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Apr7ThuWhat can we learn about being human from a movie set in outer space? April 7, 2016 by Aimee Patterson and Michael Boyce
In our culture, films have become a place where we wrestle with the big questions of life. Who is God? What gives life meaning? What does it mean to be human? Reel to Real is a new series that explores the intersection between film and theology, offering thoughtful engagement with an art form capable of conveying deep spiritual truth. Dr. Aimee Patterson, a Christian ethics consultant at The Salvation Army Ethics Centre in Winnipeg, and Dr. Michael Boyce, head of English and film studies at Booth University College in Winnipeg, reflect on The Martian.
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- Opinion & Critical Thought
Can we talk about The Martian? What a great film! Like Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away, it's a story about someone stranded on a deserted island. But in this case, the island is Mars and the person is NASA-astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon), left for dead on the red planet.
Watney, like his crewmates, is well-equipped for space exploration. His extensive scientific knowledge is complemented by psychological stability, tenacity and a remarkable aptitude for problem solving. The movie is heavy on science. Technologies and procedures that movie viewers would have scoffed at even a decade ago are made plausible in the context of a not-so-distant future. Some have called The Martian a story of the battle between humans and the universe.
There are deeper ideas at play here. Watney is alone on Mars. We don't get much of his backstory, which suggests that he was largely alone before the mission to Mars. He has parents, but there is no indication of a spouse, children or non-NASA friends. Ultimately, he claims he is willing to die, alone, for something “big and beautiful and greater” than himself. But in the meantime, we can see that he uses a lot of humour to cope with his looming fate and his ever-present loneliness.
Yet Watney is not alone in the rescue effort. His life matters to NASA personnel beyond any public relations issues they face. His life matters to average people who follow his story and rally to encourage NASA to bring Watney home. The China National Space Agency is inspired to offer up its secret rocket booster, so his life even matters at an international level. Watney's plight encourages reconciliation, relationship building and true concern for a stranger. The message is that we are not meant to be alone.
What's your take on The Martian, Mike?
I was struck by a few aspects of The Martian, and the issues you've raised—about isolation and humanity's need for community—were certainly front and centre. Whenever I watch films, one of the questions I ask is, “What does this film reveal about its cultural context?” In other words, why was this film made at the time it was? Films, literature and art are never made in a vacuum. They always reflect the cultural context of the time in which they were produced.
Much of the film focuses on Watney and his attempt to make a life for himself on Mars, which is often quite monotonous. Then the story shifts dramatically to the group effort to bring him home. The film exposes two unique yet contradictory aspects of isolation: the romanticizing of the lone hero and our fundamental need for community.
The connection you made with Robinson Crusoe is interesting. That's where my mind went, too—the lone survivor of a shipwreck who replicates a kind of civilization. It's an archetypal story of a human's attempt to survive on his own, and to tame the environment to his will. This archetype is replayed over and over in literature and film, from the ancient epics, to the early modern tales of exploration, to westerns, and, in this case, to science fiction. The figure of the “lone” hero is so embedded in our western cultural understanding of power, strength and bravery, that many times we fail to recognize that humans aren't actually supposed to be alone.
And yet, relationships are hard. People disappoint us. Too often, the thought, “I don't need other people; I can do it myself” creeps into our brains. I'll confess to thinking this at times. Many times. And then something profound happens and we realize that we need people, we need relationships. Whether it's someone walking with us in despair or tragedy, or sharing a laugh over coffee, we recognize that we're capable of some pretty powerful and deep connections.
That's why I was so struck with The Martian. While the film initially romanticizes the idea of the pioneering hero, in the end, it utterly deconstructs that notion. In the mission to rescue Watney, in the cheering crowds watching the dramatic rescue unfold, people come together.
One of the other things about The Martian that struck me was the genre. It's science fiction—admittedly, a particular type of realistic sci-fi—which is sometimes (wrongly) dismissed as speculative and fantasy-based. I see people's interest in science fiction and fantasy reflecting a desire to see beyond the scope of our world, to see a larger, more connected and more profound picture of the universe.
Do you have any thoughts on this?
I wouldn't generally describe myself as a fan of science fiction and fantasy. I've only been to one Star Trek convention, and a very small one at that. I do like a number of TV series and films that are set in space. Among my favourites are those that focus on the human passion for exploration and discovery, rather than conquering and colonizing, which I think The Martian captures well.
Today, apocalypse is a popular genre in entertainment. Most contemporary apocalyptic tales are depictions of a day of reckoning that sucks the life out of society and leaves individuals fending for themselves. This trope certainly has made its way into space. So it's refreshing to see a movie like The Martian give the audience something to hope for. Bizarrely, this movie reveals that what humans long for is something we can find here and now on planet Earth.
I'm not saying that human relationships are of ultimate worth. But they are part of what it means to be human. We have been created as beings who need one another and who enjoy each other's company.
We have also been created to look for those who are missing. For instance, when a loved one dies, it can take time for us to stop expecting them to be in the places where they used to work, play and live. Sometimes we look for them even though we know they are gone. This behaviour can be explained in psychological terms. It can also be understood in spiritual ways.
The Martian reminds me of the parable of the lost sheep (see Luke 15:3-7). The shepherd in the story notices a sheep is missing. He goes to great lengths to find it, leaving everything behind—his home, his flock, his livelihood—even putting himself at risk. After the sheep is found and delivered from death, the story ends as the shepherd rejoices together with his friends and neighbours.
Isn't that what we witness when people all over the planet celebrate Mark Watney's deliverance?
Is The Martian the gospel of Jesus Christ? Maybe not. But I know that the example of the good shepherd is not just a metaphor for how Jesus came to earth to seek out lost human beings and save us from death. It's also a teaching: we are all created to seek out the lost and bring them home.
You say you're not a big science fiction and fantasy fan, but you've definitely one-upped me—I've never been to a convention! Did you dress up? Are there pictures? Last night I was out with some friends who are self-confessed geeks. Now, I really like sci-fi/fantasy, but whenever I'm with these people I'm painfully aware that I'm not as serious a fan as I sometimes think. Despite feeling woefully unqualified, here's my response.
One aspect of science fiction that has struck me is the hopefulness you identify in The Martian. While I wouldn't say it's a universal theme of the genre, I'm amazed at how many of the stories are about the hope that there's something more to the world than the everyday stuff we encounter. At times, I wonder if these types of stories appeal to a metaphysical desire to glimpse a grand design, a grand narrative, at work. For all the trappings of technology, it is the need for community, for relationships, that drives so many of these stories.
The connection you've made to the parable of the lost sheep is interesting. As I watched The Martian, another parable came to mind, one that emphasizes the same theme: the Prodigal Son (see Luke 15:11-32). We don't know what caused Watney to volunteer for this mission, but, like the son of the parable, he chooses to separate himself from his loved ones and head out on his own. In the parable, when the boy returns home, his father slays the fatted calf and has a huge block party (at least that's how I imagine it) to let everyone know his son is finally home.
When Watney returns, the whole world rejoices. The lost has been found. The cost doesn't matter. The risk is secondary. Watney is worth saving because he is human.
Not a bad idea for Christians to consider seriously.