Revisiting the Collective: 'Gravity' Falls: Can Science Fiction Ever Win Best Picture?

(CS: A quick update after the Covid revelation on Friday, it continues to be the easiest cold of my life with the only symptoms being I can't go see movies in the theatre and I was trapped down in my basement with two Covid kids who were healthy and full of energy that were intent on making sure there were as many interruptions as possible to any attempted work. I also may have lower back pain connected to the virus, but that is more likely a thing called getting old.

Another repost today, and I am sadly learning that I've lost way more Collective Publishing columns due to saving stuff on a cloud not being a common thing for me in 2012 to 2015. This piece was posted on March 5th, 2014, right after the Oscars, where I started predicting if a sci-fi movie ever had a chance to win Best Picture. Depending how one views The Shape of Water, we could say the genre now has a win, but my guess, is most don't consider that typical sci-fi.)

Gravity had a prosperous night at the Oscars this past Sunday by nabbing the majority of the technical awards and with Alfonso Cuaron taking home Best Director. Despite needing a wagon to cart the statuettes out of the building, it was denied what is considered the most prestigious award, the Best Picture. It is pretty hard to argue against 12 Years a Slave (though some already are trying) as a deserving winner of the top prize. The winner not only was a masterfully crafted picture that was both beautiful and painful, but it has the powerful social message that Academy likes to award so they can pat themselves on their backs. (CS: Then a few years later they gave it to Green Book.) 

Gravity had a lot in its favour right before the award was announced. It had won the most statuettes in the evening and was a powerful story about the triumph of human spirit, which is another thing the Academy often loves. It also was a juggernaut at the box office, which you wouldn’t think matters but history would argue against that. (CS: This has significantly changed in recent years as now Academy voting has moved father and farther away from nominating big box office movies for Best Picture. In the past, blockbuster hits like Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rain Man, Titanic, Avatar, Fugitive and Forrest Gump were easy Best Picture nominees due to their financial success, but now voters seem to gravitate towards smaller and lesser known movies. There is now a distinct difference between box office hits and Best Picture nominees.) A well-made picture with prestigious actors and directors that generate a strong buzz and most importantly end up being a hit at the box office tend to fare quite well in the Best Picture race. (CS: Now it is about that indy cred.)  There is quite a bit of evidence of good pictures that beat out better pictures for the big award because it was the bigger hit at the theatres. Titanic, Gladiator, Forrest Gump, Rain Man, Braveheart, and Rocky are examples of Best Picture winners who likely won thanks to massive financial success. (CS: In a lot of ways, the Academy would benefit to bring back this approach, and it would at least make them seem more relevant to the casual audience again.) 

Why is it that this time a picture that took home many awards and had massive box office success wasn’t able to woo Academy voters for the top prize? It appears making mountains of money isn’t enough for the Academy to ignore the fact it is a genre picture. (CS; Since I wrote this article, we did get a genre picture winner with The Shape of Water.) 

I realize every picture in some ways has to be a genre picture. I’m talking about one that fits fairly well into a specific category. Typically, Academy has proven to be less willing to give away their most prestigious award to a picture that fits under romantic comedy, action, horror, and especially, science fiction. Even with Gravity leaving the ray guns and green aliens at home (well, except for the floating Marvin the Martian doll) it still is categorized by almost everyone as a science fiction picture.  

There still seems to be a stigma against genre pictures. The idea is that they can’t carry the prestige and value of a character-driven drama or a historical epic or social issue focused narrative. The truth is that often that belief is correct. Most genre pictures follow a well-worn formula and don’t bother to dig into compelling and complicated themes. (CS: I now disagree with this statement. The genre picture is just less blatant about it than a prestige drama.) The problem is that the belief often clouds voters from the truth that many great pictures can elevate past their genre and give great stories about human nature or any issue tackled by the more “award-worthy” pictures. 

This isn’t to say that a genre picture hasn’t ever won an Oscar for Best Picture. Shakespeare in Love and Annie Hall are without a doubt romantic comedies, but are also considered the epitome of their genre and offer up more than the typical boy hates girl then loves girl routine. (CS: Some film snobs would probably try to argue they are more drama with romance and comedy elements in the same way they try to argue Jaws and The Silence of the Lambs are not horror.) French Connection offers up an unforgettable car chase scene that rivals anything in the action genre and shows that type of picture can deliver thrills along with drama and compelling performances. The most significant one for this particular discussion would be 2003 Best Picture winner, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King that would fall under fantasy, which is a genre often lumped in with science fiction at book or video stores. (CS: There is almost no way in today's Academy voting environment that Return of the King wins now, and it may barely get nominated. I'm even wondering now if the Academy is savvy enough to vote Top Gun: Maverick this year, which would have been a slam dunk pick in the 1990s.)

The simple fact it is rare that genre wins the main event of the Oscars. For straight science fiction, it hasn’t happened yet, and even though 2003 seemed to give some hope, the best chances fell short since that time. Avatar felt like a sure thing in 2009 because it was the new all-time box office ruler, but James Cameron’s science fiction epic was upset by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow with her picture The Hurt Locker. In the last few years there has been an increase in science fiction (and fantasy) pictures getting nominated with works like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Avatar, District 9, Up, Inception, Beasts of the Southern Wild (yes, I’m pushing it here), Toy Story 3, and Hugo. (CS: To be the proverbial broken record, outside of very indy Beasts of the Southern Wild, not convinced any of these other movies get nominated in current times based off recent patterns.) In most cases it was just considered that the nominations were a win and rarely were they actually favourites. If you look down at the list of every single Best Picture nomination, you’ll realize very few science fiction and fantasy pictures have ended up being nominated. 

Some fans will shout to the heavens that the lack of nomination and Best Picture for science fiction (or fantasy) is due to an Academy deep seeded prejudice. There is some obvious evidence for the genre being the albatross for a picture getting recognized. 2001: A Space Odyssey is considered one of Stanley Kubrick’s greatest works and he is also considered one of the all-time greatest auteurs, but it didn’t even get a Best Picture nomination in 1968. King Kong (1933) and Bride of Frankenstein are now held up as classics, yet they also were ignored for Best Picture. (CS: Though this is more of a The Thing and Blade Runner situation where they've grown in acclaim over the decades.) Well respected film critic Roger Ebert declared Minority Report the very best film of 2002, but the endorsement wasn’t enough for a nomination (though that year did see The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers get a nod). (CS: Ebert was also a long-time sci-fi fan, and gobbled up the sci-fi pulps as a kids, so he likely had a greater affection for an adaptation of Philip K. Dick than most of the Academy.) There is some backing that the Academy can’t always see past the space ships and laser beams when it comes to voting. 

There is also the very harsh reality that in most cases the very best picture of the year just wasn’t in science fiction. I’m a huge Star Wars geek and that series played a rather big role in my childhood, but I’d never try to argue that it should have won over Woody Allen’s masterpiece Annie Hall. (CS: Why not? Star Wars excelled in its genre the same way that Annie Hall did in its own. It is just that the Academy accepted something like the latter as more awards worthy.)  There are many who still argue that E.T. should have beat Gandhi and some think it was a just case of voters not getting past the finger-glowing alien. But the Academy also loves their historical epics and likely that was the bigger reason Gandhi won the award rather than just the negative towards science fiction factor. Many Christopher Nolan fans still think it is a robbery that Inception lost out in 2010, but I’d argue it was actually The Social Network that deserved the statuette if one was to commandeer it from The King’s Speech. (CS: This movie is often cited alongside winners like Crash and The Greatest Show on Earth as pictures that didn't deserve to win. Of course, all that is subjective and personal taste. I'm sure someone out there is still championing for that Bio-Dome nod.)  

Essentially, this is the same problem that happened this past Sunday. Maybe being a science fiction story hurt Gravity’s chances. Often the Best Director leads to the Best Picture, but that isn’t always the case. (CS: It has happened four times in the last decade, so less of a sure thing now.) The fact was that Cuaron did deserve recognition for helming a picture that perfectly blended special effects, cinematography, stylized shots, sound effects, a musical score and strong performances to create one of the most gripping and captivating viewing experiences ever on the big screen. It wasn’t the best picture of the 2013, and 12 Years a Slave’s win was definitely well-deserved. (CS: Cuaron would win Best Director but not Best Picture again with Roma.) 

Actually, Gravity wasn’t even the best science fiction picture nominated for Best Picture. That picture would be Her, which got a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay win. (CS: Of course, the more abstract and surreal storytelling of director Spike Jonze means there are many that would disagree with me on that declaration, including The Movie Breakdown's own Scott Martin.) Her would definitely be an example of a complex and intricate picture that works on many levels and is incredibly relevant to modern day that really didn’t have a chance to win due to being too outside the box for current Academy voters. (CS: And to be fair for some movie goers and critics too.) This wasn’t really even a case about it being science fiction, but rather Spike Jonze crafting stories that aren’t straight-forward and may be far too demanding for the average voter. 

So, will I be writing an article like this in another 20 years? (CS: Not if Everything Everywhere All at Once wins next year. Or if you already count The Shape of Water.) Is science fiction doomed to just be a draw at the box office but never earning the prestige of being recognized as the year’s best? (CS: Based off current voting patterns, it isn't likely any big blockbuster will win in the next decade.) Of course, all the science fiction filmmakers can likely get over the condemnation by crying on their mountain of cash and wiping the tears away with silk handkerchiefs. The Academy is changing as the years go by and has become more open minded in what they vote on. It will continue to change as the number of members who’ve grown up during the blockbuster era becomes the majority. (CS: This seems to have gone the opposite way, with Oscar winners tied closer to arthouse or independent pictures now. The Best Picture category now nominates one or two mainstream movies in a 'filler' spot.) The younger voters will likely be less narrow in what they perceive as Oscar worthy pictures. (CS: This is true, as The Shape of Water proves they are now down with fish monster sex.)

Despite the change in Academy demographics, it will still take a special kind of science fiction picture to finally get the victory. I’d be surprised if an action-centred Marvel picture ever even had a shot at winning, and there is a good chance its release date won’t be until after the summer time. (CS: I pulled off being wrong twice in one sentence as Black Panther not only got nominated but it was released all the way back in February of its year.) The Academy has a short memory, which is why the winners are often from the last few months. It is also the time period where people have grown to expect more mature and provocative pictures worthy of awards. A science fiction picture will have the added battle of proving that it is more than just a special effect fueled romp, but a work with an important message and deep themes. Of course it can still be fun and entertaining, but the standards will likely be much higher for whatever science fiction movie finally gets the honour. (CS: Black Panther didn't win, and I don't think most ever thought it had a chance.) 

The simple fact is the Academy even as it has evolved over the past decade, still has a rather narrow view of what constitutes a Best Picture. This isn’t just a challenge for science fiction. This is also the same reason why Quentin Tarantino and Jonze may be destined to just get Best Original Screenplay awards rather than the most prestigious statuette. Pictures that are too violent or have a non-linear plot or don’t seem to have a clear social importance tend to not get enough votes. Typically, these type of pictures can get nominated or win in almost every other category, but the Best Picture is far more guarded. This type of picture can hang out in the nomination room and be able to sniff the prize, but they usually don’t have a chance. Django Unchained was my favourite picture of 2012, but I even knew it being nominated was its victory. 

If you look at the last few decades of Best Picture you will notice trends. The Academy likes pictures set in the past either fairly recent (The Hurt Locker) or distant (Dances with Wolves). It is even better if it is based off a major historical event like The King’s Speech, A Beautiful Mind, or Titanic. You’ve got a real winner if that historical event makes Hollywood look like a hero (Argo). Academy will also happily settle for stories about the magic of filmmaking like The Artist. If there isn’t any of that then pictures with a clear social message like Crash or Million Dollar Baby will do. Or one that has a powerful message and is based on a historical event like Schindler’s List essentially means the producers need to work on their acceptance speeches before the shooting is complete. There are exceptions to this rather cynical criterion obviously, and in many of these cases it was a well-deserving picture if not the best of the year. It does pose a rather monumental challenge for the science fiction picture that can’t easily meet all these expectations. (CS: An important social issues or allegory for a hot topic picture has won over historical based picture more often since writing this piece.)

The simple fact is science fiction is rarely Oscar bait. It is either made because it is a passion project or that it can likely grab a huge audience. Filmmakers don’t choose the genre if their eye is on awards. I don’t think that means science fiction will never win. I sense its time will come before I’m punching out copy in 2 decades. It is likely going to be something incredibly innovative and different than most pictures before it. It will likely have some strong social themes and ramp up the inspection on human nature much like Her, but something that can connect more easily with the voters. Though maybe abstract pictures will have a better chance in 10 years’ time. (CS: Now, I'm on to something.) 

Does science fiction have a shot when the Academy Awards hand out their accolades for 2014 pictures? At this point it is hard to tell. At this time last year, many of the pictures that ended up being nominated weren’t widely known or being talked about. The only pictures that really had any discussion at this time last year would have been American Hustle (which may not have even had a name yet) and The Wolf of Wall Street. You can see how early Oscar predicting is rather hard at this stage. (CS: Yet very fun to try anyway.) 

There are a few shining hopes for those rooting for science fiction or fantasy. Looking at the Oscar season this fall, the two genre pictures that stand-out are Interstellar and Into the Woods. (CS: Neither got nominated for Best Picture.) Both pictures have strong prestigious talent behind them. Christopher Nolan, who is directing Interstellar, is likely the director who most often dips into the science fiction genre that has the best shot to create a Best Picture winner. Many felt Dark Knight should have been nominated (and won), and Inception had its vocal campaigners as well. Nolan is notoriously closed during shooting, so there is little known about the picture but it is still one of the most anticipated. As for Into the Woods, Director Rob Marshall already has a Best Picture to his credit with Chicago. (CS: To my great movie critic shame, this is still a blindspot movie for me.) 

The pictures are also rich with acting talent. Interstellar can boast Academy Award winners in Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, and Michael Caine along with Oscar nominees like Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, and Casey Affleck. Into the Woods is crammed with awards winners and nominees with stars like Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt and Anna Kendricks. Both pictures are boasting the talents that open the eyes of the Academy. There is a good shot that the directors and actors will be looking for nominations too. Of course, we’re still many months away from even knowing if either is any good and worthy. (CS: I really dig Interstellar, but as a huge fan of the stage musical, Into the Woods was a big disappointment.)  

More importantly, there are still lots of time for the competition to start cropping up. At this point, it looks like we can expect a picture from Cameron Crowe and Paul Thomas Anderson. Both are names you instantly associate with an Oscar contender. Their existence may be enough to dim the chances for a science fiction picture like Interstellar to break out.  

Gravity joined prestigious company of science fiction films that fell short of the ultimate accolade. Interstellar may already be set to be the next picture to join the party and after ignite many fans into a post-Oscar uproar over the “travesty.” One day a true science fiction picture will win, and it will likely be something truly special and unique. For now, science fiction fans can have solace in knowing their beloved movies likely made a lot more money that the Best Picture. (CS: I find it cute that I used words like 'worthy' as if that ever has anything to do with the Best Picture winner.)