Peter T. Chattaway
"Something Big and Beautiful and Greater Than Me"
On the surface, it might not seem that films like The Martian, Everest, and The Walk have a lot in common, beyond their spectacular 3D imagery. The first film is a sci-fi thriller about an astronaut stranded on Mars, the second tells the tragic true story of a hiking expedition that went wrong, and the third is practically a light comedy—also based on a true story—about a wire-walker who walked between the World Trade Center towers in the early 1970s. But all three films, which came out in theaters within a few weeks of one another, do have this much in common: they are about the confidence, and sometimes hubris, of bold, brilliant people who think they can outsmart death.
Everest focuses on a commercial hiking expedition led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), a New Zealander who offered amateurs a chance to climb the tallest mountain in the world and get back down again safely for the princely sum of $65,000. In an early meeting with his clients, Hall tells them he is taking them into the "death zone"—a place so high above sea level that human life cannot survive—and he tells them that they will be "literally dying" while they are up there. But he assures them that he has never lost a customer yet, and that he has taken all the precautions he needs to ensure that he can get the team back down again before any permanent damage is done.
From the beginning, the film lets us know the odds are against Hall. An opening title card tells us that one in four professional climbers have died while climbing Everest, and Hall's clients take note of a memorial to the mountain's victims. But Hall, who pioneered the concept of commercial guiding on Everest, has already taken 19 clients up and down the mountain without a single fatality over the previous four years, and his success has inspired a number of imitators—which causes problems of its own when it turns out that too many people are now trying to cross the same ladder bridges and inch along the same narrow ledges at the same time. Hall calls a meeting to see if the different groups can figure out a way to cooperate or work around each other, but some of them balk at his suggestion—which leads one climber to remark that people shouldn't be competing with each other when the real competition is between all of them and the mountain.
In the end, Hall and most of his clients do make it to the summit, and there is a palpable sense of joy as they celebrate their accomplishment. But then they have to get back down again, and things begin to go wrong: partly because of a sudden storm that comes their way, partly because some of Hall's back-up plans don't pan out, and partly because Hall's own generosity—his willingness to take a struggling client up to the peak an hour or two after everyone was supposed to start going down—turns out to be his tragic flaw.
If there is one lesson that comes through loud and clear in Everest, it is that confidence and bravado are not enough to cheat death. Hall's determination to succeed—and his mildly defiant promise to be home in time for the birth of his daughter ("You try and stop me," he tells his wife when they say goodbye at the airport)—don't guarantee a single thing. Nor does one climber's belief in proving that regular guys can follow impossible dreams. If this were a work of fiction, you might expect such clichés to guarantee a happy, uplifting ending. But this is a true story, and remorseless nature takes whom it takes.
But nature also spares whom it spares: a climber named Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who was abandoned with several others after it seemed that they had all frozen to death, suddenly wakes up and, to everyone's surprise, staggers down the mountain to catch up with the other survivors. After all the death we have seen, Beck's unexpected revival comes across like a sort of resurrection, the loss of his hands and nose to frostbite notwithstanding. Perhaps not coincidentally, Weathers is the same climber who said in an earlier scene that the reason he climbs mountains is to feel "reborn." The mountain is full of death, but there is more to it than that.
If Everest is a tragedy, then The Walk is a comedy, and in just about every sense of the word. It tells the true story of Phillipe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a French wire-walker who, together with a ragtag team of collaborators, snuck into the World Trade Center towers and strung a wire between their roofs, allowing him to walk back and forth several times 110 stories above the ground. Petit is a somewhat outrageous character, obsessed with pursuing his "art" no matter what obstacles he faces, and (with the exception of a sad coda, which acknowledges what became of the towers decades later) the film plays his escapade for laughs—which is fairly easy to do because, thankfully, nobody was hurt.
Like the mountaineers in Everest, Petit scales great heights and openly defies death—though he tells us in an opening monologue that he never uses that word. Instead, he says that, for him, walking the wire is "life." And the film goes on to tease and celebrate him for the anarchic "arrogance" with which he mounts his daring and illegal feat.
Indeed, The Walk portrays Petit and his quest in almost mythological or even biblical terms. He says it's a providential "sign" when he first sees the pictures of the World Trade Center that spark his quest. At one point during his climactic wire-walk, while refusing to step off the wire and be arrested by the police, he actually lies down on the wire and looks up at the sky, his balancing rod intersecting visually with the wire to form a sort of cross. A seagull comes down and observes him, in a way that is almost reminiscent of the dove at Jesus' baptism—though for Petit, the seagull's arrival signals that it is time to get off the wire. And then, after Petit has returned to terra firma, he is informed that the people of New York—many of whom hated the towers because they looked like ugly giant "filing cabinets"—now love them because of his amazing feat. Petit's girlfriend says that he has given the towers "a soul"; architects and construction workers may have given the towers a body, but Petit, it seems, has given them the breath of life.
While Everest focuses on a death-dealing environment and The Walk focuses on an ambitious man's merry antics, The Martian, based on the science-fiction novel by Andy Weir, strikes a balance somewhere between the two. It begins with a team of astronauts fleeing the surface of Mars when a storm comes and threatens both their habitat and their ability to leave the planet safely. One team member, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), is left behind and presumed dead when the winds toss him aside and a piece of debris destroys his bio-monitor—but it turns out he survived the storm, and so he has to figure out how to live on Mars for the year or two (or three, or four) that it will take for NASA to rescue him.
On one level, the film depicts an uncommonly resourceful individual's determination to survive as he uses his smarts and the materials left on Mars (both by his teammates and by previous, unmanned NASA missions) to grow food, establish a means of communication with the folks back on Earth, and repair the damages sustained by his habitat, all while maintaining his sense of humor. But the film also shows how the efforts to bring Watney home require collaboration and cooperation, from the scientists and administrators who come up with a rescue plan to the astronauts who ultimately return to Mars to carry it out.
Directed by the agnostic but religion-haunted Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Exodus: Gods and Kings), The Martian cannot help but make a few nods to religious belief. In one scene, when he needs to start a small fire, Watney carves some wood from a crucifix left behind by one of his fellow astronauts, and he tells it, "I'm counting on you." In another scene, just before an emergency supply ship is about to launch, the NASA flight director asks his colleague if he believes in God, to which the colleague replies that his father was a Hindu and his mother was a Baptist, so he believes in "something." The flight director says he'll take all the help he can get—but alas, the supply ship blows up soon after liftoff.
If the film is ambivalent about the efficacy of religious belief, it nevertheless expresses a sense of awe that points to a deeper need for purpose that transcends death. Facing the fact that help might not come in time to save him, Watney leaves a message for his parents in which he says he's "dying for something big and beautiful and greater than me." The soundtrack also features a choir singing passages from Lucretius's On the Nature of Things, an ancient Roman poem that aimed to show how the world is moved by natural forces and not by the gods; composer Harry Gregson-Williams says he added this to the film's score because "it creates music that is 'holy' without being specifically religious as such."
Eventually, Watney is rescued, a year and a half after he was stranded, and the film concludes on two different but complementary notes. First, we see Watney back on Earth, preparing to teach some new recruits. "This is space. It does not cooperate," he says. And if they find themselves facing death, as he did, he says they can either accept that or do something about it: "You solve one problem, then you solve the next one, and then the next, and if you solve enough problems, you get to come home."
Then, as the end credits begin, the film shifts to a brand new Mars mission that is just about to launch. As the rocket and its passengers prepare to rise above the ground, The Martian gives every single character who helped save Watney his or her own close-up—some are still working at NASA, others are seen at home with their families—and it sets these images to a disco tune that invites "people all over the world" to "join hands." The montage underscores the film's theme that joy is to be found in community, and that people working together can solve any problem.
And yet, humanity does not get the last word. Once the film has run through all the close-ups, it cuts to a shot of the Earth and pans up into space as the song fades into silence. If that newly launched rocket is out there, we do not see it. Instead, the film ends by reminding us that the world is vastly bigger than us, and is something to be respected. To borrow a line from one of Everest's mountaineers, "The last word always belongs to the mountain." Or, in this case, the depths of space.
Peter T. Chattaway is a freelance film critic and blogger at Patheos.com with a special interest in Bible movies. He lives with his family in Surrey, B.C.
1. Daniel Schweiger, Interview with Harry Gregson-Williams, Film Music Magazine, October 1, 2015. .
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