Politics and Religion in Ridley Scott’s The Martian

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The Martian is good science fiction. It has a hard-edged realism combined with a compelling plot. In the near future, NASA is sending manned missions to Mars, but the Ares III mission runs into trouble. The crew leaves behind astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, because they think he’s dead, but Mark, who isn’t dead, decides that he doesn’t want to die on Mars. He begins working on a plan to get off the planet.

Director Ridley Scott manages to strike just the right balance of humor and tension, and Matt Damon does an excellent job giving us a hero we can root for. Damon’s got most of the screen time, and for most of his scenes he’s acting alone. Pulling off solo scenes successfully proves one’s acting mettle. The rest of the cast does a great job too (though I think an Oscar nod should go to Mackenzie Davis for imbuing a minor role with awesomeness). And let’s not forget to mention the topnotch special effects that are so good that you almost don’t notice they’re there. What a novel concept—effects that serve the story.

And it really is a good story.

One can’t help but compare The Martian to Robinson Crusoe, the original stranded-on-a-desert-island story. The title characters in both stories exhibit despair, determination, and ingenuity. Robinson Crusoe also contains a Christian subtext concerned with sin, repentance, and providence. The Martian seems to pay homage to Robinson Crusoe by including its own Christian allusions.

Early in the movie Mark uses shavings from a crucifix to start a fire with which he’ll make water. He implies that through the crucifix’s wood Jesus is going to save his life. But in The Martian, Mark actually becomes a sort of Christ figure. He’s pierced in his hands and side. He dies, and then rises again. He returns from the dead bringing reconciliation to the entire world as they wait for his return.

The movie, however, is not a Christian allegory. Ridley Scott tends to weave interesting biblical allusions into his films, but he seems more interested in political themes. This movie explores the intersection of self-reliance with helping one’s neighbor. It does a beautiful job balancing the fact that we are responsible for ourselves and that we are responsible for our fellow man.

Mark Watney works hard to save himself once he realizes that he’s been left behind on Mars. Blood, sweat, tears—he leaves it all in the unforgiving soil of this alien planet. But Scott’s film doesn’t promote a libertarian self-reliance. If Ayn Rand had written the script, Mark would have either managed to get himself off Mars on his own or perhaps just decided to stay there and rule the planet alone so he wouldn’t have to put up with Earth’s moochers anymore.

No, Mark’s fate isn’t solely in his own hands. It also depends on hundreds of people working hard to help him get off Mars alive.

At one point in the movie, Mark admits that he thought he was going to die on Mars. But then he says you can either accept death or “do the work.” “Do the Work” is the motto of this movie. The odds are probably stacked against you. But you owe it to yourself and those counting on you to do the work anyway. Work hard. Work long. Work creatively.

Mark thought that he might die on the planet Mars, but the dirty little secret is that every one of us is going to die on the planet Earth. In the face of certain death, we too should “do the work.” And while we do the work, let’s remember that we need each other because we’re all in this together.

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