Tackling daunting challenges with nerdy ingenuity and can-do zeal, Matt Damon’s imperilled astronaut is stranded on Mars in this gripping sci-fi action movie.

Director Ridley Scott’s film for a change celebrates brain over brawn, geeky savvy over gung-ho derring-do. It’s terrifically enthralling watching Damon’s Nasa botanist, presumed dead and left behind by his crewmates following a rogue sandstorm, take apart and solve a series of knotty science problems – starting with the conundrum of how to grow potatoes – as he tries to survive on the red planet.

The various dilemmas faced by his former astronaut colleagues (led by Jessica Chastain and Michael Peña) and by the Nasa brainboxes back on Earth (including characters played by Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Sean Bean and Benedict Wong) add to the tension.

Scott orchestrates all this with deft assurance, skilfully balancing awesome spectacle with intimate human drama. Though he hardly probes very deeply into the psychological aspects of his hero’s plight, Damon’s charisma and self-deprecating humour ensure we keep rooting for him to the end.