Noah Successfully Threads the Cultural Needle

Photo: MMXIV Paramount Pictures

Midway through Noah, after most of humanity has been annihilated and the ark is floating lonely amidst the flood, the title character sits his children down and regales them with the story of Creation. With this flashback, writer-director Darren Aronofsky grasps the hand of science and forces it to shake with the Creationist palm. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” Noah narrates as an explosive array of light, dust, and matter swirls from nothing to something. Aronofsky pairs the overly familiar Genesis passages with a whirlwind montage of time-lapse photography. Chaos begets a single cell begets plant life begets fish begets amphibians begets mammals begets mankind. It's God's will as an IMAX nature documentary.

Noah arrives as the science/religion debate flares up once again, as it seems forever destined to. An early February debate between Bill Nye the Science Guy and Creation Museum President Ken Ham commanded outsized media attention. And the past month has seen religion and science fight it out in both cinemas and on TV. In the midst of all this, Noah comes along to thread the needle. Neither tearing down religion, nor evangelizing for it, the film tries to split the difference — the rarest of feats these days.

Of course, that hasn't stopped “controversy” from swirling around the film, much of it stemming from a very early review of the screenplay by religious screenwriter Brian Godawa which called it an “anachronistic doomsday scenario of ancient global warming” and referred to Noah as an "environmentalist wacko." Recently, Glenn Beck, privy to an early screening, dubbed the movie the “Babylonian Chainsaw Massacre,” slamming Aronofsky for interpreting true events as a Lord of the Rings-style fantasy (Beck says he found himself, “literally laughing at the rock people,” a knock at the film's version of The Watchers, fallen angels who assist Noah in building the ark). Paramount, the studio behind the film, is well aware of the challenge they face, and a recent featurette was stuffed with testimonials and quotes from members of the Christian community — the president of the NYC conservative school The King’s College, radio host Hugh Hewitt, and Focus on the Family president Jim Daly.

Both sides of the culture war are currently getting their due on screens big and small. Christians fearing the march of secular values have God's Not Dead, a drama pitting a faithful college freshman against a philosophy professor who demands his students deny the existence of a higher being if they want an “A.”

After earning $9.2 million at the box office, the film, from Christian production company Pure Flix, was dubbed a “surprise” hit. It wasn't that shocking, though. Last month's Son of God, a re-edited version of History Channel's The Bible mini-series, opened at number two with $25 million. God's Not Dead is another reminder that the far end of the religious spectrum is a viable demographic, ready to shell out for films that perpetuate their ideology. Another such film, coming out Easter weekend, is Heaven Is For Real, based on the New York Times-bestselling book.

On the other end of the spectrum is Cosmos. Not since Ricky Gervais's Twitter feed has there been a secular retaliation quite like Fox's reboot of the Carl Sagan miniseries. Vulture’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz accurately describes Cosmos, from the brains of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, as “a pushback against faith’s encroachments on the intellectual terrain of science.” Though host and famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson strongly believes in the coexistence of science and faith (see this episode, at about 27:40), the defensive miniseries can't afford the wiggle room of spiritual possibility. Chronicling scientific history, Cosmos depicts "God" as the swiftest ending to hypothetical questioning. Fundamentalist Christianity is in its crosshairs.

Amidst those feuding philosophies, Noah hopes to be the cinematic equivalent of World War I's Christmas truce. Where Cosmos's spectacle and Bill Nye's debate club PowerPoints brook no support of intelligent design, God's Not Dead, creationist Ken Ham, and persistent Evangelicals won't rest until the Bible is regarded as a history text book. Director (and atheist) Aronofsky takes the known and unknown and smashes them together into a CGI spectacle.

He treats the Bible like any other culture's mythology — if Hercules can fight a Hydra, Noah can build an ark with giant rock angels. But he sells it with a sense of scientific curiosity; if God did touch down from the Heavens and allow life to blossom, if He did watch from above as humanity ravaged the environment around them, if He did decide to wipe out the world population and task one man with saving two of every animal on the planet, how would he do it? If the Bible could be taken at its word, how would it go down? As 40 days and 40 nights of rain begin to pour down, Aronofsky pulls back the camera to reveal an Earth enclosed in a shell of hurricanes. It is both logical and an implicit act of godliness.

And audiences and critics on both sides seem to be responding. Noah opened to a hearty $44 million this weekend, playing to “Aronofsky's fans and upscale moviegoers on the one hand, and on the other, to Christian audiences, particularly in southern states,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. The film is currently perched at 76 percent Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes (and at 68 percent on Metacritic, if that’s more your style) and many critics and found elements in the film to praise even when knocking its stiff dialogue and overly bombastic action scenes. And though there are the ultra-hardliners like Ken Ham, he of the Bill Nye debate, who said “it may be the worst film I’ve ever seen” and called it “unbiblical [and] pagan,” there are others like critic Josh Larsen, who contributes to Think Christian in addition to hosting the popular podcast Filmspotting, who write, “Why not embrace Noah – and any Bible movie, for that matter, no matter how biblically tenuous – as opportunities for conversation? This is art we’re talking about, not doctrinal statements.” Or as The Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern wrote, "a film willing and able to dramatize—with irony-free urgency—questions of good and evil that are fundamental to religious thought." Every successful journey has a few patches of rough water.