Noah and the (un)welcome return of the biblical epic

Note, some spoilers for Noah follow.

Movies like Noah are a good part of why this site exists. It appears to be the rare case where Hollywood has created a satisfying story of true faith in God that also stands as a good movie a secular audience can enjoy without feeling like they’re being preached to. That’s a lot of pressure for any movie to live up to.

Of course, Noah doesn’t reach those lofty expectations. And, while it reveals some disconnect between Hollywood and largely religious-minded America, it shows signs that things are headed in the right direction.

Noah is, by many accounts, a good movie, and, while it certainly wasn’t made by a Christian man, it was made by a Jewish director who has a deep, abiding respect for the stories he grew up with. He was drawn not to the Sunday-school-sermon version of the story of Noah’s Ark, but rather God and humanity’s continued grappling with original sin.

“When (Noah’s Ark) is taught to kids, it’s about the good man and his family,” director Darren Aronofsky said in an Atlantic interview. “They don’t talk about the duality of original sin.”

Aronofsky has shown the ensnaring power of original sin in graphic, excessive detail in bleak films such as Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. He explored a dual nature of sorts in Black Swan.

Concern from faith-based audiences stems from several sources, primarily being its accuracy to the original text. Of course, the original story is rather lacking in detail, so details additional details had to be included to make the film into a true epic.

Some of these decisions work better than others. A particular head scratcher is the inclusion of the “Watchers,” fallen angels that now walk the earth as giant stone monsters. They help Noah build the Ark (so of course it takes much less than 100 years). They move the tale more into the realm of science-fiction, rather than historical biblical account. Which, in Aronofsky’s words, was exactly the point.


The flawed epic Noah lays the groundwork for future successful mainstream Bible-based movies.

“I think it’s more interesting when you look at not just the biblical but the mythical that you get away from the arguments about history and accuracy and literalism,” he said. “That’s a much weaker argument, and it’s a mistake.”

That will certainly sound blasphemous to many Christians and Jews that take the early Old Testament account as literal truth. But Aronofsky is definitely on to something here. He goes on to say that the Bible is historically sound and reliable after the Flood narrative and the story of Babel. But the early creation account is by its very nature mythical, because it is so deliberately lacking in detail. Aronofsky is pulling us away from arguments about literalism over something we have never seen, and instead inviting us to appreciate the way God is sharing his story with us. That’s why arguments about a literal 6-day creation, according to the Genesis account, are rather silly.

In Noah’s most arresting sequence, Noah describes the creation of the universe in the language of the Bible, while we see what appears to be theistic evolution, showing how God might have guided the earth through evolutionary processes. Whether you fashion yourself a creationist, evolutionist, believer or non-believer, Aronofsky is showing that it is God’s story, not always the sometimes non-existent details, that matter to us. However he brought it about, we can still stand in awe at the majesty of God’s creation.


Views this complex, this simultaneously faithful and radical, have been a long-time coming in both Hollywood and the evangelical filmmaking community. God and the movies go way back, to the birth of the “biblical epic,” movies that told biblical stories using ground-breaking effects and popular Hollywood actors.

The most famous of these is probably “The Ten Commandments,” starring Charlton Heston. Made by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille, the film remains a powerful visual experience, despite its dated special effects. But DeMille’s films revealed the problem with Hollywood’s interpretation of the Bible: they were distinctly lacking in the soul department. Perhaps even more than the parting of the Red Sea, we remember the Jewish people writhing half-naked in front of the golden calf. DeMille was a provocateur, emphasizing the tawdry and voyeuristic over any serious examination of God’s redemption.


Old Hollywood biblical epics were often more concerned with ticket sales than saying anything significant about God.

Other biblical epics weren’t really biblical epics at all. Take the Oscar-winning Ben Hur. It’s subtitled A Tale of the Christ, but it’s only peripherally about Jesus. Ben Hur (Heston, again) crosses paths with Christ throughout the movie, but the story calls too much attention to it. Later in the movie, Ben Hur declines hearing the Sermon on the Mount because he must participate in an epic chariot race. This “oh, and by the way, Jesus/God” attitude permeated much of old Hollywood’s attempts at telling scriptural stories.

The industry’s interest in these tales waned considerably after Ben Hur. Disasters like Esther and the King and King David did nothing to entertain the masses or inspire the faithful. It seemed the biblical epic had run its course in the cinematic universe.


Of course, this was all before Mel Gibson’s compassionate masterwork The Passion of the Christ. The 2004 film, following the final hours of Jesus Christ’s life before his crucifixion and subsequent resurrection, was the rare Christ-centered film that everyone, Christian or no,  absolutely had to see, if just once. Critics were turned off by Gibson’s relentlessly graphic portrayal of Christ’s suffering, but that was the point. Audiences turned out to the tune of $370 million, a stunning figure for what is easily one of the more violent movies ever made.


The Passion was a rare example of how The Bible and commercially successful cinema could work in harmony.

From a Christian perspective, one has to ask whether a film like Passion’s message is diluted by its R-rated brutality. That’s a valid question. But the movie was a game-changing faith-based film for several reasons. It was a rare example of a faithful believer pouring his heart and soul into a passion project, independent of big-budget studio financing. It also showed that people were hungry for faithful biblical content, even if it wasn’t “entertaining” the way traditional biblical epics were (the image of someone eating a bucket of popcorn while watching the torture of their messiah is one that still fills me with a strange mix of fear and laughter).

There were a few attempts to cash in on the biblical epic after Passion’s success, but they mostly ended up like The Nativity Story, making little impact at the box office or in the hearts of moviegoers. Since then, spiritually minded films seem to have drifted off in two directions. The first is the increasingly popular “faith-based” films, usually created by evangelical Christian filmmakers. Popular examples include Fireproof and the recently released God’s Not Dead.

As a Christian, I don’t want to write off these movies entirely. Their messages of hope and trust in God even in our modern consumerist society are ones that people need to hear. But, as a fan of quality filmmaking, it’s hard not to try and avoid them. The major problem with these types of films is that they build stories around messages; most screenwriters know that great movies are only made when the opposite is true. Great messages are drawn out of great stories and characters. Heavy-handed dialogue, stiff acting and “clean, family friendly” entertainment may do some good in affirming the faithful, but often come off as culturally clueless and boring to non-believers. There are some exceptions; Blue Like Jazz, the adaptation of Donald Miller’s bestselling book (based on his real-life experience attending Reed College, touted as the most godless university in America), struck the right balance between conveying a Christian message and providing an interesting character and story. And yet, evangelical filmmakers seem to think that Christianity is all about sentiment and easy uplift.

Compare this to Hollywood’s attempts at faithful filmmaking, which took a note from Passion by skewing dark and gritty. These movies faced the opposite problem: their often profane content turned off faith-based audiences, and their religious themes kept secular audiences from embracing them fully.

I’ve written before about Hollywood’s God renaissance, and the transcendent work of Terrence Malick, but a good example here is The Book of Eli. Thanks to its post-apocalyptic setting and star Denzel Washington, the movie made almost $100 million domestically. It’s a powerful account of a man who walks by faith, not sight, and a great illustration that the Bible can be used as a weapon, as much for evil as for good. But Eli kills many enemies, and there are decapitations as well as frequent profanities throughout the movie. This leaves the film a little in the lurch; too much bible talk for an action movie, too much profane content for faith-based audiences.


Which brings us back to Noah. It has been touted as a return to the traditional biblical epic. It is epic, but it’s far from traditional. It’s one of the strangest, riskiest movies to be given a wide release in recent years. To say it’s a faithful rendition of the biblical account is both true and false. In addition to the Watchers, there’s the inclusion of a consistent villain (Ray Winstone’s Tubal Cain) that takes things a bit too far, and the film does itself a disservice by letting us see so little of the actual animals (they all fall into a deep sleep as soon as they step onto the Ark).

The characterization of Noah (played sensitively by Russell Crowe) will also be controversial to many. Noah hears about God’s command to build a boat in a (terrifying) dream sequence, but he never audibly hears God’s voice. This leads Noah to make some decisions that are contrary to what we know God would have him do. He’s a modern-day hero in that he is psychologically tortured, thinking he knows what God would have him do but unsure because he can’t hear directly from God.

This is somewhat problematic, but I think it also fits well into our modern culture’s fears and anxieties about following God on faith. Noah is a troubled hero for a troubled age, but he is still a man of intense faith, committed to carrying out God’s will no matter the personal cost.


Exodus, starring Christian Bale, will be the next Biblical story to get the Hollywood treatment.

We get no indication in the Bible that Noah is disturbed or tortured by the fact that the rest of the world is being killed for their wickedness. In the film, it troubles him and his family greatly, and Noah questions whether he is any more worthy to continue living than anyone else. His question: can mankind truly be redeemed? It’s a question that, appropriately, can’t be answered until the arrival of Christ, but Noah plays his part in God’s grand tale despite his questions and doubts along the way. He’s not a saint, but a living, breathing, and very flawed follower of God.

The return of the biblical epic will continue in December with Ridley Scott’s Exodus, starring Christian Bale as Moses. I’m fascinated to see what Scott does with more Old Testament material. Noah is not exactly a great movie, and its deviations from the Bible can occasionally be distracting. I don’t think Aronofsky has any pretensions of truly satisfying a faith-based audience, and it seems a bit too artsy for mainstream audiences. But, despite its pitfalls, it lays the groundwork for what biblically based mainstream movies can do for both religious audiences and nonreligious viewers that simply want to experience a good story.

The film accurately depicts the power of our sin, and how desperately we have always needed God to pull us out of our depravity. It also shows the power that true faith can have, and the fruits of following God regardless of our present circumstances. The fact that it does this in the context of a mainstream action film is not only surprising, it’s somewhat of a revelation. It also had a $44 million opening weekend, so that has to count for something.

Cal Thomas, writing for World, put it best.

“After decades in which Hollywood mostly ignored or stereotyped faith, Christians should be happy they have gotten the film industry’s attention. Successful films like The Passion of the Christ, The Bible and Son of God prove that such stories ‘sell.’ Instead of nitpicking over Noah, the Christian community should not only be cheering, but buying tickets to encourage more such movies. Hollywood may not always get it right, but that’s not the point. They are getting something and that sure beats not getting anything.”

Thomas also wrote that watching Noah might inspire conversation around the life-changing book that inspired it. In my mind, a movie that sends us running back to the Good Book for any reason should be applauded.