One of the first films I remember watching was a biblical epic. It was The Ten Commandments, and it was around four days long. For some reason, I was able to watch it again and again and again. Probably because Moses was a hero of mine. I would always get my dad to read the Moses story from the children's story bible just one more time. I couldn't get enough of it. I watched The Ten Commandments again a few years ago, and it remains the quintessential biblical epic, containing one of the finest pieces of narration committed to the big screen:
Learning that it can be more terrible to live than to die, he is driven onward through the burning crucible of desert, where holy men and prophets are cleansed and purged for God's great purpose, until at last, at the end of human strength, beaten into the dust from which he came, the metal is ready for the Maker's hand.
All of this is by way of saying that I approached Noah with some anticipation. Darren Aronofsky has artistic credibility, so I expected an intelligent, imaginative, and engaging rendering of the biblical story. I got the other rendering, and was bitterly disappointed, almost from the get go.
I wasn't disappointed because Noah didn't stick to the biblical account of the story. If it had done so, the film would have been over in fifteen minutes. (Though, with hindsight, that might not have been such a bad thing.) Furthermore, the biblical story - and I say this with all due deference - isn't particularly interesting. If there is an interesting dimension to it, it is the proper theological dimension. The story begins with a God who "repents." That in itself might have made for an interesting theme to explore. Indeed, it would have created a beautiful, poetic irony. Those Christians who denounce the film for not being true to the biblical text would perhaps be left uncomfortable if confronted by the text's own theology on a big screen. We actually had one of these Christians in our screening. How do I know? Because as the credits rolled, a voice from the back told us that "This is not a true representation of the Bible. If you want the truth, read Genesis 5 and 6." "Get a life," was one of the replies. My thought was that that was the least of the films problems. But get a life works, too.
Anyway, I can forgive Aronofsky for not focussing on the character of God, even if God is the most interesting character in the Noah narrative. Or at least I could have forgiven him if he gave us some interesting humans. That he didn't is my biggest criticism. I'll admit, he came close a couple of times. There is an Augustinian tension between sin and grace that plays out in the life of Noah, but the sin never really gets concrete form (apart from a few stock villains) and therefore the grace amounts to little more than sentimentality. Ethically/existentially/spiritually [delete as appropriate] it is profoundly shallow. The other characters aren't even worth talking about, because they are not really characters at all. They are plot devices, not people.
The film does raise some good questions, but it has no idea how to answer them. The vision of the film is blurred, lacking the conviction of another recent biblical epic, Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. One scene in Noah was like the creation sequence of ToL in fast forward, and therefore lacked any of its breadth or majesty. In fact, it was probably closer to the opening of The Big Bang Theory, minus the Barenaked Ladies. As far as criticism goes, it doesn't get much worse than that.