Theme: Life is Precious
After only a few short weeks The Martian is already another box-office blockbuster for director Ridley Scott. Returning to one of his favorite and most successful genres, science fiction (Alien, Blade Runner, Prometheus), Scott transcends the pure science of Andy Weir’s novel and explores the beauty of life and the bonds of human relationship.
The movie begins with death. Six astronauts are working on Mars, a dead planet incapable of sustaining any form of life. An intense storm erupts forcing the astronauts to abandon their mission and evacuate the planet. One astronaut, botanist Mark Watney, is hit by flying debris. Unable to locate his body and presuming him to be dead, the team is forced by the storm to leave their comrade behind. As their MAV makes its ascent, Watney’s empty seat communicates the team’s profound loss. A break in the circle of fellowship has occurred creating a void which cannot be filled.
Back on Earth Watney’s death is announced and a funeral is held with the fanfare due an astronaut’s demise. But here is the rub . . . the Ares III crew knows and feels the anomaly of death.1 Something precious and irreplaceable has been taken from their midst: the life of their friend and colleague. For NASA and the general public, Watney’s death is considered almost normal. Unfortunate perhaps and an inconvenience to the program for sure, but not an irreparable loss.
Thus the opening scenes expose the great paradox at the heart of the film. On a dead planet where life is impossible, life is seen for what it truly is: miraculous, beautiful and of infinite value. On a planet teeming with life (in all its forms), life is often considered ordinary, expendable, and of little significance.
The way out of Death
There is one small scene early in the movie (SOL 36) which will be overlooked by many and misunderstood by most; but it is the pivotal point of the story. Watney stands condemned; he is dead to his crewmates, to NASA, to the world, and without food he will be unable to survive for four years until the next mission arrives. He has an inspired idea of using human waste as fertilizer for growing potatoes, plants, and he figures he can get water by burning the hydrazine rocket fuel. What he needs is something to start the whole process. He needs something which can be burned, to ignite the fire, which will create the water, which will grow the plants, so that he can eat and by eating live.
He finds what he needs in Martinez’s personal effects . . . the cross of Jesus Christ. Relying on the crucifixes wood to burn and more importantly counting on the Person it represents, he turns from death to life.
There are two discoveries of life made on SOL 54 (day 54 on Mars). One takes place on Mars, the other on Earth. The reactions to the discovery of this life reveal two divergent ethics.
Almost like Robinson Caruso’s discovery of a footprint in the sand is Watney’s discovery of his potatoes having sprouted. The beauty of the scene is so powerful it brings tears to the eyes. “Hey there” he says to the tiny green miraculous shoot, and in those two words communicates his delight and overwhelming joy. He is a man who treasures life from the simplest form to the most complex. The shoot is actually a metaphor for botanist Watney himself. New life has come and therefore there is hope.
On Earth Mindy Park, a technician at Mission Control discovers movement at the failed Ares III site indicating there is a life on Mars. The discovery of Watney being alive is met with skepticism, rejection, and fatalism; this is a problem and public relations disaster for NASA. The math, says Director Teddy Sanders means Watney will starve, so he makes a decision for the life of the program over the life of the person. His ethic says life has a relative value and is therefore expendable.
Fortunately for Mark Watney, there is another man who disagrees and sends the crew, the salvation plan of “Project Elrond”.
There is a word in Greek which best describes the crew of the Ares III and their project manager Mitch Henderson. The word is Koinonia (coy NO nyah) and it is very difficult to translate into English because it has such a rich meaning.2 Understanding this word is essential to grasping why Mitch and the crew would disobey orders to carry out Project Elrond.
Koinonia means communion and has many facets, one of which is sharing as a contributing member. When the astronauts shared their unique gifts as contributing members on the mission to Mars, the mission became their common ground and they entered into Koinonia. This common ground of mission also produced a bond of relationship, a union, or a fellowship. This aspect of Koinonia is so powerful it overrides the individual in order to create the bond with others and thus fulfills the deep human need for belonging and companionship. Project Elrond isn’t just a cute reference to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The Council of Elrond from which the project creator took the name was the creation of “the fellowship of the ring”; a fellowship of love and sacrifice if ever there was one.
Koinonia also has the idea of community as in common unity of purpose. It creates a bond of trust and it is this bond which unifies the Ares III crew and Mitch Henderson and makes them willing to risk their own lives and careers in an attempt to rescue their “fellowship” partner, Mark Watney.
Lastly Koinonia when truly experienced has the beauty and power to change lives. As the Elf Queen Galadriel tells Frodo, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future”; so too this lone astronaut and his fellowship are able to change the hearts of the entire viewing world because everybody wants to be drawn into and to be a part of a sacrificial community on a heroic quest.
In the last moments before his launch from Mars, Watney thanks the crew for coming back for him and begins to cry; his tears bring tears to the viewing audience. Man was never designed to be alone (The Lord God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” - Genesis 2:18a); isolation is a form of death. There has been a vicarious experience of this death and isolation while watching the movie, which explains why Watney’s connection to another human being, first in hope (you came back for me), then in a tether (a cord of life) and finally by two hands that clasp him, brings such an outburst of joy both on and off the screen.
The movie ends with Mark Watney back on Earth; it’s a new day, a new life, and a new creation . . . . . . .
“We shall not cease from exploration
And in the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
TS Eliot, From The Four Quartets3
- Death is an anomaly. It was never designed to be part of God’s good creation. It entered into the creation through the sin of man and has been defeated by the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
- Definitions of Koinonia are from Wikipedia
- The Four Quartets is considered by many to be one of the greatest Christian poems ever written.