Ridley Scott's newest film, "The Martian," is the best kind of speculative fiction, because it places relatable characters in unusual settings to bring out something deep and human. Films that address deeply human issues tend to surface religious themes as well. Despite the lack of edible crops on Mars, the situation in this movie is fertile ground for an exploration of the human spirit.
I'm always on the hunt for religious symbolism in films, and "The Martian" had some less than subtle "God-winks." For instance, Mark Watney (Matt Damon) physically takes up a cross when he decides to start gardening on Mars. The less obvious and thus more interesting spiritual themes were in the film's presentation of loneliness. At its heart, "The Martian" is a horror movie that uncovers a monster more terrifying than zombies or vampires: isolation. "The Martian" is a study of a person experiencing loneliness in extremis.
After an emergency self-surgery, Mark starts a video-log upon realizing that his crew has evacuated Mars without him, believing him to be dead. The log is a convenient but also believable story-telling device like Tom Hank's creation of "Wilson" the volleyball/companion in "Castaway." The television show "Last Man on Earth" contains my favorite portrayal of conversations with inanimate objects. In the opening episode, Will Forte holds court with an entire cast of sporting equipment. This seems like something that anyone would do. To avoid feeling isolated, we will use the most of our imagination. The invention of a fabricated community affirms a basic principle from the creation story in Genesis 2, "It is not good for people to be alone." This principle of God working within a community gathering is evidenced when the Israelites gathered at Mt. Sinai, when the church gathered at Pentecost, and when families gather at Thanksgiving. Gathering together does not make conflicts and problems disappear, but it does relieve us from the pain of separation.
The plot of "The Martian" has a full spectrum of conflict, including man vs. planet, man vs. self, man vs. equipment failures, and crew vs. NASA. "The Martian" is the only film that I've ever seen that features a botanist as the protagonist. Mark uses his "botany powers" to survive the harsh climate and the ennui of being alone for over a year. At one point, Mark defiantly declares, "Mars will come to fear my botany powers." What I loved about Mark's being a botanist is that he has to create a culture, a place where plants take root and grow rather than having to destroy or kill as is the case in many action films. Not since "Captain Planet's" Kwame, the bearer of the Earth-ring, has the ability to make something grow been such an engaging plot point.
As a kid, I short-listed becoming an astronaut as a future career choice after seeing "Apollo 13" (1995). Sometime during my adolescence, I decided to keep my prospects earthbound. "Gravity" (2013) confirmed my decision. "Gravity" was a darker film than "The Martian" with a subtle Pelagian leitmotif of individual victory through moxie, nerves of steel, and a fire extinguisher. While "Gravity" and "The Martian" occupy a similar space, "The Martian" emphasizes the importance of a culture of community for flourishing and deliverance. In addition to re-igniting my childhood desire of being an astronaut, this movie also whetted my appetite for another desert planet space adventure coming out next month.