Halftime Leisure

Science Fiction at the Oscars

February 25, 2017


Two years ago, I wrote a very passionate piece about why I believed that Interstellar should have been nominated for Best Picture. Today, I absolutely stand by that opinion.

But instead of Nolan’s magnum opus, it is the treatment of Arrival that has me most angry at the Academy. Although the Oscar winners have not been declared yet, it is a safe bet that Arrival will be awarded a multitude of technical awards while missing out on the ones that matter the most: Best Director, Picture, and Adapted Screenplay. These are the truly rewarding Oscars. The others, mere participation trophies.

To be fair, this is not a criticism of the Academy that is relegated to 2017. Indeed, throughout the course of the Academy’s history, there has been a reluctance to award science fiction films with the Academy’s highest honor. There has never been a science fiction film that has won the Oscar for Best Picture. The closest the Academy has come is rewarding The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2003, or The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. These film genres were fantasy and thriller, respectively, and although they came close to the science fiction genre, they did not fully embrace it.

When discussing science fiction, it is vital to examine the films that have had the most significant impact on pop culture as a whole over the past 50 years. Films like Star Wars and Avatar were cultural phenomena, television shows like Star Trek dominated the small screen, and books like Dune captivated the social mindset.

Science fiction has produced some of the most iconic images and sound in pop culture today. So why has the Academy been so reluctant to reward it? Well, first, the overly-simplistic argument is that science fiction is somehow a “lesser” genre than the typical Oscar fare. Ignoring the fact that this denigrates countless literary and cinematic works, the assertion that the genre somehow produces less-than-stellar products is simply untrue. Look now further than 2001: A Space Odyssey for a film that pushes the boundaries of cinema in a manner reminiscent of Citizen Kane. Star Wars left an indelible mark on the pop culture lexicon, and other works like Planet of the Apes remain in the cultural zeitgeist today. To simply write off science fiction as a somehow lesser genre is both unfair and wrong.

Although I strongly advocated for Interstellar’s nomination for Best Picture, it is not just that film that I am interested in promoting. Granted, Arrival is nominated for the major categories, but its chances of winning pale in comparison to La La Land and Moonlight, both films that check every box for the approval of the Academy. Admittedly, science fiction films rarely combine the necessary elements for an Oscar nomination. Recent nominees include Arrival, Avatar, District 9, Inception, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian. And yet, none of these combined the elements necessary for a Best Picture win. They lacked the usual Oscar bait: heartbreaking performances, tales of personal struggle and grief, and, in the case of La La Land, a story that praises Hollywood itself.

Handing science fiction films the technical achievements is a poor way to recognize how influential the science fiction genre has been on contemporary filmmaking. Science fiction films typically have superb sound editing and mixing, so these awards are not undeserved. But giving them to science fiction films and turning to more standard Oscar fare is unfair to the genre. Science fiction films vary widely in quality, that is undoubtedly true. But the truly special films stand out from the rest, and demand the Academy’s attention.

The Academy has withstood criticisms of its handling of the racial and gender inequalities in Hollywood. This Oscar season represents an impressive step forward in this realm. But science fiction has proven to be one of the more progressive genres when it comes to giving roles to people of color. An avid film fan must look no further than early-Cold War offerings to see how the genre bravely tackled sensitive social issues (one must look no further than The World, the Flesh, and the Devil for an unflinching take on race relations in America). Now, shows like The Expanse demonstrate the potential of the genre to incorporate peoples of different backgrounds and ethnicities. The science fiction genre has proven more than capable of making prescient predictions about the future, and it is time for the Academy to recognize that. Giving the Best Picture award to Arrival would be a step for the Academy, but a leap for Hollywood in the right direction.

Graham Piro
Graham Piro is a former editor-in-chief of the Voice. He isn't sure why the rest of the staff let him stick around. Follow him on Twitter @graham_piro.

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