In the film, NASA astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Damon) is left for dead when the crew of an exploratory Mars mission has to evacuate their insecure surface structures and lift off to escape a fierce storm. The crew reluctantly break orbit and begin the journey back to Earth while unknown to them Watney recovers and sets about the daunting task of surviving with limited food, water and oxygen.
The botanist’s efforts are successful in that he begins to raise a crop of potatoes in a controlled environment and in so doing he becomes the first person to colonize the Red Planet – the first Martian. When he is eventually able to make radio contact with Earth, the rest of the crew decide against all odds to "turn their ship around" and return to Mars for Watney.
Christian commentators have been quick to point out the similarity of the story with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, and it is not an unfair comparison as religion does appear in the book on which the film is based even though Hollywood has obviously scrubbed most of the religious references. Director Ridley Scott is known as an atheist who applies his beliefs to his films, but one surprising reference to Christianity does survive (like Watney on Mars) in the film and I’d like to look at that here.
The reviews I have read of this film agree that Watney does not ever pray in the film (although his character does pray in the book), but I disagree. At one point in the film, in order to survive, Watney has to somehow produce water for the crop he attempts to raise. He has hydrogen and oxygen available and knows he can produce water if he can initiate the necessary chemical process through the use of fire. Unfortunately, all the materials available to him are NASA flame-proofed, but Watney eventually finds a source of help. Finding a crucifix left in the emergency evacuation by one of his crewmates, Watney carefully shaves off some pieces from the base of the wooden cross and uses them to initiate the combustion which produces the water he needs for life.
It is at this point that Watney prays. It is not a formal prayer and is one that we might easily miss, but after he takes the wood from the crucifix to enable him to survive, Watney looks at the Christ figure and says “I figure you’re OK with this, considering my circumstances …. I’m countin’ on ya.” Perhaps the producers left this in the movie because they thought it might seem tongue-in-cheek, but they did well. It is a prayer and it contains all the basic attributes of a successful prayer for help. First, it acknowledges God by the very act of addressing him. Next it expresses a heartfelt need – in this case, of survival itself (“considering my circumstances”) – and finally, it expresses trust in God (“I’m countin’ on ya”).
Watney’s simple prayer is ultimately answered, and the movie has a good resolution. It’s a very worthwhile film (despite some occasional unnecessary language) and one that you can ponder. The film is done as a study in human ingenuity as the astronaut takes on the seemingly-impossible task of returning from certain death. But the film also, unwittingly or not, makes the point that those who find themselves (in this case) millions of miles from home and without any obvious chance of survival somehow do find it natural and even easy to pray. Beyond that, the film is a perfect “water of life” metaphor. It is the Christ figure that provides the water of life (John 4:14) which ultimately makes Watney’s survival possible.