“The Martian” is turning out to be a very strong Oscar player, just as “Gravity” was two years ago. Both are box office blockbusters about a lone survivor stranded in space; star an Oscar-winning A-lister in a career-defining performance; and have been hailed for behind-the-scenes artistry and technical wizardry. Let's take a closer look at the 10 Oscar categories in which "Gravity" contended to size up how successful “The Martian” might be with academy voters.
"The Martian" stars Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars. It is one of the best-reviewed of Ridley Scott's films — 93% at Rotten Tomatoes (which assigns pass/fail scores to reviews) and 81 at MetaCritic (which grades on a sliding scale) — and is on pace to outgross his 2000 Best Picture Oscar champ "Gladiator."
At this point in the 2013 Oscar derby, Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” had exploded at the box office, garnered raves from critics and cemented itself as a serious awards contender. Any doubts that an effects-heavy action film about a female astronaut stranded in orbit would resonate with conservative academy voters was erased when it reaped 10 Oscar bids, tying “American Hustle” as the most nominated film that year. It won a whopping seven Oscars (the most of any film that year), including the Best Director for Cuaron and was thought to be very close to winning Best Picture.
Tweny of our 23 Oscar experts — journalists who cover this beat year round for major media including Variety, Yahoo, USA Today, and HuffPo — are predicting that "The Martian" will be nominated for Best Picture. And four — Tim Gray (Variety), Nicole Sperling (EW), Sasha Stone (Awards Daily) and Anne Thompson (Thompson on Hollywood) — forecast it winning.
"Gravity" was in a two-horse race with "12 Years a Slave" after they tied for the precursor prize at the PGA Awards. However, socially relevant films usually have the edge over more populist fare in Best Picture. "Gravity" couldn’t steamroll past Steve McQueen's drama about American slavery. Likewise, four years earlier, "The Hurt Locker" was a timely choice over the sci-fi blockbuster "Avatar".
"The Martian" will have to fight off more serious films such as "Spotlight" (journalists uncover the Catholic Church's systemic abuse of children) and "Steve Jobs" (a celebration of the pioneering icon of the same name).
Ridley Scott, the man behind sci-fi classics as "Alien" and "Blade Runner," is still waiting to win an Oscar. He has contended three times for helming: "Thelma & Louise" in 1991, Best Picture champ "Gladiator" in 2000 and "Black Hawk Down" in 2001.
After a few recent misfires, the overdue Sir Ridley now has a film which should resonate with the directors branch of the Academy. At age 77, he took on a massive undertaking and knocked it out of the park. Even if voters don't believe his film has the gravitas to be a Best Picture champ, he has a good chance of winning this consolation prize, as did Cuaron in 2013 and Ang Lee for "Life of Pi."
Sandra Bullock was a shoo-in for a nomination two years ago, and it is looking likely that Damon will also be back at the Oscars with his third nomination for acting. He won an Oscar with his best bud Ben Affleck for writing the screenplay for "Good Will Hunting" in 1997, and has been nominated twice as an actor: for his lead role in "Good Will Hunting," losing to Jack Nicholson ("As Good As It Gets"), and his supporting turn in 2009's "Invictus", which he lost to Christoph Waltz ("Inglorious Basterds").
Much of the success of the film is down to Damon's performance. For long stretches of the film, he is on screen by himself. As with the solo performances of Bullock in “Gravity” and Tom Hanks in “Cast Away,” the actors branch will appreciate how he met this challenge.
And Damon is predicted to win Best Comedy/Musical Actor at the Golden Globes. Thirty-four of those Globe winners went on to contend at the Oscars, including Michael Keaton ("Birdman") last year.
"The Martian" lenser Dariusz Wolski has never been nominated for an Oscar, not for “Dark City,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” or “Alice in Wonderland.” Emmanuel Lubezki had contended five times before winning this award for "Gravity" and then again for "Birdman" last year.
Sci-fi and fantasy is well represented in this category in recent years. Wally Pfister was nominated for “Batman Begins” (2005) and “The Dark Knight” (2008) before winning for “Inception” in 2010, Mauro Fiore won for “Avatar” in 2009 and Guillermo Navarro won for “Pan’s Labyrinth” in 2006.
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
“The Martian” is the eleventh film on which Scott has collaborated with Arthur Max, who won on his first nomination (for “Gladiator” in 2000). He was nominated for another Scott film, “American Gangster” in 2007 (losing to “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”). Two earlier Scott films also contended in this category: “Alien” (nominated in 1979, losing to "All That Jazz") and “Blade Runner” (nominated in 1982, losing to “Gandhi”).
If “The Martian” lands here, it will be on the back of a sweep for the film, and would follow in the footsteps of “Interstellar” (2014) and “Gravity," which lost to "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "The Great Gatsby" respectively, and 2009 champ “Avatar."
BEST FILM EDITING
Pietro Scalia has gone two for four in this race: he won (with Joe Hutshing) in 1991 for “JFK, was nominated in 1997 for “Good Will Hunting” (losing to “Titanic”) and in 2000 for “Gladiator” (losing to "Traffic”) and won in 2001 for “Black Hawk Down.”
This was one of the categories that “Gravity” didn’t necessarily have in the bag, so its win was a relative surprise. “The Martian” looks like a safe bet here for a nod, handing Scalia his fifth career bid and third for a Scott collaboration.
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Although Harry Gregson-Williams has an impressive body of work behind him, including a number of collaborations with Scott, he has never been nominated for an Oscar. Two years ago, Steven Price won for his inventive “Gravity” score. Gregson-Williams faces fierce competition from past winners and nominees Thomas Newman (“Bridge of Spies”), John Williams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), Alexandre Desplat (“The Danish Girl”), Jóhann Jóhannson (“Sicario”) and Michael Giacchino (“Inside Out”).
BEST SOUND EDITING, SOUND MIXING and VISUAL EFFECTS
Traditionally, action and sci-fi films do extraordinarily well in these categories, especially if they are strong Best Picture contenders.
“Gravity” won all three of these races, in an almost foregone conclusion. “The Martian” may not have such an easy road on Oscar night if other Best Picture contenders like “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Inside Out” make a strong showing here or if the academy embraces the likes of “Jurassic World,” “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and “Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation."
However, Scott's films do very well in these categories: “Alien" won Best Visual Effects in 1979; “Blade Runner” was nominated for Visual Effects in 1982 (losing to “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial”); “Black Rain” contended in both Sound categories in 1989 (losing Best Sound to “Glory” and Best Sound Effects Editing to “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”); “Gladiator" won both Visual Effects and Sound in 2000; “Black Hawk Down" won Best Sound in 2001, and “Prometheus” contended for Best Visual Effects in 2012.
Two categories in which “Gravity” didn’t contend are also possibilities for “The Martian.” Drew Goddard could reap a Best Adapted Screenplay bid for for well-received adaptation of Andy Weir’s novel. And costume designer Janty Yates, whose collaboration with Scott on “Gladiator” won her an Oscar in 2000, could become the first to reap an Oscar bid for a sci-film since Julie Weiss ("12 Monkeys," 1995).
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Photo: Matt Damon in "The Martian" Credit: Fox Movies
Photo: Oscar Statue Credit: A.M.P.A.S.
Photo: Sandra Bullock in "Gravity" Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures