04/07/2014 05:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Ethics of 'Noah': Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Aronofsky


Photo used with permission.

If you march into a theater to see Noah and expect a pleasant Bible story for the whole family, you obviously don't realize how deadly serious Darren Aronofsky takes this fable. For all his flippancy about how the movie is the "least biblical biblical film ever made," he's apparently spent a great deal of time studying the Bible. And he's extracted a gut-punching morality tale that ranks among the most interesting films the Bible has directly inspired. One could go on for hours about the artistic decisions he makes, along with his understanding of the story's religious tradition, but I'm more interested in the moral text of this film. Be warned: spoilers ahead.

For starters, Noah is portrayed as an ethical vegan. (The Genesis source text acknowledges pre-flood Noah as a vegetarian but doesn't explicitly reference whether he uses animals for other means.) His entire family is also vegan. For those unfamiliar with ethical veganism, it is the position that animals exist as agents unto themselves, and are not to be exploited by humans for any purpose. To put it in more relatable terms: We are animals and should treat all of them as we would the ones who are members of our species. Noah's family arguably shows non-humans a bit more consideration due to their vulnerability, much as many people show children and elderly folks.

The early distinction between good and evil people is made on the basis of rejecting animal exploitation. Upon seeing a wounded creature die for food at the hands of a villain, Noah's son asks why anyone would kill an animal to consume its carcass. Noah's quietly disgusted response: They think it makes them stronger. In case you miss the message, the next two hours are a complex meditation on the value of life.

So how does the film get around a genocidal god if this is a story about the value of life? Abstractly. The Creator's actual power is never defined. We hear the story of his creative wonder told alongside images of evolution. So we get the idea this is a god with the power of life and death, but perhaps not much else. He seems unable to interfere beyond wide actions of either propagation or destruction. Even communicating with Noah seems a struggle. This leaves the Creator widely defined to a point that makes assigning him ethical agency little more than conjecture. It's a smart move by Aronofsky, whose obvious goal is to discuss our ethics.

Unlike the Creator, humans are quite literally drowning in their own agency. The descendants of Cain are shown as violent monsters. Their early disrespect for non-human life evolves throughout the film into an antagonism for all life rooted in extreme egoism. The problem: Egoism is never socially sustainable. These environment-pillaging men are shown trading women for food and devolving into a devastating chaos that cannot support their own community structure.

Lest Aronofsky be accused of misanthropy, he channels a running discussion on the worth of humans through his conflicted Noah. As our gentle hero witnesses the violence around him, he begins to go insane from anger, convinced that his life isn't worth saving. In fact, he becomes literally murderous, planning to off his own grandchild to keep humans from continuing and committing further atrocities against an Earth that would be better off without them.

When one becomes convinced the film is about to plummet into a despairing worldview, Noah looks into the face of his grandbabies and is overcome with love. He rejects violence on the spot, even though convinced the Creator wants him to kill the babies. This is perhaps the most subversive element of the film: Noah is willing to defy even the Creator if it means committing an act not based in love.

In the beginning of the film, we see Noah prevent one of his sons from picking flowers. He explains that we should only ever take what we need. As the film wraps, the audience is reminded that if they don't find a way to embody love and reject exploitation with their second chance, the Creator isn't going to do a damn thing about it. Noah was given a merciful opportunity to reboot his species into something good. And we're all just descendants of the ark-builder who've clearly forgotten the message.

This atheist suggests everyone take some notes from Aronofsky's Noah.