Sunday, April 20, 2014

"Noah" vs. "God's Not Dead": A Comparison

     Happy Easter, world! I know I said I was done with this blog, but I have something that may be of importance or relevance to some of you. Maybe.

     On March 27, 2014, the day before the theatrical release of Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah, a classmate and good friend of mine mentioned at the end of a class when my professor offered to take students to see the film: “Let’s all go see Noah and God’s Not Dead back-to-back!” (The latter film had been out for about a week at that point.)

     Although she was kidding, I couldn’t stop thinking about this idea. The more I thought about it, I thought that seeing these films close together would be a huge way to see at once the two sides of what people define a “Christian movie” as. And so, on Easter weekend, I decided to see Noah and God’s Not Dead on the same day—not back-to-back as I hoped to do, but close enough together that I felt I was able to analyze them both equally.

     Now, I am aware that the last thing the Internet needs is another nobody analyzing either of these movies, but since this angle is something that I’ve rarely seen, to compare these two films in particular, I’m going to do it. Bear with me, because this might turn out to be long.

     First, let’s look at Noah, only because I saw it first out of the two. The plot is what you’d probably come to expect if you read the Bible: a man named Noah (Russell Crowe) is called by God (“the Creator”, as he’s known in the film) to build an ark for him, his family, and the animals of the earth before He sends a great flood to destroy evil mankind.

     And since the account of Noah and his family in Genesis 6-9 is told pretty simply and without a lot of exploration into the actual back-story or feelings of the title character, his relatives, or his neighbors, the movie does it for us. This, understandably, is where the film has received a ton of controversy—some of it unfairly from evangelical audiences who bashed it before they actually saw it.

     Nevertheless, there are still a lot of moments in the film where Christians have no doubt been bothered by Aronofsky’s interpretation of this story. As I’ve mentioned, God is not called “God”, nor does He speak audibly. But also, there are several action scenes that are not explicitly (or even implicitly) referenced in Scripture. The fashion in which the animals enter the ark seems so fantastical that it may be hard for some to take seriously.

     But most of all, the ark is built with help from the Watchers, fallen angels who have taken the form of rock beings on Earth. (The Watchers actually come from the Book of Enoch, which, since it’s not contained in the Holy Bible, many Christians have not bothered to explore.)

     This is the aspect of Noah that is ticking off Christian audiences: at its core, it’s a fantasy epic. In some ways, it’s no different from something like The Chronicles of Narnia in terms of its scope or setting. But of course, no one complained so much about the Narnia films because they were taken from C.S. Lewis’ books, not Scriptures.

     And I get that; it was hard for me to take some of these things seriously myself. But as I watched Aronofsky’s film play out, I couldn’t help but think of when I saw The Last Temptation of Christ.

     That film, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1988 (the feature film he made before his classic GoodFellas, I might add), addresses the life of Christ and his struggles with resisting temptation—specifically, lust, as the film presents Willem Dafoe’s Jesus in a quasi-relationship with Barbara Hershey’s Mary Magdalene. You bet your bottom it stirred up controversy among evangelicals. (At least, that’s what I’ve heard; I wasn’t born until ’92.)

     And when I saw Last Temptation for the first time in December 2012, I’m not gonna lie, there were several times when I wanted to stop watching the movie because I felt it was not doing justice to Scripture (although there is a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that its take on Christ is based in fiction).

     However, I have to say that ever since I saw the film, I have thought so much more about Jesus’ human nature than I ever had before. And the more I think about it, the more I believe that I am getting the same feeling from Noah; but I’ll return to this idea later.

     But if Noah is a film made by “secular Hollywood”, if you want to limit it to that term (which I hate to do), that has made evangelical Christian audiences mad, you get the exact opposite effect with God’s Not Dead, which has no doubt made Christians stand up and cheer while posing stereotypes to non-believers.

     The plot of God’s Not Dead, produced by Pure Flix Entertainment, is a little hard to narrow down because it seems to be one of those “multi-protagonist” films, where several characters have their own storylines that ultimately connect to a bigger idea.

     That, unfortunately, does not exactly happen in the end, but the main plotline is that Joss Whedon Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper), a freshman at a secular university, is challenged by his atheist professor Jeffrey Radisson (Kevin Sorbo, who I very much look forward to seeing in Josh Overbay’s Hope Bridge in the next year or two) to defend the existence of God in a series of philosophy classes.

     As this plot is going on, we find blogger Amy Ryan (Trisha LaFache) trying to disprove (or prove) God’s sovereignty as she is being diagnosed with cancer, while students around Josh at school are working through Christianity in their own lives, while Radisson’s surprisingly Christian partner Mina (Cory Oliver) is for some reason only now beginning to doubt her relationship with an atheist, while a local minister (David A.R. White, who I recognize previously from a little movie called Bells of Innocence, which I encourage you to look up) struggles with finding the right words to say to many of these people that cross his path.

     And that’s exactly what God’s Not Dead is made of: words. Like many other faith-based films before it, and unlike other films outside its genre, such as NoahGod’s Not Dead and its characters not only communicate exposition through dialogue, but also their internal feelings, rather than letting viewers make sense of it through a subtle visual style.

     Ironically, some Pure Flix films have done this better than this film (look up 2012’s Escape, written by Andrea Nasfell, screenwriter of the upcoming Mom’s Night Out), but it so happens that God’s Not Dead is the one that many audiences will actually see. Oh well.

     So, this is the point where I’d like to start weighing pros and cons of both Noah and God’s Not Dead, because although there are many differences, there are still similarities. For now, let’s look at where they differ. Again, Noah is based more on visuals than dialogue, where God’s Not Dead is basically the opposite. Noah is shot beautifully, has impressive special effects, contains a believable soundtrack, and even has a very nice musical score.

     God’s Not Dead, I’m sorry to say, has a lot of unmotivated camera movement, editing that sometimes gets too quick for its own good, and has background music in places that would have been much more effective with no music at all. (For the record, I’m sick to death of “Christian movies” using the apparently obligatory musical montage. It brings the story to a halt, guys; just don’t do it.)

     However, in terms of weighing the films on the basis of “reality”, I honestly think that people like me will more likely gravitate naturally to the “realism” of God’s Not Dead, rather than the fantastical elements of Noah where the Watchers help Noah and his family build an ark and defend it from those of Cain’s line.

     Not to mention the fact that Noah takes elements of extra-Biblical sources, which no doubt will frustrate evangelical audiences (who, again, probably don’t know about the Book of Enoch).

     I also think it helps that, in a rare moment, I watched the performances in God’s Not Dead and was actually impressed. The first interaction between Wheaton and Radisson could have been very overblown; however, Harper and Sorbo downplay the tension and let it build towards the end of the film, which is a very wise decision and honestly helped me to be more engaged in the film.

     But here’s what prevented me from staying engaged: the way that the film is presented, all these characters just so happen to be dealing with knowing whether or not God is truly real at the same time. That’s mighty convenient for the sake of the movie’s story, in my opinion. And as I see it, it doesn’t work as well as other multi-protagonist films because the link between characters is too small.

     Maybe the characters’ struggles are the same, but their relationships are either contrived or not strong enough to hold the narrative as a whole together. Similarly structured films like Nashville or Magnolia work because each character’s event flows into another’s, and it’s all a smooth story. God’s Not Dead, unfortunately, is not, and it takes away from any “realism” that the film tries to convey.

     That realism is further blurred especially during some of Radisson’s more intense scenes, which (although performed well) seem unlikely for a philosophy professor to get away with, the way he verbally attacks Wheaton and others.

     But this, in my mind, was nothing compared to the sudden-dark-turn ending that the film takes in the last few minutes, which is suddenly put to the wayside during the closing song. I’ll be honest, I was angry. I won’t spoil anything, but I just didn’t think that something like that could actually happen in real life.

     …Or could it? I’m not sure.

     And that’s where I have to stop complaining about the movie: because I don’t know. Many Christian movies will have audiences saying, “That’s not true to life! That’s not how God works!” But there may always be that one person who says: “That’s what God did for me.” It’s a really subjective thing, and it’s extremely hard to judge. And that is why, as much as I feel like I could or should, I will not dismiss God’s Not Dead as an unrealistic or even a “bad” film so quickly.

     And that’s also why I can’t dismiss Noah in the same way. Anyone who wants to go ahead and claim that the way that the story was portrayed in the film was not how it actually happened, then go right ahead—but good luck proving what it actually looked like, unless you’re thousands upon thousands of years old.

     In my mind, to say that those animals didn’t board the ark in the fashion that they did, or that the Watchers came down and helped build the ark, or that the flood didn’t come in the way it does in the film is partially saying that God is incapable of making those things happen. Can He send flocks of animals at once exactly where they need to go? Can He perform those kinds of miracles, no matter how fantastical they look? I believe He can—so why should I doubt?

     But to me, even with all the fantasy elements that may distract, Noah, like The Last Temptation of Christ, has several moments that I was very impacted by emotionally—and they came from the characters, not the visuals. I can’t comment much on Darren Aronofsky’s work as a whole when talking about Noah because the only other film of his that I’ve seen is Black Swan, which, while it’s very… uh, “non-Christian” in many ways, is still a very intriguing character study.

     Noah has those kinds of moments, too, thankfully. Particularly, once the flood has hit, the story transitions from less of a spectacle and more of an internal struggle, as Noah tries to convince himself that his family is not really meant to re-populate the earth, though his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly) and adopted sort-of daughter Ila (Emma Watson) try to convince him otherwise.

     Again, I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say that these moments, which in many respects analyze the idea of men being inherently good or evil, boosted my opinion of the film much higher. And the funny thing is that, prior to seeing the film, I had no idea that this subject was even really addressed in it. I guess evangelicals were so concerned about Rockbiters building the ark that they didn’t realize that this was a really deep issue tackled very sensitively.

     (Additionally, there are several other moments in the film that are equally thought provoking. Tubel-Cain [Ray Winstone], the “villain”, audibly asks God why He does not speak to him, posing a huge question about how God chooses to speak to specific people. And later, as Noah and his family are on the ark, he tells them the story of creation, the fall, and Cain murdering Abel, which is told in such a beautiful way that I cannot express in this essay. Why aren’t more people praising these moments? This is great stuff!)

     God’s Not Dead, sadly, has much less of these kinds of moments. I think that it talks too much about the issues that it tries to address rather than really letting its characters make actions and choose how to react to situations to convey its themes—a problem that many films before it have suffered and may not ever truly grow out of.

     However, there are two elements about both Noah and God’s Not Dead that I find similar, and both which I admire very much. The first is this: there’s no denying that both of these films were made by filmmakers who felt very strongly about their subject matter. Aronofsky genuinely wanted to explore the story of Noah, and he did it in a very special—and daring—way. And Harold Cronk and Pure Flix took a ton of risks to make sure that the name of Jesus was prominently proclaimed in God’s Not Dead, something that I personally admire about those kinds of movies.

     The second similarity I find is this: they don’t put their protagonists on a pedestal. Noah does this a little better than God’s Not Dead: while Wheaton seems to be struggling less with his faith (although he does admit to his professor and philosophy class at one point that he does not know all the answers), Crowe’s Noah takes a very dark turn in the film’s third act. Sure, he gets drunk and naked, as is written in Genesis 9, but he also comes close to killing Ila’s children to not compromise his obedience to God. It’s truly hard to watch.

     This moment in Noah summed up why I think the film, no matter how controversial or unconventional it is, is so important: because it says that God uses very imperfect people to accomplish his will.

     This, as I mentioned earlier, is a concept that I will no doubt ponder over as I continue to read Scripture: the people who obey God’s instructions are never perfect—except Jesus, of course. But I can take great comfort in the fact that, as the saying goes, God uses crooked sticks to make straight lines.

     I suppose that God’s Not Dead does this, too, but not in such a cinematic and subtler way that Noah does, making Noah (in my mind) a better movie overall.

     However, I still feel that there is a place for films like God’s Not Dead in the world. It’s hard for me to see outside my Christian perspective how these films are making an impact, but I wonder what non-Christian audiences think when they see this film making a ton of money, let alone existing in the first place. Heck, they might be thinking, “That’s stupid”, but they may in fact be appreciating our boldness for standing up for our faith. I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll ever know.

     I hate to end this essay on that note, but really, I have no clear-cut answers for how a movie is supposed to effectively spread Christianity. Noah and God’s Not Dead are on two opposite ends of the spectrum, and both have caused controversy. It’s like we can’t win. But then again, Noah and God’s Not Dead on their own are not supposed to spread Christianity. We are.