'Noah': Veganism before the flood

Russell Crowe plays a man whose ark is worse than his bite in the vegan-oriented, ecologically progressive film.
Russell Crowe plays a man whose ark is worse than his bite in the vegan-oriented, ecologically progressive film.
Posted: April 11, 2014

I'D HEARD that "Noah" was made animal-free - using no real animals - and I was prepared for a big-budget CGI-happy spectacle, which I got. But I wasn't prepared for what Darren Aronofsky's movie turns out to be - a milestone in blockbuster veganism, in mainstreaming the idea of committed nonviolence.

The stakes are set in the opening seconds: Among quick clips of the Fall is one of a hand reaching for an apple - except that the apple is beating, like a heart, both visually and audibly. Wow! This jaw-dropping mash-up makes us ask whether the real "forbidden fruit," our ancestors' overreaching hubris, was the killing and eating of animals once we knew the difference between good and evil.

The implied violence of that image is replaced with Cain slaying Abel, connecting human-on-animal violence with human-on-human. (Let's note that Aronofsky "adapts" Cain's storied vegetarianism here by blithely ignoring it.)

Noah and his family are introduced gathering berries and other plant foods, as he insists that "we collect only what we need." An ecological ethic, it's also a vegan one: We do need to eat plants to survive - not so with animals.

Early on, Noah finds a hunted, mortally wounded animal, and has to explain to his surprised children that some people actually eat animals - because "they think it makes them stronger." This is very soon followed by Noah delivering an ass-whupping to three homicidal meat-eaters at once, strong as a vegan ox.

Elsewhere, we see Tubal-cain's clan of meat-eaters taking their me-first creed to its logical extreme: They terrorize, capture, subjugate and eat animals, and they terrorize, capture and subjugate people - and, yes, eat that flesh, too. Again, it's clear: Carnage is carnage.

The meat-eating Fall hinted at earlier is literally fleshed out when Tubal-cain talks Noah's rebellious son, Ham, into eating another "forbidden fruit": some of the anesthetized animals that are on board. Tubal-cain rationalizes his casual species-destruction by claiming that we've one-upped the Creator by forcing animals to "serve us."

This speech goes a bit over the top on the evil-villain-meter, but Tubal-cain is actually most disturbing when his words mimic common present-day notions of "being a man" as being willing to kill animals - and humans. Aronofsky shows such "manliness" to be not only arrogant but archaic and self-defeating.

Opening with the Fall, "Noah" later evokes yet another Genesis story. Through these resonant echoes and reshaped archetypes, Aronofsky has, with this one iconic Biblical tale as a springboard, illuminated all of Genesis - all of our stories, in fact, about why we are who we are - to ask how best we turn our most deeply held values and beliefs into action.

It's a real question: Daringly, Aronofsky turns animal-lover Noah unsympathetic as he grows more invested in his dogmatic idea of his mission. Does he really understand what the Creator wants, or has he turned unreliable narrator? I was unsettled here, 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 a world of truth on your side and still err if you fail to live it with compassion.

Nonviolence is not the only message in the film, just the predominant one, interwoven with themes of justice, faith, sacrifice, storytelling, patrilineage and, of course, climate change. Braiding these threads, Aronofsky asks us to seek justice in our everyday interactions with each other, with animals and with the world.

As if to stress that balancing mercy and justice transcends yes-or-no deity questions, Noah is seen asking the heavens for a sign that he's released from the responsibility of a terrible decision. But he doesn't get a sign. The decision belongs to him.

Noah has to choose between good and evil on his own. And that, Aronofsky says, is what we all must do, every time we pick up a fork.

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 14-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.

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