The Martian is an amazing science fiction outing for veteran director Ridley Scott that some will take as a hymn to the ingenuity of humanity and 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 film and you will discover more room for a benevolent creator than an atheist will 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 scrubs their mission. 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. Only Watney 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 today’s science, Watney will have to find a way to survive for four years before any hope of rescue – assuming he first discovers how to let Earth know he’s still alive.
The Martian’s focus is split between Watney’s inspired survival efforts and the worldwide effort to secure his rescue. The geeky science gives way to a theory about what it means to be truly human. The film suggests we are a social species that ultimately values the life of every individual more than the benefits they return:
“Every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will co-ordinate 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 this speaks well of the human race it’s worth pausing to remember that, despite the film’s scientific triumphalism, it’s not, strictly speaking, a viewpoint atheists can embrace. Watney and the world reaching out for him realise that survival isn’t enough. 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.” It’s this axiom, and the subsequent struggle to bring Watney 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 Watney to die alone. There is no sympathy in a world governed by a purely evolutionary outlook. He is, after all, only one man and the billions spent trying to engineer his safe return could logically be spent saving the lives of millions of others. But from the outset The Martian reaches for something scientific rationalism struggles to quantify.
Of course, this reflection of God’s design doesn’t come close to belief, let alone faith. In Weir’s book the hero only ever really jokes about God. Fashioning a 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 a story that celebrates human ingenuity and the power of the human spirit, the number of “lucky breaks” amount to a silent argument there is someone moving behind the scenes.
We may write about how high the human spirit can rise 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 Watney is restored to humanity because deep down God has decreed that humanity is a family, not a planet of evolved competitors. And The Martian will make space for repeated doses of “luck” because we also recognise that even Watney’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.”More