No matter what happens at the box office this weekend, it's hard to imagine Noah the film surpassing Noah the cultural touchpoint from a buzzworthy perspective. That says more about the way films, as a piece of mass American culture, have become a channel through which culture warriors can gratify their apparently deep need to feel persecuted and then complain about it to everyone who will give them attention than it does about the film itself.
And that's a shame because Noah the film is intriguing. Oscar-nominated director Darren Aronofsky has a star-studded cast (Russell Crowe, Emma Watson, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Nolte) and more money than he's ever had to work with in his career -- a rumored $125 million budget. Politics aside, this is a wildly ambitious undertaking. Aronofsky could probably go on making arthouse films and racking up Academy Award nominations for the next few decades. Instead, he's trying to successfully navigate making a biblical epic that also has mass appeal.
Alas, we're not talking about that. We haven't been for months, and my guess is that we won't even when the film opens on Friday.
Nope, we're getting juvenile articles about the "tricky balance" Hollywood has to strike as it tries to appeal to Christian audiences and the masses. Worse yet, we're getting stuff from the studio itself, Paramount, defending the subject matter as faithful to the Old Testament before almost anyone has actually seen the darn thing.
Stuff like the video below, which trots out a bunch of religious thought leaders to defend the content of the film:
"Movies are not meant to preach. Movies are not a sermon," says one of the people in this clip. That this is the type of sentiment that even needs to be expressed depresses me profoundly. It means that there are enough humorless dimwits out there who see art as a vehicle to confirm their narrow worldview rather than to broaden it that a major Hollywood studio feels the need to address them directly. It means that the Fox News-ification of the culture at large has taken deep root.
My suggestion to the studios with this and Ridley Scott's Exodus coming down the pike: don't even bother. It's unlikely that you can make people of this ilk happy anyway, and even if you could, chances are you'd end up alienating the rest of us out here in reality -- the folks who see film and art as open to interpretation, as the start to a conversation -- enough that these films wouldn't be financially viable.
It smacks of weakness and desperation, too, as if the film has something of which to be ashamed. An examination of The Flood, a short, exceedingly brutish, dark part of the Genesis story, ought to be stood behind on its own artistic merit. Liberties with the source material have to be taken because, well, you wouldn't have much of a feature-length film without doing so. More importantly, they should be taken because the relationship between humans and God is so fraught with peril and distrust in this story that it probes and tests its very existence.
Finally, worrying about this at all seems to drastically underestimate the value moviegoers at large -- Christians, atheists, Buddhists, Pastafarians, agnostics, Hindus and so on -- place on a great story.
Enter one of those juvenile articles I mentioned before from a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly:
Yet for every successful attempt to tap into the faith community--such as 2005's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and 2009's The Blind Side, both of which drew strong Christian followings--there has been a misfire. The 2006 Bible drama The Nativity Story failed to connect with its intended audience. ... Ambitions to lure churchgoers to watch Steve Carrell grow a beard and build an ark in the 2007 comedy Evan Almighty flopped mightily. ... "Obviously, there's some pushback," says Christian-media consultant Phil Cooke. "There are some areas of the Christian community where they're thinking '[Hollywood's] just trying to make money off Christians.'"
To successfully engage this audience, the studios have had to gain an understanding and even an empathy for the values and worldview of the faithful. Hollywood can carpet bomb churches with film screenings and free T-shirts, but it won't boost ticket sales if the people in the pews feel as if they're being pandered to--as they have at times when studios have commissioned devotional study guides for movies like Rocky Balboa and Spider-Man 3. "You can't cheat it," says Bob Berney, who distributed The Passion of the Christ as then president of Newmarket Films. "There has to be something in the film that appeals to the audience in an authentic way or they won't respond. It will backfire."
Interesting theory, but there's a common theme between the four Christian "flops" that has nothing to do with pandering. They all stunk. I can say that because I'm not a Christian and that's what I thought of those films. But if you don't believe me, consider their average Metacritic rating of 52.75 (out of 100).
Maybe, just maybe, whether a film is pandering to a particular audience matters a whole lot less than whether it's actually any good. Maybe authenticity is largely baked in to overall quality. There's a whole lot of us around the world who don't really care about the theological implications of Noah, but will show up anyway if it's a good enough experience.
Paramount ought to show a little faith in that.