The Martian: The parable of the lost sheep gets a space-age reboot

Good things come to those who wait. The Martian, Ridley Scott's adaptation of Andy Weir's best-selling sci-fi novel, has been eagerly anticipated by movie fans throughout 2015; it arrives in UK cinemas this week and proves to be absolutely deserving of the hype.

The basic details of the setup are well-known: the film opens with a team of astronauts including Mark Watney (Matt Damon) collecting rock samples on the surface of Mars. A huge, deadly storm catches them by surprise and Watney is killed during the planet's evacuation – or so his colleagues believe. They blast off, devastated, on the long journey back to earth, but as the storm subsides, the injured Watney wakes up to find himself completely alone on the red planet.

Watney is not only alone, but has no means of leaving Mars or even contacting NASA to let them know he's still alive. He has food supplies to last less than a year, and lives constantly under the threat of the fierce storms which first created his predicament. Yet early on Watney decides: "I'm not going to die here"; what follows is a case study in human ingenuity, as the astronaut (crucially also a botanist) takes on his huge and seemingly-impossible problems one by one.

Without giving any more away, it's not long before NASA and then his crew-mates become aware that Watney is still alive, and begin the debate around whether it's possible – or even right – to attempt a rescue. Soon the whole planet becomes gripped by the hope that somehow the space agencies might find a way to "bring him home" (the strangely compelling marketing tagline for the film).

In the Bible, Jesus famously tells a story about a shepherd who leaves 99 per cent of his flock behind in order to undertake a search for the one who has become lost. To the original audience that might have sounded strange; why would a single sheep be of such value that the shepherd might risk his own safety, and that of the rest of the flock, just to get it back? Yet Jesus says "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who do not need to." The point – I think – is not only about the metaphor for sin and repentance, but that every single person is of such great worth and value that they're worth risking everything for.

That's exactly the conclusion that many of the characters around Mark Watney come to in The Martian. The film is actually a brilliant 21st century retelling of Jesus' ancient, primal story. Which is ironic, given that much like last year's superb Interstellar (with which it shares so much DNA), The Martian appears to be a humanist celebration of what man can achieve by pushing at the edges of science. God is almost a total absentee from the film; Watney never, ever prays during his time alone on Mars, making him unusual among people who find themselves in a life-threatening situation. Jesus does make an appearance, strapped to a wooden crucifix owned by one of Watney's Catholic crew-mates, and the ensuing sacrifice of that cross becomes part of a brilliant water-of-life metaphor, but it's not clear whether that's intentional. Either way, The Martian presents a scientific worldview with little need for God.

Which doesn't actually matter at all. In catching us up in Watney's plight, along with the whole of the fictional watching world, the film underlines the entirely unscientific mystery of human worth. Whatever the risks, the expense and the odds of failure, deep down every one of us knows that people are priceless, and worth giving everything for. In fact, in taking on the mission to try to retrieve Mark Watney, the heroes assume a Christ-like position, demonstrating once again that there's no greater love than laying down your life for your friends; they are prepared to face their own deaths in the hope of saving just a single soul.

The Martian is an astonishing film. Damon's central performance is compelling; supported by an all-star cast including Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejofor and Sean Bean. Scott paces things perfectly, never allowing Watney's long wait on Mars to become mundane, and sustaining often stomach-churning dramatic tension throughout. By the end of the film, you still don't know which way it's going to go, and the audience is still as utterly invested and engaged in the result as the multitudes waiting for news back on earth.

Christian Today doesn't give star-ratings, but if we did, this film would achieve top marks. It's a beautiful, brilliantly-written masterpiece of Proper Science Fiction that's as nail-biting as it is uplifting. The Martian is my undisputed film of 2015 so far, and possibly the best cinematic retelling of a Bible story I've ever seen.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders