“Whatever happened to original movies?”
“Everything today is a reboot or a remake.”
“When will Hollywood come up with something different?”
If you bring up the subject of movies in pretty much any conversation, you’re going to hear some variation on this general theme. American cinema is in a rut. Whatever happened to creativity and daring? That sort of stuff. And it’s a very fair criticism! For every exciting, fresh movie, it seems like there are a dozen remakes or, at least, a dozen movies trying to copy what came before.
But here’s the problem with this criticism. Back in 2014, Hollywood did try something new. It took a fresh spin on one of our oldest stories, a visionary new depiction of one of the very first tales many of us ever heard. Darren Aronofsky attempted a big budget adaptation of the story of Noah from Genesis, starring Russell Crowe as the famous captain of the ark, and it was as wild and fascinating as the biblical story itself. And you people hated it.
It’s true that Aronofsky had to fill in some of the blanks in the narrative, and he did so aplomb. This upset some people who felt he took too many liberties with the story, even though Aronofsky was only following in the footsteps of filmmakers like Cecil B. Demille, Bruce Beresford and Martin Scorsese, all of whom borrowed biblical frameworks and took it upon themselves to add some interpersonal touches and visual flourishes to generally sparse accounts.
Aronofsky’s touches were often weirder, it’s true. But the story of Noah is very weird, and you’d be hard pressed to demonstrate that the movie’s extracurricular details are at odds with the spirit of the story, even if there’s no evidence they actually happened. Reading Genesis, you get the sense that in those ancient times, the world was a very different place that was still settling into itself post-Creation. People lived for hundreds of years. Animals talked. Giants roamed the land. Prophets saw angelic creatures covered with eyeballs. Our flannelgraph depictions of the days of Genesis as being more or less the same as our own except for more sheep and fewer computers miss just how howlingly odd the first few books of the Hebrew Bible are.
At this point, I can see a few people balking. “OK,” you might say. “I can allow that a story in which God herds two of every animal onto a boat invites some creative license. But …rock giants?” Yes! Rock giants! Aronofsky has said that the two crazy rock creatures in Noah are meant to be the Nephilim, thought by some biblical scholars to be human-angel hybrids. That is in the Bible, like it or not, and if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to allow for a White Jesus or a well-manicured Mary, then you can allow a filmmaker the freedom to dream about what such a creature might look like.
Did they look like that? Probably not! Do they look awesome? Absolutely. These filmmakers aren’t trying to make a movie translation of the Bible. They’re adapting these stories for a new medium, and taking various levels of liberty with the texts. Certainly, they can go too far and veer to being offensive. But depicting the Nephilim as giant rock creatures? Who, exactly, is this hurting? Darren Aronofsky is guilty of one thing, and it is being awesome. The fact that it tanked at the box office and drew widespread criticism for being too weird is only the fault of shortsighted moviegoers who didn’t know how good they had it.
Because studios took away one lesson from Noah‘s box office performance: people don’t like strange movies. Most truly original, challenging works of art have been relegated to low budget fare in indie arthouses produced by the likes of A24 and Neon. And many of those movies are excellent, but few of them have the budget to stage another biblical epic on Noah‘s level. That’s something to remember next time you complain about how Hollywood doesn’t have any new ideas anymore.
But we’ll always have Noah, and its exquisitely strange telling of just what went down in the Flood. Everyone’s mileage may vary on just how much they enjoy or don’t enjoy a movie, and that’s the fun of debating which ones you like and don’t like. But there is no debating the daring of Aronofsky’s vision, the clarity of the world he created or the awesomeness of the rock creatures. We should hope the day comes when Hollywood is willing to swing for the fences like that again.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.