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since 1997 | by maryann johanson

question of the day: What will it take for a science fiction movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture?

Fred Topel yesterday at Sci Fi Wire pondered the Oscar chances of The Road, which could be a serious contender this year. In its favor: its grim subject matter, its awards-season debut, the powerful performances by Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and its home at The Weinstein Company — where the folks are known for agggressively campaigning for movies they believe in.

Not in its favor: It’s science fiction.
A science fiction movie has never won Best Picture — the closest we’ve come is the nomination for Star Wars, which may have been the most likely moment when such a movie could win an Oscar in categories other than technical ones. The film was such a blast of fresh air that even its nomination is likely an expression of the surprise and delight of the industry. But now movies like this one have become staples of Hollywood’s output, with bad examples far outweighing the good ones, never mind one so great that they could potentially be Best Picture worthy.

No one has ever won an Oscar for acting in a science fiction film, though Jeff Bridges was nominated for Best Actor for 1984’s Starman.

Not many people have seen The Road yet — my review is here — so it’s hard to talk specifics about this one film yet. But it’s worth asking: What will it take for a science fiction movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture?

Will it have to be a movie that some people don’t even see as science fiction because it doesn’t feature spaceships and robots?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)



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  • One of the reasons given for the Oscars opening their nomination count to ten for Best Picture was due to the outcry of a popular and critically accepted genre flick like Dark Knight getting overlooked for even a nom.

    Now they are at the 10 count, the odds of a well-made science fiction film (TREK! TREK! TREK!) getting nominated increases… but the trick to WINNING is getting a Hollywood voting bloc that tries to think of itself as ‘judges’ to what constitutes ‘fine art’, meaning more artsy-type films will always win over more deserving fare (Annie Hall over Star Wars? Annie Hall wasn’t even Woody’s best film). Lord of the Rings is a massive exception because 1) it was on the scale of Ben-Hur, and Hollywood lives for epics, and 2) Tolkien as a critically-acclaimed literary source gave voters the cover they needed to vote for something they would have otherwise considered summer kiddie fare.

    The Road may well get Best Picture and acting nominations, but the only way for it to win Best Picture is by selling itself as less a scifi film and more a morality/humanistic piece, ala post-war survivor film. That’s what it will take for The Road to win. For an obvious scifi film like Star Trek to win Best Picture… we have to pray a good majority of Hollywood elites making up the voting bloc grew up watching TOS as geeky kids…

  • Morgan

    The Road isn’t going to win Best Picture. It’s been too tepidly reviewed already. The review here is the only unqualified rave I’ve seen.

  • Wait, wasn’t American Beauty science-fiction? Maybe I’m just confused because all its characters act like aliens or robots.

  • Jay

    The Sci-fi label is poorly understood, in my opinion. I think MaryAnn has commented on this in the past. I have to be cautious when writing this because I loathe the term for its generally accepted definition (lasers and spaceships, etc.)

    Good sci-fi movies, to me, explore issues of humanity. My examples of good sci-fi include many of Cronenberg’s movies (The Fly, Crash, etc.), Alien, …

    Bad sci-fi use only technology to explore the technology (not the humanity behind the technology).

    I fear Oscar doesn’t recognize the difference.

  • MaSch

    Jay, I disagree a little bit with your definition of “bad sci-fi”, as I do think that “Metropolis” is very good sci-fi, although the director claimed he just wanted to make a movie about machines (the motto: “The heart must be the mediator between the brain and the hands” was something Fritz Lang was pretty indifferent to, but since it was his wife who wrote it …)

    I don’t think all too much of Jorge Luis Borges writing could be seen as science fiction, but he also was a great author more interested in abstract ideas and concepts than individual characters, and this could be a valid route to go for science fiction which isn’t bad.

  • “Will it have to be a movie that some people don’t even see as science fiction because it doesn’t feature spaceships and robots?”

    then “Gattica” should have won the Best Picture…

  • JT

    I think Sam Rockwell has a good shot at a Best Actor nom for “Moon”.

  • Jay

    Valid point MaSch.

    Maybe my point is better expressed through a more specific discourse. I find it hard to explain myself when I feel confined to the small spaces of a comment section.

    I’ll think about this further and may return. I may not if my ADD kic

  • tomservo

    Are there really people out there who don’t believe sci-fi can be just as legitimate a genre as any other? It would be hard to believe. Maybe the same people who view comedy and horror the same way.

  • Hank Graham

    What it will take is for 90% of the voting membership to die off, the ones who think that science fiction is by its nature inferior, and be replaced by younger folks who don’t care about these petty distinctions about genre.

    However, even when that happens, you have the bigger problem of the silly Hollywood attitude, which everyone there seems to grow into, that quality somehow equates to “serious.”

    Because of THAT blindness, comedies generally don’t receive awards (no awards for the Marx Brothers, W. C. Fields & Buster Keaton), Johnny Depp playing Jack Sparrow lost to Sean Penn for “Mystic River,” Sigourney Weaver as Ripley lost to Marlee Martin in “Children of a Lesser God”, “Raiders of the Lost Ark” lost to “Chariots of Fire”, “Apocalypse Now” lost to “Kramer vs. Kramer”, Jeff Goldblum wasn’t even nominated for “The Fly”, Christopher Walken wasn’t even nominated for “The Dead Zone,” Jeff Bridges wasn’t even nominated for “The Big Lebowski,” George Clooney wasn’t even nominated for “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and no Oscars have been won by Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Bill Murray (and which character do you remember better, Murray’s in “Ghostbuster” or F. Murray Abraham’s in “Amadeus”?), Jeff Bridges, and “The Princess Bride.”

    Personally, I take the attitude that the Oscars have managed to make themselves irrelevant and ridiculous, and it is high time everyone stopped paying any attention to them. If that happened, maybe they’d get over themselves.

    Folks, this is art, NOT a sport. And it’s just a stupid marketing trick that turns the movies we see into this yearly struggle, where a bunch of clueless old geezers vote on their idea of what movies are Good For You, with one hand on their hearts and the other on their wallets.

    It certainly doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the quality of the movies.

  • drewryce

    Is Around the World in 80 Days (1956) a sci-fi film?

    It comes from a Jules Verne story and was at one time considered sci-fi in the same vein as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea or The War in The Air if not War of the Worlds.

    It won the best picture award in 1956.

    Still, it says a lot that for all of the prestigious awards that 2001 got it wasn’t even nominated for best picture in a year (1969) that nominated Rachel, Rachel.

  • “Will it have to be a movie that some people don’t even see as science fiction because it doesn’t feature spaceships and robots?”

    then “Gattica” should have won the Best Picture…

    Or for that matter, Brazil and the various versions of 1984. Unless, of course, the Academy considered those films to be documentaries…

    And no, I don’t think Star Trek is going to get the Oscar–even if a miracle happened and all American sci-fi films were considered as Oscar-worthy as the average British art flick. Just because a movie isn’t as awful as The Phantom Menace doesn’t necessarily mean it deserves an Oscar…

  • Question of the day: What will it take for a science fiction movie to win an Oscar for Best Picture?

    Shakespeare.
    Nazis.
    British actors.
    Jane Austen.
    Gangsters.
    Meryl Streep.
    Divorce.
    American Southerners.
    Handicaps.

    So I’m guessing that the ideal science fiction movie in the eyes of the Academy would be about a mentally handicapped American Southerner who gets a divorce from Meryl Streep and then goes back in time to save Shakespeare from Nazi gangsters who are putting on a production of Pride and Prejudice. Filmed, of course, in Canada with a British cast…

  • Kenny

    Good science fiction should be like any good fiction in that it should be character driven. Take a premise, then show how the people involved deal with it.

    What makes it science fiction is if the premise is based on a concept or technology or event which is outside of or more advanced than our current understanding of science.

    Based on that… there’s not really any reason why a science fiction movie couldn’t be as good as anything else.
    The problem is that far too many people think science fiction movies should revolve around the premise, and not the characters… and too many of them are based on the same tired old ideas.

  • Brad Hansen

    Speaking of Starman, I wrote an unsolicited script for a sequel back in 1998. It was my first script and I quit college to finish it. It’s been gathering dust ever since. I sent it to Jeff Bridges and John carpenter, although I would prefer if Carpenter didn’t direct a sequel. I wrote some good f/x sequences and some interesting characters. I’m pretty sure I’ll never be involved, but I’d to see the f/x scene from the beach being incorporated, (Jeff’s manager Neil will know the one, totally plagiarised from another movie, but it would look great on film today). If anyone has any questions, email me at hansenfilm@yahoo.ie and I’ll answer them. (Although I won’t give away any plot points. And yes there is a son and indeed, I actually have the perfect casting suggestion!!

  • bree

    FTR in terms of Academy Award nominations for the sci-fi genre, ET is certainly sci-fi and it was nominated more recently than Star Wars for Best Picture, and in terms of nominations in the lead acting category, Sigourney Weaver was nominated for Best Actress in Aliens more recently than Jeff Bridges for Star Man.

  • bree

    Pardon, I meant Starman.

  • Paul

    for all the judges to be born after 1970.

  • Muzz

    If it happens it’ll be some heart warming quirky worthiness like Crash combined with Cocoon, of this we can be sure.

    On the subject of The Road, I read something about the spread of worthy sci-fi through subterfuge where the book figured highly. The literati can’t stand sci-fi either, typically. The prose and characters are often second fiddle to the ideas, which is cart-before-horse as far as they’re concerned. But every now and then something cuts through for one reason or another (The Road and The Handmaid’s Tale often cited). But it might not have any effect as it seemed that bookies and Oprah’s Book Clubbers etc ignored or denied it was science fiction. “Oh, but they’re not ‘science fiction authors'”. The books get put in other sections of the bookstore far from anything that has spaceships on the cover or is number 8 in a series of 14 paper bricks.
    Wells, Verne and Huxley seem to have osmosed over into literature. So maybe it takes about 80yrs for people to get over it.

  • Bluejay

    Ursula K. Le Guin–one of the best writers on the planet, period–has spoken out a lot about the belittling of science fiction as a genre. She’s often cited McCarthy and Michael Chabon as authors considered “too serious” to write SF, although they clearly do. Here’s a hilarious little piece she wrote called “On Serious Literature”:

    http://ursulakleguin.com/Note-ChabonAndGenre.html

    …which could apply as well to SF films, I guess.

  • Jolly

    I’ve never been able to read Le Guin. If anything, I lump her with Frank Herbert as one the many SF authors whose style has contributed to the fringe status of the genre.

    That Vonnegut has avoided the science fiction label is somewhat surprising. Books like Sirens of Titan, Player Piano and Slaughterhouse Five have overt science fiction elements. I suspect part of the reason Vonnegut has never been marginalized to the same degree is that satire was always been at the forefront of his stories, while with writers like Herbert, any links between our world and his imaginary ones are obscured by the (often painful) focus on detail.

    Of course, none of the attempts at filming Vonnegut’s work have been very good.

  • I suspect part of the reason Vonnegut has never been marginalized to the same degree is that satire was always been at the forefront of his stories, while with writers like Herbert, any links between our world and his imaginary ones are obscured by the (often painful) focus on detail.

    And yet there are a lot of science fiction writers who like to write satire–Robert Silverberg, Frederik Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, Philip Jose Farmer, Harlan Ellison and even that Connie Willis person–who rarely get as much attention as Vonnegut. Even when a movie as well-known as Idiocracy “borrows” one of their plots, they get little attention–even from critics who are supposedly sci-fi fans.

    I suspect the true problem is that Vonnegut is seen as a satirist first and foremost and a sci-fi writer second while the other authors I mentioned are seen the opposite way.

    Plus, in order to be familiar with a certain author’s work, you actually have to read it and I don’t see many mainstream critics showing much interest in reading anything outside of their chosen genre.

    On the plus side, Frank Herbert does appear to have gotten ripped off by a lot of people who are rarely associated with him: for example, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Don Coscarelli…

  • Jolly

    @Tonio I read lots of sci-fi as a teenager and still pick up a “best of” anthology every year. The short story imposes a certain efficiency on the writer, which I like, and I generally come across two or three stories that have some degree of social relevancy and leave a lasting impression. Most of the names that you’ve listed are really from an earlier era of science fiction. Although I occasionally think about picking up a novel by one of the authors I’ve encountered in said anthologies, I’ve never followed through.

    With regards to Ellison, I disagree. I think he was a satirist first as well, but relied too much on shock value to ever obtain mainstream recognition. Or maybe Ellison’s alienation was just harder to relate to. Unlike many SF writers, Vonnegut and Ellison develop their alternative universes no more than is needed to tell their stories. In my opinion, Vonnegut was the better wordsmith.

    My impression is that the science fiction community itself is often fairly closed, with a lot of readers not reading much outside the genre. This in turn leads to writers performing for a fairly narrow audience. It’s not entirely surprising to me that mainstream readers avoid SF.

    With regards to the Oscars, I realized a long time ago (maybe with Crash) that I didn’t care about the opinion of the Academy, and just ignore them. Not being an insider in the industry, I don’t see any relevance. And as much as the idea of “taste validation” occurs every time I come to these boards, that will have to wait for another day.

  • Bluejay

    @Jolly:

    I’ve never been able to read Le Guin. If anything, I lump her with Frank Herbert as one the many SF authors whose style has contributed to the fringe status of the genre.

    What do you find alienating about her style, and which of her books do you have in mind? I’ll admit I’m more a fan of her fantasy/YA/”mainstream” work than her earlier Hainish books, which I haven’t read in a while; but in all cases I’ve found her exploration of gender and social issues fascinating, and never inaccessible. Her prose style has also evolved over the years, and these days tends to be spare, uncluttered, and lyrical. A pleasure to read, in my opinion.

    Her readership is, I think, much wider than just hardcore SF fans, and she’s gotten lots of media recognition both in and out of the SF community, including the National Book Award and being shortlisted for the Pulitzer. I’m not saying you should like her for her awards–just that perhaps they are evidence she’s not considered a fringe author writing fringe work.

  • chuck

    No one has mentioned Blade Runner, it certainly did not win but maybe should have, it just looks better every time I see it. Only two Oscar nominations, very sad.

    I think Hank is spot on as well as others who think Oscar may just not matter for a variety of reasons.

    If you want to know what’s good in Sci Fi, Hugo is probably a much better reference.

  • Paul

    What I found difficult in some of LeGuin’s work, primarily the books she wrote in the style of Left Hand of Darkness, was the same thing that made her respectable in English departments: long-winded, boring prose. Others of her books I’ve liked; I’m not trying to diss her. My taste just sometimes run contrary to English professors.

    And while the SF/F community can be insular socially, the reason SF/F books used to be in the back of many bookstores was because SF/F readers were the most likely to read outside their genre, and bookstores wanted to tempt them with many options on their way to the back to get what they came for.

  • drewryce

    A Clockwork Orange was certainly sci-fi by anyones standards. It was not only nominated but was favored to win the best picture award.

    It didn’t of course and that loss, in a very week year, says loads about the academy as a conservative mechanism far behind the book world.

    Of course, the same can be said of music. The best new artist grammy never goes to anybody that history will consider the right choice.

  • Bluejay

    Of course, the same can be said of music. The best new artist grammy never goes to anybody that history will consider the right choice.

    With the exception, perhaps, of the Beatles in 1965. (Unless you think Petula Clark, Astrud Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, or Morgana King should have won…it was a pretty strong year.)

  • iakobos

    I never watch the Oscars. The last time I might have watched would have been as an unsuspecting teenager back in the ’80’s. Somewhere in there I figured out that the Oscars is nothing but worms exalting worms. And frankly, I don’t really care if the worms who vote for the Oscars ever vote for a sci-fi movie or not because it won’t change my enjoyment of a good sci-fi flick one bit.

    To answer MaryAnn’s question, I think the Oscar voters would have to be taken over by sci-fi lovers in order for a sci-fi movie to ever win.

  • drewryce

    LOL, no Bluejay, I think that the Beatles were a pretty good choice. Never say never, right.
    I hereby change my statement to “the grammys got it right two or maybe three times in the last 50 years” (Beatles, Crosby, Stills & Nash and one more for good luck).
    Still, they managed to miss Elvis, Cash, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis, Santana, Aretha, Elton, Zepplin, Taylor, Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and everybody else that defined music for the modern era.

  • moviegoer

    Just admit it, the oscars/grammy/globe are there just for the celebration for the entertainment industry. You cant point out a winning case, cause that most likely isnt the winning one from another man’s or woman’s standpoint/view.

  • Bluejay

    Somewhere in there I figured out that the Oscars is nothing but worms exalting worms …
    To answer MaryAnn’s question, I think the Oscar voters would have to be taken over by sci-fi lovers in order for a sci-fi movie to ever win.

    Would they be sandworms exalting sandworms, then? ;-)

  • iakobos

    Would they be sandworms exalting sandworms, then? ;-)

    Yes, sandworms would be about the size of their egos. Maybe we could send in Paul Atreides to take them over. Then we’d get a sci-fi Oscar.

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