At the darkest point of Aronofsky’s Noah, the main character’s wife, Naameh, predicts that he will die alone. “Aged and alone,” she specifies. “That would be just.” This is not how the film ends, but perhaps it should be. So, in part inspired by the method prescribed by film critic Evan Calder Williams, I want to express my appreciation for Aronofsky’s creation by proposing two different ways Noah should have ended.
Naameh is correct about Noah’s deserved fate in this retelling. Alone, of course, is how Noah began life, fleeing after his father is killed by a young Tubal Cain. The villain also steals the symbol of Noah’s birthright as descendant of Adam through Seth: the skin of a snake (we assume the snake). Despite his solitude, much of Noah’s identity stems from his genealogy. The Watcher Og instantly sees Noah’s resemblance to the “frail” man in the garden he once knew. And, from the point of view of later Christian imagery, the ark he builds out of the trees miraculously springing from the waters of the deep is, quite literally, the first fruits of the new creation, making Noah a new progenitor of the race. A caring father for a new world, he gives life like the healing wind featured in his lullaby to his adopted daughter, Ila.
Yet Noah is simultaneously cut off from his heritage. He must make a dangerous trek to visit Methuselah whenever he wants a family reunion. And while he preserves an Edenic ethic of care for creation—he is a strict vegetarian and completely off the urban grid, as it were—he lacks the insight symbolized by the snakeskin. This forebear of the new creation knows he is good, but he does not remember that he is also evil.
One could easily accuse Aronofsky of prescribing a modern, ecological ethic with Noah’s pre-diluvian lifestyle. But in an important sense, this early world is not ours. The global geography that the evil of cities consumes in the opening animation consists of unrecognizable continents (I didn’t even detect Pangaea), and the animal Noah tries to save at the beginning comes from the director’s own cryptozoological imagination. Aronofsky creates this old new world using pitch-perfect midrashic logic and the raw materials left us by interpretive tradition. Similarly, Noah’s lifestyle specifies a unique vision of righteousness (a vague concept the biblical tale forces us to imagine, just as it does the nature of ancient evil.) But the moral lines are clear. Everyone knows who to root for. When Noah informs his family that the rest of humanity will die and “we will get to start again,” they practically giggle in their excitement.
The ark changes everything. Suddenly, it is our world. Noah now tells the creation story in full; the formation of the cosmos is indebted to modern astrophysics and not the blueprint of Genesis 1 that makes the flood possible in the first place. As the montage continues, Cain’s murderous figure morphs into a history of military fashion up to the present, and we are quickly implicated in the humanity screaming outside the ark, clinging to the last mountain peaks. And we deserve it. So much so that, by Noah’s logic, if all humanity is evil, he and his family must die, too, and we must never exist. What makes his family—or us—better than anyone else? The right family? The right diet? The right neighborhood? No, such a cataclysmic reboot must leave no trace of evil. The ark is the emergency hard drive, the last piece of technology to save nature, and it and its coder will perish when it has served to restore the nature humanity had corrupted.
But the ark has (at least) one unexpected stowaway: Tubal Cain. Evil is always with Noah, even when he doesn’t recognize it. While he hatches a plot to destroy the last of humanity, Tubal Cain lurks in the bowels of the ship to plan the end of Noah, as well as God’s new created order. He is his own God, with his own right “to make alive and to kill.” As Tubal Cain battles Noah over who will end up with that right, Noah’s family waits to discover their fortune, and that of humanity. As Noah defeats his rival, Ham, fittingly, ends up the snakeskin, and immediately mentions his girlfriend, one of the many who died in the flood. Here, Ham is the true heir of the Adamic line, remembering evil and commemorating its cost.
After a surprising and unsettling resetting of the Aqedah, the family finds land. And, for a while, Noah is alone, sweating by the toil of his brow just to get drunk by himself, to forget what he has seen and what he has done. But eventually, Noah passes on his birthright—not righteousness, but responsibility—to his remaining family. Godlike, he is at peace with himself and creation, enjoining humanity, once again, to “be fruitful and multiply.” The rainbow passes overhead, a last sign from God. The creator finally stops the destruction and stops speaking.
By the logic of Aronofsky’s creative and evocative retelling itself, Noah’s best guess, that a God who had destroyed 99% of humanity in order to save animals and trees must want to finish the job, made a degree of cold sense. What else are we to make of a “creator” who hits the restart button after ten generations? But in this scenario, Noah would lose his family and, as Naameh predicts, die alone. And this would have been a just ending—mostly because, once Noah was gone, God himself would be alone, deprived of the creature bearing his image, wondering what happened, with his Watchers who outstrip him in compassion looking on with sadness and contempt, just as Ham beheld his father. This is a fitting end for Aronofsky’s God, inspired by Genesis and generations of interpreters, imagined by creatures often too frail for revelation.
2. An Alternate Covenant Scene
But if Noah had killed off his family and died alone, we would miss the biblical conclusion to the tale, the “rainbow covenant” scene. So I’ll imagine another conclusion fitting Aronofsky’s exploration: resting atop the mountain, Noah’s family is surprised to see their deranged patriarch stumble up the slope from his wine cave. He’s wasted (of course), smiling, and mumbling something about “never again, God says, never again.” He’s also holding a bird and a knife; we can even eat meat now! Of course, his traumatized family knows now not to trust Noah’s visions, since they are all too true. But he points to the sky to indicate the mark of this covenant of divine repentance offered by the God of his visions. As usual, Noah has received a sign. But he is the only one who sees it.