Contemporary cinema is a powerful argument against the existence of God. No benevolent deity would create a universe in which films as bad as Darren Aronofsky’s Noah could be made.
You might respond to the problem of tripe with the theologians’ response to the problem of evil. You could say that God has given us free will. He allows us to choose to walk out of the cinema. But he has not given critics that choice: our professional duty obliges us to stay to the end. Nor, if you believe in the truth of the Bible, Torah and Koran, as alarming numbers of people still do, does he allow the rest of creation greater freedom.
Hollywood has never tackled the Noah story before, precisely because it destroys belief in a benevolent omnipotent deity. God kills every human on earth — except Noah and his family — and every animal, insect and bird — apart from a breeding pair from each species — in an act of . . . well, there is no word. “Genocide” is inadequate.
With an indifference that is hard to take in the circumstances, God barely bothers to explain himself. Genesis justifies mass extinction by saying: “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” — and leaves it there. God is meant to dwell in the detail. But the Old Testament leaves the detail of human wickedness unexplained. The Koran goes a little further and elucidates for a line or two. Noah warns the damned: “O my people! Worship God! You have no other God but Him. I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful day!”
This makes sense. The Ten Commandments do not condemn slavery or child abuse. Instead of recommending a moral life, four of the commandments are merely the instructions of a jealous, not to say vain God, on the importance of revering Him and Him alone, honouring his day and respecting his name. How could a Hollywood liberal tell the Noah story without casting God as the villain? He is a dictator who demands total obedience.
The God of Hollywood is therefore altogether more palatable to modern tastes, if no less brutal. The Lord is now a green God, who punishes humanity for its crimes against the environment.
The film’s opening sequence tells a familiar story — Adam, Eve, garden, tree, snake and apple. But after Cain kills Abel, Aronofsky adapts it to suit our sensibilities. God does not wipe out humanity because it has worshipped false idols, or taken the Lord’s name in vain, or even gone shopping on the sabbath. Instead, the film explains that the sin of the human race, and as far as I can see of the world’s entirely blameless animal, insect and bird population, is to build an “industrial civilisation”. (I know “industrial” is not a description anyone would apply to Bronze Age Palestine, but Aronofsky once said “my God is narrative film-making”, so if the narrative demands an industrial civilisation thousands of years before Watt and Boulton invented the steam engine then an industrial civilisation is what we must have.)
Ray Winstone leads the doomed human race. He is a figure from the nightmares of refined minds: a brutal working-class polluter. You just have to look at him to know he is the type who demands cheap flights and never recycles. He and his followers invite the waters to rise around them. They eat meat, turn to violence and cut down all the trees. The parallels with global warming are too obvious to labour, which does not stop Aronofsky from labouring them.
It is not just the brutality of God’s punishment which makes the Noah story so repellent. Genesis inspired religious racism well into the 20th century. Noah curses Ham’s descendants because Ham had seen him naked. (Hardly the worst thing a son can do to a father, but there you are.) Christians and Jews identified blacks as Ham’s accursed heirs. In apartheid South Africa and the American Deep South, white churches used the story to justify white supremacy. Aronofsky does not cast a black actor as Ham, and I suppose deserves credit for that. But his Ham is the most evil of Noah’s children. He comes close to murdering his father, as well as seeing him naked, and in the end has to leave the family.
What drama there is comes from Noah, played by Russell Crowe, a former action hero who is now so podgy he looks as if he will eat the animals two by two. His tortured patriarch plans to end corrupt humanity. He assumes the species will die with his immediate family. His wife has passed childbearing age. Noah refuses to allow women onto the boat for Ham and Japheth. Shem has a girlfriend on the ark (Emily Watson). Unfortunately for her but fortunately for Noah, she is barren. Or so it appears, until miraculously her fecundity is restored, and Noah must decide whether to allow the human race to continue. He decides to kill her child if it is a girl, who might extend the line. When Emily Watson gives birth to twins —both girls —he can’t do it, however. Noah looks at their innocent little smiling faces and LOVE overwhelms him.
Environmental concern, class hatred and sentimentality — a holy trinity of bourgeois motives drags Aronofsky’s ark through the lapping waters until, after what feels like an age, it finally runs aground.
Islamic extremists have denounced him, for reasons that ought to have provoked more debate in the West. For years now faux-liberals have intoned that it is “provocative” for cartoonists and others to depict Muhammad because Islam prohibits depictions of the prophet. As the film censorship boards of Indonesia and Malaysia have shown, that’s not the end of it. Their version of Islam bans depictions of all the prophets in the Koran including Noah and indeed Jesus. Appease that iconoclasm — and working in liberal London I see people who will appease anything — and we will have to knock out Europe’s stained-glass windows and destroy the Renaissance collections in every art gallery. Religious Christmas cards wouldn’t last long either.
The religious censor and Hollywood liberal seem worlds apart. Aronofsky shows that they are not so different. His Noah does not challenge religion’s most brutish myths, and is as dull, preachy, ugly and inhumane as the most bigoted sermon.