In case you hadn’t heard, Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes out this week. Oh, you already knew that? Well then, you’re probably also aware that the critics have been enthusiastic: “Delivers the Thrills, With a Touch of Humanity,” Manohla Dargis opines. Slate’s own Dana Stevens notes that it “restores balance to the Force.” Like every Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens was always going to be a financial success. But unlike The Phantom Menace and its immediate successors, it’ll also be a critical success, good fortune that has not befallen the franchise since the original trilogy.
Another thing that could happen to the franchise again for the first time since the original trilogy? A Star Wars movie gets nominated for Best Picture.
Now as we all know, the critics’ love for an action blockbuster movie—or any movie, really—is hardly an indicator for Oscar chances. But it’s important to realize two things when prognosticating Oscar this year: This is the most wide-open awards season in recent memory, and The Force Awakens is the most highly-anticipated and nostalgic movie we’ve seen in years.
To that first point: Precursor accolades have been all over the place this year. Carol struck it big with the New York Film Critics Circle, while Mad Max: Fury Road made its voice heard with the National Board of Review and Spotlight took hold with the Gotham Awards. The Golden Globes, which always does its own thing, also nominated Fury Road among more standard Oscar-bait fare (The Revenant, Carol). The SAG nominations, the ones that serve as a more reliable Oscar precursor than all those other awards due to some overlap with academy voters, gave more pull to Spotlight, but also turned long shots Straight Outta Compton and The Big Short into potential dark horses.
With so many films garnering attention among different groups of voters, it seems a lot more likely that The Force Awakens can sneak its way into the Best Picture category, just as Creed could. The Force Awakens, like Creed, is the descendant of an original chapter that was nominated for Best Picture. Star Wars, in fact, was nominated for 10 Oscars, and won 7. In an era with 10 slots for Best Picture (rather than 5, in 1978), it seems not at all far-fetched that The Force Awakens could find its way into the Best Picture lineup.
Of course, The Force Awakens has made no headway in the precursor awards because Disney didn’t screen the film for critics’ groups, the Screen Actors Guild, or the Hollywood Foreign Press before those votes came in. Late-in-the-game screenings and release dates for big movies can hurt their chances of finding their way into awards season—just ask Ava DuVernay, whose Selma last year failed to rack up many of the big nominations leading up to the Oscar nods in part because of late screeners. Unlike Selma, though, The Force Awakens is going to be seen by nearly everyone in the academy—indeed, it seems likely that it’s going to be seen by nearly everyone in the world, and no one in the industry wants to be left out of perhaps the biggest film event of the 21st century so far. And Abrams’ adventure taps right into the sort of nostalgia the academy pines for—that of their childhood memories, or (for the much older folks), the original Star Wars’ groundbreaking filmmaking.
So academy voters will see it, and if the Force is awakened within them as it apparently has been within critics and audiences so far, those positive feelings will be very fresh in their minds come voting time. This week came the first forerunner award given by a body that actually had a chance to see The Force Awakens before voting. And there, nestled among nine familiar awards-season contenders in the AFI’s list? A familiar blockbuster, whose Oscar hopes are just getting warmed up.