Top Five Environmental Themes in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah

Rachelle Peterson

Creative interpretation or heretical imagination?

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah has gratified and riled various enclaves among the religious—on the first count for treating a sacred text and divine miracle seriously, and on the second count for taking significant liberties with that text and turning God into a passive, deistic Creator who seems to care less for the state of mankind than the earth-inhabiting fallen angels do. The literal Torah account plays second fiddle to character development (perhaps, for some characters, even redefinition) and to a number of surprising plot twists.  

One of those twists is a reinterpretation of the text as an environmental tract, with Noah as an early environmental sustainability prophet. One might have thought Noah’s tale the least likely to become a platform for preaching eco-consciousness. After all, God orders a wholesale destruction of the natural world. Wouldn’t Elijah, who spends part of his career secluded near a stream and fed by a raven, be a better fit?

Nevertheless, here are Noah’s top five environmental intrusions into the biblical textual account:

1. Man’s primary sin is that of destroying the environment.

The film recounts for the audience the tale of Noah’s ancestors, all the way back to Adam and Eve, but in the film version, there seem to be two Original Sins: Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit, and Cain establishing cities. It’s the second sin that shapes the world in which Noah finds himself and that infects humanity with the avarice and violence that induce the flood. Cain’s metropolis spreads like an ink blot across the entire earth. His descendants hunt animals, strip-mine the earth, and in their greed raze the foliage until the planet decays into barren, desolate ground. Only Seth’s descendants (portrayed in Noah’s family) live attuned to nature as wandering, tent-dwelling vegetarians.  On screen, a handful of scenes portray the human violence that Cain’s progeny exert against each other. But we see numerous shots of their iniquitous iron furnaces, primitive machines, and semi-industrialized manufacturing.

2. God prefers animals to humans.

Noah’s visions of a flood and his conviction to build an ark stem from his duty to protect the animals, not to preserve a remnant of humanity. He tells his sons that the ark is for “the innocent—the animals.” When Noah teaches his children the story of creation, he tells them that at the end of each day of creation, God said that “it was good.” But he neglects to tell them that after the creation of man, God added an adjective to his declaration:  “It was very good.” And after the flood, when in the biblical account God authorizes mankind to eat meat, in the film, “The Creator,” as God is called, is silent. Presumably Noah’s family remains vegetarian. 

3. Man is an unwelcome intrusion on the environment.

Noah sees the flood as God’s way to get rid of the sinful resource-draining humans. Noah numbers off his children and grooms Japheth for his job as “last man” who will bury his older brother. When his pregnant daughter-in-law gives birth aboard the ark, Noah intends to murder her twin girls. He repents and spares them, but only because his love overwhelms him, not because God tells him to.

4. Taking dominion over the earth means ravaging it.

In Genesis, God gives a “creation mandate” to Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it.” In the film, after the waters recede and the ark rests on the mountaintop, Noah—not God—repeats this mandate to his family once more. But in this second version, Noah leaves off the injunction to “subdue.” In the movie, the only character who ever recites the entirety of creation mandate is Tubal-Cain, the evil king of Cain’s offspring who takes the word “subdue” (along with “dominion”) to mean tyranny as he plunders the earth.

5. Man’s task is to reduce his environmental footprint.

One of the initial scenes of the film shows Noah and his family scraping lichen off rocks and gathering food to eat. Ham picks a flower—to a sharp reprimand from Noah. “We only take what we can use, what we need,” Noah rebukes him. Those opening lines foreshadow much of the conflict between the descendents of Cain—unchecked materialist consumers—and the descendents of Seth. The movie shows no virtuous mean between gluttony and mere subsistence; taking pleasure in creation, even picking a flower, has no place.

The environmental overtones were intentional. Aronofsky chose to digitally generate the ark’s animals, because, as he told PETA, “it would be very questionable to start taking sentient creatures and sticking them on a set… It’s kind of against the actual themes of the film.” Accordingly, the cast party in Central Park at the movie launch featured a vegan spread.

Aronofsky himself sees the movie as an environmentalist sermon of sorts, with anthropogenic global warming as our latest evil to combat. "The water is rising, and we already saw it once," he commented to CNN on the supposed climate effects predicted by the United Nations. “We are living the second chance that was given to Noah.”

Image: Public Domain

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