During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meagre supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive. Millions of miles away, NASA and a team of international scientists work tirelessly to bring “the Martian” home, while his crewmates concurrently plot a daring, if not impossible rescue mission. As these stories of incredible bravery unfold, the world comes together to root for Watney’s safe return.
The audience at the screening of The Martian was captured. “Good enough” they said to each other. What has really attracted so many to the story is the way Weir keeps things entertaining even when going into minute scientific detail to explain how it’s possible for one individual to survive on a barren world for years.
The non-science aspects of the film are also capturing. Despite the fact that a lot of the runtime of the movie consists of Matt Damon talking into a recorder while most everyone else stares at computer screens, the film never feels slow. And while the climatic rescue attempt, complete with its requisite Hollywood demanded changes, may feel a little lacklustre compared to other recent space movies, the film’s coda punctuates the fact that the story was never really about action anyway.
What The Martian celebrates is human ingenuity and the application of knowledge. And yet, for such a love letter to science, the truly surprising thing is how one of the underlying themes of the story has no scientific basis at all: In a pivotal scene in the movie, we see the folks back at NASA engaged in the inevitable discussion as to whether or not one human life is worth all of the risk and monumental expense it will take to save it. The answer is an almost unanimous, “Of course.”
But why? There’s certainly no scientific reason to reach such a conclusion. Even the Church herself acknowledges that sometimes one can choose not to try and forestall an impending death if the procedures required to do so are “burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome.” So why bother trying to save Watney?
Because, at the heart of The Martian, underneath all its scientific trappings, is a truth that only God can bring us, the truth that every individual human life has a unique dignity, and when we do our best to save one of those lives, we are saving a little bit of ourselves in the process.
The characters in The Martian seem to intuit this, and that’s why they turn all their scientific skills and knowledge to the task of retrieving Watney from Mars. And that’s what makes The Martian resonate so deeply, not just that it celebrates science, but that it celebrates science in the service of the human person. And that’s a celebration worth having.
Dr. Chris Valentino sdb