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?
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.
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.