TORONTO (AP) — “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.
“He goes, ‘We’ve never met,’” recalls Damon, barking an 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 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 crewmembers, 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.
Damon (who spoke in a recent interview before comments he made about diversity and sexuality drew criticism) 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 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”).
But “The Martian” aligned the men’s orbits for a mutual return to space, propelled by the workmanlike Scott. Not that the director is one to get all cosmic about it.
“I learned very early on: You better be entertaining,” says Scott, who started in advertising. “You want bums in seats. That’s what you do. That’s my business.”