HOLLYWOOD - As kids, many of us have experienced the fear of being left behind. Lost in a supermarket, panicking as your parents get too far ahead of you during a walk in the park … now imagine being left on an entirely different planet.
“The Martian” is based on that premise as astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, deals with what must be some serious abandonment issues after being mistaken for dead and left on Mars. He then has to figure out how to survive on the red planet by himself with little to help him.
Damon’s turn as an enterprising astronaut and botanist earned him a Golden Globe for best actor, and an Oscar nod in the same category (the Academy Awards take place Feb. 28). While he has been thrilling audiences as Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” film series — fans are eagerly awaiting a fifth installment due for release later this year — Damon, 45, says Mark the Martian is someone he can more easily relate to.
“This is more like what I’m like … he’s way more like me than Jason Bourne,” Damon tells The Japan Times. “(In the “Bourne” films, I’m) acting. This is more like just doing. In Mark’s place I’d be doing the same thing: anything I could to survive. I wouldn’t go down without a monumental struggle.”
Mark’s struggle to survive is captivating. He calculates what he needs to do in order to make it till the next spaceship from Earth heads to Mars. His background in botany is an immense help, but one mistake, miscalculation or act of Ares could result in a rather painful end.
“The audience identifies totally with him. They have their hopes raised, there’s a chance he can make it,” Damon says, putting himself in the viewer’s seat. “OK,” they say, “I know, he’ll almost certainly make it because he’s the hero, for gosh sakes. He’s a botanist and he’s managing to raise his own food supply. Then … wham! Gone!”
These sudden challenges make “The Martian” a roller coaster of emotions: hope, despair … Damon says it has the “classic end of an Act II structure of a play or screenplay where a whole new obstacle comes up. This is part of what makes a great screenplay and movie.”
It has already won a Golden Globe for best musical/comedy film and is nominated for best picture at the Oscars. Also nominated is Drew Goddard, who adapted the screenplay from Andy Weir’s 2011 novel of the same name.
Besides receiving recognition from the academy, “The Martian” has been a hit at the box office as well. It has earned around $600 million worldwide so far, was the eighth highest-grossing film of last year and is the only best picture nominee to feature in last year’s top 10 (“Mad Max: Fury Road” comes in at No. 20). Ridley Scott didn’t receive any Oscar recognition for his directing, but this has been his most profitable film to date.
Mass interest may come from the subject matter, and it isn’t Damon’s first foray into interplanetary adventures. In 2014 he costarred in “Interstellar” with “The Martian” co-star Jessica Chastain. The former flick dealt with a global crop blight that threatened life on Earth. Chastain was a physicist in that one and this time plays Cmdr. Melissa Lewis, leader of the Mars mission and the one who ultimately makes the decision to lift off without Mark.
She researched her role at NASA’s facilities and with the help of astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, who was reportedly impressed by the 38-year-old actress.
“To work on a lavish set is sometimes a little daunting,” Chastain says, referring to the sound stages where “The Martian” was filmed at Korda Studios near Budapest. “But astronauts work in space, and that means two things: sheer outer space, something that sounds glamorous but must be at times terrifying, and inside a machine, a rocket, that is beyond complex to laypeople like myself and is not a sure thing.
“But I have to say how awed I was at the Korda Studios,” named after the Hungarian brothers who dominated British filmmaking before World War II. “Ridley has an instinct for what captures and holds an audience’s attention, and though sets are only part of it, I was initially flabbergasted.”
If Damon’s character is the kid who’s left behind, Chastain’s is no doubt the parent who left him. Taking her team back to Mars to rescue Mark is a dangerous prospect, but none of the crew want to abandon their friend.
“I was intrigued by the conflicting, bisecting emotions Lewis would feel,” Chastain says. “On the one hand, guilt once she learns Watney has been left behind alive. On the other, her responsibility to the other five crew mates.”
Chastain, who is no stranger to heavy scripts with “Zero Dark Thirty,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Interstellar” on her resume, observes that “The Martian” gives “the elephant’s share of its emotional focus” to Damon’s character and his struggle to survive.
“It’s understandable,” she adds, “I’d love to have played his part, which would be very feasible. You might almost call this movie a male reply to ‘Gravity,’ ” in which Sandra Bullock played an imperiled astronaut lost in space.
The decision of whether or not to tell Cmdr. Lewis and her crew the news about Mark initially rests on the shoulders of NASA head Teddy Sanders, played by Jeff Daniels.
“He is not a villain,” Daniels insists. “Teddy Sanders is a bureaucrat. As such, he’s beholden to the company and its goal. He’s a man afraid of taking risks. He may also be one of those people — there’s lot of them — who thinks an individual, in given circumstances, may be necessarily sacrificed to the greater good of several individuals or to the success of the attempted mission.”
Daniels, 60, is a familiar face on the screen, his breakthrough role came in 1983 with “Terms of Endearment,” but he has recently won critical acclaim for his portrayal of news anchor Will McAvoy in the HBO television series “The Newsroom.”
“You can’t discount these bureaucratic guys,” he explains, “even in action movies. Somebody has to pay for the adventures the hero or heroine goes on, and someone has to make decisions — wrongly and rightly. I maybe have the sort of face of a boss that’s not anyone’s favorite, but he’s not a nightmare boss.”
Daniels contributes a point many supporting actors would no doubt back up: “A lead or co-lead doesn’t come along that often, and sometimes it’s the smart and enjoyable choice to take a part that’s undramatic or semi-dramatic in a big, sprawling, really expensive movie overseen by a big-time director and with major financial prospects.
“I actually loved playing Teddy Sanders in this movie. The movie’s a thrill to be in as well as a thrill to watch.”
“The Martian” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.foxmovies.com/movies/the-martian.