Thoroughly Modern Milton
In a Religious Education class in a Cornish School in the year 1989, yours truly was treated to his first screening of The Ten Commandments (1956), introduced by the bespectacled educationalist as “a vintage piece of Hollywood”. That it was being shown at all in that classroom attested to the fact that DeMille’s epic was broadly reverential to the Old Testament. Adapting the Bible in a widely sceptical, secularised era is more problematic.
Darren Aronofsky’s take on the book of Genesis illustrates these tensions rather well. If, like Aronofsky, you’re taken with the story but recognise the source material to be a fantasy novel like any other, what do you do? The answer is to make a film that neatly slots into the fantasy genre; a film that plays like a Tolkien spin-off, complete with a wizened sage with magical botanicals, the giant rock-men William Shatner envisaged for Star Trek V that were scrapped due to budget constraints, swords that thrust into the ground scorch the Earth and the ascension of felled guardians, sadly reminiscent of the recent I, Frankenstein.
The result is a curious hotchpotch of timidity and bravery, a film that breaks its back to put some distance between it and a literal interpretation of scripture – God never mentioned by name, creation shown, in one bravura sequence, as a series of epoch-spanning days encompassing geological and evolutionary changes – while simultaneously subverting the story’s binary morality. In Aronofsky’s version, Ray Winstone’s Tubalcain, ostensibly the villain of the piece, makes, what to modern ears, are reasonable soundings regarding animals being automatons and humans taming nature, whereas Noah, played by the worried face of Russell Crowe, is a troubled martyr, pushed to contemplate infanticide, who considers nature’s cruel hoards; beasts that lack any sense of morality and think nothing of brutalising the weak; as the world’s only true innocents.
This thorny tussle, playing out against a suitably brooding, deadened backdrop, is further complicated by the nature of freewill, a principle the evil Winstone embodies and the righteous Noah unwittingly undermines. We’re invited to contemplate Tubalcain’s notion that as an intellectual being he’s been ennobled with the right to make his own choices, good and bad, and this, being his divinely sanctioned design, isn’t something he should face censure over.
It’s perhaps telling that when the creator is challenged on this point he doesn’t deign to reply. Humanity, it seems, has Hobson’s choice – act virtuously or face annihilation. Some would call that moral tyranny, but not Crowe, who unquestionably accepts that humanity is a busted, irredeemable flush that deserves its fate. Indeed, Noah’s decision not to save one of the doomed society’s victims acknowledges such people exist and consequently their punishment may be unjust. That’s a brave, if entirely rational point, made by Aronofsky, and therein lies Noah’s moral relativism: a Bible story where the hero can be villainous, the villain rational and the unseen creator unduly malicious and tyrannical. You didn’t get that in The Ten Commandments.
Technically it’s an impressive beast, awash with CGI to be sure, but pixels employed in the creation of thousands of photo-realistic animals, verdant forest and the aforementioned creation of the universe. That sense of scale underwrites Noah’s biblical credentials. It may not be a film likely to be noted for the depth of its characterisation, the eponymous mariner not withstanding, but it challenges the Genesis story in a provocative manner and is consequently a great deal more vivid and interesting than many of its old testament predecessors. It has, in religious parlance, been sent to test you.