(M) Directed by Ridley Scott
Starring Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Bill Pullman
By Mark Hadley
The Martian is an amazing science fiction outing for veteran director Ridley Scott. And some will take it as a hymn to the ingenuity of humanity - a further indication of our small need to look to the Heavens for any assistance. After all, if an astronaut can science his way out of certain death, then what need is there for God? But look closer at the book behind the excellent film and you will discover more room for a benevolent creator than an atheist would be comfortable with.
The Martian introduces Matt Damon as astronaut Mark Watney, an engineer attached to the third manned mission to Mars somewhere in humanity’s not-too-distant future. The five-person crew he’s attached to has only been on the surface of the planet a few days when a fierce dust storm forces their mission to be scrubbed. However when Watney is swept away by flying debris and his bio-monitor destroyed, his comrades believe his heart has stopped and are forced to launch without him. But Mark isn’t dead. He wakes up half buried in sand and realises he is alone on a hostile planet. There are no fanciful aliens gunning for him, just the environment. Almost every aspect of Mars spells death to human beings. Armed with only science and the will to live, Watney will have to find a way to survive the four years before any rescue attempt can reach him – assuming he first discovers how to let earth know he’s still alive.
The Martian is a brilliant story that demonstrates just how wrong the experts can be. Author Andy Weir’s engineering science fiction story was rejected so many times by publishing houses that he eventually decided to give it away online. He must have felt he was also on another planet when it first emerged on the New York Times best-sellers list, and was then optioned to become a Ridley Scott film.
Matt Damon expertly delivers the wise-cracking NASA employee who finds himself in a position that would leave many reaching for the suicide pills. Weir’s hero becomes so used to the ‘first-time’ successes he has to achieve to survive, they become one of the story’s running gags:
“They say once you grow crops somewhere, you have officially ‘colonised’ it. So technically, I colonised Mars. In your face, Neil Armstrong!”
The Martian’s focus is split between Watney’s inspired survival efforts and the worldwide effort to secure his rescue. The result is a thrilling ride that preserves much of the author’s geeky science while advancing a believable theory about what it means to be truly human.
Ultimately, the film suggests, we are a social species that values the life of every single individual:
“Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception. And because of that, I had billions of people on my side.”
Though Watney's remarks speak well of the human race, it’s worth pausing to remember that, despite the film’s scientific triumphalism, this is not a viewpoint that strictly speaking atheists can embrace.
Watney and the world reaching out for him realise that even if he is able to prove his fitness to survive, it won’t amount to life as it was meant to be.
In Genesis 2, we’re allowed to listen in on our Creator’s conversation and learn, “It is not good that man should be alone.” 1 It’s this axiom, and the subsequent struggle to bring Mark home, that makes a two-hour exercise in practical science such an inspiring, encouraging tale.
Yet it’s hard to deny that a truly atheistic version of The Martian would have left Mark to die alone. He is, after all, only one man - so the billions spent trying to engineer his safe return could logically be spent saving the lives of millions of others. There is no sympathy in a world governed by a purely evolutionary outlook. But, from its outset, The Martian reaches for something science rationalism would struggle to quantify.
Of course, this reflection of God’s character doesn’t come close to belief, let alone faith. In Weir’s book, the hero only ever really jokes about God. Fashioning a crude match from a crucifix, Watney displays good-humoured irreverence:
“If ruining the only religious icon I have leaves me vulnerable to Martian vampires, I'll have to risk it.”
Yet in the middle of a story that celebrates human ingenuity and the power of the human spirit, there are suggestions that the publishers who rejected Weir’s book might not be the only experts who get it wrong. The sheer number of ‘lucky breaks’ Watney benefits from amount to a silent argument that there is someone moving behind the scenes. In the original novel, that truth constantly colours the astronaut’s diary entries:
“Thank God all the air lines and valves are standardised across the mission… I’m not sure which god smiled down on me and kept that balloon from popping, but I’m grateful… I do have one thing going for me, and I swear it’s a gift from God. For some geological reason, there’s a valley called Mawrth Vallis that’s perfectly placed.”
We may write about how high the human spirit can rise, both individually and as a species, but God’s thinking and His presence are hard to evade. Audiences will sit on the edge of their seats with NASA’s ground crew hoping Mark will be restored to humanity because, deep down, God has decreed that humanity is a family, not a nation of evolved competitors. And The Martian will make space for repeated doses of ‘luck’ because we also recognise that even Mark’s incredible ingenuity will not be sufficient to save his life. In fact those who long for his safe return unconsciously reflect the value their heavenly Father places on every human being:
“For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” 2
1 Genesis 2:18, NKJV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2%3A18&version=NKJV
2 Ezekiel 18:32, ESV, https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel+18%3A32&version=ESV