(*Note: The following post may contain minor spoilers for The Martian and The Revenant)
Two of the most successful films of 2015 (at least among the films that didn’t star an Avenger or a Jedi) were The Martian and The Revenant. These two movies are very different from each other, and yet they make an interesting pair.
One movie—The Martian—is about a guy who is accidentally left behind on a scientific expedition to another planet; the other movie—The Revenant—is about a guy who is intentionally left behind in the wilderness by a villainous coworker. As such, both films are about survival.
One movie—The Martian—tells a story of humanity banding together to save this one man; the other movie—The Revenant—tells a story about a man who is completely on his own.
One movie—The Martian—is filled with joy and hope; the other movie—The Revenant—is filled with despair and sorrow.
So these two films, viewed together, generate some interesting discussion over a range of topics.
But here’s the thing that I find most interesting about these two movies: Both films are an exploration about what it means to be human.
There were actually several movies from 2015 that dealt with this question regarding the nature of humanity (Inside Out, While We’re Young, The End of the Tour, The Stanford Prison Experiment, Ex Machina, and Dope, just to name a few). This seems to be a recurring question that filmmakers are asking these days.
I think it’s a great question.
In the first chapter of the Bible, there is a poem that insists that human beings—men and women—were made in the image of God, or the Imago Dei (Genesis 1.26). In the second chapter of the Bible, we are told that when God created humanity, God “breathed the breath of life” into us (Genesis 2.7).
So human beings are made with physicality, but we are also made with divinity. We are flesh and blood and bones and tendons, but we are also spirit.
As I was watching The Revenant, one of the recurring themes that struck me was that this was a story about how human beings can become like animals in terrible, desperate situations. There is a brutal scene in which a man fights a bear; there is alsoa scene later in the movie when two men fight, and that fight is staged very similarly to the earlier fight with the bear. There is a scene in which wild pigs are scrounging through an encampment of slaughtered Native Americans, and then a human walks through the scene and begins picking up items from the ground and keeping them—essentially mirroring the behavior of the pigs. As I watched, I began to realize that almost every time a human did something, there was also a scene in which a wild animal did something very similar. So The Revenant is—at least in part—about the carnality of human beings.
On the other hand, The Martian pushes the theme far in the other direction. Not only does the whole world bands together to save a single human life, but they use advanced scientific methods to do so. There are no villains in The Martian because in this story every human being on the planet is on the same side. In a time when lots of movies accumulate higher and higher body counts (disaster movies, superhero movies, etc.), the entire point of the movie is to save one person’s life.
The Revenant is about the worst of humanity. The Martian is about the best of humanity.
We have it within us to be savage and subhuman.
We also have it within us to be fully human—filled with something that transcends our base urges.
We have it within us to act in the best interest of someone else.
We have it within us to care for the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten.
We have it within us to see the humanity in others, even when they aren’t like us.
The question of what it means to be human is more relevant today than ever before. We project digital versions of ourselves online, and we spend more time looking at screens than we do looking at one another (granted, I am writing this post on a computer with a screen attached to it). We use heated, hyperbolic rhetoric against one another because we want to be right.
So I’m posting this as a way of asking an open-ended question. It’s something I’m working through myself, and it’s endlessly fascinating to explore.
Are we reducing ourselves to our most animalistic tendencies, becoming less and less human?
Or are we rising to our fully human potential, valuing life and offering hope and joy and love to those around us as best we can?
Each of us has the potential to more or less of who we were created to be.
May we rise to our fully human, Imago Dei, potential.