Welcome to Movie DNA, a column that recognizes the direct and indirect cinematic roots of new movies. Learn some film history, become a more well-rounded viewer, and enjoy likeminded works of the past. This entry recommends movies to watch after The Martian.
Ridley Scott returns to outer space with The Martian, a movie that will make you excited for NASA, the American way of leaving no man behind, and vacuum-packed poop. But if you’re like me and get bored with choppy presentations of problem-solving pretending to be cinema, it will also make you long for Scott’s past outer space movies where things go terribly wrong and almost everyone dies instead of the complete opposite. Mainly Alien, but I also prefer Prometheus to his latest.
Even if you love The Martian, though, I recommend you see those two movies if you haven’t before. And if you like it even a little bit (I admit I liked some of it a little bit), then you should like the following titles, all of which this new optimistic sci-fi release reminded me of:
Obviously, there’s the connection in the casting of Jessica Chastain and Matt Damon, the latter playing characters who are stranded alone on a planet in both. If you haven’t seen this Christopher Nolan sci-fi flick already, you’re much better off watching it after Scott’s movie rather than before so your attitude about Damon’s character in Interstellar doesn’t affect your reception of his character in The Martian.
You’ll also pay less attention to its many faults because you’ll be so excited about how much bolder and more beautiful this is, how much more emotion and passion and drama you feel coming out of its filmmaker compared to the expressionless space program infomercial now in theaters. Also, Hans Zimmer’s Interstellar score is as amazing as Harry Gregson-Williams’s The Martian score is bland.
Much better than Damon alone in an isolated place with the threat of starvation and dehydration is Damon joined by Casey Affleck in such a situation, on Earth. In this absurdist first installment of Gus Van Sant’s “Death Trilogy,” the two actors play hikers “fucking marooned” in the desert. And thank goodness there are no cutaways to people trying to figure out to bring them home.
Not all movies intercutting between astronauts lost in space and NASA personnel at Mission Control back on Earth are boring, so long as the latter scenes feature Gregory Peck and the former scenes get to play out as long as they do here. Like The Martian, this movie from director John Sturges is based on a novel by a guy who really knows his science (Martin Caidin). But Marooned the movie is more concerned with the drama than the technology, and that makes it more thrilling. It also doesn’t have a bad score. It doesn’t have any score.
It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)
In this sci-fi classic, a rescue party is sent to Mars to recover a lone astronaut who has survived since a disastrous previous mission. That sounds like The Martian, but interestingly enough this movie provided inspiration for Alien, Scott’s earlier, better outer space movie. That’s because this rescue ship also manages to bring back a creature that begins killing the crew on board.
Cast Away (2000)
Given that Robert Zemeckis also has a new, lesser work out this weekend, it’s worth including his 15-year-old movie about a lone man on a desert island, which comes to mind with all these subsequent dramas about lone men or women in a remote part of Earth or space, such as Gravity and 127 Hours. Such movies have the potential to be so dependent on visual storytelling since the marooned characters don’t have anyone to talk to, but they always find a way to get enough dialogue into the script to please the general moviegoer.
Cast Away’s solution, having Tom Hanks’s character create a companion out of a volleyball, is at least still a memorable cinematic idea, unlike Damon’s character constantly talking to a screen for the sake of there being a log of everything he does on Mars.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
It’s been too long since I recommended another movie featuring Damon. He’s not in this one nearly as long, but the link between this Steven Spielberg-helmed World War II drama and The Martian is amusing. If Blockbuster Video still existed, I’d wish for more movies focused on saving Matt Damon so that there could be a small section dedicated to this little genre.
I also now wonder what Saving Private Ryan might have been like had it been more concentrated on following what Ryan was doing the whole time Tom Hanks and company are searching for him. Also, I want the version of The Martian that is more like Saving Private Ryan, concentrated on the team going to save him – because there’s always more room for Jessica Chastain, and Michael Pena is enjoyable, too.
At times, The Martian made me think I was watching a kind of remake of this drama starring a young Joaquin Phoenix and Alien’s Tom Skerritt. In what would have been a nice ad for both NASA and the actual US Space Camp were it not for the Challenger disaster, a bunch of teen astronaut wannabes (and the preteen Phoenix) and their instructor (Kate Capshaw, much less annoying here than in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) get launched into space thanks to a well-meaning robot fittingly named Jinx (voiced by Frank Welker).
Then we watch everyone marooned in space and everyone back at Mission Control think and think of solutions to problems and then problem-solve some more until the kids get back home.
Roving Mars (2006)
Now that you’ve seen another fictional portrayal of a Mars mission, check out this totally real depiction. Well, sort of. There’s still a lot of CG animation in place of the real Mars at times in order to illustrate that which couldn’t yet be photographed, but no matter because this IMAX documentary from Disney is still about real unmanned missions to the Red Planet.
Featuring introductory narration from Paul Newman and a score by Philip Glass, this short film by Pumping Iron co-director George Butler is at least a good science-filled supplement to The Martian, and it looks better than all of NASA’s ongoing videos cross-promoting the new movie and explaining the real tech that might be involved with sending a manned mission to Mars (with all you want to know about space toilets and urine recycling!).
Made For Mars: The Pathfinder (1997)
Compared to Disney’s Mars doc, the production value of this one is pretty poor (its CG is definitely, understandably much worse), but it’s just a basic educational film worth seeing to fill yourself in on the background of the real-life Pathfinder probe Damon’s character locates and employs in The Martian.
The Egg (2012)
Before he wrote the novel “The Martian,” Andy Weir penned the very popular self-published short story “The Egg,” which is set in the afterlife and deals with reincarnation and the idea that there’s only one soul in the universe. In the six years since the words went online, tons of short films adapting the story have been produced and put up online. Some are more amateurish than others, some are animated and some are live-action, and they all bring their own narrative touches to the material.
My favorite of those I’ve seen is the following twelve-minute effort directed by Sam Meacock, which seems to be a student production.