Oscars 2016: Left for Dead in a Desolate Environment Edition

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Oscars

Live with a man 40 years. Share his house, his meals. Speak on every subject. Then tie him up, and hold him over the volcano’s edge. And on that day, you will finally meet the man.

– Shan Yu

I watched these as a double-feature. My wife and I took a look at the AMC Oscar Showcase marathons and decided that they had just packed too much into too little time, and in a poor order to boot. I don’t know who set it up, but after sitting in a theater for eight hours, that’s when they figured it would be a good time to settle in for The Revenant? No, I believe that trying to constructively watch that many hours of film in a row is just as much as trying to appreciate great cinematography and effects work on a cell phone. Like a good playlist, a movie marathon has to be curated with an emotional arc in mind. You can’t end with an emotionally draining movie, because after an entire day the audience just won’t be able to follow along. There are rules. So on the day we went to see The Revenant it was decided to follow it up with the hilarious movie The Martian.

Thematically, these could not have been a better pairing. Like salt on pizza or balsamic vinegar on ice cream, they just work. From an abstract they actually appear to be very similar movies. Both are about men on an expedition who, due to a last-minute injury, are left for dead in a desolate and harsh environment. Through their perseverance and ingenuity they manage to save themselves and eventually make their way back to civilization. Rest assured, these aren’t remotely the same films. We’re not talking about Volcano/Dante’s Peak or Deep Impact/Armageddon pairings, either. These actually work together to parse out the human condition in extreme cases of isolation, and each takes a very different approach because Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Mark Watney (Matt Damon) are very different people.

It’s almost like these were made to be seen together. The Martian takes place in a dry, red wasteland and The Revenant in a cold and frozen wild, but in both cases it’s a balance of isolation and resource management that plague the protagonists. The Revenant’s Glass seems to overcome these by sheer force of will. He’s nearly dead, burning with infection, immobilized with a broken leg, and half-starved. He literally drags himself across Montana and South Dakota. His fuel is a burning desire for revenge on the murderer of his son, and he tears himself apart with his own fanatical momentum. Mark Watney is a completely different take on nearly impossible survival. He’s flippant and sarcastic, filling his video log, will, and testament with observations about his terrible music options while performing the 21st century equivalent of whittling tools. A few times he casually remarks that he’ll most likely die soon, but shrugs it off and figures that he might as well spend his last moments trying out yet another experiment that will extend his survival.

Glass explicitly states that he is willing to move forward into the wild because he’s reached a place where he has nothing left to lose and no longer fears death. Watney constantly fears death, but is never immobilized by it. It’s worth noting that he doesn;’t have any direct family back on Earth that he’s fighting to see again. There’s no tearful message from his spouse and child, no message from his parents that spur him on in a moment of lapsed hope. Thematically Glass becomes this living embodiment of revenge. Watney, as a parallel, is the personification of scientific inquiry. He’s living an experiment and, when it appears that it may be unsuccessful he never questions his choices that led him to be left on Mars. He never stops experimenting to see how far he can push his supplies in furthering human survival. While he absolutely does, as an individual, want to survive he never succumbs to hopelessness. His video logs play no small part in this. As long as he’s discovering new capabilities on Mars he’s serving a purpose. this dichotomy is probably shown at its clearest when looking at how each movie regards suicide. Glass assumes he’s more of a burden on his party than anything else and (seemingly) silently consents to be killed. Watney, while stranded on Mars, seems to never consider suicide. He openly talks to the camera and himself about dying, but not about giving up. He’s perpetually onward for the greater good. These two each embody a very different perspective on how to keep moving (or giving up) in the face of certain death.

There’s also a something to read into regarding each of their parties and how they react to their survivor. Perhaps it’s not fair to judge Glass’s party as his commander did insist on leaving people to watch over him in order to insure that as many as possible of his group would survive. Wantey’s team thought him to be dead based on his suit’s health sensor’s no longer reporting life. Both commanders end up suffering guilt but for very different reasons. It could be looked at as an active versus passive command choice. Glass’ Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) makes the choice to leave the still living Glass behind. He does so in the noblest way possible; he does so in order to insure the safety of the able-bodied members of the party, and leaves three people behind to watch over him with the promise of additional payment. It must be a difficult choice, to look at a living member of a party, a group you are wholly responsible for, and to move on without him. Later on when Glass walks into his camp it’s clear that Henry is torn. He’s stoic enough to hold back on an emotional reaction, but the rage at the two men who were watching him having lied sparks the same single-minded desire to take vengeance (or justice) against them.

On the passive side is The Martian’s Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). She leaves Watney on Mars presuming him to be dead based on the fact that his suit stops broadcasting his vital signs. When told of his survival her reaction is that of guilt, but it is channeled internally. She can’t blame anyone else for duping her about the crew member’s survival. The person who got the facts wrong and left him for dead is herself. Perhaps it’s this self-directed guilt that makes her quickly take up the cause of rescuing him as soon as possible, committing mutiny in the process. From her perspective it may be desperation to right her own wrong. From the perspective of the audience, though, it comes across as a bit of strange a reliance on cinematic trope, especially for a story that was written with the conceit of being as accurate as possible.

On the side of antagonists it comes down to Tom Hardy’s  John Fitzgerald in The Revenant. If there is an analogous character in The Martian it would Jeff Daniels‘ Teddy Sanders who’s reluctance to commit entirely to a rescue is due to politicking and budget woes. Though a bit underwritten, it’s fascinating that Sanders is the closest thing to a villain that The Martian has, but character wise he’s most similar to The Revenant’s Captain Henry. Both of them are ultimately responsible for the entire crews they command, and both find it necessary to make sacrifices in order to insure the safety of the largest number of people possible. It’s an interesting twist on the structure that the most villainous force in the Martian is a marginally bureaucratic ally.

Fitzgerald, on the other hand, is straight up American opportunism in human form. He’s an ally as long as the cash is enough to balance his own self-preservation. He has no hard allegiances to anyone else, and would seem cartoonishly evil were he not so grounded and measured in his actions. It’s shown eventually that this greed isn’t actually his downfall. It’s his callow nature. Were Hardy’s character not so fearful of the frontier he’s chosen to find work in he’d probably do well for himself. He’s willing to take risks, and often these come with high reward. His failing is that he’s not willing to follow through with the risks he agrees to. He volunteers to stay with Glass but isn’t willing to actually wait out his recovery or death. He presents himself as a frontiersman but is too fearful of the frontier to thrive.

It’s that lack of fear that allow both Watney and Glass to persevere against the odds, one in the wilds of the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, and the other on the desolate landscape of Mars. These people come up against mountains, injury, and a lack of food and both of them push onward. They don’t expect to survive and that’s exactly why they take risks. If Glass had fearfully stayed at the camp he’s left at he’d surely die of exposure, starvation, or attack. If Watney had simply stayed inside his camp and carefully rationed his food he’d have starved to death as well. But that’s how most great survival stories play out. Dauntless perseverance in the face of insurmountable nature. That’s the impressive part. But fighting a bear or colonizing Mars is pretty kick ass, too.

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About Adam

Adam is a Jewish American who's sick of the white Christian male being America's "default" setting. For money he works in a public library because free books and information access is wonderful things. For love he writes here for his pet project, The Chaotic Neutral, which is always looking for more writers. You can follow him on Instagram, Goodreads, and at his oft neglected Twitter where he will try to post more, and probably live-tweet the Eurovision Song Contest.

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