Spoiler Alert: This post contains spoilers for both The Martian and The Revenant. Continue reading at your own risk.
Of all the films nominated for Best Picture of 2015 by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences there are few common themes that emerge. True, both Spotlight and The Big Short delve into the exploitation of vulnerable populations by those who have power over them (priests and bankers), and most of the other films explore the depth of human emotion that usually attract Oscar attention, but they don’t seem to have much else in common. The exceptions, of course, are the two films about survival, The Martian and The Revenant.
There are plenty of obvious parallels between these films, events and actions that they have in common. The fur trapping expedition in the American wilderness is cut short by an Indian attack. The exploration of Mars is cut short by an unexpected dust storm. Frontiersman Henry Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is mauled by a bear. Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is mauled by a windblown communication antenna. Both men are left for dead in a hostile environment and use specialized skills and knowledge to survive. Glass cuts open a horse carcass to use as a shelter; Watney cuts open a rover to adapt it for his survival. Glass builds a fish trap to feed himself. Watney builds a potato farm to do the same. Glass performs surgery on himself (cauterizing a wound in his neck with gunpowder), as does Watney. Both men struggle for survival against a backdrop of gorgeous scenery, and both men adopt something of an extra-human identity, Watney becoming The Martian, identifying with his new world, as Glass becomes The Revenant, one who has returned from death. It is clear that these stories share a basic mythological foundation.
Of course while both men focus on surviving, Glass is also motivated by revenge, hoping to catch up to John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), the man who killed his son and abandoned him. This explains the grim intensity of Glass’ story when compared to Watney’s. Watney uses humor to help himself cope with his situation, while Glass rarely cracks a smile (the only moment of lightness coming during the snowflake catching scene). Both Damon and DiCaprio are up for Best Actor for their performances in these films, with the general consensus being that DiCaprio will finally get the award for his portrayal of Glass. But between what are essentially two one-note performances, I’d say Damon had the harder job. He not only had to portray Watney’s many struggles to survive, but he also had to have good comic timing. As the old saying goes, “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But maybe Damon did too good a job, as the Hollywood Foreign Press awarded him and The Martian Golden Globes for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical and Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture.
The only other performance I’ve seen in the Best Actor category is Bryan Cranston’s as Dalton Trumbo, and while it is certainly a good performance, it is not really a threat to either DiCaprio or Damon. Based solely on the Academy’s usual treatment of comedic efforts, I’m guessing that DiCaprio’s grim intensity will outweigh Damon’s comic timing, but you never know. #OscarsSoSerious