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As for other people, the pre-apocalyptic world before the flood looks a lot like the post-apocalyptic world in other movies: Society has collapsed, the weak are starving and there are hints that the strong have resorted to cannibalism. This is dark stuff, but given the movie’s PG-13 rating, we are never really confronted with evil in its visceral horror. Noah’s crew is interrupted only occasionally by the incursions of the unwashed and hungry horde, led by an evil king named Tubal-cain (Ray Winstone) who advocates a philosophy of survival at all costs.
It’s also never clear what Noah and his family eat, how they make clothes or tools, and what they do when they’re not teaming up with the Watchers to build an ark. These may be small details, but omitting them leaves the movie untethered to any kind of reality, especially in an apocalyptic scenario where it’s the details that are often the most terrifying. And for all of the movie’s fancy CGI effects — thanks to a $130 million budget, it is a visually handsome film — the bleak Icelandic landscape where the movie was shot doesn’t make it any more grounded.
As if to compensate for these shortcomings, Aronofsky injects the movie with a string of Big Ideas, which, although potentially compelling, don’t provide any overall coherence. In a sharp swerve away from the biblical message, and in contrast with the survival-first ethos of Tubal-cain, Noah becomes convinced that his mission from The Creator isn’t to restart humanity, but to see it through to its end. Thus, when he discovers that Ila is pregnant with Shem’s child, the ensuing conflict is enough to propel us through the third act.
Here, Aronofsky seems to be alluding a darker kind of philosophy, such as the antinatalism recently popularized by Rust Cohl on “True Detective.” Whether because of Divine command, or the prospect of environmental collapse and our own dark future, maybe “the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight — brothers and sisters opting out of a raw deal.”
It’s an interesting idea, but it makes the inevitable triumph of the alternative — that is, survival — seem like a cop-out. In “Noah,” as in the Bible, humanity begins anew, but the question of cost is washed away by the flood. We may not live in a world of fallen angels, and few of us claim to receive direct messages from God, but that doesn’t mean we won’t have a reckoning of our own. Like the Bible, Aronofsky leaves us with a happy ending, but little reason to believe it will last.
Ezra Glinter is the deputy arts editor of the Forward. Follow him on Twitter @EzraG