Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s new film The Revenant is many things. A.A. Dowd’s review for the AV Club called it a movie “perched between a kind of 19th-century Death Wish movie and a whispery Terrence Malick meditation on the relationship between man and nature.” Peter Travers in Rolling Stone said it’s a “a visceral punch in the gut.” Alan Scherstuhl in The Village Voice described it as “a chilling, stirring, experiential immersion in what life-and-death drama might actually feel like.” It isn’t easily categorized, but perhaps the key to understanding The Revenant is to compare it to a survival-epic cousin of recent vintage. Iñárritu’s wilderness survival movie is the near complete mirror opposite of Ridley Scott’s outer space survival thriller, The Martian, released earlier this year.
The movies have much in common. They’re both titled in a similar, unadorned fashion, and each title refers to their main characters as something otherworldly. Each movie is getting scads of Oscar buzz, and fundamentally both movies are about men cut off from civilization and left to fend against nature. Leonardo DiCaprio’s mountain man lead character Hugh Glass may as well be an ancestor to Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney in The Martian. There’s nary a figurative difference between the vast open red wasteland that defines Watney’s struggle for survival on Mars versus the harsh, unforgiving wilds that Glass must traverse to seek revenge.
Glass’ eye-for-an-eye mentality forces him to crawl back and kill the man responsible for killing his son. Watney has no revenge motive, but he seeks absolution from the decisions he’s made to get him to be stranded 250 million miles from home. Just as their basic situations are the same, the way they go about rectifying them are completely different.
The most popular line from The Martian is when Damon’s character assesses his circumstances while stranded on Mars — not a lot of resources, no communication link with NASA, limited options — and blurts out that he’s “Gonna have to science the shit out of this.” And science the shit out of it he does. Watney learns how to grow food, to create oxygen, to establish transmissions to Earth, and (spoilers) eventually escapes Mars all by using his smarts. It’s a completely by-the-numbers and rational approach to survival.
Watney solves each puzzle by relying on scientific thought and technology. And it was a damn crowd-pleaser. It was a boon for the NASA set who saw the possibilities of space travel dim in 2011 with the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The movie’s release echoed our historical moment, when private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin have made space seem nearer than ever.
The Martian’s logical approach came at the right time, which is what makes The Revenant equally interesting. Its approach is obviously old-fashioned insofar as the story takes place in the early 1820s, but its lead character charges — or crawls — into the drama with an instinct so primal it’s downright primordial. No government agencies or diplomats are working to bring Glass home. In The Revenant it’s just one man, the Earth, and a lot of blood and animal carcasses. His decisions are based purely on staying alive, without thought, and the only way he’ll stay alive is if he reacts to his environment.
If a hostile Native American tribe catches his trail, he must slink back into untamed river rapids to escape and pray he doesn’t drown. If he must eat, he’ll have to rely on scavenging meat from dead buffaloes or the kindness of a passing Native American ally. Glass is simultaneously the thrust of his own survival and at the whim of a forbidding environment. It’s pure chaos, and any accrued knowledge that he has of that wilderness makes little difference in the rugged Wyoming backcountry. The only way to survive in The Revenant is to make the right decision at the right time.
Both The Martian and The Revenant present similar circumstances and two opposite ways to overcome them. One is driven by logic and deduction, the other by natural urges. There’s no real way to determine which is better than the other, mostly because The Martian has an inherently optimistic outlook while The Revenant is almost excruciatingly dour. Yet they both convey that whether you’re alone on Mars 60 years from now or in 19th century Wyoming, the human will to survive takes many forms.