October 19, 2015
The movie, The Martian is basically a survival story set on Mars. It is funny and interesting, with a likable main character named Mark Watney, engaging side stories, many tense moments of action, and lots of beautiful visions of Mars. But what does religion have to do with this survival story? If you are Mark Watney, (or most anyone else in this movie) not much. The story is about the value of human effort and achievement, science and intelligence. So, by the traditional definition of religion as belief in a supernatural deity, it is not a religious movie. But that is not the whole story.
The most obvious appearance of religion is when people on Earth at mission control are worried about launch of a supply rocket. To quote the book, Mitch asks Venkat, “Do you believe in God?” Venkat responds, “Sure, lots of them, I’m a Hindu.” “Ask ’em all for help with this launch” Mitch tells Venkat, and the reply: “Will do.” (Note that Venkat does no “puja” at that moment). This is what I call “movie luck religion.” A character or characters find themselves in a place where luck will make the difference, or they find a situation where it seems their effort alone is not enough, and so they look for some other and mysterious source of help. Sadly, in The Martian this launch fails, reinforcing the idea that gods (as superstitious luck charms) are pretty much useless. Perhaps they have a value as anxiety reducers.
Religion also appears as a sacred icon. Martinez, a devout Catholic, has been forced to leave several personal items back on Mars, including a wood crucifix. The main character, Mark Watney, shaves it down to kindling. Reflecting back on what he has done he says “If there is a God he won’t mind, considering the situation I’m in.” Religion is presented as a personal hobby of one character, or an unimportant belief in a supernatural judge. It is not made clear how devout Martinez really is, but the impression is that though his faith might have personal value, it certainly is not of universal or practical worth. Watney gladly whittles away religion to serve practical ends.
If, on the other hand, “religion” is a set of shared values and actions that shape the meaning and obligations and ethical decisions that people make, then this movie has a strong religious element. Shared values like loyalty, cooperation across differences and a desire to help others are all factors that drive character’s actions. Watney, while talking to his fellow astronauts, speaks of the fact that they are willing to give their lives to “something greater.” At the end of the story Watney says, “Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out. If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search. If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it’s found in every culture without exception.”
The author of book and of the movie do not reflect upon the validity of this universal truth, or exactly what is the “something greater” that an individual life might serve. Characters also speak seriously of guilt and forgiveness, but only on a practical and personal level. Even the value of the space program is assumed, protected from being hurt by public opinion, but not defended on any real deep level. The religion of this movie is an unquestioned faith in human effort and progress, science and intelligence. Religion is the public and culturally shared expression of personal spirituality. As Scientific Humanism, which deeply vlaues human progress, motivates human striving and human unity, this is a very religious movie. But in this story of space travel, no one is heard praying. Lots of cussing, but no praying.