With Damon on board, ‘The Martian’ is set for liftoff

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With Damon on board, ‘The Martian’ is set for liftoff

TORONTO - “The Martian’’ was briefly stranded in Hollywood development when Ridley Scott reached out to Matt Damon, the star attached to the stalled projected.

The script by Drew Goddard (“Cabin in the Woods’’) from Andy Weir’s novel was full of the kind of nerdy humor and science geekery that few would associate with the masculine epics Scott is known for. But the 77-year-old British director tends not to concern himself with such trifles.

The unexpected combinations of talent that went into making “The Martian’’ are fitting for a movie of such hybrid entertainments. It’s a space tale more grounded in science fact than fiction; a 3-D popcorn movie full of mathematics; an ode to science that’s funny.

“The Martian,’’ which 20th Century Fox will release Friday, is that rare earthly creature: a blockbuster with brains. There may be water on Mars, as NASA announced Monday, but there’s been a drought at the multiplex.

Damon stars as astronaut Mark Watney, whose crew members, thinking him dead from a flying piece of debris, leave him behind on Mars as they rush to flee a sand storm.

Alone on the red planet, Watney’s fate is seemingly sealed, but through his own scientific ingenuity, improvises his survival. NASA (including an ensemble of Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jessica Chastain) mounts a rescue mission with its own scientific dexterity.

Rarely has there been a film more celebratory of the space program 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 of “The Martian’’ may be reminiscent of “Gravity,’’ but its closeness to another recent space drama infused with the spirit of space exploration - Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar,’’ in which Damon was also alone on a distant planet - gave the actor pause.

“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 sought out Nolan to see an early cut of “Interstellar’’ and decided the similarity wasn’t an issue. “I mean, they’re making another Batman movie already,’’ laughs Damon, alluding to the upcoming role for his friend, Ben Affleck.

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’’ and “Alien.’’ Decades later, he’s found himself firmly back in the genre with “The Martian’’ and 2013’s “Prometheus,’’ for which he’s currently
prepping one and, he says, possibly two sequels.

“I loved it,’’ says Scott. “I realized on the first day how much I missed it.’’

“The Martian,’’ which largely drew raves out of its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been portrayed as a return-to-form for Scott following critical disappointments like “Exodus’’ (which was slammed for its largely white cast) 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 aboard, Damon says, mitigated his concerns about playing most of his scenes alone. Like a video diary, Watney speaks the majority of his lines to cameras situated around the Mars habitat.

“You have no one co-signing 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 prepping the “Prometheus’’ sequel, “Alien: Paradise Lost,’’ Scott is managing 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’’). AP
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