Angels encased in stone, post-apocalyptic ruins that litter Pangaea, a magical old man, and infanticide on a boat – these are the eclectic elements that appear in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. While the film may appear to be a random amalgamation of fantasy, horror, family drama and Biblical epic, the genius of the film is that it unites its disparate parts into a compelling thematic whole. Aronofsky’s genuine exploration of the ethics of free will lends the film a sharp focus that provides a core sense of humanism to an otherwise short and didactic Old Testament story.
The film does this by having every character, from father to fantastical giant, appeal to a god whose indifference allows for the possibility of free will. Tubal Cain, descendant of that murderous brother, shouts out to an indifferent heaven – he receives no answer and thus sees the reflection of his own genuine (and relatable) struggle to enact his will and shape the Earth to fulfill his base desires. Noah faces that same emptiness (or unresponsiveness from the ‘creator’) as an affirmation of the ability to choose love. Even the stone-angels known as watchers, burdened as a result of their choice to help Adam after the Fall, cry out to an empty sky and are ultimately redeemed by the choices they make (i.e. assisting Noah) as a result. The film remains a genuine, fascinating exploration of the ethics and responsibilities of moving from infantile Eden (where the scope of your agency and destiny is set by an absolute ‘father’) into the isolation adult freedom that remains pregnant with the optimism of possibility. The movie ends on this very note, with Noah’s most troublesome son, Ham, wondering if we ‘can learn to be kind again’ before venturing out into a new, unpopulated Earth.
The clear, authentic voice that results from Noah’s intense thematic focus is also strengthened by the film’s conjoining of the literal and figurative. The film takes the creation story literally – Adam and Eve are actual beings who (through a visually-astounding time lapse scene) inhabit a paradisaical garden and eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Likewise, Cain literally murders Abel and the ‘creator’ is actually pissed enough to drown almost the entire human species. Noah, however, uses this literalism to buttress its figurative implications – the move out of Eden parallels Noah’s figurative movement from zealous, religious servitude (which reaches its climax in his near-successful attempt to murder his infant grandchildren) to a freedom that allows for ethical choice-making. Tubal Cain chooses to subdue the Earth (a choice Aronofsky himself parallels to our active pollution of the environment), while Noah eventually chooses love and the stewardship, empathy and community that it entails.
Another instance of the harmony between the literal and the figurative progression of the movie is Tubal Cain’s ability to sneak onto the Ark. Injured from battle, Tubal Cain (with Ham’s assistance) hides in the Ark – his literal placement amongst the animals of the ark mirrors his figurative choice to side with humanity’s primal, lizard-brain instincts. This culminates in his devouring of an actual lizard (symbols abound!) and the attempted murder of Noah in a scene that bluntly mimics the Cain and Abel image.
However, for all of Noah’s moral and narrative intelligence, it never resolves its uneasy portrayal of women – the complex ethical questioning seems to stop at Noah‘s gender dynamics.
For instance, take Ham’s attempt to save a young, destitute woman – we watch that entire scene with the knowledge that he really (I mean really) desires a wife. This seems to add a darker motive to Ham’s act of kindness, and when he runs back with her, he seems to run with the desperation of having found his coveted object (as opposed to the desperation of wanting to save an innocent person). It’s implicit that he is rescuing her so she can serve as his wife, a position and purpose that she never assents to (and doesn’t need to in the context of the gender dynamics in the film). Obviously it’s Aronofsky’s conscious choice to have Ham find a woman instead of some other sympathetic character, but it seems to remain uninterrogated.
Emma Watson’s character also sees herself as valueless because she cannot reproduce, and instead of having this lead to a challenging of the valuation, her value is restored to her by the old man Methuselah (who has the womb-healing spell, apparently). She also questions Noah’s zealousness and ethics while never questioning the role women are forced to play. Watson’s character succumbs to Noah’s patriarchal authority and asks him to just kill her infant daughters quickly – this authority (and the female adherence to it) is fundamentally unchallenged, which complicates our viewing of many scenes.
One possible resolution to this issue is that, if the movie charts god’s character arc (as Aronofsky has suggested), perhaps the mistreatment of women is a symptom (and thus critique) of god’s fatherhood. This divine patriarchal structure is thus replicated from divinity down to Noah’s own family.
It does, however, remain unfortunate that the film intensely explores the Eden dynamic (our childish adherence to the almighty and the terrible possibilities of knowledge and free will), but leaves another aspect of the Old Testament that is present in the story (its decidedly male obsession with ‘spilled seed’ and the birth canal) unexplored. A story about the last family on Earth would seem to demand a proper interrogation of the male/female relationship.
Aronofsky’s Noah is a brave and fiercely intelligent adaptation of the Old Testament story – the film’s success lies in its ability to use a text that advocates for the virtue of adherence to divine authority to argue for a humanistic, ethical approach to our agency. The movie settles on the questions we should be asking: not those concerned with magnifying our own power, but those concerned with the well-being of others and our planet. The film’s greatest coup is that it turns a religious story into an argument against religious zealousness – Noah’s blind adherence to divine authority nearly results in the death of his granddaughters, and it is only when he realizes that he is free to make his own choices that he chooses love, and life. Thus we get a Biblical epic which tells us that the only moral choices we can make are the ones we make ourselves.