Until seeing The Martian, it had never occurred to me that Matt Damon might soon be younger generations' version of Tom Hanks. Both actors can handle comedy and drama, have been in a nice mix of Oscar contenders and crowd pleasers, do funny stuff on late night shows, and both display an effortless, non-threatening, regular-guy appeal that makes them easy to relate to and root for. But what really made me think about the similarities between the two actors is the fact that The Martian -- about an astronaut (Damon) who gets stranded on Mars and the engineers, scientists, astrophysicists, and fellow astronauts trying to bring him home -- can best be described as a combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away, which feature two of Hanks' most memorable performances. Watch the trailer for The Martian below.
To write this review, I decided to revisit Apollo 13, Ron Howard's film about the near-disastrous 1970 mission to the Moon that left three astronauts stranded in space aboard a crippled vessel. I remember very much enjoying Apollo 13 when I saw it in 1995, and the film definitely holds up twenty years later. But rewatching it, I was surprised that I had forgotten that astronauts Jim Lovell (Hanks), Fred Haise (Bill Paxton), and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) don't blast off until 35 minutes into the movie, and it isn't until 50 minutes in before "Houston, we have a problem". Those first 35 minutes are spent explaining things like the astronaut selection process, the home lives of the Apollo 13 astronauts, the training for their mission, and the state of NASA at a time when America had seemingly become bored with space travel. It's interesting stuff that's important in setting up the era the film takes place in, but compared to the excitement and peril to come in a movie that stretches to 140 minutes, it can feel somewhat slow on a second viewing.
In comparison, The Martian (which clocks in at 141 minutes) hits the ground running with astronaut/botanist Mark Watney (Damon) and the rest of the Ares 3 crew (Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Kate Mara, Michael Peña, Aksel Hennie) already on Mars and quickly finding themselves in trouble as a violent storm forces an emergency departure from the red planet, with Watney left behind and presumed dead. Obviously, Watney has survived the storm (not a spoiler!) and must use every scrap of equipment he can find, as well as all of the scientific/technical know-how and emotional strength he can muster, to survive the years until the next manned mission to Mars can rescue him. In the meantime, the best and brightest minds at NASA (led by Chiwetel Ejiofor as the Ares 3 mission director) work feverishly to come up with ways to help Watney survive while the Ares 3 crew contemplates a dangerous rescue mission of their own.
Like Apollo 13, a lot of the joy of The Martian is watching smart people improvising and working tirelessly to find ingenious ways to solve seemingly insurmountable obstacles in a film that celebrates science, teamwork, and intelligence. While the achievements of the thousands of non-astronaut men and women who make manned space travel possible often go unrecognized, it seems like they get their moments to shine in space disaster movies where the best ideas and keenest observations win, regardless of who they came from. As a lover of science, it's hard not to be excited about a film where "I'm going to have to science the shit out of this" and "I did the math" are the most badass things a character can say. And with the recent, seemingly uncoincidental announcement just days ago of liquid water being found on Mars, we're going to not only need to inspire kids to be the NASA geniuses of the future, but also to convince future generations to support their missions (budgetary constraints for future space exploration is a theme in both Apollo 13 and The Martian).
But The Martian is also about a man who must survive for years alone in a hostile environment, just as Hanks' character must do in Cast Away as a FedEx manager stranded on a deserted island after a plane crash. Instead of Wilson the volleyball for conversation, Watney has a video log he's keeping in case he or his remains are ever recovered. Like Wilson, it's a convenient device that helps Watney explain his thoughts and activities to the audience instead of just watching him work and think in silence. The log also provides an opportunity for levity as the wisecracking, increasingly profane Watney brags about his accomplishments and indulges in some gallows humor about his setbacks and the absurdity of the odds he faces.
Even with such a talented supporting cast -- which includes Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and Donald Glover -- all those Watney monologues could've become insufferable in the hands of almost any other actor. In fact, one of the only actors I can think of with the same mix of warmth, charisma, humor, intelligence, and effortless likability is Tom Hanks, who most likely would've played Watney if The Martian had been made twenty years ago or Hanks looked as young as the now 45-year-old Damon. But with Hanks about to enter his sixties, he'll soon be moving on to more grandpa roles, leaving the title of America's Favorite Dad up for grabs. Despite some recent potential gaffes, I think it's a role Damon is uniquely suited for. He may not be as silly as Hanks can be, but Damon's sly sense of humor feels more modern -- a funny, cool, politically progressive dad instead of a Hanksian goofball who a teenager today might roll her eyes at.
And from a career point of view, The Martian shows that Damon has just secured a big part of a very Hanks-like filmography.