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For ‘The Martian,’ NASA’s news about water on Mars is cosmically good publicity

Matt Damon

Matt Damon stars in 20th Century Fox’s new sci-fi film "The Martian." 

(Aidan Monaghan / AP)

For Matt Damon’s character in the upcoming sci-fi film “The Martian” – an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars and must struggle to keep himself alive – Monday’s announcement from NASA that it has found signs of liquid water on the planet comes a tad too late. 

But for the movie itself, which opens Friday, the timing seems written in the stars.

From a PR standpoint, when a film’s subject matter finds its way into the news prior to its release, it isn’t always as fortuitous as one might think. For example, the marketing campaign for the 2012 film "The Watch” – a broad Ben Stiller-Vince Vaughn sci-fi comedy about a neighborhood watch group battling an alien invasion – was derailed by coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting, which made the idea of neighborhood watches anything but funny. 

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But in the case of “The Martian,” today’s global headlines about water on Mars are a gusher of free positive publicity.

Directed by Ridley Scott and based on the bestselling novel by Andy Weir, “The Martian” already represents one of the coziest collaborations between Hollywood and NASA in memory. Dense with hard science, the film was made with the close cooperation of the space agency at virtually every step along the way, from the script’s development through production and marketing.

NASA has often worked with filmmakers to bring a sense of realism to outer-space stories, but with “The Martian,” the relationship has been a particularly enthusiastic and symbiotic one. From the space agency’s perspective, a major studio movie about Mars exploration could help boost public support – and, in turn, funding – for NASA’s goal of sending people to Mars by the 2030s. Throw in Monday’s announcement, which fosters visions of sustainable Martian colonies straight out of Ray Bradbury, and you’re adding additional rocket boosters to that endeavor.

Of course, any movie that makes nerds into heroes is bound to inspire the love of said nerds. Jessica Chastain, who co-stars in “The Martian” as the commander of the Mars mission, spent time researching her role with staff at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and was struck by how ardently they adored Weir’s novel.

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“I had lunch with the robotics guys at JPL, and they said, ‘We can’t believe how much science is in the book!’" Chastian told The Times recently.

Putting all that science on the page is one thing. For Damon, making it sound compelling and comprehensible coming out of his mouth was something else altogether. Long monologues breaking down the steps to, say, to turn hydrazine into water don’t exactly trip off the tongue.

“Andy did a good job in the book of making that stuff make sense to a layman, but I definitely had to read some of the monologues a few times,” Damon told The Times last month. He added with a laugh, “I certainly learned a lot about how to grow potatoes, though.”

Indeed, Damon’s Mark Watney, who specializes in botany, spends a good deal of the film struggling to figure out how to grow food in the lifeless Martian soil. If he’d only known there was water to be found in that soil, things might not have seemed quite so dire.

Then again, what kind of movie would that have been?

Twitter: @joshrottenberg

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