Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale

March 25, 2014

When we talk about the story of Noah’s ark, cheerful images usually come to mind: a benevolent Noah with a flowing white beard shepherding pairs of animals into a fanciful houseboat. Upbeat songs from Jewish summer camp or, perhaps, that sweet, family-friendly installation at the Skirball Cultural Center.  

This is not the story that emerges in Darren Aronofsky’s apocalyptic new film, “Noah,” which opens March 28 and spotlights a brooding Noah (Russell Crowe), a lonely, righteous man living apart from hamlets of debauched, Sodom-like human enclaves.

Shot on a starkly beautiful but barren landscape in Iceland, the film reveals Noah and his family as the sole vegetarians amid gorging meat-eaters who are ravaging the environment, not to mention killing, maiming and raping one another. When Noah’s God-induced hallucinations begin, he envisions himself drowning in a sea infested with rotting corpses — both human and animal — and, after ingesting a psychedelic tea proffered by his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), he divines that he and his wife, along with their three sons and daughters-in-law, will enact God’s plan to destroy the wicked world by building a vast, rectangular ark, into which two of each animal species will flock.

Noah achieves this Herculean endeavor not only with the help of his family, but also with hulking, rock-encrusted giants called “Watchers” — fallen angels who have incurred God’s wrath by pitying and helping mankind following the expulsion from Eden.  

Noah is convinced, as well, that God does not want other humans to board the vessel — even those who seem innocent, and in one excruciating scene he is cold-hearted enough to refuse to rescue a young woman caught in an animal trap, leaving her to die in the raging waters. He also resists the efforts of the ruthless warlord Tubal-cain, who, with his minions, seeks access to the safety of the ark.

Director Aronofsky shows the violent waters thundering not only down from the heavens, but also upward from enormous geysers that split the earth. And he doesn’t spare images of the doomed clawing and crawling atop each other as they try to escape the flood, only to be washed away by the storm.

“Noah isn’t a cutesy kids story — it’s an apocalyptic story,” said Ari Handel, who wrote the script with Aronofsky, his old suitemate from Harvard University. “It’s about the end of the world.”

 “Noah” is also perhaps the most unabashedly biblically Jewish studio film to emerge in decades, part of a recent spate of films intended to appeal to religious viewers that includes the recent “Son of God” and Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus.”

What makes “Noah” so Jewish, aside from the story’s origin in the Torah, is the meticulous scholarship of Aronofsky and Handel, who developed their vision by “working in the tradition of Jewish midrash,” Aronofsky said at a small gathering of faith-based journalists at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, where he appeared alongside Handel.

When Aronofsky and Handel began writing the film, back in 2003, the writers — both of whom were raised as Conservative Jews but now identify as atheists — hoped to honor the text, as well as “create a Noah for the 21st century,” Aronofsky said. The problem was that the story is revealed in just a few brief chapters of Genesis in which Noah barely speaks, and does not describe his emotions at the death of almost every other creature on Earth.

So the writers filled in the blanks by interviewing scholars, reading and re-reading the book of Genesis, and by studying commentaries from the Jewish Theological Seminary and other sources, apocryphal books, Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis’ “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic and Mysticism” and even perusing parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

“Noah” director Darren Aronofsky.

The writers found one important clue to Noah’s state of mind at the end of the biblical narrative, when the character gets drunk by himself in his tent. “He’s feeling a sort of survivor’s guilt,” said Handel, who also collaborated with Aronofsky on the films “Black Swan,” “The Wrestler” and “The Fountain.”  

“Anyone would react harshly to witnessing the destruction of everything. Noah is said to be a righteous man, so to resist the human impulse to save [everyone] takes a lot of will and energy, and it’s very painful. You’re going to have a kind of hangover from that.”

To flesh out Noah’s character, the writers decided to have his arc parallel that of God, who journeys from anger and justice-seeking at the beginning of the story, to granting mercy to mankind at its end.

The characters of the Watchers hail from the reference in the biblical text to nephilim, which translates as “fallen ones” or “giants,” Handel said in an interview. They became six-armed creatures in the film, inspired in part by Isaiah’s vision of six-winged angels; sections of the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees prompted the idea that these nephilim were angels banned from heaven after they took pity upon mankind after the fall, Handel said.  Aronofsky chose to encase the fallen angels in lava and stone: “The idea that something that is ethereal, angelic, divine light trapped in a corporeal body of rock gets at their essential pain,” Aronofsky said.   

As the writers immersed themselves in Judaica, they also created a setting for “Noah” that is far removed from today’s Earth. “The story of Noah doesn’t take place in the Judean desert, but in an antediluvian world that is completely otherworldly,” Handel said at the press gathering.

“What is described is so fantastical,” Aronofsky added. “Not only were nephilim walking the planet, but the leviathan was living in the seas, and no rainbows existed, so what did the [sky’s] atmosphere look like? We wanted to create a universe for those things to exist.”

The film’s vast, box-like ark, he added, was created directly from its description in Genesis, down to the last cubit.

Even so, Aronofsky’s unconventional depiction of the biblical saga already has drawn ire from religious critics: The Islamic nations of Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates all have banned the film from appearing in their countries, and Jerry Johnson, the president and chief executive officer of the National Religious Broadcasters, has condemned the movie for taking liberties with Scripture and for its depiction of a sometimes unlikable Noah.

“I was surprised that we had so much controversy so early on, because people hadn’t yet seen the film,” Aronofsky said, adding that some of the criticisms are “evaporating now that people are actually seeing the movie. … But what was missing from all of that controversy was an acknowledgement of my personal passion for this piece. People haven’t recognized that I’ve been thinking about this for 30 years, and that Ari and I took this undertaking very seriously. We’ve spent years researching it, talking to everyone we could, studying everything and trying to get a real understanding that respected the original text.”

When Aronofsky was a boy, he said, he regarded the biblical story with awe:  “I was scared,” he said. “Even though the story has become a [folksy] parable for kids, and there’s the animal-cracker box of Noah’s ark and the Playmobil set, it’s actually a very scary story. And as a kid, I remember thinking, ‘I have wickedness and sin, so would I be good enough to get on that boat?  And what would it be like if I didn’t?’”

He first wrote about Noah at age 13, when his “magical” middle-school teacher, Mrs. Fried, asked him to pen a poem about peace for a United Nations contest. The result was Aronofsky’s “The Dove,” about the dove that returned to Noah’s ark with an olive branch; after the teenage Aronofsky won first prize in the competition, he aspired to become a storyteller and to one day write a piece about Noah’s story. (He has rewarded Mrs. Fried with a cameo in his movie.)

“We wanted to smash expectations,” Aronofsky said of the film.

That concerned Paramount Pictures executives, who were so worried about offending religious viewers that they asked the writers to scrap Noah’s drunken scene (the authors declined). The studio also offered test screenings of alternative versions of the film even as Aronofsky was still completing his own version. And in advertising materials, Paramount notes that the movie was “inspired by” the book of Genesis, and that audiences should look to the Bible for the real story.

Aronofsky sees things differently. “The idea of this literal sense of the Bible is a strange idea,” he said. He cited Michelangelo’s depiction of God creating Adam with a touch of the fingertips in the Sistine Chapel: “There is no ‘E.T.’-like description of that moment in the Bible,” he said. “But as [artists] you look at the text and say, of course we’re going to honor these words, we’re just going to try to breathe life in them and express them artistically.  

“If you can realize the mythological power of these stories and these characters, you can learn from them in a lot of ways, and it also makes them living texts.”

“Noah” hits theaters on March 28.

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