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Awards

Can ‘The Martian’ defy sci-fi history and win a best picture Oscar?

Matt Damon in ‘The Martian’
Matt Damon’s astronaut uses ingenuity to survive in “The Martian.” Will the academy see the film as more than sci-fi at Oscar time?
(20th Century Fox)

Genre isn’t supposed to matter much when it comes to the Academy Awards. In theory, the organization prides itself on voting for the best picture of the year whether it’s a comedy, drama, romance, thriller, western or period piece. That being said, it’s somewhat head-scratching that after 87 years, not one science-fiction film has taken home Oscar’s biggest prize. Can Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” defy the odds? Or are there even odds to defy?

It’s important to note when looking at “The Martian’s” chances that Oscar isn’t completely averse to sci-fi. Past best picture nominees include “A Clockwork Orange” (1972), “Star Wars” (1978), “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1983), “Avatar” (2010), “Her” and Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity” (both 2014). Moreover, fantasy films have had their moment in the spotlight since “The Wizard of Oz” earned a nomination in 1940 and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” took the crown more than six decades later.

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Where “The Martian” may differentiate itself is that it takes place in a very near future that doesn’t seem that different from today. Man is visiting Mars using technology that seems fairly common and astronaut Mark Watney’s battle for survival uses old-fashioned science. It also doesn’t hurt that Matt Damon gives him a warm everyman quality you don’t often see in most space-faring epics. As longtime awards pundit and Fandango chief correspondent Dave Karger notes, the scenario is very easy for moviegoers of all types to relate to.

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“What it has going for it is a very pro-humanity message — leave no man behind — and a plotline where the entire country rallies behind one man’s life and one man’s safety,” says Karger, who also weighs in with his Oscar predictions for The Envelope as a Buzzmeter panelist. “If Fox can drive that point home then the movie becomes more than science fiction, it becomes a relevant comment on today’s often bewildering society and that’s when it can have a shot at winning.”

Clearly, Emma Watts, president of production for 20th Century Fox, which also has potential best picture nominees in Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” and David O. Russell’s “Joy,” agrees with that sentiment.

“The movie is about something even bigger than space travel. It’s about the power of human beings when we come together,” Watts says. “I think Chris Matthews got it right when he said, ‘This movie says that people aspire to be something better,’ in whatever walk of life they find themselves.”

If history tells us anything, the fact “Gravity” came so close to winning just two years ago (in what is believed to be one of the tightest races in decades) may prove the door is open for “The Martian.” Anne Thompson, another veteran Oscar watcher and Buzzmeter pundit, agrees some people may see “The Martian” as just a sci-fi movie, but more of them see it “as a world-class example of what Hollywood does best” and that’s exactly what they thought about Cuarón’s thriller.

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“The thing about ‘Gravity’ is it was perceived as a serious movie that was on the level of art and all the craftsmanship and all the daring that went into it was taken into account by the academy voters,” Thompson said. “I don’t see ‘The Martian’ as a genre film. I see it as a big Hollywood entertainment that is serious and funny at the same time.”

Someone who has firsthand knowledge of the academy’s affection for the genre is Nancy Kirkpatrick. As the president of marketing for Summit Entertainment, she presided over the Oscar campaign for “The Hurt Locker,” which ended up trumping James Cameron’s game-changing sci-fi blockbuster “Avatar.” She ultimately thinks genre doesn’t matter in the case of “The Martian.”

“It’s a very good movie and people love it. It’s really performance- and story-driven, not about effects and hardware. That’s why it has such a broad audience,” Kirkpatrick says. “But, as always, it will come down to what other movies are out there.”

When it comes down to it, “The Martian,” like recent winners “Argo,” “The Artist” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” is a feel-good film that embraces global cooperation and may just strike a chord no matter what its genre. As Thompson notes, “It’s about Americans being ingenious and smart and it’s about celebrating American ingenuity. Especially at a time when things are so grim it’s all about how smart we are and I think people really, really like that.”

And when the academy really, really likes something, historical trends often get turned on their head. Unless, of course, they like something better.

calendar@latimes.com


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