04/02/2014 10:47 am ET Updated Jun 02, 2014

Noah and the Sky: How One Image Can Define a Movie

I hesitated to write about Noah. I am embarrassingly ignorant about the Bible, both testaments, and therefore thought it would better to leave the discussion to those film lovers who bring more knowledge to the table. But in the week since I saw it, I have been so struck, very nearly haunted, by one image, that I decided to write it down. Actually, if I recall correctly, the image is repeated twice: the implacable gray sky, not a solid sheet, but seeming to pulse ever so slightly with the faintest of heartbeats, vague splotches of dark and light. Of course, context is everything. Noah is looking up at this sky while contemplating the biggest decision of his life (SPOILER ALERT): whether to murder his first-born granddaughters. He is looking for, begging for, an answer to this impossible question. And what he gets in return is a gray implacable sky. It is an image full of possibility, and full of terror.

That seems to me the entire point of Darren Aronofsky's movie. That shot. And as such, I find it to be a very powerful film. Its specific political message is obviously relevant today: how do we distinguish God's will from our own will? How can we be certain of the proper way to live when it seems to require us to commit horrific acts? Where is the line between moral righteousness and fanatic evil? I believe that Aronofsky is suggesting the line is somewhere in that gray shifting image, and I agree with that answer.

There are things I do not like about Noah. I think Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel make an enormous plot miscalculation when they allow Ray Wnstone's Tubal-cain to stowaway on the ark and be a key player when Act II evolves into Act III. Not only do I find it unbelievable, I think it also takes the emphasis off the crucial story question about Noah and the babies, a question that could easily support the third act of the movie. Tubal-cain's absence would allow more attention to be placed on Douglas Booth's Shem, an utterly impotent character who really should play a much bigger role in this story. And though I have no problem with the concept of the Watchers, I would agree with those who argue that in execution, these rock creature transformers are just a bit silly.

But none of those things diminish the central power of the third act to any great extent. In 2002, when Martin Scorsese finally released his hacked up version of Gangs of New York, I remember thinking that there were about a dozen serious flaws in the movie. Much of it had to do with the contentious editing process that left gaps and holes and hurt the overall rhythm of the movie. I didn't think Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam was a credible opponent for Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill Cutting. The opening sequence was so powerful that it largely overshadowed the rest of Act I, and the climax was not quite as well-realized as I wanted it to be. Still, none of it mattered, because Bill The Butcher is such an extraordinary creation that he dominated any and all flaws. I can't make claims that it is one of the best, but it is certainly a movie that has stayed with me through the years, and I suspect, will continue to stay well into the future.

I feel the same way about Noah and that sky. Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s were the first to formally describe the theoretical foundation of editing, holding that film's unique power resides in the juxtaposition of images. They may have overstated their argument, but it's hard to watch Noah and not get their meaning. A placid gray sky, so full of disinterest. Or anger. Or hope. It may say nothing to you. But in fact, it says everything.