I attended the European premiere of The Martian on Thursday night, and noticed a few things about the film and event itself that I wanted to share. I should probably mention that I had no particular interest in the film or its creative team; it was my friend who got invitations and took me with her as a late birthday present.
What struck me the most about the evening was the hierarchy established between the cast members. Anyone who’s ever watched film credits knows that actors must be presented in a certain order, but attending this kind of promotional live event throws this order into sharp relief. Usually, it is only relevant to me as an estimation of how long I have to wait until my favourite actor/actress shows up, but this time, I was able to observe it on pretty much neutral terms. And I realised that it did not necessarily reflect the contribution of the individual cast members.
Based on the order in which the cast of The Martian was introduced, Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain were definitely the stars of the film. As the last ones to enter the cinema and to be called to the stage, they were the climax of the event; as the first to be credited at the end of the film, they were also the story’s main protagonists. But this isn’t true of Jessica Chastain. She can’t have more than 15 minutes of screen time in over 2 hours, and the part she plays is not memorable in any way. If I were to assign the coveted second place to someone, it would be Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gets a lot more screen time, and the opportunity to act a much wider range of emotions. In all fairness, the order of introduction did distinguish Ejiofor, but as the polar opposite of Matt Damon: first to be interviewed on the red carpet, and among the first to be called to the stage. He even gets the honorable “and” mention in the film’s closing credits. The amount and quality of his contribution should set him for second place, though.
I don’t believe Jessica Chastain was given the second place for the sake of feminism, especially considering the role women play in the film. Although her character is the commander of the space mission, she is given bad taste in music and a husband in lieu of a personality. As for all the other women, for all their impressive job titles, they only get to perform tasks that are still viewed as female work: running comm. systems, overseeing PR campaigns, and liaising between men. The real stuff, the feats of science on which the film rests, are all accomplished by men.
So no, I don’t believe Jessica Chastain is number two because of feminism, but I do believe she is number two because she is a woman. A white woman. Her and Damon’s characters might not be romantically involved, but white heteronormativity still requires Damon to have a female partner in representing the film. The front of this mainstream Hollywood project must be two white people of opposite gender. This same systemic rule excludes a black man from sharing the bill with a white man. The extent of Ejiofor’s contribution is acknowledged, but in alternative ways.
This shouldn’t come as surprise for a film that essentially makes a group of minority scientists (played most notably by Benedict Wong, Donald Glover, and Nick Mohammed) the support of the heroic white dude. I found it interesting that as the film hurtles toward its high-stake conclusion, this diverse ensemble recedes in the background, and it’s the almost all-white mission crew -until then a narrative afterthought- that takes centre stage. In the conclusion, the spectator even gets to see their life after their return to Earth (a proper goodbye, in cinematic terms), as if they matter as much as the people that actually made up most of the film.
I guess this is a reminder that the more things change in Hollywood, the more they stay the same.