The Martian Could Be the First Science Fiction Film to Win Best Picture

By  · Published on October 5th, 2015

Twentieth Century Fox Film Coroporation

20th Century Fox is gonna have to Oscar campaign the shit out of this.

If the studio is interested in making Best Picture history in February, they have a few options. There’s The Revenant, by the guy who just won Best Picture and Best Director, and a repeat for Alejandro G. Inarritu would be very cool (there hasn’t been a back-to-back director win in 65 years and there’s never been back-to-back Best Picture wins for a director). There’s also Joy, by the guy whose last three movies (that he kept his name on) were each nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and who lost every time. This could be David O. Russell’s year, or at last one of his movies’. And then there’s The Martian, which would be the first science fiction film to win the top Academy Award.


The sci-fi coup would be the most notable for the record books. It’s a long time coming, but in the last six years the genre has more than doubled its presence in the category, mostly thanks it seems to the increase in possible nominees. The eight past contenders are: A Clockwork Orange (1971), Star Wars (1977), E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), District 9 (2009), Avatar (2009), Inception (2010), Her (2013) and Gravity (2013), which at least garnered a Best Director win for Alfonso Cuaron (not that Gravity is really sci-fi). Scott, who with Alien and Blade Runner gave us two of the best sci-fi films of all time (neither of them a Best Picture nominee, however), is an appropriate guy to be at the helm of the one that breaks through.

There’s actually a good chance we’ll see two sci-fi Best Picture nominees this year, as Mad Max: Fury Road would be a popular inclusion. That could be awful for The Martian’s chances, though, because voters might see the genre’s heavy representation in the category being enough or it might split voters on which sci-fi movie – the space-mission adventure pic or the post-apocalypse actioner – they think deserves the historical honor more. Now, there’s also a slight chance of a third sci-fi contender being in the running, with voters potentially so enthralled by a new Star Wars movie that doesn’t suck (if it doesn’t), that Star Wars: The Force Awakens may slip into a 10-title race. It would be weird for The Martian to beat a Star Wars movie to become the first sci-fi Best Picture winner given that the original Star Wars was the first outer-space movie up for the award, but it has the better shot.


If The Force Awakens is nominated, it’ll appear to be the most popular choice given that its box office is sure to be the biggest. But Avatar is the highest-grossing Best Picture nominee ever and it lost to the lowest-grossing, The Hurt Locker. Still, movies have to have enough of a crowd rallying behind then to get the Academy’s attention. The Martian could have been just another in a long line of so-so Mars-mission movies (well, I still think it is). But its successful opening weekend (13th best of the year with $55m) combined with its excellent critical reception (8th best of the year, according to Rotten Tomatoes, compared to Fury Road, which is #1) and near-perfect Cinemascore (it got an ‘A,’ which isn’t rare, but Fury Road only earned a ‘B+’) make it a clear crowd-pleasing contender.

It can’t be too much of a pleaser, though, as every Best Picture winner needs some level of backlash. It does seem that The Martian is loved a little too much, but that could easily cool down over the next few months. Not everyone who likes it thinks it’s a masterpiece, and there are some haters (of which I’m not one, but I do think it’s highly overrated). The more popular it gets, the easier it will be for the snobbier types to get louder about their disdain. Yet the geekier crowd might start to champion it harder if that happens, in support of the genre, the scientific accuracy and the fanboy nod to “The Lord of the Rings,” even more than they’d push Fury Road. Maybe not more than The Force Awakens, however. Not that either of those crowds necessarily equate with Oscar voters.

For all involved, the best thing for The Martian would be that it’s geeky sci-fi but more serious than the fanboy-franchise and cosplay crowd geeky sci-fi. It’s respectable enough on various levels that all kinds of voters will appreciate it, at least as a possibility for the Oscar. It’s got “second favorite” written all over it, and movies supposedly are more likely to win Best Picture these days by being a popular runner-up on ballots than anyone’s first choice.


Three years ago, a movie about a fake sci-fi movie used as cover for a seemingly impossible US rescue mission starring one of the writers of Good Will Hunting won Best Picture. Now a sci-fi movie about a seemingly impossible US rescue mission starring one of the writers of Good Will Hunting could also win Best Picture. This one isn’t also directed and produced by its star, but like Argo, I foresee The Martian also being nominated for Best Picture without its director, Ridley Scott, earning a nod. Even if he is so far a three-time nominee without a win. This is a movie with okay direction but not award-worthy direction. Like Argo, The Martian will get a screenplay nomination and some tech recognition, and in Alan Arkin’s Best Supporting Actor position I’d like to suggest the wonderful Benedict Wong.

And like Argo, this year could very easily see competition for The Martian from a David O. Russell movie (then Silver Linings Playbook, now Joy), a Steven Spielberg movie (then Lincoln, now Bridge of Spies), a Quentin Tarantino movie (then Django Unchained, now The Hateful Eight), a Tom Hooper movie (then Les Miserables, now The Danish Girl), a movie beginning with the word “beasts” (then Beasts of the Southern Wild, now Beasts of No Nation) and a sea adventure (then Life of Pi, now In the Heart of the Sea). Unfortunately there’s no new Michael Haneke film to round out the category.


None of the above is an argument for why The Martian should win (again, I’m not that big a fan) nor how it could win or why it will. Not even the brilliant scientific minds at NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory can figure out what exactly makes a movie a certain Best Picture nominee let alone a Best Picture winner. But the Academy – really the human race – loves to vote for something that’s groundbreaking in some manner, so long as it’s also good. Finally giving Best Picture to a sci-fi movie isn’t the same as finally giving a woman a Best Director Oscar or honoring African Americans in acting categories, but it could at least be seen as something along the lines of finally giving Martin Scorsese a Best Director Oscar or Paul Newman a Best Actor Oscar. After all, nobody can really say The Martian would be the most deserving of all the sci-fi movies nominated for Best Picture, so if it does win we can just look at it as the Academy atoning for past mistakes (but which of the eight actually deserved to have won?) and considering it to be the genre’s time.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.