Before The Martian: A look at Matt Damon's previous trips to space
|FEATURES - MOVIES|
It's not the first time he's committed to the space programme...
Ridley Scott's film version of The Martian, adapted by Drew Goddard from the book by Andy Weir, is now upon us, and it boasts an impressive cast, including Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Pena, and more. While the supporting cast are excellent performers, this article will focus on Matt Damon, who plays the lead role.
(Sadly, The Martian is not about DC's Martian Manhunter, aka J'onn J'onzz, the noble, telepathic, shape-shifting member of the Justice League. If it were, Matt Damon would be cast against type—as he always is—but is chameleonic enough as an actor to be able to pull it off anyway—as he always does. A more obvious casting choice would be someone like Blair Underwood (The Event, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD), who exudes both gravitas and humanity.)
While one might assume that The Martian will be the first time we've seen Jason Bourne in space, Matt Damon actually has some experience in the genre that could easily be overlooked, unassuming as his acting is. (Spoilers for his presence in one of the films, seeing as how his involvement was not heavily advertised beforehand, and how some consider it to be a spoiler per se. So if you really don't want to know which sci-fi film Matt Damon unexpectedly appears in, then don't read on.)
(Please note: While this writer hasn't seen Neill Blomkamp's Elysium, starring Matt Damon, it looks from the trailers like it's primarily set on a planet and a space station (and in between), rather than being a space-set film per se. As such, it will not be considered a space film for the purposes of this article.)
The one that isn't considered to be a spoiler, but may come as a surprise to people, is Titan A.E. The underrated animated sci-fi adventure had multiple script doctors, including future Firefly creator Joss Whedon, and future Firefly writer Ben Edlund. While Joss was later rewritten, leading him to have mixed feelings on the finished product, one could view Titan A.E. as a kind of precursor to, or prototype of, Firefly / Serenity.
Matt Damon voices Titan A.E.'s protagonist, Cale, a reluctant hero with father issues who's catapulted on a galactic adventure to save the last of humanity from the alien beings known as the Drejj, made of pure energy. Supported by a cast including Drew Barrymore, John Leguizamo, Janeane Garofalo, and Bill Pullman, Matt Damon puts in a solid performance as a cynical young man who learns to come to terms with his father's legacy, as well as the idea that humanity is worth saving, and his own potential to be a hero.
Damon's second space-based role was in Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which, like The Martian, falls under the category of 'serious space-based sci-fi dramatic action thriller'. (Or something like that.) Widely seen as a surprise cameo, it's an intriguing role to analyse. It's actually more of a supporting turn, which could have been played by any talented character actor who fit the part, which is what Matt Damon is, and he does a very good job.
In fact, it's almost bizarre to think of the role as a cameo (its supporting role duration aside), since the only reason for it to be considered as such is the fame of the actor (due primarily to his having played Jason Bourne), and the secrecy seems a little unnecessary. Even with his appearance in the film being a surprise, upon the reveal of the character, one briefly does a double-take, then dismisses the possibility of it being him, and invests in the performance and the rest of the film, before being informed by the end credits that yes, that was in fact Matt Damon on screen.
Matt Damon is a character actor, and it should come as no surprise to see a character actor playing a supporting role in a film. The likes of Michael Caine, John Lithgow, and Jessica Chastain are similarly respected players who feature in the film, though the marketing saw no need to make any particular secret of their involvement. Perhaps, in Damon's case, Christopher Nolan wanted to try some kind of meta-textual experiment to see how audiences would react, given his propensity for exploring the mechanics of storytelling, among other themes, in his highly-thought-out films. Just a theory.
In some cases, there's a tendency for sheer acting talent to be overshadowed, though not contradicted, by fame, if the audience just sees the actor as famous movie star, rather than primarily appreciating the nuances of their acting talent applied to that particular role. Matt Damon, to his credit, is a good enough actor to be able to overcome this recognition factor, to a large extent (though not completely in this case) pulling the audience's attention in the moment back onto the specifics of character and story. (Of course, there's something to be said for movie star charisma, as well as the sheer entertainment value of good old-fashioned ham acting, but that's a subject for another article. This article is primarily about the specific kind of immersive, character-driven acting that Matt Damon (and others) specialise in.)
Going back to the primary reason for his level of fame, Matt Damon *is* Jason Bourne; in a similar way to that in which he *is* all of the other characters that he plays. This is not merely meta-textuality, but rather a recognition that he's such a consummate character actor that, despite his fame, you often forget that it's Matt Damon playing the role, seeing instead merely the character itself. (He would have fit in well in a show like The Wire, since that's exactly the show's style of acting, with the realism of the performances heightening the authenticity. Perhaps David Simon might cast him in a show one day.)
In Matt Damon's case, this makes for a level of identification of the actor with the respective character in question in any particular instance; comparable to that when an actor plays an iconic character, and subsequently becomes identified with them, paving the way for much amusing meta-textuality—e.g. The Prestige is Batman vs. Wolverine.
Paradoxically, Matt Damon's chameleonic acting approach allows him to transcend the typecasting that may tend to accompany a more 'iconic' role. Unlike most of his other roles, the role of Jason Bourne is itself considered iconic, perhaps elevated in part due to his commitment to the character itself, resulting in a greater sense of realism. This is in tune with the Bourne series' relatively gritty and realistic approach to the genre.
Perhaps audiences' suspension of disbelief and emotional resonance with the character were contributing factors in the character becoming iconic. Thus, it's ironic that Matt Damon's Jason Bourne has become iconic *perhaps precisely because of* how buried in the character his performance was.
(If the next Paul Greengrass-Matt Damon Bourne film is being referred to as Bourne 5, then that means that the Jeremy Renner-starring The Bourne Legacy is Bourne 4, and the sequel to that will be Bourne 6. While we've been told that no crossover is forthcoming, perhaps the long-awaited Matt Damon-Jeremy Renner (or Jason Bourne-Aaron Cross) crossover could finally happen in Bourne 7, which should be called Bourne vs. Hawkeye: Space Assassins. (You can have that one for free, Universal et al. You're welcome.))
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