The Value of Humanity in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah
Noah, a 2014 film by Darren Aronofsky, is a modern representation of an ancient story – the story of the biblical Noah. The plot of this film revolves around the time spent before, during, and after God’s famous flood. As stated by Noah, the film’s main protagonist, this flood “cannot be stopped. But it can be survived.” In order to survive, Noah and his family construct an enormous ark, designed to hold Noah, Noah’s family, and two of each animal (one male, one female). If the ark survives the flood, life will continue on earth; if not, all life will be decimated beneath God’s waters.
Behind this large-scale plot, the film poses an even larger question: What is the value of life? Specifically, what is the value of human life in comparison to the life of other creatures, such as plants and animals? What value does humanity assign themselves in relation to other creatures, and is this value justified?
Noah explores the value of humanity in the following three ways: humanity is a superior form of life, humanity is an inferior form of life, and humanity is an equal form of life.
Humanity is Superior
Tubal-Cain, a self-proclaimed King and the film’s primary antagonist, wholeheartedly believes in the superiority of human life. After stowing himself away on Noah’s ark, he expresses this superiority by devouring the ark’s animals. Since there are only two members of each species, every animal that Tubal-Cain consumes renders a whole species extinct. In one particularly disturbing scene, Tubal-Cain bites the head off a small lizard, doing so in the presence of Ham (one of Noah’s three sons and the only one who knows about this stowaway). Noah’s whole family consists of vegetarians, and so Ham is shocked at Tubal-Cain’s actions. Ham demands, “What are you doing?” Between bites, Tubal-Cain replies, “They serve us. That is the greatness of men.”
By believing that they (animals) serve us (men), Tubal-Cain perceives humanity as superior. He even claims that God sees men as superior, since God “needed something greater” than animals and therefore made humanity “in his image.” According to Tubal-Cain, humanity’s role is to “take dominion over” other forms of life. Keeping this ideology in mind, it makes sense that Tubal-Cain took dominion over the lizard by devouring the poor thing raw.
Humanity is Inferior
While Tubal-Cain preaches that humanity is superior, Noah gradually starts to preach that humanity is inferior. This belief can be seen through the creation story that Noah tells his family. He describes the creation of plants and animals as a “paradise – a jewel in the Creator’s path.” However, when humanity chose to eat from the forbidden fruit, that paradise was extinguished. Noah continues as follows.
Everything that was beautiful, everything that was good, we shattered. Now, it begins again. Air, water, earth, plant, fish, bird, and beast. Paradise returns. But this time…this time, there will be no men. If we were to enter the garden again, it would only be to destroy it once more. No. The creator has judged us. Mankind must end. Shem and Ila, you will bury your mother and I. Ham, you’ll bury them. Japheth will lay you to rest. You, Japheth, you will be the last man. And in time, you too will return to the dust. Creation will be left alone. Safe and beautiful.
Rather than counting humanity among the creatures that will find new life once the ark finds land, Noah decides that humanity is not worth saving. If humanity enters the new world, “it would only be to destroy it once more.” And so he proposes a disturbing plan; the whole family must bury each other alive.
Who is this family? Initially, the family consists of the following: Noah; Naameh (Noah’s wife); Shem, Ham, and Japheth (Noah’s three sons); and Ila (Noah’s daughter-in-law). However, once Ila discovers that she is pregnant, Noah is faced with a new choice: ensure that the baby survives (enabling humanity to survive), or ensure that humanity doesn’t survive by murdering the child.
To the dismay of many viewers, Noah initially leans toward the latter. He tells Ila, “If you should bear a girl, at the moment of her birth, I will cut her down.” Noah still believes that humanity is inferior, meaning that even his infant granddaughter is not worth saving. Or to be more accurate, his infant granddaughters; Ila ends up giving birth to twin girls. Noah soon discovers these twin girls in the arms of their mother. Ila looks away as Noah holds a dagger above his granddaughters’ heads. The cold blade inches closer to their soft skin. Ila weeps and screams, “Do it quickly!” And then…
Humanity is Equal
Noah leans down to kiss each child on the forehead. He tosses the knife to the side of the arc. He looks up to the skies and says, “I cannot do this.”
Why couldn’t Noah kill the infants? In a later scene, Ila asks Noah that exact question: “Why did you spare them?” Noah replies, “I looked down at those two little girls, and all I had in my heart was love.” Rather than designating humanity as inferior or superior, Noah decides that humanity and all other creatures are equally worth saving. All creations are worthy of a new beginning.
This perspective is not unique to Noah. Another character in the film values both human life and the life of other creations (rather than valuing one over the other). This character is Naameh.
While Noah struggles over whether or not humanity is worth saving, Naameh never doubts the value of human life, providing a crucial contrast to Noah’s constant doubts. As Noah tells Naameh that their family must die, she replies, “They’re children. They’re our children, Noah. Have you no mercy?” This mercy is not only shown to animals through the family’s commitment to vegetarianism; it is also shown through the love that Naameh consistently exhibits for her family. When Noah accuses Naameh of wanting to undermine the Creator, Naameh defends that she only wants “to give our children a future. To give humanity a future.” Long before Noah decides to spare his grandchildren, Naameh decides that humanity – and all other creations – are equally worthy of mercy, love, and a future.
Aronofsky, Darren, dir. Noah. 2014. Paramount Pictures, 2014. DVD.
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