Every story is a take on the story of the world. Each one stands beside the actual story of the world, tweaking and critiquing it.
SPOILER ALERT: it’s basically about an astronaut marooned on Mars, how he stays alive, and how he is rescued.
The story has two basic themes, one which is gospel and one which is anti-gospel.
First, the anti-gospel theme of self-sufficiency. The story (and especially the book) thrills in human ingenuity. The hero, Mark Watney, is never-give-up genius. He looks his circumstances square in the face, beats down his anxiety at the hopelessness of his situation, wracks his brain, and comes up with a workable solution every single time. Far more than the movie, the book gives us Mark’s extensive inner monologue, revealing his anxious moments and his even more impressive self-control.
Part Robinson Crusoe and part MacGyver, he doesn’t let loneliness overcome him and he doesn’t let certain death overcome him. He may panic for a moment, but he always digs deep and finds the solution to every problem within himself.
The movie adds a conclusion not in the book. Mark, now a celebrity for his exploits on Mars, is teaching a class to an eager bunch of future astronauts. He lets them know that space wants to kill them, but that they have everything they need to survive at their disposal within themselves. It’s one of the most clichéed “you can do it” speeches ever. I wonder if the screen writer took clues from the brief but hilarious Shia LeBoeuf green screen motivational speech (by the way, here’s a laugh-out-loud compilation of clips where the LeBoeuf speech is dropped into well-known movies; note that there is one clip with profanity).
Yes, there’s a lot that we can do. God created us with hands to manipulate things and minds to solve problems. We are skilled, but we can’t do everything. And we certainly aren’t our own saviors. What makes The Martian such a good read and an even better movie is how razor thin the line between life and death is for Mark. Over and over again, he should die. The mathematics for life shouldn’t equal out. But he works it and works it until it does. Without the speech at the end of the movie, this would just be a fun nail-biter. But with the speech, it becomes a manifesto of our human ability to save ourselves.
But if we remove the tacked-on speech, we’ve got a beautiful illustration of the gospel.
We are lost. Marooned. And left to our own devices, try as we may, we simply don’t have what it takes to save ourselves.
Mark is, well, remarkable. His solutions are brilliant. But even those aren’t enough. Sometimes, he causes his own problems. In one case, he almost blows himself up when trying to create water by combining hydrogen and oxygen. In another case, he blows up his shelter, which kills the potato plants he’s ingeniously grown and was counting on for his caloric needs. As brilliant as he seems, even he isn’t fool-proof.
And he recognizes the need for outside help. He takes a long and perilous journey across Mars to scavenge an old probe for its communication system. The subsequent communication with earth provides him with much-needed human interaction (“It is not good for the man to be alone” — Genesis 2:18), essential guidance of NASA experts, and the give-and-take essential for planning for his ultimate rescue.
And when it comes to the rescue, we have an incredible effort where the heavens are traversed and life is put on the line to save this lost man. We are reminded of the great lengths God has gone to save us. He comes all the way to us and all we have to do is move just a little bit, extending our hand to him. Both are necessary: God’s great effort and our small extension.
And then there’s the question of cost. Is one man really worth all of this effort and attention?
In this, we’re reminded of Luke 15 and the series of stories Jesus tells about the value of the lost one who is found. The shepherd leaves the 99 sheep in order to find and rescue the one lost sheep. The woman with 10 coins rejoices over the one lost coin that was found. And then there’s the father with two sons. He rejoices over the one son who returns home after being lost to sin in another land, and he goes out into the dark of night to seek the other son who is even more lost in his self-righteousness.
These stories of Jesus tell us that, yes, the finding and rescuing of the lost one is worth the cost. In fact, it almost seems like the rejoicing over the lost one who is found is excessive.
In the movie, the entire world watches with baited breath for Mark to be rescued. In fact, numerous scenes show people in prayerful postures, sometimes pleading, sometimes hopeful, sometimes relieved. And we are reminded of the words of Jesus in Luke 15 —
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. … Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents. … It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:7,10, 32)
In each of the three stories Jesus tells in Luke 15, he reminds his listeners of how our God operates. He is single-minded in seeking the lost. And when the lost one is found and restored, he spares no expense in celebrating.
All of heaven celebrates over the one who was dead but is now alive. And this is no half-hearted golf clap over someone who brought calamity upon himself. This is a full-on feast.
Sure, Mark was marooned by no fault of his own. This is not a sin-salvation story. But we see the same great energy and expense exerted on the behalf of just one lost man that our Lord extends to us.
It is this beautifully imperfect reflection of the gloriously true biblical story that brings tears to my face when I watch a movie like The Martian. For just as I rejoice with the whole world in Mark’s salvation, I know that our God and all of heaven rejoices over me and over you.