'The Martian': Inside Matt Damon and Ridley Scott's Sci-Fi Thriller

How the star and filmmaker turned a lost-in-space tale into a funny, harrowing survivalist epic

Matt Damon takes on the Red Planet in 'The Martian.' Credit: Aidan Monaghan

Ridley Scott still remembers, vividly, sitting down in a movie theater, watching the lights go down and experiencing as a gamechanging moment as 2001: A Space Odyssey sputtered to life onscreen. "It had been out less than a week," the filmmaker recalls, settling into a chair in a cavernous hotel conference room in Toronto. "I sat in theater all by myself in the middle of the day, in Queensgate, London, with a pack of cigarettes — you could smoke in theaters in those days. It was a brand-new 70mm print, and that cut from the bone to the spaceship, it was just...it was so majestic." He closes his eyes for a second, then looks over at author Andy Weir, who's hanging on his every word.

"I've either tried to crib from or outright rip off that movie numerous times in my career," the filmmaker conspiratorially stage-whispers, "and I've never been able to do it quite right — until, possibly, now."

It's easy to see how the shadow of Stanley Kubrick's space-is-the-place epic might loom large over The Martian, Scott's tale of an astro-botanist named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left to fend for himself on the Red Planet after being abandoned during an emergency evacuation. Granted, no Star Child shows up to watch this cosmic Crusoe use his wits and scientific smarts to fight for his life; no singing evil supercomputer tries to sabotage his team, led by Jessica Chastain, once they realize he's still alive; and back on Earth, the all-star cast that makes up the movie's Mission Control response squad (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels and a particularly kooky Donald Glover) aren't getting any help from humming monoliths.

But along with a few visual nods, the Alien director's adaptation of Weir's self-published Web serial-turned-bestselling novel shares a chin-stroking curiosity and existentialist vibe with its intellectual sci-fi predecessor. The movie certainly delivers the spills, chills, thrills and even laughs you'd expect from a Hollywood blockbuster, but it also stops to look to the stars and wonder: What does it mean to be human? Where do we fit in to the big picture?

"I mean, it's not a superhero movie," Damon says, calling in from Los Angeles a few days earlier. "It's a guy-trying-to-survive movie, and done really intelligently. [Screenwriter] Drew Goddard kept calling it 'a love letter to science' — it's all about using ingenuity and knowledge to adapt to your environment. That, to me, was the key." The actor hadn't heard of Weir's blog-to-Kindle hit novel when he read the script; he just responded to the smarts and the humor, which was enough to kickstart lengthy discussions with Damon and the screenwriter, who was set to direct.

Then Goddard received an offer to helm a dream project — the comic-book  project The Sinister Six — and the project was back-burnered indeifnitely, until Damon heard that Scott was potentially interested. "I literally sprinted over to his office," he says, laughing. "We had a five-minute meeting, and then we were both in. I mean, it's Ridley Scott in space. That's bucket-list material!"  

Unlike Scott's previous forays across the universe — or really, the majority of his filmography — The Martian is also rife with unexpected humorous moments among the what-does-it-all-mean headscratchers and solemn extreme-survivalist set pieces. (When the man who had Russell Crowe utter "Unleash hell!" in Gladiator is told that it's unusual to hear so many funny lines in his movie, he rises from his chair, growls "Are you saying I'm humorless?" and puts his dukes up before he and Weir both burst out laughing.) Watney's monologues into his video diary are full of wisecracks and giddy, self-deprecating asides. Frustrated by trying make alien terrain more Homo sapien-friendly, he screams out "Fuck you, Mars!" at one point. ("That was an on-the-spot improvisation," Damon says. "I can't believe he kept it in.") There will be disco dancing.

"There's humor, yes, but it's gallows humor," Scott points out. "And I'm English, so we live for kind of dry, dark notion of what's funny. That was one of the things I liked about the script, was how it retained Andy's humor from the book yet never made you feel the stakes weren't incredibly high. I also love how it makes Mark seem like an everyman; it sound dull to say he's the perfect 'John Doe' character, because he's certainly heroic. He's just not the sort of invincible hero you're used to.

"When Matt and I would talk about Mark," the director continues, "the word that kept coming up was fear. He kept saying, 'My character never really seems to show fear,' which you think would be unusual — he's stranded on fucking Mars! But I kept telling him to think about The Right Stuff.  Test pilots don't really show fear; they couldn't cope with what they needed to in a situation if they were terrified. When Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier, he had a broken arm and two fractured ribs..."

"...And he had to use a broom handle to keep the door on his plane shut!" Weir interjects.

"Exactly! Talk to anybody who's ever landed a plane with three engines out, and they'll tell you they didn't have time to be scared shitless," Scott says. "But you need to inspire fear in the audience, which is the key to most any drama. So it became: When does Mark show fear? We found the places for it — the storm, the running out of potatoes, wondering if the door will hold on the ship…these were points when he just lets go and gives in. And once we found where those moments were" — he snaps his fingers — "we found the character."

For Damon, the challenge of having to handle almost all of his scenes by himself was enough to draw on for his drop-your-poker-face scenes. "Ridley and I talked through everything about those long one-hander sections — but yeah, it was a little nervy," he admits. "It's all on you. You can't blame the other actors when a scene goes wrong: 'Hey, this isn't working, talk to my co-star.' Although I guess you could blame the writer. Drew, if you're reading this..."

And though he claims he wasn't "science-fluent" when he started, the shoot allowed him to pick up a few Watney-esque skills. "I can indeed science the shit out of some potatoes now, yeah," he says, proudly quoting a line from the film. "All those crops were stuff I grew and replanted on the set in Budapest. And I didn't even need to be stranded on Mars to do it!"

"At its heart, it's still a man-versus-nature story... nobody roots for nature in these types of movies."

Which is fortuitous, considering what happens when the Red Planet decides to throw a number of obstacles in Watney's way: not just a harvest-destroying accident, but also random sand storms, faulty equipment, dwindling supplies, an ill-timed explosion or three. It's not giving anything away to say that an escape plan co-ordinated between our hero and the handwringing folks back on the Big Blue Marble forms the gist of The Martian's last act, but even then, the movie adheres to the survivalist-drama template of something like All Is Lost, The Gray or that other heir to 2001's brainy sci-fi throne, Gravity. It just happens to be set on the fourth planet from the sun.

"At its heart, it's still a man-versus-nature story," Weir concedes. "When I watch a movie, I always find myself rooting for the antagonist. I know he or she is probably going to lose, and I feel bad for them. But nobody roots for nature in these types of movies. It's too easy to self-insert: What would I do if I had to survive at sea, or in the wilderness..."

"Or on the big, beautiful monster that is Mars," Scott chimes in.

"Mars is probably the second biggest character in the movie," Weir says, before adding, "After saying that aloud, I now feel like I have to put on a jacket with elbow patches and puff on a pipe."

Asked if the movie also fits in with what might be considered a new wave of cerebral sci-fi (see Under the Skin, Ex Machina, Interstellar), Scott says the film probably resembles a Western as much as it does those movies, though he readily admits that "we were determined to make an intelligent film, certainly. And it is a science fiction movie. But I know what you're talking about, and it's something that's been on my mind a lot as I get ready to jump into Prometheus 2." [A week after he talks to Rolling Stone, he'll reveal that the title of this sequel is now named Alien: Paradise Lost.] "There's a lot of silliness for the nerds in that first movie, but it's asking a serious question that I want to get into for the next film: Are we created by a force that we know nothing about? The fact that Mark Watney can use his brain to try and get back home — or that you and I are sitting here talking into a piece of technology billions of years after salamanders crawled out of the ocean — how can you not believe that there aren't benevolent guardians in the universe looking over us?"

Scott pauses for a second, then a light goes off behind his eyes. "The minute I said 'guardians,' it occurred to me: It's 2001 all over again. The mon-oooo-liths!" he yells in a sing-song voice. "I can't seem to get away from that fucking movie."