The Martian and Survival Stories

Matt DamonRehearsing a different kind of left behind story, The Martian immerses viewers into an astronomic tale of survival against all odds. Fellow crewmembers accidently abandon Mark Watney, believing he died during an overpowering storm. Awaking to the fiery glory of a morning on Mars, Mark starts making plans to live. The Martian combines science just beyond our reach with humor, teamwork, and an impending deadline to celebrate the indomitable human spirit. Yet while we root for Mark’s deliverance, the film also speaks to something deeper about the nature of human existence.

A lost in space story—like a lost at sea tale—strips characters of reliable protection and provision, forcing them to innovate and improvise. The films Gravity, All is Lost, and Cast Away explore this drama of human resilience at the edge of existence. In some ways, all these films might bring to mind the classic survival story, Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe is essentially a conversion story following the ingenuity of a marooned sailor who turns to the Lord in his desperation. While explicit Christian salvation does not usually show up in contemporary retellings, the mystery of the imago Dei remains.

The Romanian Orthodox theologian, Dumitru Staniloae, wrote that in the act of creation God gave humans two modes of movement toward love: time and space. Drawing from the St. Maximus the Confessor, Staniloae went on to suggest that humans are created to move toward one another through love in the midst of discovering, creating, problem-solving, and engaging in other activities.

Survival stories often focus our imaginations upon the need humans have to work together. These tales highlight the wonder of each human life and our drive to love and care for one another in the midst of need. As we watch and listen, we feel the story resound within us and may even sense a renewed call to lay down our lives for one another.

In the film Cast Away (2000), Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive lives a non-stop life of around-the-clock deadlines until a plane crash leaves him adrift on a deserted island. Over time, he faces the emptiness of a world without human relation. This ache haunts the viewer throughout the film. Even as he relearns the childhood basics of survival, he feels the deep loss of living nowhere with no one. Chuck’s loneliness and longing for human reciprocation drive him to talk with a surviving soccer ball, naming it Wilson. Instead of replacing human friendship, the ball serves only to magnify his desperate need for another human.

All is Lost (2013) leaves an unnamed man without any relation, adrift in the middle of the sea. The film opens with words, “I’m sorry. I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried. I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right, but I wasn’t. All is lost.” The pain of these words hangs over this mostly silent film as the man battles non-stop to overcome obstacle after obstacle. The film leaves viewers exhausted from watching the man fail and bear the weight of being cut off from the continent of humanity.

Gravity (2013) introduces an astronaut who feels cut off from the earth and human community due to the death of her child. Shortly after the opening sequence of the film, Dr. Ryan Stone is accidently cut loose into the dark silence of space. Astronaut Matt Kowalski rescues Stone and guides her back to the space station. Kowalski is leading Stone back to life in more ways than one. In the end, he sacrifices himself to save her.

Even as The Martian shines light on the beauty of Mars and of outer space, it shines with the human spirit. Different groups of people all around the world and in space collaborate, brainstorm, and work tirelessly with the outside hope that they might find a way to bring him home.

All these stories tap our deep, God-given image and call to love one another and serve one another. In the world, the daily onslaught of dehumanizing news may cause us to grow cold; these films can be a gift that reawakens us. As we watch and feel and lean into stories of human desperation, we may rediscover afresh the wonder of another person and the deep call within us to give ourselves to one another in the service of love.

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