I recently saw The Revenant. I think it's probably my favorite movie this year, or rather from last year and this year. (Followed closely by Mad Max: Fury Road.)
It might be interesting to compare and contrast The Revenant with The Martian, which I also saw. Apologies in advance for the rather slipshod nature of this review.
Both movies relied on a single lead actor to carry the film, viz. Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Both were directed by accomplished filmmakers, viz. Alejandro Inarritu and Ridley Scott. Both were well filmed, indeed very well filmed, beautifully filmed. They're both absorbing, and draw you into their own world. Both are films which give justice to the term "cinematic experience." Both are essentially survival tales. Man vs. nature. Man in unforgiving environments. Both are arguably worthy Oscar contenders for best picture, best director, and best actor.
However, The Revenant is decidedly darker and grimmer than The Martian. In fact, The Martian is downright upbeat in comparison. Sure, we see Damon's fear of death, his loneliness, and so forth, but that's largely in the background or in-between the main scenes which move the narrative forward. At best it's peripheral rather than central to the story. The entire tone of The Martian is optimistic and hopeful. No real bad guys either except maybe for NASA exec Jeff Bridges' character. But he's only a villain in terms of having to make cold calculated decisions that CEOs tend to have to make to the consternation of their employees, not as an explicit enemy to Damon's protagonist. Mars as a hostile habitat for humanity would be the main antagonist, but that's a given in such a story. There's no dramatic tension between characters, most of the movie is predictable, and the only real question the audience is left with is how Matt Damon is going to make it back home. As long as Ridley Scott delivers in this respect, it's a success, I guess. And Scott does deliver for the most part, although I felt the ending was over the top.
More importantly, I'd say The Martian is secular at its core. There's no explicit or perhaps even implicit mention of God, or at least none I can recall. Yet I find this extremely unrealistic given a man is literally stranded on Mars. Maybe I missed it, but wouldn't someone in such dire straits at least consider reaching out to God? Instead, the main message which comes through the film is, basically, as Matt Damon tells himself: "I'm going to have to science the sh** out of this." Sheer survival boils down to human reason and ingenuity, along with a bit of luck or chance. Time and time again Matt Damon beats the astronomical odds stacked against him, and lives. Yet, for all the talk of the movie's scientific and technical accuracy, the mathematical probability that Damon would survive seems quite strained, to put it mildly. How many times and in how many ways does someone have to get lucky for it not to be chance but providence?
By contrast, The Revenant shows man at his worst. It's man vs. nature, but it's also man vs. man, and in the latter man behaves like a beast. It's a brutal film - physically and morally speaking. No one comes out unscathed on either count. (Domhnall Gleeson's character fares better than most though.) Indeed, the movie well reflects the fact that we live in a fallen world, and that we ourselves are fallen creatures.
I suppose The Revenant is a film which liberal critics want to be about the noble savage or to have an environmentally friendly message. It's neither. Instead, the film is bloody and violent. It reflects a view of man and nature doubtless odious to liberal critics, pampered pajama boys, and the like. Watching it would be like throwing a freezing cold bucket of ice water into their face to wake them up to reality. A punch in the gut.
Civilization is not a utopian project for scholar-kings to tinker around with to their satisfaction. At best civilization is an oasis in the middle of the frozen wasteland that is the world. A privileged planet in a dead universe. Or as The Revenant depicts it: a sparsely populated ramshackle town with tall wooden walls on the edge of the frontier while howling winds, blistering blizzards, fierce wild animals, and death itself are always near at hand. It's a harsh truth for some people to swallow, for people who think the world is a place where we can overcome our animal natures by better understanding one another, who think weapons like guns should have no place in our sophisticated society since guns are reminiscent of a violent and primitive past, who think we all can sit down and have a friendly chat to iron out differences in worldview, and so on and so forth. Nevertheless, it's reality. As Richard Feynman once said in an entirely different context but which seems apropos here: "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."
Perhaps all this in turn partly reflects Alejandro Inarritu's Catholicism, as well as the fact that Inarritu has had a less than indulgent life, at least in comparison to many other Hollywood celebs (e.g. having to cross the Atlantic on a cargo ship as a teenager, one of his children dying in infancy), whereas I suspect The Martian largely reflects Ridley Scott's secularism, which we likewise see in other Ridley Scott productions like Prometheus. For example, in Prometheus advanced aliens make man in their image, as humans have made androids. It's possible the self-sacrifice and death of the alien "Engineers" lead to the evolution of humans. We have the theme of patricide, which shades into killing one's creator. Much more could be said.
Anyway, I'm veering off track now. But for all the reasons Godawa gives as well as others (e.g. gorgeous cinematography) The Revenant is probably my favorite of the year. Not perfect by any means, but provocative on several levels. An immersive experience in the fullest sense of the word. Not easily forgotten, even haunting.
By the way, I should add I had hoped I'd like The Martian a lot more than I did, and certainly better than The Revenant. That's because I tend to like Matt Damon better than Leonardo DiCaprio as an actor. I love scifi themed movies in general, and Ridley Scott's scifi movies in particular (e.g. Blade Runner). And even when significantly flawed Scott's movies are at least thought-provoking (e.g. Prometheus). The Martian as a novel is from a geek who gone done good, which likewise gave me high hopes. The Martian is still an enjoyable movie. Maybe my expectations were too high.