How do you make a movie involving an ark filled with animals that doesn't use a single real animal? My interest in Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" was piqued when I heard this detail about its production, then heightened when I learned the spread for the movie's premiere was vegan.
When I saw some grumbling about the vegan director ticking people off by injecting such elements into the telling of this hallowed story, I had to check it out, and I'm back to report that yes, "Noah" is indeed, gopherwood-wall-to-gopherwood-wall, vegan propaganda.
As a work of art, it probably misses being a "great" movie, saddled as it is with "big-budget Hollywood spectacle" tropes. It is, however, definitely a milestone in blockbuster veganism, in mainstreaming the vegan idea, weaving it through related issues - justice, faith, sacrifice, masculinism, militarism, climate change, violence, nonviolence and storytelling - that make for a moving and thought-provoking experience for anyone who's paying attention.
The stakes are set in the film's opening minute: Among quick clips accompanying the story of the Fall we see a hand reaching for an apple - except the apple is beating, like a heart, both visually and audibly. This is a jaw-dropping visual and philosophical mashup, implying that the real "forbidden fruit," the arrogant behavior that led to our current fallen condition, was killing and eating animals once we knew the difference between good and evil.
Indeed, Noah and his family are introduced gathering berries and other plant foods, as Noah admonishes them "we collect only what we need." An ecological ethic, this is also a vegan one: We need to eat plants to survive, but we don't need to eat animals. For the wisest member of the family, berry-eating turns into an epic, life-affirming quest, as if to underscore that literal fruit was not forbidden, and what was "forbidden" was not, in fact, a fruit.
The violence inherent in the opening hand-on-heart image is followed immediately by that of Cain slaying Abel - connecting man's violence vs. animals to his violence vs. himself - and Aronofsky "adapts" the somewhat contrary element of Cain, the killer, being a vegetarian by completely omitting it. (He also conveniently omits God's explicit allowance of non-veganism after the flood, a passage that would be dissonant if included, but which does show that through this portion of the Biblical story, Noah must have been vegan.)
Early on, Noah's values and his sense of justice are expressed in his bid to save a hunted, mortally wounded animal, at which point he has to explain to his surprised children that some people actually eat animals - because "they think it makes them stronger." This is immediately followed preceded by Noah delivering an ass-whooping to three homicidal meat-eaters at once, showing he's plenty strong without consuming flesh.
Meanwhile, Tubal-cain's clan of meat-eaters follow their ethos to its logical extreme. They terrorize, capture, subjugate and eat animals, and likewise they terrorize, capture and subjugate people - and yes, eat that flesh too. Again human-on-human carnage is equated with that of human on animal.
This meat-eating version of the Fall is rendered more explicit later when Tubal-cain talks Noah's rebellious son Ham into eating another "forbidden fruit": some of the anesthetized animals that are on board. (Doing so, I'm betting, is repulsive to most moviegoers, for reasons they might want to examine.) Tubal-cain rationalizes his food choice by exalting human supremacy - our outpacing the Creator by forcing animals to "serve us."
Tubal-cain serves as an at times too-convenient mouthpiece to express the twisted "logic" of animal subjugation. This speech goes a bit over the top on the evil-meter (and movie-meter) but he's not always cranked up to 11, and in fact is most disturbing when his words echo mainstream present-day discourse. His equating being a man with being willing to kill another man (which, again, he underscores by killing another animal) is almost indistinguishable from, and thus a poignant parody of, the might-makes-right "be a man" garbage that young boys are fed 24/7 by nearly every culture on the planet.
One last Fall connection is the snakeskin (from The Snake itself), brought forward as a relic of patriliny. It's no accident that this patriarchal signifier is, at the end, applied for the first time to females. Tubal-cain's macho exceptionalism has been eradicated, and it is women who have helped to accomplish that, setting the stage for a new, more nurturing humanity going forward.
Finally, if anyone missed the point of the human/animal equation, Aronofsky shows us footage of animal families while Noah talks explicitly about the choice between killing vs. love - a choice, we're given to understand, that each of us has to make, using our (accursed) knowledge of the difference between doing good and doing wrong.
This casts straight back to the heart/apple image, and the story's climax casts forward to another Genesis story, inverting it as well. Through these echoes, congruence and foreshadowing, Aronofsky has done something more radical and subversive than most of the film's protesters even get: With this one iconic Biblical tale as a springboard, he's illuminated all of Genesis - all of our stories, in fact, about why we are who we are - asking how best we turn our most deeply held values and beliefs into action.
This questioning is spurred by the risky move of turning Noah unsympathetic as he becomes more invested in his dogmatic interpretation of his mission, and more seemingly wrongheaded: Does he really understand what the Creator wants, or has he become an unreliable narrator? I was unsettled by this turn myself, but it pays off - both in setting up the story's climax and in warning all of us - vegans very much included - that you can have all the truth in the world on your side and still err if you push it to an extreme that lacks compassion.
As mentioned, the vegan imperative is artfully woven into other themes - this isn't the only message in the film, just the predominant one. Many reviews point to the obvious parallel with our climate-change crisis and the need for serious environmentalism, usually throwing in the be-nice-to-animals thing as a mere example of Noah's "green" ethic. This is looking through the lens from the wrong side: Aronofsky makes clear that the first step, not the last, to balancing our relationship with the world is to address our relationship to animals and to seek justice there just as we seek it among ourselves.
He also indicates that the question of how to do so transcends that of whether morality is backed up by an actual deity: Noah asks the heavens for a sign that he's released from the responsibility of a decision he doesn't want to make. But he doesn't get a sign. The decision turns out to really be up to him.
He has to choose between good and evil on his own. And that's what Aronofsky is suggesting that we all have to do, every time we pick up a fork.
UPDATE 5/20: Having seen the movie a second time, I realized that in the 7th paragraph I had the chronology of 2 scenes backwards. This is now corrected.