The Martian: Ode to Humanism

[Some spoilers ahead.]

Throughout its two hours and twenty-two minutes of near non-stop tension, The Martian brims with one consistent message: humanity, through science, can accomplish anything.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon), an astronaut, is stranded on Mars when his crew is forced to evacuate in a sandstorm they know they can't survive.  On their way to their escape, Watney is separated from the group by a piece of debris that catches him and throws him into the storm.  The commander tries to find him, but ultimately the crew is forced to leave him there, presumed dead.  But Watney isn't dead, and he manages to get back to the Hab (their temporary station on Mars), patch up his wounds, and get to work surviving.

Damon's performance is as nuanced and real as we'd expect from a veteran actor who cut his teeth on movies like Good Will Hunting.  As a trained astronaut, Watney isn't fragile, but he's not exactly indomitable, either.  He does everything he can to survive and help his own rescue, but there are moments of despair and rage – along with some truly stellar set designs and effects – that make this movie seem more like a documentary at times than a fictional tale of a man stranded in space.  Ubiquitous cameras in the Hab and on the Hermes, the crew's ship, give the same documentary impression as those in the less well-known but very well-executed The Europa Report.

Throughout, there is one thread that ties together everyone's efforts: that science will save the day.  When he finally makes contact with NASA back on Earth and is assigned some daunting technical tasks to get him where he needs to go, Watney declares, "I'm gonna have to science the s--- out of this planet."  The audience is tasked with believing that this botanist must have been trained in a lot more than botany, since he's retrofitting solar panels onto his rover, scavenging parts from all sorts of equipment, and working a little chemistry to create a makeshift biodome inside the Hab.  This is not a far stretch, considering the extent and rigor of astronaut training, but Watney becomes a sort of Vessel for All Things Science as he modifies and hacks the limited resources around him to aid his escape.

After he returns to Earth, Watney becomes an instructor training new astronauts at NASA.  In his final speech of the film, he says, "The question I'm most often asked is, when you were up there, did you believe you would die?  Yes.  I did."  He goes on to say that no matter what the mission, there's a time when everything, absolutely everything, "will go south on you," and all that's left is to work the problem.  "That's all you have to do.  Begin."  It's an excellent metaphor for life, which constantly throws problems at all of us, whether a stay-at-home parent or a general at war.

But how does it do as a lesson for how we face death?

Watney fought for his life in this story and won.  The strength of human spirit shown in the film was genuinely uplifting.  It recalled those feel-good-globalism moments of movies like Independence Day, as the U.S. and China worked together to bring Watney back home.

But if we bring Watney's story through to its very end...he still dies.  The life he fought for was a temporary one.  Was it therefore even worth fighting for?  Of course it was.  All life is worth the effort, and the lives he influenced after his return from Mars would be better for his presence.

However, the idea pervading this film is an idea pervading our society.  It is humanism, in its modern form: humans, within ourselves, hold the answer to all of the questions and challenges this world presents.  We can end poverty, if we work together.  We can stop global warming (whatever the cause), if we alter our individual behavior and collective economy.  According to committed humanists who are also technologists, we can even overcome death via cybernetic implants, replacement organs, and the right combination of drugs.

While a noble aim, that utopia is ultimately a mirage.  Why?  Because it has already failed.  What of the billions of humans on this Earth who have already lived and died?  Even if we succeeded in making all future humans immortal, no one in his right mind would argue that science could find, exhume, and resurrect all of those people who have lived prior to us.  This sort of scientism-within-humanism is necessarily a collectivist dream, to the neglect of the individual person.  It makes the incongruous (and rather morbid) assertion that if we save all future humans, we have somehow saved the entire human race from death, which can never be true.  All of our ancestors would still need saving.

Early in the film, after Mark Watney returns to the Hab and repairs his wound, we find him lying in bed, carving away at a crucifix.  It's one of his team member's personal items, left behind when they fled in the sandstorm.  Watney needs something combustible to create a mini-ecosphere to grow food, and with NASA so cautious about fire and explosions on its missions, the wood of the crucifix is the only flammable thing available.  He says to the little Christ on the cross that given his present situation he doesn't think he'll mind, and he is right.  But the statement is clear: move aside, Jesus.  I got this.

It's especially clear when considering comments by The Martian screenwriter Drew Goddard.  "We're treating science as a religion," he said of the writing process.  In his war against Mars (for that is what it is – a war for his life), Watney has no savior but Science.  And so we return to his statement that sometimes, yes, he believed he would die on the red planet.  His situation brought to the forefront the dilemma that all humanity faces every moment but most of the time has the luxury of ignoring.  C.S.  Lewis puts it this way in his essay "Learning in Wartime," written during World War II:

The war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.  Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.  Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. ... Life has never been normal.

We are all on the brink of dying, all the time.  Mortality hangs over all of us, yet most of us can conveniently ignore that fact since most of the time we are not in mortal danger from violence, accident, or disease.  In reality, we are fighting a perfectly perilous world, and ultimately we are guaranteed to lose.

Rather than despair, we should do what Mark Watney did: work the problem.  We should scour the planet for any sign that there is a way out.  If we look analytically and objectively at the documents and the evidence left behind by those coming before us, we find that there is one.  We find one man who traveled into the frontier past this life's end, perished, and returned alive.  His life, death, and resurrection were not only foretold centuries before his birth, but also copiously documented after his death.  We even find that, rather than having sparse scraps to work with, thousands of early manuscripts of those documents remain, and they show how true they are by their agreement with each other.  Mark Watney used the cross to survive, and that is exactly what we all must do.  Yeshua of Nazareth, Jesus Christ, reaches across the void of death to us and offers us life that will never be taken away.  He saves us where we can never save ourselves.

It pains me to hear people speak as if science and faith are polar opposites.  As a Christian, I watch a movie like The Martian and see both the triumph of humanity and the amazing faculties and materials our creator has given us to work with.  God has gifted us science and technology as ways to solve the daunting problems of our world – and it's working.  We've eradicated diseases.  We've given people new limbs and new eyes.  We've built homes and machines to keep us warm and healthy, used the natural resources of our world to lift others out of poverty and give them livelihoods.  But we wouldn't be doing any of this – we wouldn't be here at all – if God hadn't fine-tuned the constant of gravity to hold us together.  Or if he hadn't put our planet in the habitable zone the right distance from our sun to support life.  Or if our planet didn't have a magnetosphere, or a moon to control our tides, or a gas giant like Jupiter to help redirect space debris from causing extinction events here.

Science and religion are not at odds; in fact, science can help us come to terms with our mortality and work the problem.

Robert Jastrow said, "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream.  He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."  I pray that those who love science would know that the dream doesn't need to be a bad one.  Reason can lead to faith and faith to reason – so that when the scientist scales the mountaintop, he simply sits down with his brethren, looks out over the vast countryside, and sees a mathematical beauty, perfected because of his relationship with the Person who created it.