Matt Damon in The Martian. Image: Fox promo materials

Was Matt Damon a Better Astronaut in 'Interstellar' or 'The Martian'?

"Interstellar" and "The Martian" feature starkly contrasting Damonauts.

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Oct 2 2015, 4:59pm

Matt Damon in The Martian. Image: Fox promo materials

Heads up: this article contains major spoilers for Interstellar and The Martian.

There must be something about Matt Damon that screams "marooned astronaut" because the dude has now played two of them in less than a year.

In The Martian, released on Friday, Damon stars as Mark Watney, a wisecracking botanist who is stranded on Mars after his fellow crew members mistake him for dead. In Interstellar, which came out last November, Damon made a surprise cameo as Dr. Mann, a weak-willed astronaut confined to a dead planet in an alien galaxy.

On the surface, this seems like weirdly niche typecasting, but go deeper and you'll see that apart from cosmic abandonment, Watney and Mann have basically nothing in common. Not only are they polar opposites in temperament, they also represent starkly juxtaposed philosophies about the future of humanity as a multi-planet species.

Stacking them next to each other provides all kinds of rich insights about the sacrifices inherent to interplanetary colonization, and whether humans are truly worthy of the worlds we seek to conquer. As with Lisa Messeri's fantastic comparison of Matthew McConaughey's roles in Contact and Interstellar, these two Matt Damonauts are a great jumping off point for talking about human survival and our destiny in space.

But don't take it from me—let the astronauts speak for themselves.

"Every human being has a basic instinct: to help each other out," Watney says in trailers for The Martian. (Oddly, this great speech didn't make it into the actual film.)

The Martian trailer. Video: 20th Century Fox/YouTube

"If a hiker gets lost in the mountains, people will coordinate a search," Watney continues. "If a train crashes, people will line up to give blood. If an earthquake levels a city, people all over the world will send emergency supplies. This is so fundamentally human that it's found in every culture without exception."

Mann, however, does not share Watney's optimism about the boundless compassion of our species, preferring to glorify another kind of basic instinct instead. "You're feeling it, aren't you?" he asks McConaughey's Cooper, after breaking open his visor like the space-crazed maniac he is. "The survival instinct. That's what drove me. It's what drives all of us. And it's what's gonna save us. Because I'm gonna save all of us. For you, Cooper."

In other words, where Watney emphasizes our eagerness to help total strangers in need, Mann believes that humans are only capable of being motivated by threats to our immediate safety.

"Evolution has yet to transcend that simple barrier," Mann declares. "We can care deeply—selflessly—about those we know, but that empathy rarely extends beyond our line of sight."

How beautiful is that contrast? Watney and Mann, it turns out, are perfect foils for each other. But what's even more satisfying is that these opposing perspectives clearly manifest themselves in the actions and personalities of the characters as they fight for survival.

For instance, the reason Watney has so much confidence in human ingenuity and self sacrifice is because he embodies those qualities, and recognizes them in his crewmates and colleagues. On the other end of the spectrum, Mann, in keeping with his not-so-subtle name, considers his own limitations to be indicative of the entire species.

Case in point: Mann projects his own skewed visions onto the Endurance crew, telling Cooper that "you never would have come here unless you believed you were going to save [your children]." He even goes so far as to praise Michael Caine's character, Professor Brand, for hoodwinking the crew into thinking that they were saving Earth's dwindling population.

"He was prepared to destroy his own humanity in order to save the species," Mann says of Brand. "He made an incredible sacrifice."

These conflicting sets of values slowly develop into self-fulfilling prophecies for the two astronauts. While both men begin their arcs by effectively rising from the dead, only Watney is ultimately able to come to terms with his own mortality in the wake of his resurrection. He tells his commander that if he dies, he wants his family to know that he loved his job, and that he believed he was accomplishing something greater than himself. "I can live with that," he says of his potential death.

Mann ultimately can't find the same comfort in sacrificing his life for the benefit of his species. "When I left Earth, I thought I was prepared to die," he tells Cooper. "The truth is, I never really considered the possibility that my planet wasn't the one."

Ironically enough, Mann's failure to accept his mortality is what ultimately does him in. In the process of abandoning the Endurance crew on his dumb lifeless planet, he blows himself up along with half of the ship's life support system while spouting self-important nonsense about how his actions are about all of mankind. Smooth move.

Mann's death scene in Interstellar. Video: Alpha Tay/YouTube

Meanwhile, Watney is rewarded for his genuine faith in human ingenuity and compassion with a daring orbital rescue packed with all kinds of self-sacrificing acts by his crewmates. The final scenes of the movie show him living on to share his story, and encouraging others to follow in his Martian footsteps.

Ultimately, both Interstellar and The Martian side with Watney's optimism over Mann's cynicism, capping off with scenes about human love, connection, and intellectual brilliance triumphing over our baser instincts.

Moreover, both films also star Jessica Chastain as a determined heroine who will stop at nothing to save lives—be it all of humanity in Interstellar's case, or simply one man in The Martian. These are the kinds of inspirational qualities we all want to celebrate in ourselves and others, and space exploration brings them to the fore like no other endeavor.

To that point, it's gratifying to know that most real astronauts fall into the Watney camp—cool-headed, resourceful, and willing to risk their lives in pursuit of the next giant leap for mankind. Sure, every now and then you'll get a Mann-like, insane, diaper-wearing astronaut bent on romantic revenge, but as Watney points out, those are outliers.

"Yes, there are assholes who just don't care but they're massively outnumbered by the people who do," he says in Andy Weir's original novel. "And because of that, I had billions of people on my side."

"Pretty cool, eh?"