There were some surprising science fiction nods among the major Oscar nominations this year. Despite complaints about STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS not getting a nomination for Best Picture (and in my opinion, it didn’t really deserve one), both MAD MAX: FURY ROAD and THE MARTIAN managed to secure Best Picture nominations. I only caught the last fifteen minutes of FURY ROAD on cable, so I can’t really judge it beyond that, but THE MARTIAN while not perfect, was one of the better movies in a mediocre year, and so I have no problem with its nomination. Ridley Scott unfortunately didn’t get nominated for Best Director, which likely punctures (sorry) the film’s chances of winning the top prize, but Matt Damon received a well-earned Best Actor nomination, and Drew Goddard’s adaptation of Andrew Weir’s novel was nominated in the Best Screenplay category. The best science fiction film of the year, EX MACHINA, didn’t get nominated for Best Picture but I was pleasantly surprised to see it nominated for Best Original Screenplay, along with Pixar’s fantasy INSIDE OUT. (My choice for the year’s best film, ME, EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, didn’t get any nominations at all, alas).
Granted, the writing has been on the wall for over a decade now, and you could say the wall actually broke in 2003, when THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING won the Best Picture Award. Although genre films had been nominated in this category going all the way back to LOST HORIZON in 1937, this finally broke more than seventy-five years of aversion to giving the main trophy to films that (other than musicals) adhered to strict realism in content and approach. The following year, ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND became the first science fiction film to win a Best Screenwriting Oscar. Then in 2009, when the Academy expanded its list of nominated films from five to ten (a return to lengthy nominee lists of the 1930s), two science fiction films popped up in the Best Picture nominations, AVATAR and DISTRICT 9. It was certainly not the first time a science fiction film had been nominated in this category, but it was the first time more than one film in the genre had made the final ballot, a remarkable event that just a decade or so earlier would have been unimaginable.
I was as surprised as many fans were, but unlike many of them, I didn’t share the delight that the Oscars were “finally” recognizing science fiction films as Best Picture contenders. For one thing, I didn’t think that either film was good enough to be a contender for Best Picture. AVATAR probably would have nominated even if the Academy had still limited its selections to five films as it was a tremendous box office smash and critical hit, but as has been the case with all of James Cameron’s films, the script rarely, if ever, managed to attain the same level of accomplishment as the direction and special effects, being extremely shallow, cliched and obvious. DISTRICT 9 is a better film, a more intelligent and original one and it certainly works better as good science fiction even if it is far less extravagant, but its intelligent touches are also unfortunately undermined by occasional illogicities, particularly those involving the same idiotic Big Evil Corporation cliches that undermined not just AVATAR but MOON, which had been the most acclaimed science fiction film of 2009 (and which I previously discussed at the bottom of this page). I would have expected MOON to be a more likely nominee for Best Picture; as it is, DISTRICT 9 is a good example of what I call a “Pink Snail,” after the the Academy’s “WTF?” moment when it nominated the gawdawful Rex Harrison-Richard Fleischer film version of DOCTOR DOOLITTLE for Best Picture in 1967, alongside the likes of BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE and that year’s Best Picture Winner, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. If that wasn’t unbelievable enough, try wrapping your brains around this: 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY was not nominated for Best Picture the following year.
Actually, if you read up on the history of the public reception of the film, it becomes more clear why it wasn’t nominated: as chronicled by Jerome Agel in his outstanding 1970 book The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, far from being universally acclaimed, reviews for 2001 were actually quite divided and although many viewers loved it, an equal number hated it and a still equal number seemed undecided on how to approach it. Even the science fiction community was split over it and down to this day, the movie will start arguments between those who consider it a masterpiece and those who think otherwise (for the record, I am one of those who consider it a masterpiece). The Academy didn’t neglect Stanley Kubrick in any case, as not only was he nominated for Best Director, but he won an Oscar for the Special Effects that he personally supervised (a reminder when the question of Kubrick ever winning an Academy Award ever turns up at a trivia contest). Three years later, Kubrick would be nominated for Best Director again for A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and although this film proved even more controversial for its graphic sex and violence, it did manage to garner a Best Picture nomination, as would STAR WARS in 1977 and E.T. THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL in 1982. However, no science fiction film has won the Best Film trophy as of yet, a fact which has done nothing to calm the knee-jerk accusations of elitism and snobbery within the Academy by certain corners of fandom.
The truth of the matter is, however much credibility there is to accusations of impulsive nose-turning among certain Academy members over its nearly century-old history when it comes to science fiction, fantasy and horror, it is equally true that too many fans are guilty of close-mindedness to films outside their favorite genres. Yes, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY is one of the greatest films of all time, and I agree with those who consider it both the best science fiction film ever made and the best movie of 1968, but OLIVER! also happens to be one of the great screen musicals. ANNIE HALL is a better film than STAR WARS, GANDHI is almost or at least as good as both E.T. and BLADE RUNNER, and so on. While saying so may anger cultural illiterates (such as your typical contributor to Cracked.com), this just happens to be the case. I didn’t see 12 YEARS A SLAVE so I can’t judge whether or not it was better than GRAVITY, but just going by word of mouth, that does seem to be the case as well. INCEPTION very nearly came close to deserving the Best Picture Oscar in 2010…but it was only the second-best film that year, after the deserving Best Picture winner, THE KING’S SPEECH. We shouldn’t expect that a film should be nominated for, much less awarded Best Picture, simply because we think that the Academy has an obligation to honor and respect our own personal tastes and interests, or to try to fulfill-dare I say it?-a quota system in which a movie is honored simply for being the best film of the year in its particular genre.
We don’t even have to look at the recent past for examples of this. Turning back the clock further, let’s look at the longest stretch of Oscar nominations, from August 1932 through all of 1933, after which the Academy Awards restricted its nominations to a single year. Of course, the most popular movie of 1933 remains KING KONG, and whether you consider it to be horror, fantasy or science fiction (and I do consider it to be science fiction), many film lovers, including myself, would certainly chose it over the fine but long-forgotten CAVALCADE as the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year, as did Danny Peary in his book Alternate Oscars. I hesitate to say majority-plurality, maybe-because, as Peary further notes, there were four other great films that went unnominated that year, DINNER AT EIGHT, DUCK SOUP (very likely the second-most popular film of the year), QUEEN CHRISTINA, and TROUBLE IN PARADISE. With the exception of the third film, which was probably left out because it premiered on New Year’s Eve of 1933 leaving in doubt whether or not it was eligible, all those other films were comedies, a genre that regularly gets snubbed to this day by the Academy, so it’s not just science fiction and fantasy that gets ignored. Those five are in addition to the classic films already nominated: 42nd STREET (probably the third most popular film of the year), A FAREWELL TO ARMS, LADY FOR A DAY, LITTLE WOMEN, THE PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY THE VIII and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM THE CHAIN GANG (my choice for the best movie among the nominated films), marking this eighteen-month period as one of the greatest ever in Hollywood history. Even among horror fans, KING KONG encounters competition from such classics as ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (my favorite horror film of all time) THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE MUMMY, and another Merian C. Cooper-Ernest B. Schoedsack production, THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME.
I do hope a science fiction film wins a Best Picture Oscar someday. I do hope it wins because it is genuinely the very best movie of the year, that it is not merely a good film but a great one, that it is great science fiction as well as a great film, and that all its merits are decided on the basis of its artistic quality, not out of noise and pressure to finally hand the trophy over to a movie of its genre. It would be extremely dismaying if current trends and movements in both SF fandom and attempts to reform the Oscar voting process should converge at some point and make the first science fiction film to win Best Picture an illegitimate victory.