The Martian opened this weekend, or as I like to call it: Castaway II: Lost in Space. The premise of the movie is simple: a man, thought dead by his crew, is left on the red planet by himself. He has a bunch of scientific gadgetry, botany skills, and unrelenting human spirit, and those three components mingle to develop quite the MacGyver situation. A really, really smart MacGyver. Despite his braininess, Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, keeps things light by downplaying his plight throughout and adding quips like, “I’m going to have to science the s#$@ out of this.” While Watney does just that in order to stay alive, NASA is doing all it can to send a cosmic life-raft before time runs out on Watney.
Of course, a big budget space thriller featuring a lot of big names and Ridley Scott as director brought moviegoers out in droves. And as a member of that audience, as it should always be, it is important not to merely “like” or “dislike” a film, but also evaluate the worldview behind it. In this way, one can use art to build one’s own belief system, or spot the prevailing cultural narratives of the day. The Martian was rife with theological statements . . . here are the subtle thought currents that ran underneath the drama . . .
The Bad . . . Okay, so calling this “the bad” is pretty dogmatic of me, but this is from my Christian viewpoint. If you are not a Christian, you would disagree with my assessment and probably heartily endorse the heavy-handed message of the film—and of most films these days. That message was this: Mankind can (and will) do anything. Near the end of the movie a character says to a class of training astronauts that there will come a moment up there in space when everything will fall apart, and an astronaut has to decide, “I am not going to die today and get busy solving the problem.” This is the not-so-underlying message of the film: Mankind can do anything. If we get enough bright minds on a problem—any problem—we can beat life and cheat death. With this kind of humanistic thinking—the stuff of the Enlightenment evolved into our modern progressive idolatry—it is hard to determine where God fits in. Fortunately, The Martian doesn’t leave us in suspense. Prior to a particularly ambitious rescue launch, one mission control worker asks a NASA bigwig, “Do you believe in God?” He answers that his father was a Hindu and his mother was a Baptist so he, “Believes in something.” To which the questioner responds, “Well, we’ll take all the help we can get.” In this sentiment, one hears the anthem of the day: Humans are the pinnacle of the cosmos. We can solve all the problems. We can take care of ourselves. And someday we will create the progressive society we all dream about. (And on our especially lofty endeavors, God can even come along and help tug the rope a little, as long as He doesn’t get in our way.)
The Good . . . This movie is full of human ingenuity—both in its plot but also in its cinematography. Human beings truly are delightful, but this is true predominately because God Himself delights in us: we cannot fall in love with ourselves independently . . . it would be like a sculpture boasting of its own form, while the ignored artist looks on, shaping tool still in hand. Imago Dei is the Christian doctrine that says mankind is created in God’s image, and as such when we use logic, solve problems, find creative solutions, when we do any bit of goodness, we are, as John Calvin would say it, “pouring forth God”—we are releasing and revealing a goodness that mirrors our Creator in some small way. This should be a celebrated thing, but only when it remains firmly hitched to God. The Martian pretty clearly severs this tie. In fact, in one scene early in the film, the main character must carve a small crucifix in order to make kindling for a fire that will sustain him . . . pretty direct symbolism there.
Another good, at the heart of the film (like most films), is the theme of salvation. In this case, a man very clearly toils on a planet doing all the good he can, but ultimately, no matter how well he does, he is going to die unless an outside force saves him. None of his works will actually get him what he so craves: life. It is funny that in a film that serves as a mostly humanistic treatise, has salvation and redemption—the very thing seen in the Cross of Christ and subtly longed for in the heart of every person—as the hinge on which the movie hangs. Watney can science a live-able existence on Mars for a time, but eventually death will come and he needs a savior.
Overall, I thought this was a good film. It is not one that will win a bunch of awards—even cinematography accolades will likely escape it with some of the movies to come—and it won’t be one that sticks in memory or is talked about in years to come: your grandkids won’t ever see it. But it is entertaining. There is enough humor to keep a harsh subject and terrain light enough, and though it has some Armageddon-esque campiness, it is of a more sophisticated sort, and well-acted enough to get by with.
Like most films, it is not so much about what is in it, but more so what is in me when I watch it. I’m thankful for the film because, as I watched it, I got to witness the predominant Western worldview and weigh that against God’s metanarrative. Though it was a movie made by an atheist with secular themes, it stirred my affection for Christ, allowed me to learn about a potential worldview of my fellow human, and, in the end, was a film featuring the gospel: no matter what gifts and abilities and ethic a man has, he is still in desperate need of a savior.