PRE-RELEASE FILM ESSAYS
In an environmental apocalypse, the earth convulses. The normal functions of nature and its ecosystems, like tides, seasons, and weather patterns, go into overdrive and spin out of control. Tides become aquatic assaults, winds become battering rams, the varieties of earth surface heave like a bomb going off – and depending on the severity, plate tectonics open up magmatic pits of fire. This is the stuff of religious apocalypse. The tumult of a world in chaos and the hellfire of Hades.
In Noah, the titular character travels to Methuselah to discern the meaning of his apocalyptic dream. Because he saw the world submerged in water, Noah corrects Methuselah’s assumption that world-destruction would occur by fire. This is what we might expect from the Sodom & Gomorrah variety of biblical destructions. This is also, incidentally, what we should expect in the arid and prone-to-drought landscape of Palestine, where the trick of using a concave piece of glass to intensify the sun could easily start a forest fire, if there was even a forest to burn down. Abraham did not travel down to Egypt for water for nothing. Isaac didn’t have to struggle to reopen the wells of his father because he felt like making his life harder. It’s a big deal when Moses makes water come from a rock to quench the thirst of those wandering in the desert. There’s a reason Bible movies are usually called “Sand and Sandal” films; the biblical patriachs did not need wetshoes made by Keen.
Water is scarce; The Flood is an extremely fantastic apocalypse for a locavore in ancient Israel. This had to have played in Judea like a total fantasy blockbuster story. Imagine…an ancient Israelite listening to the story of the flood, a story that originated in Sumer, between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where irregular flooding was common. In comparison, by the time the blockbuster got to Israel, it was like Star Wars, it might as well have been set in outer space. The flood story was fantastic in Israel. It’s genre was sci-fi.
When Methuselah asks, Noah reports a world drowning in water. Genesis, as Noah, does not portray the entire interconnected ecosystem of the planet going out of whack. The story is singularly interested in a cataclysm of water. This is because the Genesis Flood is cosmic in scope; it is not just a really bad storm or one of the Weather Channel’s biggest occasions for sending poor correspondents into harm’s way for a great tv shot.
The Flood is a climate event: unusual in its force (the fountains of the deep burst forth), colossal in its scope (covered the mountains) and exaggerated in its duration (150 days, or long enough for Ila to bring her pregnancy to term). The windows of heaven that were supposed to allow rain to fall in good measure explode open for months. Returning the world, so recently created out of Genesis 1’s watery beginnings, back to its watery state of chaos, the infrastructure of the ancient climate fails.*
This water business is rooted in historical imagination. In the ancient Mesopotamian and biblical world, the conception of the cosmos was almost like an air bubble – inside a firm base of land floating and a fixed umbrella of ‘firmament’ holding back a universe of water. “Waters above and waters below” (cf. Gen 1:7) give us an amniotic feeling about human habitation. And much like a womb, reality is birthed in pangs. If Genesis 1 inseminates that world, Genesis 6-9 wrenches it forth from the contracting screams of a mother. Ila (Emma Watson’s character), birthing two daughters as the flood waters recede and the sun comes out, screams like a cosmos trying to make something come to life. Is this world good from inception? Is the image of God, like fetal DNA, worth saving? Should it be allowed to come to term? Will it ever be good once birthed?**
Apocalypses depict ends and beginnings. They are often fairly obvious accounts of something bad that needs to be destroyed and something good that is struggling to emerge. Most contemporary apocalyptic films about weather events focus on the later, giving us the strong white middle class hero who overcomes fantastic adversity to save his family and the people who are capable of making the world the way it really ought to have been from the start. The good struggling to emerge from weather's throes is central on our Hollywood stage.
Noah devotes its most basic message to the opposite pole of apocalyptic ‘revelation.’ Aronofsky gives us the world gone bad…along with a clear message about what requires retributive justice and needs to be destroyed. Man. Man is at fault for building evil cities, incarcerating innocent victims, hacking animal carcasses with no remorse for the life taken, overworking the land, making the mastery of war paramount. This is the dominion side of man. The side that is powerful, that can conquer nature as a matter of will, and over-identifies with the imago Dei. Man as gods – something not to be confused with the human person made of clay and called to steward the gardens.
Like any good apocalypse, the imagistic and semiotic story gains heft when set into the gravity of a specific time and place. Are we not given pause to think about the meat industry in this country? The one which pumps limp, flagging animals with growth hormones so they fill out the constrictions of their pens. Are we not given pause to ask, why is the mastery of war so much more important to us than the tending of seeds? Are we not given pause to think about why American cities incarcerate the poor at an alarmingly superlative rate? For Noah, this world needs to end; it sprouts from “every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts: evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The moral vision posed by this apocalypse, forces us to examine the world that drowns in the flood. The vision asks: at what point are you able to forgive it? Hopefully not any too soon.
Noah would never forgive that world. He took a radical stand against extravegent human dominion. His is a moral stand. He refused to participate in the cities of Cain. He despaired of their capacity to change. I recently read about a modern day climate scientist who, with 30 years at UN level organizations, decided that humanity is obdurate. Similar to Noah, he despaired of timely action to avert climate change. So he gave up. He took his family to a remote and hyper-insulated compound, where, like the Genesis Noah, he plans to survive the coming environmental devastation.
Aronofsky's Noah, in contrast, is barely willing to save his family. His environmental agenda seeks to rid the planet of human enterprise altogether. Lacking humans, the environment can achieve a balance that promotes flourishing of animals and plants.
Nature will reject parasites, but her forces are impersonal and undiscerning. Noah adopts the logic of nature, but achieves moral precision. He could choose to return to an insular Eden (a possibility given him by the seed from Methuselah). Indeed, the streams from Eden made some positive impact of the parched landscapes through which it flowed. Noah could have built irrigation systems and reservoirs. But instead, he used that Edenic seed to grow lumber for his ark. In partial defiance of the indiscriminate logic of nature, in whose hands the innocent together with the wicked would perish in a flood, Noah's vessel would push through a mass-cleansing of the planet as an emissary of its rightful inhabitants: the animals.
Only after the climate event did Noah discover mercy and love, a love that presaged a world with man in it. The cosmic womb brought her younglings to term, and Noah saw that, like an infant, he knew little about the nature of this new world. How would they do better? Why would things be different? The movie dictates almost nothing on these matters.
But we are left with a reflection on human corruption. And mercy granted too soon is just toleration of evil. Noah's environmental apocalypse gives us the possibility of mercy, but only after the climate has changed.
* Incidentally, Aronofsky’s Noah imagines Genesis 1 beginning from nothing: the Big Bang. It does not follow Genesis 1:2 where God sweeps over water. Instead, the Creator sweeps over the universe. Aronofsky left out the watery origins. I don’t think this affects the powerful symbolic function of water in Aronofksy’s film. Rather, the Genesis 1 Big Bang was a fantastic inversion of the Hellenistic Christian idea of the world created ex nihilo, a world that more resembles Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and far less the 7-day creation position of Ken Ham.
** The cosmic pregnancy metaphor crops up in biblical and para-biblical tradition about cataclysmic events. Isaiah describes a changing of worlds: “Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is hear her time, so were we because of you, O LORD” (Isa 26:17).