The new Biblical epic, Noah, has generated a lot of controversy for its loose interpretation of the famous Bible story. (If you’re not familiar with it, you can go read Genesis 6-9 right here.) While the film has gotten good reviews over all (Rotten Tomatoes gives it 77% Fresh), many religious reviewers, especially conservative ones like this scathing critique from the conservative website Breitbart, have panned the film for deviating from the Bible and sending “wrong” messages. However, as a Christian myself, and one who leans conservative (in the theological sense of holding to the traditional creed), I think the truth is much more complicated.
The upshot: I think this film is quite a bit better than it gets credit for and is worth seeing. However, Christians and non-Christians alike should be cautious and well-prepared to think about the story it presents.
First, on the merits alone, this is a very good film. The story it tells is told very well. It really captures the anguish of a family going through basically the end of the world. The conflict is very real and very human, and a lot of it (though not all) is even to be expected in the behind the scenes of the Biblical text. In particular, the conflict between Noah and his wife beautifully captures the full measure of pain and outrage of their situation. It’s very rare that I have nothing I would add to such a deep personal conflict in books or movies, and this film meets that high bar.
On the merits alone, I give Noah a 4.5 out of 5.
However, I say again that things are not so simple. Noah is based on a Biblical story with a very carefully crafted narrative, and there are definitely major changes to that story here. In fact, director Darren Aronofsky has called Noah “the least biblical biblical film ever made“. Yet at the same time, Aronofsky, a self-professed atheist from a Jewish family, has spoken at length about how the film is steeped in theology, and, having seen it, I agree. I think the ultimately message of love and mercy is fundamentally a good and Christian-compatible one.
Some parts of the film may be jarring to some. Much has been made of the fact that the word “God” is never mentioned, but the “Creator” is mentioned over and over again, and it’s pretty clear who He is. Aronofsky has explicitly said that there is an environmental message in the film, which (whether you agree with it or not) doesn’t really figure in the Biblical text. However, I found that message to be downplayed, and the depravity of man certainly is not glossed over. And of course, there’s Noah’s uncompromising extremist attitude during most of the film, which drives much of the conflict.
I have two main complaints about this movie. The first is that the cast of the story has been changed. Only one of Noah’s three sons is married, and that fact drives the deep conflict of the third act. Objectively, this is not the biggest problem with the movie, but it’s a change takes me out of the story, and, as any writer knows, any story element that does that ought to be excised with extreme prejudice.
My second complain is a more fundamental and theological one. Noah is portray as receiving instructions from the Creator through vague visions, which he ultimately misinterprets. This goes directly against the Biblical text, where he receives clear spoken instructions that leave no ambiguity about what he is supposed to do. The change humanizes Noah, but it does not accurately portray the character of God.
That said, I found that there was actually a lot of depth and a lot of good theology in this film. Much of it is subtle and takes serious thought to really appreciate it. To discuss it in detail will take a whole other post, but it is one of the reasons why I do regard Noah as a reasonably good Biblical film.
The bottom line:
To non-Christians: be aware that the portrayal of Noah as receiving vague and easily-misinterpreted instructions from God is not Biblical. But also be open to the message of love and mercy that the film sends.
To Christians: be aware that this is not a movie for casual viewing. If you’re looking for a fun time watching a classic Bible story, especially with children, this is not it. In fact, I would even go so far as to recommend not seeing it without having a strong grip on the Biblical narrative and being prepared to think seriously about the theological subtleties in the film. If you do those things, though, I firmly believe that it can be a rewarding experience.