From Noah to Snowpiercer

Call it a doomsday craving, but I ended up watching Noah and Snowpiercer in the same day a few weeks ago. That day’s routine dullness quickly became juxtaposed with these relatively absurd artistic visions.

The former offers quite the imaginative take on the biblical ark that reshaped mankind’s relationship with the earth (and God, or as the film labels Him, The Creator); the latter projects a future in the wake of humanity’s attempt to reverse the effects of global warming, which led to inadvertently sending the planet into an ice age and necessitating the existence of a new ark. This iteration is all human and all hierarchy, but no less devastating nor ineffable.

Noah was an aesthetic bounty and, in the moment when Noah spares his newly born granddaughters’ lives, unexpectedly poignant. I consider the emotional strength of it unexpected because the film spends marginal time developing the characters. They operate primarily on a mythological level, so it’s not that you end up getting close to any of them as singular individuals, but more as universal symbols. I anticipated, given the perhaps intentional dearth of intimacy, that I would continue to watch with wonder but not empathy. Suddenly, emotional revelation struck, and I was nearly in tears. Perhaps it was the universal quality that struck a chord; Aronofsky was evidently playing with the eternal sublime.

I still don’t know how he managed it; the performances weren’t particularly striking, with Crowe playing his predictably reliable part, and the narrative couldn’t muster all that much tension given the source material. Nevertheless, Aronofsky successfully translated Noah’s epic story into catholic mythology instead of Catholic doctrine. This wasn’t the stuff of Christianity; it was the beauty and terror of humanity.

Snowpiercer, meanwhile, was a fascinating enough concept but an unapologetically insipid film. Its characters too functioned symbolically, parts of a thinly veiled (this isn’t a criticism) allegory that rips into present social hierarchy and imminent environmental oblivion. The problem is that the film does little to make you care about the characters. They’re all pawns (which is true of their status in the film, but still). When a full-scale battle ensues in the middle of the train (and movie) and loads of people are dying, nothing feels like it’s at stake. As Noah’s granddaughters are being born, despite the audience fully knowing that he’s not going to sacrifice them, despite his faithful convictions, it feels real. It evokes genuine concern, and we end up feeling the very love that Noah admits feeling, the love that made it so he couldn’t follow through on his promise to kill them.

Kierkegaard’s assessment of Abraham in Fear and Trembling seems to be the model Aronofsky used to construct his version of Noah; Noah’s faith is absolutely inexplicable in this decisive moment. Either he’s a madman or a murderer. Or, as Kierkegaard concludes, he is Faith epitomized. What he does makes no sense, unless he genuinely believed that God wanted him to do it, but then why would God request such an unethical thing? Only a teleological suspension of the ethical can save us in our view of him, but even then, we aren’t getting anywhere close to the psychology of the man, the inner world that confounded yet never deterred and instead inspired him. As Aronofsky gracefully shows us Noah’s journey, we experience the same frustrating distance, and yet the same profound understanding. Something transcendent is indeed happening here, and what power there is in simply witnessing it. Noah has this type of energy. Snowpiercer is paralyzed.

As the revelations pour in, and as the mythology of Snowpiercer expands, for instance, nothing takes hold. Unless the violence engages you, you’re just along for the ride. When the ride finally stops, it’s a relief to get off the train, to go care about something again. If that’s what the film hoped to inspire, so be it, but surely along the way it could’ve engaged us (which is me projecting my experience on everyone else) emotionally. This isn’t a fault of the filmmakers. Perhaps I was simply more open to Noah for some reason. It spoke to something greater than me, and I was eager to listen.

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