The Gospel According to Mark Watney: Faith, Science and The Martian

There are politicians today who will try to pit science and faith against each other. T.J. O’Neill discusses how it’s not so simple, in the context of last weekend’s hit movie The Martian. Warning: This piece contains spoilers.

In his efforts to convince 20th Century Fox to pick up the rights to an (at the time) little-read eBook about an astronaut marooned on Mars, screenwriter Drew Goddard* described The Martian as “a religious film where science is the religion”. That’s a pretty loaded sentence in our current climate, where religious (and it must be said here that “religious” in this context is almost universally code for “Christian”, as the number of films released in a given year aimed at any other religion hover near zero) films are routinely dismissed by critics and embraced by an audience who wear that dismissal as a badge of honor. Goddard’s statement could be read as both a recognition that faith-based films have a place in society, and a shot across their bow, a claim that said faith is misplaced when given to a deity.

In practice, The Martian isn’t nearly so combative in its approach to science and religion. While science wins the day (and saves Mark Watney’s life), the film hardly rejects or belittles religion, but rather suggests the two share far more in common than many on either side of the cultural debate might care to admit. The Martian accepts, even at some points embraces, the notion of faith commonly practiced in religion; it merely applies them elsewhere.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a scientist. Full stop. His approach to every problem comes through the lens of science. He survives his ordeal on Mars because of his knowledge of and ability to implement the scientific method. Likewise, the NASA team back on Earth rely almost exclusively on that same science in an effort to bring him home. But scripture describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1) By that (admittedly, rather broad) definition, Watney and his rescuers rely as much on faith as they do science itself.

martian-plantsUpon realizing he can’t last on Mars without making contact with NASA somehow, Watney embarks on a trek to find Pathfinder, the Mars probe sent in the ’90s on one of the earliest unmanned missions to the Red Planet. Back on Earth, scientists at JPL caution Kapoor (who figures out Watney’s plan) that there’s no guarantee it’ll work. The probe went silent decades ago** for reasons they could never determine. Still, Watney makes the journey because he has to. Though it’s never expressly said, Watney likely knows everything JPL says, and it even takes him some time to sift through the Martian dirt and uncover the probe. Similarly, Watney knows he might not be able to fix Pathfinder enough to make contact. Still, he does it. Why? For one, because there’s no alternative. It’s this, or die. But also, because despite no apparent evidence that anyone on Earth is looking for him, and no evidence that he can fix Pathinder (he’s a botanist, not a mechanic), he believes in his own capacity to solve one problem that he goes forth. The belief that despite no concrete evidence, something will happen if you try. This is faith.

When Watney finally has a chance to leave Mars in a decidedly risky rescue mission, he finds himself too far away from the Hermes crew  and moving too fast. His solution involves cutting a hole in his spacesuit and using the depressurization to propel him toward the rescue ship. The crew makes their reservations known, with Watney’s only counterpoint a humorous reference to Iron Man. Still, when faced with no other option, Watney takes the risk. Again, he’s left without an alternative, but it could also be said that Watney places his faith in the Hermes crew, each of whom have their own doubts and fears in that moment, and allows something unseen, for which there is no evidence, to drive his action. Once again, this is faith.

It’s true that in both of these instances Watney’s faith is grounded in science, either his own knowledge of it or that of his crew. But The Martian features two moments where faith in science and faith in religion intersect, and find a way to coexist, in a sense.

Shortly after making the decision to survive on Mars, Watney develops a plan to make water. To do so, he needs to make fire. The only object he has that he can use to start a fire? A crucifix, left behind by Martinez (Michael Pena). It’s worth noting here that Watney and the film acknowledges Martinez’s religious background in this scene, but offers no comment on it. The closest Watney comes is a joking line to the Christ figure on the crucifix, saying he figures the son of God will understand his need to whittle down the cross, considering the circumstances. Watney’s plan ultimately works, resulting in a moment where one crewmate’s religion ends up saving Watney’s life.

On the other hand, back on Earth NASA attempts to rush a supply probe to Watney. Everyone involved acknowledges the risks they took in getting this probe ready for launch, to the point where in the moments before launch, Henderson (Sean Bean) asks Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) if he believes in God. Kapoor refers to his upbringing, the son of two religious parents. Henderson’s response? “Well, we could use all the help we can get.” Henderson clearly isn’t the praying type, but is willing to at least entertain the notion. The probe explodes shortly after launch, thanks to an error that should have been found in pre-launch inspections. However, this moment is less an indictment of religion, and more an admonition of what happens when proper testing and procedure are cast aside. NASA’s faith was misplaced, but not in prayer, but in their own inability to follow protocol.

The Martian makes it abundantly clear that science is what saves Mark Watney’s life, but rejects the notion that science and faith (one of the central elements of any religion) are on opposite ends of a spectrum. Rather, it posits that science and religion coexist with each other, and where one places faith determines the outcome. Watney survives on science (and his own problem-solving ability), but needs Martinez’s religion to enable his science. Henderson is willing to accept prayer, but neglect of science dooms the NASA probe. Both characters (as well as a number of others) rely on nothing tangible to prove their hypotheses, and frequently come out correct. Neither science, religion, nor faith are expressly heralded at the expense of the others. Instead, The Martian states it’s how you balance them that determines life or death.

T. J. O’Neill is a writer for Cinephile City.

*Goddard pitched the film with the intent to write and direct; however his involvement in the now aborted Sinister Six film scuttled his plans to direct, clearing the way for Ridley Scott to step in.

**While the film takes place in a nebulous not-too-distant future, the novel from whence the film came begins in 2035, 38 years after NASA lost contact with Pathfinder in the real world.

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