On Sunday, February 28, the Academy will honor the previous year in cinema with a slew of awards, waiting until the end of the night to bestow Best Picture on one of eight nominees. Leading up to the ceremony, we’re posting a piece a day on each of these major Oscar contenders.
For a few short, blissfully naïve weeks, I was all but convinced that The Martian was destined to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this coming Sunday. Making early Oscar predictions is at best a crapshoot, as anyone who prematurely called Boyhood a lock last year can certainly attest. Even still, Ridley Scott’s red-planet survival yarn looked like a no-brainer to these eyes. Here, after all, was a crowd-pleaser based on a bestseller, helmed by a veteran director, and anchored by a major movie star, leading a sprawling cast of former nominees and familiar faces. It got great reviews and made a lot of money; it’s urgent, but not too urgent, with enough laughs to convince the Hollywood Foreign Press that they could get away with calling it a comedy; and though it technically qualifies as science-fiction, a genre that basically never claims Best Picture, it feels closer in spirit to something like Apollo 13 or Gravity—space thrillers, as opposed to space operas. What could stop it?
As is often the case, the new year brought new clarity: Whatever chance The Martian ever had at the big one all but evaporated, as the Academy declined to even nominate Scott for Best Director—usually the kiss of death to a film’s Best Picture chances, Argo aside—and the guilds narrowed the field down to a three-way race between The Revenant, Spotlight, and The Big Short. That I ever thought The Martian was the one to beat is a good reminder that film critics make lousy award-season soothsayers. But it also suggests that maybe, on some deep-down level, I really just wanted it to win Best Picture.
Now, I’m not saying The Martian is the strongest of the nominees, not by a long shot. That distinction belongs to a different expensive studio event movie, George Miller’s white-hot demolition derby Mad Max: Fury Road, which easily topped our staff list of last year’s finest films. Beyond that, I probably also prefer Brooklyn, the kind of old-fashioned charmer which prompts folks to declare that sometimes they do make them like they used to, and Spotlight, the kind of steady, engrossing procedural that almost never gets major awards attention. But if The Martian is at best just a grand entertainment—what one might call a “great night at the movies”—it also represents something truly worthwhile, in this particular day and age: the promise of a non-franchise blockbuster for adults.
Among the eight nominees, The Martian remains the biggest hit (though The Revenant isn’t too far behind it). It’s also an outlier among last year’s bona fide box-office smashes. Take a look at the 10 highest grossers of 2015. Besides The Martian, only Inside Out qualifies as a standalone property, and one could reasonably argue that Pixar is its own franchise, even without resorting to goofy shared-universe theories. The rest of the films at the top are sequels, remakes, and spinoffs—a trend that doesn’t entirely taper out as you scroll beyond the top 10. The Martian, adapted from Andy Weir’s debut novel about a stranded astronaut and NASA’s efforts to get him home, presents an entirely self-contained narrative: It doesn’t pay off a prior installment or set up a future one, and it features no characters from other stories, save for the novel itself. That makes The Martian the rare tentpole project that’s also a single-film investment, asking nothing more of its audience than a couple hours of its time, without the promise (or threat) of further adventures to come. (Gravity and Interstellar do the same. Talk about the vacuum of space.)
The Martian is also a big, contemporary event movie that respects viewers’ intelligence, instead of just flattering their fond memories of things they liked in the past. Screenwriter Drew Goddard deserves a lot of credit for simplifying the hard science of Weir’s novel, allowing audiences to keep up with the egghead characters by translating their strategizing into terms the layman might understand. That might qualify, on some level, as “dumbing down” the source material. But The Martian is still a treat for the mind more than the eyes—a blockbuster that draws excitement from the drama of scientists overtaxing their noggins to solve a problem. Though many have noted parallels between The Martian and The Revenant, both of which are survival stories about men facing the elements in isolation, I see more of a kinship with fellow nominee Spotlight: These are movies about brainy people doing their jobs in pursuit of a noble goal, with little focus on personal lives. The difference is that Spotlight is a modestly budgeted indie project, while The Martian invests millions of dollars on the idea that the average moviegoer will want to watch professional geeks in their element. Isn’t it heartening that the gamble paid off?
I’m not here to denounce the major, popular entertainments of our age. I generally, genuinely like the Marvel movies (especially the Captain America ones), even as I get a little fatigued by their cultural ubiquity. Likewise, the now-defunct Hunger Games series toyed with some real ideas, while the ongoing James Bond cycle regularly brings a little sleek class to the multiplex. Hell, even Jurassic World, for all its casual sexism and lunkheaded plotting, put a smile on the face of this lifelong dinosaur kid. But as someone who sees most of the year’s biggest hits, I can’t help but feel dispirited that the vast majority of them are comic-book movies, YA adaptations, and animated family films. The Martian doesn’t fit any of those molds. And if it’s much more of a corny crowd-pleaser than a 2001-style head trip, built as it is around the aw-shucks charm of Matt Damon, this is still a mega-budget property that courts the intellectual engagement of grownups. Again, it’s closer in spirit to Apollo 13—another high-grossing Best Picture bridesmaid that failed to score a Director nod—than the all-ages fare that tends to dominate American screens today.
And so that’s why there’s still a small but undeniable part of me that would like to see Scott’s feel-good space odyssey emerge victorious on Oscar night, even as my heart belongs more firmly with George Miller’s conversely pessimistic vision of where humanity could be headed. For whatever else they do, the Academy Awards take the temperature of the industry; The Martian winning Best Picture would be further reward for Hollywood taking a chance on a different kind of blockbuster, the kind with some distinctly adult appeal and without a whole prospective franchise riding on its success or failure. The Martian promotes an idyllic vision for our future, both as citizens of the world and as moviegoers. Isn’t it one worth believing in?