Noah and Its Critics

Noah, as could be expected of a big budget Hollywood flick with Biblical source material, has garnered its fair share of controversy. There are two brief points worth making.

The first is that if you decide that the film should be boycotted without having seen it and based solely on things you have read in the media, I have no use for you. You are the rightwing equivalent of Glenn Greenwald, who, before he had even seen it, denounced Zero Dark Thirty for daring to show that waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques helped lead to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Stephen Merritt, an evangelical writer and critic, is on to something here:

"Noah" was never intended to be a heavy-handed evangelistic tool, but rather good art. And I’m sorry to say that few evangelicals today have an eye, ear, or stomach for such things. Not much has changed since the late Francis Schaeffer wrote in Art and the Bible, "I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract."

It was extremely disheartening when, after the Free Beacon‘s Twitter account sent out my link, a few people responded with the hashtag #boycottnoah. Those who denounce art without having experienced it are the worst.

Fortunately, not everyone was so closed-minded. I'm far more sympathetic to those who saw the film before decrying it. I mean, they're wrong—Noah‘s a very good film and a daring artistic endeavor of the kind I would kill to see Hollywood make more of—but at least they're making an argument that amounts to something more than "LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU."

The film's most vociferous critics seem to have taken particular exception to the portrayal of the fallen angels, who are called "watchers" in the film. Director Darren Aronofsky has been pilloried for showing the watchers as angels whose light has been encased in earth; I wasn't alone in suggesting they were reminiscent of Ents. Barbara Nicolosi anchored her entire review around mocking this artistic choice, Erick Erickson was similarly nonplussed by the "rock monsters," and Joe Carter, who penned one of the more thoughtful critiques of the film as a whole, was still hung up on their appearance, writing, "Using CGI-animated rock monsters to serve as a deus ex machina (they help Noah build the ark and fight off an army) was a cheap stunt beneath the dignity of a director like Aronofsky."

While I understand Carter's point—and I happen to agree with him that Aronofsky's fever dream approach to filmmaking is, in some ways, better suited for smaller-budgeted films—I think Aronofsky himself would disagree that his portrayal of the watchers is "beneath [his] dignity." I say this because Aronofsky himself envisioned them. This wasn't something foisted on him by the studio; it was a central part of his vision for the story he wanted to tell.

As to the broader complaint about the rock monsters, I think most critics who have focused so myopically on this point seem to dislike it because, well, the rock monsters weren't in the story they learned in Sunday School. Aronofsky's vision isn't the Veggietales version. The film's failure of fidelity is what burns them up the most. Denny Burk summed this argument up pretty well here:

By fidelity, I refer to the film’s faithfulness to its source material. Does the movie resemble the actual Noah story enough to establish credible points of contact? No, it does not. The director himself has acknowledged that his rendering of Noah is like a midrash—an ancient method of interpreting scripture involving ahistorical embellishments. As far as midrash is concerned, Noah is the midrashiest midrash that ever was midrashed. Aronofsky’s Noah is nothing like the biblical Noah, the only righteous man on the planet. More seriously, Aronofsky’s god is nothing like the biblical God, a long-suffering sovereign who graciously condescends to reveal Himself and His plans to Noah and to save Noah and his family. By the end of the movie, the righteous Creator turns into a celestial Erasmus—a humanist with a high regard for human nature and agency. The Sovereign Judge and covenant Redeemer of Genesis has no place in Aronofsky’s midrash. Grade: F-

And herein lies the unbridgeable divide. If you're unwilling to accept that some things from the biblical account will have to be altered—if you can't handle the introduction of conflict, if your suspension of disbelief allows you to handle the concept of an ark big enough to hold two of every animal but causes you to reject fallen angels encased in rock—then you're probably not going to enjoy this film. Much like the comic book fan who gets annoyed at the portrayal of the Dark Phoenix in X-Men: The Last Stand or the idea that Peter Parker doesn't build his webshooters in Spider-Man, the literalists are going to have a tough time with a Noah skilled in hand-to-hand combat and a world in which "rock monsters" aid in building a fantastical boat.

One final note: There have been dispiriting accusations of bad faith leveled at some of the early reviewers writing in religious outlets. "Many of the positive Christian reviews of the movie read like the ugly kid who is excited because the cool, cute kid just looked their way," wrote Erickson. Nicolosi's post appears to have originally been titled "The utter embarrassing mess of ‘Noah' and why everybody is lying about it," if one believes the URL. "It is astounding to me how Christians can be lured into a defense of the indefensible because they are so afraid of the charge of ‘unreasonablenes,'" she wrote early on in her screed.

There is an interesting story to be told* about the marketing of this film, but it's really quite disheartening to see these charges leveled against critics who committed the simple crime of liking something someone else disliked. And it's not a terribly helpful way to start a discussion.

*Longish digression alert:

A couple of days before Noah opened, the Washington City Paper published a story about the fact that critics for religious outlets in the DC area had been invited to screenings but (most) critics for secular outlets had not. This led to quite a bit of scrambling by Paramount, who claimed that it had been a huge misunderstanding and that secular critics should have been invited. The studio threw their PR company under the bus and hastily organized a screening at 5 PM two days before the film opened. 

Now, as it happens, I don't believe Paramount for a second when they say that this was some simple oversight (I have my reasons, none of which I really want to get into here but all of which I'll be happy to share if the studio wants to dispute this theory). I believe this was an intentional marketing strategy. What I'm most curious about—and what we'll likely never know—is what Paramount was actually afraid of. Were they worried that secular critics would hype up the irreligious aspects of Noah, thus prompting religious audiences to stay home? Or were they worried that secular critics would hype the religious/mystical aspects of Noah, thus prompting secular folks to stay at home? Given the reaction we've seen play out this weekend, I have a feeling it's the former.