Examining the Two Acts of Noah

Some major spoilers for a movie based on a 24,000-year-old portion of the Bible follow:

The world in the first act of Noah is magical. It’s not just the Watchers, angels punished to serve their time on earth encased in rocks, or Anthony Hopkins, who literally displays some kind of mystical power, that makes it feel that way. It’s the little things. The stars are always visible in the sky. The camera moves back to show the scale of things, like the figures of Noah’s family dwarfed by the beauty of the desert. The silhouetted shots of the characters traversing rocky hills, the stunning night sky behind them, the camera strangely perpendicular to the actors, renders them akin to a stunning illustration. It’s all breathtaking, and it is utterly destroyed by the flood.

Darren Aronofsky clearly wants to question and examine the actions of Noah in this film. Noah starts out as a plain-cut hero, the one faithful man against a sea of destructive heathens, descendants of Cain. The first few minutes of the movie are almost post apocalyptic; it looks like Mel Gibson would feel right at home driving around on this earth. There are ruined camps and savage gangs of murderous men. Except these men are pretty interesting the second you start to think about it. Now their methods are exaggerated and vicious, but it doesn’t take much imagination to realize they are meant to represent us. Ignore for a second the fact that they kill Noah’s father, the fact that they treat women like commodities and treat animals like inanimate and unfeeling supplies of food. Once you get past all this, the descendants of Cain are simply industrious people who don’t believe God will give them everything they need in life. That’s not evil, that’s just smart. If you’re reading this, odds are you’re not living like a hermit waiting for God to fulfill all your needs, so don’t even try to argue the fact. So the whole society might not be evil, but the individuals we run into aren’t exactly good either. Of course, this is enough for God to condemn them all to death.

When he learns of God’s intent, Noah travels to a breathtaking green mountain in the middle of the wasteland to consult his grandfather. There is a certain sense of wonder again, the one perpetually green mountain, the wonderfully realized dream sequences, and of course Anthony Hopkins’ surprisingly effective performance. Noah receives a gift – a seed from the Garden of Eden. He plants it, and, in one of the film’s more stunning sequences (though truly there are lots to choose from) the seed sends a fresh stream racing across the world, growing a whole forest around the source at the base of the mountain. Noah, now aided by the Watchers, uses this forest to build his gargantuan Ark, and sends the animals to sleep once they arrive on it. Problems begin to arise when the descendants of Cain learn of Noah’s miracles, and come to see what’s happening. Faced with Tubal-Cain, the fairly charismatic man who murdered his father, Noah tells the truth. With just a bit too much satisfaction in his voice he informs Tubal-Cain that he and his people will be washed away in God’s flood.

What’s a good leader to do but try to save his people? And if that means fighting a handful of people standing between you and salvation? It’s a pretty reasonable response. The most interesting look at Tubal-Cain’s people comes when Ham decides to sneak into their camp to find a wife. He at first sees a horrifying sight – a flame-filled camp with caged women and wild men devouring animals alive. It’s a hellish spectacle clearly more than a little inspired by Aronofsky’s own views on animal consumption. But all the descendants of Cain are not evil. Ham finds a woman in a pit of corpses and slowly bonds with her. Then when he tries to escape to the Ark with her Noah calmly lets the hordes of Tubal-Cain trample her to death. It is a brilliant scene. The score swells as Noah runs almost like an action hero towards the girl (whose leg is stuck in a bear trap) and Ham. Then he grabs Ham and runs, ignoring his pleas. Aronofsky shows just enough of the girl’s death to reinforce the actuality of what Noah’s done. He doesn’t want this scene to be a purely emotional beat; he deliberate sets up Noah’s willingness to commit awful acts in the name God. So we hear and see the feet run over this poor innocent, and the effect is incredibly jarring. This whole scene heralds the darkness of Noah’s second half.

Noah’s first act has not yet ended and already the palette has shifted. Up until this point the film has been dominated by dusty browns and greens, and occasionally the cool blue or warm pink associated with night and the sunset, respectively. The only hints of the oncoming overwhelming grey-blues have appeared in Noah’s dreams, and in Methuselah’s cave. The colour is firmly associated with the flood so, as the rain falls and the battle starts, the colours shift. The battle is riveting. Masses of post-apocalyptic warriors in makeshift armour clashing with contorted stone giants in front of a monolithic wooden Ark. It’s visually arresting, and the camerawork here is wonderfully grand and epic, swooping and following the fray without entering Hobbit levels of reality defying nonsense. The Watchers perish in spectacular jets of golden light, illuminating the rain drenched landscape. Noah and his family make it into the Ark as the rain continues to fall and water starts to jet from the ground. The devastation of this rain is truly contemplated by this film. We see the descendants of Cain die knowing that some of them are good, and that our protagonist was too committed to his vague interpretation of some hazy forewarnings to even considering saving anybody besides his kin. In one of the films more chilling moments, the family sits in the Ark listening to the screams of a few people desperately clutching to a tall rocky peak and Noah again chooses to do nothing.

Noah’s first act began with a retelling of the story of Adam and Eve, right up to the story of Cain and Abel. Images from this story, mainly a beautiful shot of the first murder silhouetted against a starry-sky, are repeated at key moments throughout the first act. In one breathtaking sequence, Cain and Abel morph into different warriors throughout history. These repeated motifs more closely relate Noah to God. The second act may begin with a retelling of creation complete with shots of swirling star-stuff and evolving animals, but it is never repeated. Gone is the magic of the first act. The Watchers are all dead, they have gone back to join God. The impossible animals are never seen again. The stars disappear. Instead Darren Aronofsky seeks to highlight the way Noah has been isolated from, even abandoned by, God.

So the strange, hypnotic epic of Noah’s first act is replaced by the tense, morally charged, suspenseful second act.

Noah and his family are on the Ark when Noah announces his realization (hopefully one he had prior to letting Ham’s potential wife die) – they are to be the last of mankind. Noah is convinced God intends them to be the the last of all humans, and his plans are thrown into question when it is revealed that Ila, previously thought to be sterile, has been rendered fertile again by Methuselah’s magic and become pregnant. Not only that but, unbeknownst to Noah, Tubal-Cain survived the flood and is taking refuge on the Ark while Ham nurses him back to health – and slowly begins to ally with him.

This second half may not be as eventful or unusual as the first, but it is wonderfully suspenseful and emotional. The constant grey-blues, contrasted only by bursts of fire and the slightly lighter grey-blues of the outdoors, combined with the claustrophobic quality the camera lends the scene is nerve wracking. By limiting the colours and taking special care to constantly allow either the Ark or dense shadows to intrude on the frame, Aronofsky creates a thriller, or even horror movie, inspired sensibility. It both lends a sense of the monotony these characters must endure and traps the viewer in an almost aggressive way.

The fact that Noah decides to kill Ila’s newborn baby if she is a girl doesn’t help either.

His reasoning is that a girl would allow them to repopulate the world against God’s wishes. The rest of this act sees Noah wandering the halls like some classic movie monster. It is more than a little reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. It is all rather emotionally devastating. Watching Noah plainly declare his plan to immediately kill the baby, should it be female, is gut wrenching, and watching it drive Noah apart from his family is awful. The scene where Ila and Shem prepare to leave on a raft, only to be stopped when Noah leaps onto the roof of the Ark and sets the raft on fire, fully completes his transformation into monster.

He might be a fairly sympathetic monster though. We see him scale the Ark and entreat a silent God for guidance: “I can’t do this.” But the magic is gone. Noah is alone. It is a testament to Aronofsky’s skill that he manages to make this portion of the film so tense. A lot is owed to the death of Ham’s potential wife, which established Noah’s willingness to commit murder. It allows this whole sequence to feel laced with the potential for violence. The tension exists despite the fact that even the least aware audience member will realize that Noah isn’t going to murder a baby. Not only would it completely upset the ending the movie has to arrive at but come on – Russell Crowe murdering a baby? It’s not going to happen.

Yet the scene where Noah confronts Ila, and her twin baby girls, is shockingly brutal. There’s one moment especially that really caught me off guard. I feel like it shouldn’t have, but honestly it didn’t matter in the moment – I was too busy trying not to cry (I’ve only ever cried something like two times in theatres, if that helps give you a sense of this scene’s strength). Noah decides to spare the girls and, shortly after, salvation comes in the form of dry land.

Noah is reduced to a drunken outcast while his family tries to rebuild their life. Ham leaves the family. Noah does manage to find some peace with the thought that he was meant to make, if not the decision he made, than at least a decision. God might very well have sent him a warning because he knew Noah was faithful and pure, and therefore capable of deciding the fate of the world and human kind. Noah eventually attempts to regain some composure and rejoin his wife and family in the new world they now live in.

The location Darren Aronofsky picked for these scenes in the new world is spectacular. It’s all rolling green hills and black cliffs. But there’s something interesting about it. This new world is resoundingly different from where they lived their life before. There are no stars in the sky. There are no impossible animals. There’s no magic.

In Aronofsky’s version of Noah’s story, God abandons us after the flood. All the visuals hints and repeated motifs that helped lend a sense of the mystical, a sense of Heaven, a sense of God, to the first half are gone. Perhaps this is Aronofsky’s in-movie justification of our own repetition of the mistakes Cain’s descendants made. As a society we’re every bit as destructive and industrial as Tubal-Cain’s people, if not more so. The second act of Noah is free from wonder and therefore free from God. The clever dichotomy between the acts perfectly emphasizes this rather bleak worldview.

The flood killed the magic.

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Harry Edmundson-Cornell is obsessed with comics and film and writing, and he fancies himself a bit of an artist. He's dabbled in freelance video production, writing, design, 3D modelling, and artistic commissions. He mainly uses Tumblr to keep track of what he's watching and reading and listening to. Occasionally he uses it to post original works. You can find his email and junk there too, if you want to hire him or send him hate-mail.

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