What 'The Martian' Could Have Learned From 'Cast Away'

20th Century Fox/Public Domain
20th Century Fox/Public Domain

Fifteen years ago this week, audiences lined up to see Tom Hanks scream, often in very funny voices, at a volleyball. But while Cast Away racked up more than $429 million at the box office and earned yet another Best Actor Oscar nomination for its star, the 2000 film's cultural footprint seems to have faded like an SOS message etched into a sandy beach -- jokey Tom Hanks and Wilson reunions notwithstanding. As Hanks' character Chuck Nolan shouts in the film: "We live and die by time and we must not commit the sin of turning our back on time."

But time has a funny way of surprising us. Even more so than when Cast Away blew through theaters in 2000, stories of survival in harsh landscapes now hold a tight grip on the public's imagination. There will always be a taste for narratives of men and women who are left behind by society, shed the flaws of their old selves, and learn to live off the land. Only this year, that land was red. And dusty. And, occasionally, filled with shit for farming purposes. Yes, I'm talking about The Martian

In many ways, Ridley Scott's film is an update of Cast Away for a 2015 audience: a survival story for the know-it-all Reddit generation, all the wonder and mystery replaced with lifehacks, tutorials, and starry-eyed NASA product placement. Similarly, Robert Zemeckis' Robinson Crusoe tale, which debuted the same year as the gaming-changing CBS reality show Survivor, was a reflection of pre-9/11 anxieties: a commitment-phobic, married-to-his-beeper type learns to accept New Age-y truths about love, time, and the power of FedEx. For all its financial success and critical acclaim, The Martian was a beautifully shot but psychologically shallow and emotionally distant take on the survival genre. Cast Away, on the other hand, is even better than you remember. Here are five lessons that the directors, writers, and actors behind any survival tale could take from Zemeckis and Hanks' 15-year-old adventure film.

20th Century Fox

Give us a good backstory

While a compelling argument can be made against the backstory as a narrative device, there are situations where it can illuminate the interiority of a character and provide the viewer with enough emotional attachment to carry us through scenes of, say, food-gathering, fire-starting, and gentle sobbing. Cast Away kicks off with a bravura piece of concise, propulsive filmmaking wherein Zemeckis and writer William Bradley Jr. lay out all the necessary details to understand Chuck. When he finally leaves his girlfriend (Helen Hunt) behind with a ring in a box and an ominous "I'll be right back," we've already fallen in love with this charming lug. At the very least, we don't want to see anything bad happen to him. 

Drew Goddard, the writer of The Martian, penned multiple episodes of Lost, so he obviously knows the value of a good backstory -- try listening to this sound effect and not having a few flashbacks of your own. But, for one reason or another, The Martian's quippy botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) remains a cipher for most of the film, tied only to Earth by his relationship with his crewmates and a quickly glossed-over reference to his parents. The film's focus on the scientific over the personal might have been what brought readers to Andy Weir's best-selling book, but, in the context of a film, that lack of history drains the character of any moral complexity and put too much pressure on Damon to do all the emotional heavy lifting.

Nothing is scarier than a toothache

How will we know how badass a hero is if he or she doesn't yank a foreign object from their body? In the pantheon of unpleasant cinematic tooth operations, Cast Away's oral surgery-by-ice skate stands up there with Marathon Man's interrogation scene and Steve Martin's Little Shop of Horrors teeth-pulling number. When Hanks finally knocks himself out with a blade of glory, it's a wrenching, terrifying moment. 

To be fair, The Martian has a queasy, shield-your-eyes scene of DIY surgery, but, because of Mark Watney's extensive knowledge and access to some rudimentary medical supplies, the procedure itself is relatively conventional. It's impressive that he pulls a scrap of metal from his body. But does it have the same everyman MacGyver charm? Not really.

Don't be afraid of silence

Shhh... Do you hear that? Listen... Yes, that's the sound of waves crashing into the beach and trees blowing in the wind. In one of Cast Away's most daring stylistic choices, the movie's mournful, elegiac score by frequent Zemeckis collaborator Alan Silvestri (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump) doesn't kick in until after Hanks has left the island. The majority of the film, including its horrifying plane crash sequence, is completely without an original score. It creates an isolating effect. Like poor Tom Hanks, the viewer is adrift.

Now, compare that to the rhythmic assault of The Martian. In addition to composer Harry Gregson-Williams' propulsive score, the film has another metronome ticking away: Damon's constant banter. Replacing Wilson the volleyball with a trusty GoPro, the film becomes a series of performative monologues packed with jokes, helpful tips, and rockist complaints about Jessica Chastain's disco music. It gives the movie a bouncy pace but it also strains credibility that any human, even one as seemingly indestructible and chipper as Matt Damon, would spend over 500 sols (Martian days, which are 39 minutes longer than our days) talking to themselves. At least Wilson talked back and had a cool haircut.

20th Century Fox

Psychologically complex characters are good

Let's talk about Wilson. Before the volleyball became a pop-culture punchline, he was a narrative device that kept Cast Away from becoming an avant-garde film about extreme weight loss. Towards the beginning of the film, he's there as purely comedic relief, providing Zemeckis with deadpan cutaways and Hanks with something to play off of. But as the story progresses, Wilson becomes the perfect co-star, a reflection of Hanks' growing isolation, anger, and mania. Hanks eventually leaves the island, shouting, "Don't worry Wilson, I'll do all the paddling. You just hang on!" You half expect the stoic sporting good to call back; that's how far inside Hanks’s psyche the movie puts you.

What psychological insights do we get into the character of Mark Watney? We know he loves his crew. He loves to "science the shit" out of things. He's very determined. Judging from those arms, he probably works out. As a story about teamwork and the inventive potential of large government bureaucracies, The Martian is a slick and enjoyable film. But as a portrait of a man pushed to the brink beyond the edges of civilization? Well, it's not really that. Even when the movie makes a time jump and Watney appears with a Cast Away-esque beard, he quickly loses his Father John Misty look and gets back to work. It's inspiring from an upper-management perspective, I suppose -- Watney was doubtlessly NASA's employee of the year -- but it's not exactly great drama.

A little ambiguity goes a long way

Warning: spoilers for The Martian and Cast Away endings follow. When you're any movie in the blockbuster survival genre, you rarely think the main character is actually going to die. This isn't Gus Van Sant's Gerry. Matt Damon is not going to disappear in a red dust cloud and Tom Hanks isn't getting eaten by a whale -- there's simply too much money riding on a blockbuster of this scale for the story to get that bleak. But that doesn't mean the filmmakers can't sprinkle bits of ambiguity in there.

The ending of The Martian takes the "where are they now" approach to its resolution, rejecting the poetic simplicity of a movie like Gravity to instead tell us where exactly each character ended up after the events of the film. Matt Damon is a teacher! Jessica Chastain got her ABBA album! NASA launches another shuttle! There's no attempt to grapple with the fall-out of what happened. There's no mystery -- only neatly tied loose ends.

Cast Away's ending, though spoiled by the movie's obnoxious trailer, has emotional power, dark humor, and existential truth to it. Hanks returns home to find that Helen Hunt has married Mr. Big, his coworkers held a funeral where they filled his casket with his "cellphone, beeper and some Elvis CDs," and, most surprising of all in 2000, Tennessee now has a professional football team. In the movie's melancholy final scene, he returns the unopened FedEx package that kept him alive on the island and stands at a crossroads. The ending deftly dramatizes the question that ends Hanks' moving final monologue, a question that The Martian could have benefited from asking: "Who knows what the tide could bring?"

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Dan Jackson is a staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment and he's always been more of a UPS person. He's on Twitter: @danielvjackson.