Tuesday, February 2, 2016


There's an interesting choice in the competition for the Best Actor Oscar between two kinds of survivor. Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio are the front-runners for the award, and that's remarkable in itself in that Damon's character in The Martian is completely fictional, while DiCaprio's in The Revenant is several degrees removed from his real-life original. But this mano-i-mano also gives Academy voters a meaningful choice between two sorts of performance as well as two types of survivor. DiCaprio is favored for internalizing the ordeal of his character, filming under harsh if not mortifying conditions. His performance is as much an act of will as his character's survival is in the film. By comparison, Ridley Scott's Martian is the movie that gave us one of the lines of the past year, when Damon's character says "I've got to science the shit out of this." It isn't elegant but it makes the point. As most people know by now, his character, astronaut and botany expert Mark Watney, is abandoned on Mars when a freak accident during a storm cuts off his life-sign monitors and his ability to communicate with his crewmates. Right here the difference between Martian and Revenant couldn't be more stark; DiCaprio is abandoned by human malice, Damon by pure accident. The differentiation continues as it comes to take a planet, nearly, to rescue Mark Watney, while his crewmates, belatedly informed of his plight, risk their lives to lend a hand. The Martian is a fable of cooperation as well as personal ingenuity, while The Revenant is all about the powers of will and hate. Mark Watney is a 21st century Robinson Crusoe, but only for a brief time is he as truly alone as Crusoe was for so many years. Martian is less an existential survival tale than All is Lost or even Gravity; the internal life of the astronaut ends up relatively irrelevant, and for the story's purposes all we really need to know about Watney is that he's really smart and resourceful. In turn, all Damon really needs to be is a clever Everyman in a way DiCaprio's revenant isn't. Watney is a glib, narcissist Everyman dedicated to recording himself -- not that that's a bad idea, given his historic as well as perilous situation -- without contributing much introspection to the recordings. I doubt the film could stand much of that, anyway. It aims to please, sometimes to a crass extent, from its have-it-both-ways attitude toward disco music -- it's there to sell a soundtrack album, and because it's apparently all Watney has to listen to, but he hates the stuff -- to one of the most belabored in-jokes in movie history to exploit Sean (Boromir) Bean's presence as a NASA mission director. I can forgive its sins of crassness or shallowness because I think The Martian is the sort of optimistic celebration of human potential we ought to have in movie theaters alongside the more artistic and self-indulgent stuff. Though a period piece, Revenant is a kind of apocalyptic survivalism that isn't meant to inspire and doesn't have to to impress us. On some level it probably appeals most to people who imagine having to live like DiCaprio does someday. The Martian, meanwhile, should have people asking what happened to our manned space program, which has only progressed in the film's fantasy world that otherwise looks exactly like ours. That both films have been very popular tells us something about our divergent attitudes toward survival and progress. Which of the two stars wins the Oscar -- if either does -- may tell us something else of interest.


Anonymous said...

The problem with the Martian is that Hollywood's science fiction is way short on the "science" and overly heavy with the fiction. For example, let's consider the storm which puts the protagonist in his predicament. Although Mars does have such storms - many lasting for days at a time - the atmosphere on Mars is so thin that the wind blows the dust around with the force of a whisper. The biggest threat would be if you stay in one place and get buried alive. It's a good thing the average person is so woefully undereducated and incurious about the universe they live, or Hollywood would actually have to EARN those billion dollar box office receipts.

Samuel Wilson said...

The sad irony in that case is that Martian probably is still the most pro-science movie Hollywood made in 2015, but the filmmakers (and presumably the novelist) were clearly more interested in what the astronaut does after getting left behind, because then it becomes more of a generic survival story, than in how he got left behind.