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Sunday, February 07, 2016

Best of 2015, #2: The Martian

I have so much to say about this movie that I’ll spend the week on it, but, as with the other movies, let’s start with a rule it exemplified: This rule was originally called “Say No Way to Melee”, but more broadly stated, it could be “Human Scale is Better.” I actually cited another Mars movie as the problem here:
  • In the book, John Carter defeats a normal-sized white ape bare-handed, which makes for a thrilling action scene. In the movie, he defeats two 50-foot high white apes, which is just boring. In order to root for a hero, we have to be right in there with him, helping him figure out his next move.
This is the heart of the appeal of The Martian, and a stark contrast to a superficially similar movie from this year, The Revenant. Leo will almost certainly win the Oscar, while Damon will remain prize-less, but Damon deserves it. As an actor, it’s always tempting to go the register of “inhuman suffering” rather than “human suffering”. After all, you can’t conceive of how someone could live with this calamity, so why try? Just do a wild-eyed hyperventilating freak out the whole time. And why not? The Academy loves that.

But Damon makes the braver and more difficult choice. Rather than play up the unbelievability of his situation, Damon somehow makes us believe this is actually happening. This movie, after all, is not shot in real time. We’re watching more than a year on Mars. Damon gets a few freak-outs, but you can’t freak out all day long. The rest of the time, he’s doing something remarkable: showing us that a guy is making it work on Mars, complete with what, how, when, where, and why.

And not just any guy: a guy’s guy. A canny, jokey, ornery, and super, super smart guy. So much of Damon’s solo performance just consists of thinking, which is one of the hardest things to do onscreen. This brings up another direction he could have gone: the Cumberbatch direction, in which geniuses are all intense, twitchy and anti-social. But Damon, taking his lead from the wonderful novel, reintroduces a lost icon: the genius as grease-monkey. I can’t wait until my kids are old enough for this movie, because I finally get to show them a science hero who’s not a jerk!

As always, Damon makes what he does look easy, which is why he may never get a statue, but humbly thinking and doing things onscreen is actually tremendously hard, so much so that few actors even attempt it. I think no one else could have pulled off this remarkable performance.

Next: What The Martian does right that The Force Awakens does wrong

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