Science fiction at the Oscars
The 95° Academy Awards ceremony will happen on March 12th, 2023. To celebrate the occasion, I thought of writing this brief history of science fiction at the Oscars.
Starting from the end, Villeneuve’s Dune Part I was one of the strongest contenders in last year’s award season, with a total of ten Oscar's nominations and six wins. This year we have not one but two sci-fi movies nominated for best picture: Avatar: The Way of the Water and a favorite Everything Everywhere All at Once.
The Oscars is often regarded as the most prestigious award in the film industry, but it is criticized for its snobbish bias toward a particular type of story. Every year you see a handful of “Oscar-bait movies” produced to grab the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s attention. Not surprisingly, genre movies (including science fiction) are not usually well-regarded in these ceremonies. Although my personal perception is that sci-fi is starting to get more recognition in this past decade. Is it only me?
A brief history of science fiction at the Oscars
From the very beginning, science fiction movies have been mainly recognized by the Academy for their technical elements: Art Direction, Editing, Especial Effects, Sound Effects… the list goes on.
According to The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction, the first sci-fi movie to ever be nominated was Just Imagine, a 1930 musical-comedy directed by David Burtler. It was just the second Academy Awards ceremony, and Just Imagine received the nomination for Best Art Direction.
However, the first golden statuette for a sci-fi movie came the following year. And it was not for a technical category! Frederich March won Best Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll (and Mr. Hyde) in the 1931 adaptation of the (now a classic) novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The first sci-fi movie to ever be nominated in the Best Picture category was Dr. Strangelove, the cautionary tale directed by Stanley Kubrick. That happened in the year 1964.
I know what you are thinking. Is Dr. Strangelove a science fiction movie? Isn’t it a black-comedy satire? Yes, to both. “Crucially — and this is the science bit — it often does this by dealing with humans dealing with technology. Technology running away with us is the basis of Dr. Strangelove,” says movie-critic Angie Errigo.
If you don’t buy Dr. Strangelove as science fiction, Stanley Kubrick has you covered. The next sci-fi movie to receive a nomination for Best Picture was another of his films, A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick's movies were loved by the Academy. Dr. Strangelove received three nominations in 1964, 2001: A Space Odyssey received four in 1968, winning Best Visual Effects. In 1971, A Clockwork Orange received another three nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Kubrick as a director, however, injustly never got a golden stattette.
But, by far, the best year for science fiction in these early years happened because of the duo of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. In 1977, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind received, together, an astounding twenty nominations! Winning nine of them! Eleven for Star Wars, seven wins. (If you can't tell, we're talking about Episode IV here.)
Fun fact, John Willians was nominated for Best Original Score for Close Encounters of the Third Kind and lost…. to himself! He deservedly won Best Original Score for his work on Star Wars.
Speaking of Spielberg, his family-friendly sci-fi movies E.T. The Extraterrestrial and Jurassic Park also got many nominations (eight for E.T. with four wins, including Best Original Score, and three for Jurassic Park, and it won all of them.)
Now for the bitter defeats of all times. The most outrageous one, in my opinion, was the one for Best Orignal Screenplay in 1985. I mean, how could Back to the Future lose in this category? The movie is flawless!
For Oscar snubs, we have the example of Ghost in the Shell, which wasn’t even nominated as Best Animated Feature Film. A crime!
Anyway… So far, only one science-fiction movie has won Best Picture. No, not Denis Villeneuve's Arrival, nominated in 2017. The winner was Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water the following year. For Best Animated Feature Film, Wall-E was the first to win in 2009. First but not the only one, so I guess our beloved genre gets more recognition in animated format.
Science Fiction at the 95th Academy Awards ceremony
I don’t think Avatar II has any chance at the 95th ceremony of the Academy Awards, but Everything Everywhere All at Once is a worthy contender. This absurdist comedy tells a story about family, traditions, depression, and the Multiverse.
Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh, is a Chinese immigrant in the U.S. trying to deal with her own failures while handling her relationship with her depressed daughter, who has become a sort of villain in the multiverse.
The success of Everything Everywhere All at Once is justified. The absurdist scenario fits perfectly into multiverse storytelling, and the mother-daughter relationship is a timeless tale packed with emotion. Not to mention the great acting! Michelle Yeoh is a favorite in the Best Actress category, and Ke Huy Quan, Stephanie Hsu, and James Lee curtis were also nominated for their roles.
Will Everything Everywhere All at Once win Best Picture? Nah. sci-fi plus comedy is not the combination the Academy usually looks for. But I must say, it would be absurdly fantastic if a movie with a scene of two grown men fighting to sit on a butt plug won the Oscars.
I’m sure there’s a reality where Everything Everywhere All at Once wins Best Picture. Who knows, maybe it’s this one.
What do you think of the Oscars? Do you watch it? Do you think we’ll have our second sci-fi movie winning Best Picture this year? Let me know in the comments.
That's it for today, folks.
See you next post! Ra.
Carla Ra is a scientist by day, sci-fi writer by night. You can check out her anthology ARTIFICIAL REBELLION here.