In one of several perceptive pieces attempting to calm the storm of religious/secular/opportunist criticism of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah on Religion Dispatches, Ingrid Lilly notes that whether or not Noah follows the familiar Genesis narrative is irrelevant: the story of the flood has appeared in many times and many places, always in a slightly different guise. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim fills his boat with men, animals, friends, family, gold, and silver. He takes what he can and then tightens the hatch. In the Quran, Noah loses a son to the waters. With Noah, Aronofsky adds another—slightly less revered—retelling to this canon.
If Noah is yet another version of an age old story, then it inevitably reflects and comments on its time. So what moral does this modern parable teach? In Genesis, God laments humanity’s violence and inclination to sin; in Noah we find the creator mourning a mangled world scorched by industrial power. Noah and his family represent the last of those who live with the earth, not merely from it. In an early scene, Noah reprimands his son for picking a flower. A bit harsh, but point taken.
Noah’s moral drive is at once gentle and touching. Aronofsky submerges us in a gorgeous and rugged landscape: he saturates the biblical earth with vibrant color and invites us to dwell vicariously in a post-flood landscape of clean grasses and thick soil. But perhaps these aesthetics distract from deeper uncertainties. Though Aronofsky’s staging of creation is careful to allow room for both evolution and divine presence, he leaves disturbing patriarchal and sexual norms untouched. Or rather, he fails to examine his own ways of interpretation for biases that, as many would argue, have little to do with the original Noah, much less his environmentalist reincarnation.
Once the ark sets sail, however, our comforting eco-fable transforms into a psychological thriller.
And it’s this same recurrence of interpretive uncertainty—in the both director and Noah himself—that I see as the most striking message hidden among the hills of Noah’s reinvigorated world. In Genesis, God speaks to Noah: “‘Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it….’” No room for error here. But in the movie, our prophet instead receives visions and dreams. He sees fire and death, water, bodies, and a boat. So he builds, with the help of a seed from Eden and an army of fallen angels, depicted as giant stone transformers that would make Michael Bay proud. Again, this is a movie for our times.
Everything goes well at first. Noah builds the ark, the flood comes. He channels his inner Jason Bourne as he deftly slaughters the descendants of Cain, desperate for a chance to survive God’s justice. Once the ark sets sail, however, our comforting eco-fable transforms into a psychological thriller. Noah, convinced that God intends to destroy humanity entirely, refuses to let his family grow and repopulate the earth. Upon learning of his daughter-in-law Ila’s pregnancy, he decides he must murder the children.
And so he waits for the birth. He stares at a vacant sky, interrogating God. He takes silence for admonishment: the children must die. Horrified, Noah’s family argues otherwise. The rains have stopped—does that not indicate God’s approval? Noah sabotages his family’s escape and pursues Ila, clutching her newborn twin girls, to the edge of the ark. He raises his knife, and then retreats.
The episode highlights the challenge of understanding. God offers no confirmation of his will; Noah and his family are left to read an empty sky. At the end of the film, pulsing rainbows fill the heavens. But this neon celebration is only a retrospective legitimation, and besides, it is so visually absurd I can only assume Aronofsky must have suffered from some strange, momentary silliness. Otherwise, Noah and his kin must interpret dreams, visions, rain, and death on their own. Interpretations multiply and the family fractures.
Faced with an untenable reading of God’s signs, Noah turns inward. Where Noah once found a drive to kill, he now finds love.
While Noah’s infanticidal rage speaks to the dangerous of unwavering, unquestioning belief, it also points to a larger problem. In Aronofsky’s Noah, God does not speak nor disclose truth. God leaves us with signs, and we must do our best. We deplore Noah’s violence, but realize that his family’s method is no better. They only offer a truth that more closely mirrors our own beliefs. Noah’s world is a postmodern one. Words do not point to anything real, but only to other words, other interpretations. Here, we cannot access a timeless truth or the word of God. We can only read the signs.
How does Aronofsky solve this interpretive crisis? We sympathize with Noah’s family because they value new life in a way that resonates with us. But Noah does not spare the children out of sensitivity to his wife and children. He admits at the end of the film that, as he made to impale the newborn girls, he felt nothing but love in his heart. And so he acted on that love and let them live.
Faced with an untenable reading of God’s signs, Noah turns inward. Where Noah once found a drive to kill, he now finds love. The transformation occurs in his soul. This is his response to the utter absence of God’s confirmation—and for Aronofsky, it should be our response to environmental catastrophe as well. We must turn inward to find the will to build a better world.
Faced with a silent God, Noah makes an internal, solitary decision. This is certainly one way to solve the problem of interpretation—but it remains deeply flawed both for Noah and its larger environmental message. While reliance on our inner, deepest emotions does provide some certainty, it ignores a more valuable truth: we are not solitary, we are not alone. Nature exists with and without us; it remains entirely independent. We must recognize that nature places demands on us, as a family member or loved one. We comfort those close to us not only because we ourselves feel love—they also demand our care. Nature—both cruel and kind—also demands our care, no matter how we feel towards it. Aronofsky offers a type of divination fit for an unstable world. But if God doesn’t speak and our readings are ever fallible, we must turn to others. We are not alone: that is both a burden and a blessing.
Lewis West is co-editor-in-chief of Cosmologics.
 Genesis 6: 13-15
Image from Flickr via steven-young