, please, do not misinterpret me and think I am saying that I can't wait for Science to be able to prove that there is some invisible man, with a long beard, living up in some clouds. No, that is not what I mean. What I mean is, how do we really know what God even is or isn't. Specially if we have yet to have all the available science to prove if God even exists. Who do we know what God even is if we can't prove or disprove God's existence. If I may, please allow me to share with you two other quotes Carl Sagan said in regards to this topic. By the way, the distinction between God and religion are purposefully made within these conversations - again, not some invisible man with a long beard.

    "The question [Do you believe in God?] has a peculiar structure. If I say no, do I mean I'm convinced God doesn't exist, or do I mean I'm not convinced he does exist? Those are two very different questions." [Dr. Arroway in Carl Sagan's Contact (New York: Pocket Books, 1985), p. 168.]

    "An atheist is someone who is certain that God does not exist, someone who has compelling evidence against the existence of God. I know of no such compelling evidence. Because God can be relegated to remote times and places and to ultimate causes, we would have to know a great deal more about the universe than we do now to be sure that no such God exists. To be certain of the existence of God and to be certain of the nonexistence of God seem to me to be the confident extremes in a subject so riddled with doubt and uncertainty as to inspire very little confidence indeed." [Conversations with Carl Sagan (1st ed.). Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.]

  • Joe | April 2, 2014 12:09 PMReply

    A simple YES would have done fine. Clearly, you hated this film. This article was pretty useless.

  • To Sanchez | April 7, 2014 7:30 PM

    It is so tedious how so few people grasp the concept of atheism.
    By definition, the "a" in "atheism" simply negates the word "theism". Just as "atypical" is the negation of typical. But by negating a word (concept) a new belief, to take its place, is not being advanced. You may be an "aNazi" but that does not mean you are required to present empirical evidence to support your position or go further and postulate your own "philosophy".

    A jury that reaches a "not guilty" verdict, is NOT saying that the accused is innocent! They are saying that there is insufficient evidence has been presented to support the supposition of the prosecution. So too, we atheists have reached a verdict. We are saying that the assertion "God exists" is unsupported since it is based on a complete lack of evidence. It cannot, therefore be judged to have any truth. This verdict is completely justified. Period.

    Further, the burden of proof must always rest upon those advancing the assertion in question, not upon those who require evidence to support it. Therefore, atheists are not obliged to postulate an alternative assertion to satisfy the other party. Indeed the word "atheist" is redundant; it is synonymous with "person of reason", "logical thinker", and so on.