The Martian is a brainy blockbuster that’s out of this world

An excellent concoction of science and maths – an ode to space with humour thrown in.

In Martian, Matt Damon as an astronaut, finds himself stranded and alone on a hostile planet. Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox
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The Martian, the story of an astronaut left behind on his own on the Red Planet when a mission goes wrong, was stranded in Hollywood's development process when Ridley Scott first talked to Matt Damon about taking the lead role.

The script by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), based on the acclaimed novel by Andy Weir, was full of the kind of nerdy humour and geeky science that few would associate with the masculine epics Scott is better known for.

But the 77-year-old British director tends not to concern himself with such trifles.

“He goes: ‘We’ve never met,”’ says Damon, in a barking-voiced impression of the no-nonsense Scott. “And I said: ‘No, we’ve never met.’ He goes: ‘The script is good.’ And I said: ‘Yeah.’ He goes, ‘It’s (expletive) great.’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Why aren’t we making this?’ I said: ‘I guess we are.”’

The unexpected combination of talent that went into making The Martian is fitting for a movie of such hybrid entertainment. It's a space tale more grounded in science fact than science fiction. A 3-D popcorn movie full of mathematics. An ode to science that is also funny.

In short, The Martian is that rarest of earthly creatures: a blockbuster with brains. There may be evidence of water on Mars, as Nasa announced last week, but there's been a drought of intelligent big-budget movies at the multiplex.

Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, whose crewmates, thinking he has been killed by a flying piece of debris, leave him behind on Mars as they rush to flee a sand storm.

Alive and alone on the red planet, with no prospect of rescue for several years, if at all, Watney’s fate is seemingly sealed — but through his own scientific ingenuity, he improvises his survival. Meanwhile his Nasa colleagues (including Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain) mount a rescue mission that requires them to use their own scientific dexterity.

Rarely has there been a film more celebratory of the space programme and the problem- solving power of science. Nasa has embraced the film with celestial warmth, screening it for the crew on the International Space Station.

The solitary extreme peril of The Martian may be reminiscent of Gravity, which starred Sandra Bullock as an astronaut in peril, but its similarity to another recent space drama infused with the spirit of exploration – Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, in which Damon also starred as a character all alone on a distant planet – gave the actor pause. Damon took a year-and-a-half off from acting while his family (he has four daughters with wife Luciana Barroso) moved to Los Angeles. The Martian was his first film since Interstellar.

“I said, ‘Look, I’m in Chris’s movie. I’m stranded on a planet,”’ Damon recalls telling Scott. “If I then follow that up with a guy stranded on a planet...”

The director contacted Nolan to see an early cut of Interstellar and decided the basic similarity wasn't an issue. "I mean, they're making another Batman movie already," says Damon with a laugh, referring to the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, starring his old friend, Ben Affleck, as the Dark Knight.

Space, of course, is also a familiar frontier to Scott, who forever endeared himself to sci-fi fans early in his career with Blade Runner (1982) and Alien (1979).

Decades later, he's still embracing the genre with The Martian and 2013's Alien-related Prometheus, for which he's working on at least one and, he says, possibly as many as three sequels.

“I loved it,” says Scott. “I realised on the first day how much I missed it.”

The Martian, which drew mostly rave reviews after its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been portrayed as a return-to-form for Scott after a few critical disappointment, including Exodus and his Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Counselor. "The press can be very negative," Scott says. "I never let it get to me, not for a long time. The last time I got upset about press was Blade Runner. No one liked it."

Having Scott on board, Damon says, mitigated his concerns about playing most of his scenes alone. Like a video diary, most of Watney’s dialogue is spoken to video cameras in the Mars habitat.

“You have no one cosigning your fantasy,” Damon says. “It is kind of like when you were a kid making a game up in your room. It’s entirely dependent on not cracking. It was the challenge of the movie and kind of why I wanted to do it.”

Besides the first Prometheus sequel, titled Alien: Paradise Lost, Scott also continues to run his busy production company, Scott Free Productions. Damon, following his short hiatus, has packed in a shoot in China with Zhang Yimou, a new Bourne film with director Paul Greengrass and a planned Alexander Payne movie (Downsizing).

But The Martian aligned the orbits of actor and director for a mutual return to space, propelled by the workmanlike Scott. Not that the director is one to get all cosmic about it.

“I learnt very early on: you better be entertaining,” says Scott, who started his filmmaking career in advertising. “You want bums in seats. That’s what you do. That’s my business.”