Early in Darren Aronofsky’s new movie, Noah, the title character, played by Russell Crowe, comes across an antediluvian beastie, a cross between a dog and an armadillo. The beastie snarls because there’s a broken-off assegai tip in its flank, but Noah wins its trust and soothes it before it expires. Since Noah is famous as the Biblical patriarch who saved animals, a moviegoer might be forgiven for looking forward to more such scenes of human-animal interaction. Will there be an explanation about why the dogadillo didn’t make it on to the ark? Will Noah have to talk a lioness out of disemboweling an okapi on board? Will there be trilobites?
Uh, no, it turns out. Pairs of animals do stream onto Aronofsky’s ark under divine instruction, as calmly and trustingly as if Temple Grandin had designed their on-ramp, but once the creatures are in their berths, the Noah family wafts a censer of magical burning herbs, and presto, change-o—all the animals fall asleep. One of the most charismatic elements of the Noah story—in the opinion of most people under the age of six, the most charismatic element—is quietly euthanized. A stowaway descendant of Cain, looking very much like an escapee from Pirates of the Caribbean, does bite the head off of a dormant rodent and gnaw upon it with much sententious commentary, and a few implausible-looking CGI birds are deputized to scout for land, but apart from these brief episodes, the ark might as well be empty.
Aronofsky’s difficulty with animals is oddly systematic. He gets pretty much everything about the Biblical history of vegetarianism wrong. In the movie, descendants of Cain kill and eat animals with gory glee, a sign of the sinfulness of their tribe. In fact, though, Cain was into vegetables. Cain offered God the fruits of his fields—his trouble was that God preferred the smell of his brother Abel’s offering of burnt livestock (mmm, bacon). Aronofsky also garbles Noah’s position on the question. In the director’s telling, Noah abstains from meat as a matter of sensibility as well as principle. In the Bible, however, Noah is the world’s first meat eater. Everyone was vegetarian before the Flood. Not long after the ark settled on Mount Ararat, God gave Noah the right to eat animals as well as exercise dominion over them. God doesn’t quite say why, but the implication seems to be that once Noah demonstrated responsibility for the animals, he could be trusted with a new authority over them.
But only one aspect of the natural world seems to interest Aronofsky: the survival of humans. The movie’s most egregious distortion comes in an early intertitle, when the descendants of Cain are said to have created an “industrial civilization” that God thinks it best to destroy. The Bible does mention a Cain descendant known for metallurgy, but industrial civilization is no older than the eighteenth century, and it seems patent that Aronofsky is playing on the contemporary audience’s fears of how human-generated climate change might end the world as we know it.
Hollywood being Hollywood, Aronofsky makes those fears personal. In the Bible, Noah’s three sons board the ark with wives of their own. In the movie, only one of his sons has a wife, and she’s barren, and Noah is under the impression not only that God intends for the human race to go extinct but that it’s Noah’s job to make sure it does. Aronofsky assimilates Noah’s story to the story about Abraham and Isaac; the conservationist turns out to have it in for his own species and even his own germ line. Tearful pleas to Noah ensue: let there be grandchildren.
I confess that as a middle-aged vegetarian homosexual who is not interested in adopting, I found the urgency that the movie purported to feel about this issue calculatedly spurious. Not eating meat, not having children: in my personal experience these are not choices that cause much, or even any, anxiety in daily life. The actor playing Ham is exceptionally foxy, but sorry as I was to imagine that he might not convey his genes to a later generation, I couldn’t get that worked up about the personal angle. Don’t you want our sons to be happy? Noah’s wife wails, evidently having failed to read any of the New York Times articles about how marital happiness drops significantly after the first child and precipitously after the second.
When she adds that she couldn’t bear the thought of her youngest son dying alone, it seems a low blow to the unpropagated in the audience—but not a blow that necessarily hits home. Dying is going to be unpleasant for all of us, and I for one am not sure it won’t go better if unobserved. I should clarify here that I might well be induced to find the end of the human race troubling. But if I did, it would be because such a termination would undermine the meaningfulness of many human endeavors, even those by people like me who expect to have no descendants. Not because I personally, or anyone else personally, would lack descendants. It’s arguable, in fact, that the human cause is furthered if some of us choose not to procreate. Noah was incapable of such abstractions. Watching it came to feel, after a while, a little like having dinner with a carnivore who keeps asking for reassurance that I don’t disapprove of his ordering fried chicken. Eat your chicken, have your babies. Let me eat my lentils in peace, and let’s talk about something else.
Is there any ideology in the mishmash? The flavoring of the movie is from a venerable populist recipe: push radicalism to a discrediting extreme, then pull the viewer back, with sentiment, to the comfortable middle-of-the-roadism that he began with. Maybe there’s a clue in the movie’s most notable invention, the Watchers. These are animated congeries of boulders with glowing eyes, said to be fallen angels who regret having helped humans create the aforementioned industrial civilization. The Book of Genesis does mention giants, whom I always understood as introducing a modicum of exogamy into a storyline that otherwise implied rather a lot of incest, but Aronofsky’s Watchers are concerned with production rather than reproduction. It’s largely they who build the ark. Did Noah need their help? He lived more than six hundred years; he had plenty of time on his hands for labor. Why would it be hard to believe he could build an ark? Why would it be any harder than believing in, say, the unexplained, spontaneously occurring granola that his family seems to have no shortage of?
Aronofsky thought his Noah needed Watchers, to judge by the screen time he gives them. They’re animated in a style that looks like it’s of Davey and Goliath vintage. Maybe they represent the assistance of computerized imagery in moviemaking: Their aid, when first introduced, expanded human power, but the power has enabled the greedy among us to lay waste to the world, until today, when, under an inspired leader … You know the drill. The movie becomes a parable of video-gamification, as so often happens with science fiction these days. The old world of nature will be recreated in a new ark of technology. In the event, though, the technology-created world never does resemble the one it replaces. The technologists can’t resist taking a bite of the apple of improvement. The structure is made a little larger. The animals are more securely immobilized. They’re packed in more tightly. And pretty soon it’s hard to tell the difference between an ark and a factory farm. Try some of the squirrel.
Caleb Crain is the author of Necessary Errors.