Most people who are familiar with the Old Testament of the Bible know the story of Noah, who was chosen by God, or “the Creator” as the deity is referred to in this remarkable film, to give humanity another chance. Except that, in Darren Aronofsky’s version of the story, Noah understands his task differently: not to give humanity another chance, but to end the human line once and for all.
Aronofsky demonstrated his cinematic directorial genius with his highly original neo-noir, Pi (1998) – about a mathematical genius-detective who is searching for the formula that would “explain everything” – followed by a number of acclaimed films, the best of which, to my mind, is Requiem for a Dream (2000), a penetrating cinematic diagnosis of Western society as a society of addiction at several levels. The Fountain (2006) is visually beautiful and a haunting exploration of (literally) undying love, while The Wrestler (2008), which saw the return of Mickey Rourke to the screen, exposes the pitiless world of a professional wrestler relentlessly. Black Swan (2010), in turn, delves disturbingly into the mind of a ballerina descending into psychosis.
Now, with Noah, Aronofsky shows, once again, that the touch of directorial genius can present something as simultaneously old and new. Old, insofar as one cannot fail to recognise the biblical story of Noah, and new, given the contemporaneous twist that the director has given this timeless tale. Undeniably, the question that frames our time today is that of the ecological future of the earth: will things stabilise and the majority of living species survive, or will the deterioration of natural ecosystems continue unabated to the point of cataclysmic extinctions? It is this question that informs Aronofsky’s interpretation of Noah – he has turned it into a marvellous ecological narrative.
This understanding of the story explains why Noah sees his own task as one of assisting the Creator in annihilating a species that has failed dismally in the role of supposed “guardian” of all the plants and animals on the planet. Instead of being a species working to preserve the conditions for all life-forms to flourish, humanity is here depicted (accurately, I believe) as a power-hungry race. This is represented by Tubal-cain, the villain of the story, who tells Noah’s son, Ham, that humans are not there to serve the animals but the other way around: they are there to serve, or be used by, humans.
Aronofsky’s appropriation of this biblical episode resonates unmistakably with modern civilization. He presents humans as the builders of an extensive industrial society that lays waste to forests and grasslands as far as it spreads. This leads the Creator to the decision to eradicate humanity from the earth, but to preserve sufficient numbers of living species to ensure a fresh beginning, as it were. And Noah – who experiences a vision of catastrophic death by water – is entrusted with the massive responsibility of building the vessel which would be instrumental in achieving this prodigious rescue mission.
Importantly, Noah’s understanding of the task entrusted to him by the Creator is that he should contribute his share in what will effectively be genocide. One gets the impression that he arrives at this interpretation when he witnesses cannibalistic practices among Tubal-cain’s followers. As he explains to his family when they are huddled together in the Ark during the deluge, everyone who dies would be buried by the remaining members, and his youngest son would bury those who die before him. However, when Grandpa Methuselah extends his blessing to Noah’s adopted daughter, Ila, who is barren as a result of the attack that killed her family and injured her, he restores her fertility, unbeknownst to everyone until she discovers herself to be pregnant by Shem, Noah’s eldest son.
Predictably, this angers Noah because he sees it as an attempt to thwart the Creator’s intention (as he understands it) of destroying the human race, and he vows to kill the child if it is a girl, to prevent the continuation of the accursed human race. I don’t want to spoil the film for those of you who haven’t yet seen it, so I leave it up to everyone to guess what would happen when Noah, determined to kill Ila’s babies (she has twin daughters), approaches them with his executioner’s knife raised. Suffice to say that, as he showed before in The Fountain, Aronofsky is sufficiently aware of the miracle of life to allow its unsurpassable value to influence his directorial decisions.
Which is more than one can say about the extant human race, and Aronofsky knows it. This is why one can read the film, not merely as the retelling of a familiar story, but as an indictment of industrial society as it exists today, rather than of such a society that supposedly existed in Noah’s time. And I believe that the decision, on Noah’s part, to make sure that members of his family turn out to be the last humans, similarly reflects a judgment and indictment, on the part of the director, of extant humanity as being unworthy of the good earth.
However, just as Noah’s resolve is irresistibly affected by the miraculous sight of his beautiful but fragile twin granddaughters, Aronofsky’s evident assessment of humanity as it comes across in the film is similarly ameliorated by the creation of an opportunity for humanity to survive. After all, he co-wrote the screenplay, and he therefore does hold out some hope, however faint, that there is some redeeming attribute which vindicates human survival.
However, even if my understanding of his reasons for approaching the story of Noah the way he did is right, it does not mean that the apparent tempering of his deep-seated pessimism about the human race is justified. Does one have any reason to suspect that humans will mend their ways regarding the incremental destruction of nature that one witnesses today? Personally, I don’t think so. I believe that we shall see a colossal, if not total, annihilation of nature’s variegated species before those with the power to do something about the destruction wake up to its irreversible reality.
If you think I am unduly pessimistic, just consider the following. In South Africa the eradication of rhinos for their horns – which consist (like human nails) of a substance, keratin, that supposedly cures cancer and gives men superhuman potency – has not abated since the campaign to end the slaughter started. On the contrary, it has intensified. The same is true of the destruction of the most beautiful cats, the tigers, for their bones and (in males) their penises, again for their supposed medicinal properties.
When we recently visited the big cat haven, Jukani, on the Garden Route near Plettenberg Bay, my partner and I were saddened to the depth of our souls to learn from our very knowledgeable guide that there are only about 250 Siberian tigers left in the world, and that they are being hunted down and killed at a rate of about one a week – for their bones – mainly by the Chinese. And because their hunters are aware of their dwindling numbers, their attention is shifting to African lions, also to get their hands on the king of beasts’ “cancer-curing” bones. And some South African lion-breeders are willingly supplying these people with the required numbers of big cats, at a price, of course.
Closer to home, around Port Elizabeth, where we live, the systematic extinction of a species is happening at an alarming rate. Abalone, better known as perlemoen, is taken from the rocks along the coast at a rate which cannot be compensated for by the natural reproduction of the species. And again, it is because of the price that these animals fetch on the illicit market. Doesn’t it chime with Tubal-cain’s misguided advice to Ham in Noah that animals are there for human use, instead of humans being responsible for their well-being? Unfortunately, the message of Aronofsky’s film, that such a cynical attitude to nature is ultimately self-destructive, won’t get through to most people.