Mars has never been a particularly welcoming place. From H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!, the planet’s primary export has always been terror. Even Marvin the Martian was constantly trying to blow up our little blue planet.
There are no hostile aliens on Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian, but it may kill him anyway. Stranded astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is the only sentient being on the red planet, forced to figure out how to survive on this otherwise lifeless rock.
But on that rocky, red surface, Mark nurtures something pretty amazing: Hope. Hope in the form of a little potato plant, sprouting through the planet’s red soil.
Hope grows in the strangest of places, really, even in the wilds of space. Strange that, in today’s science fiction movies, it’s so hard to come by on Earth.
Back in the 1950s, during the Golden Age of cinematic sci-fi, our biggest threats always seemed to come from Out There. The Thing From Another World. It Came From Outer Space. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Planetary invaders were the biggest threat on drive-in screens—sometimes coming with a lot of sound and fury (War of the Worlds), sometimes secretly (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), sometimes without much sense at all (Plan 9 from Outer Space). Sure, a few of these “invasion” movies were seen as metaphors for more earth-bound problems, but overall, the message was pretty clear: Earth is a pretty awesome place. Let’s hope that extra-terrestrial visitors don’t come and mess it all up.
For decades, that was the science fiction standard. Earth is home, and a pretty nice one at that. Our monsters—from Lovecraftian beasties to X-Files nasties—came from outside our planetary zip code. “In space, no one can hear you scream,” Ridley Scott’s 1979 movie Alien told us. And for generations, we’ve believed it.
But Scott’s The Martian tells a different story: Out here, in the cold, dark world of the Other, Mark discovers elements of his own being he probably never knew he had. It’s a challenging environment, sure—but it distills life down to its strangely reassuring essence. In Scott’s imagining, Mars is inhospitable, sure, but it’s also strangely beautiful. Pure. And on that planet, Mark not only survives, but thrives. He becomes a hero.
For the last several years, science fiction’s most optimistic cinematic offerings have taken place outside the Earth’s gravitational field. In last year’s Interstellar, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a band of intrepid explorers blast off to explore a wormhole that might save the world. In 2013’s Gravity, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) must survive the cold vacuum of space and, in so doing, finds a measure of salvation and redemption. These stories don’t suggest that space is a friendly place filled with rainbows. And yet its very alien, uncaring hostility gives us a canvas on which to paint some remarkably inspirational stories.
It’s funny: We live in an age of remarkable technological achievement and promise, but we live in fear. We worry about war, disease, global warming, overpopulation. And if our science fiction stories offer any clue to our psyches, we worry that our world is on the wrong path. Despite all of our know-how, we’ve lost something. And we wonder whether we can get it back.
So we look elsewhere, out there, to find it. We look to the stars for hope.
The Martian is not a particularly spiritual movie. Interstellar and Gravity are a bit more, but none rely on a supernatural faith for their power. And yet, by accident or design, they carry a whiff of faith with them. Mark lives like a monk on Mars—a stark, simple, sacrificial life that winnows him down to his essence. In Gravity’s bleakest moment, Ryan talks about prayer—and has a prayer answered shortly thereafter. In Interstellar, Cooper sacrifices everything for the world he loves—a sacrifice that, for Christians, echoes with Christ’s sacrifice for us.
The dystopian worlds, too, carry spiritual warning on the wages of sin. After all, many of these worlds were destroyed through some combination of the Medieval world’s seven deadly sins: rage and lust, gluttony and avarice, sloth and envy and pride. These broken worlds aren’t being assaulted by otherworldly forces: We are to blame for what they’ve become. We are at fault. For the world to regain our balance, we have to reject those sins and discover who we were always meant to be.
But it’s hard to do that. So hard. And so science fiction looks outside our world for a place unsullied by our sins. We must find a clean slate. And so we search for it outside our own planetary borders. We look for it, in a sense, in the heavens.