Saturday, March 6, 2010
Science Fiction and the Oscars
The Academy Awards have never been all that fond of science fiction films. In 1956, Around the World in 80 Days, based on the Jules Verne novel, won Best Picture. And, of course, in 2003 The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King became the only film to win both a Hugo and an Oscar. Both films could easily fit into the broader family of speculative fiction, but neither is, strictly speaking, science fiction. More conventional sf films like Star Wars and ET were nominated and lost; 2001 wasn't even nominated.
Tonight, there are two clear science fiction films up for the award in Avatar and District 9 (not to mention Pixar's Up, which has obvious fantasy elements, and Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, which could maybe qualify for a Hugo as an alternate history). I imagine that I'll get to cover Avatar and District 9 for the 2010 Hugos (which I do plan on covering at length before the awards are handed out in early September), but I wanted to briefly say:
I want Avatar to break the science fiction Oscar drought.
Is it the greatest science fiction film ever? No, I'm not even sure its the best science fiction film of the year. It's certainly not my favorite film of the year (that was the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man, which also got a nomination thanks to five expansion slots for Best Picture). Of the 8 Best Picture nominees I've seen, I'd put Avatar at about 6th place. So, why do I want it to win? Well, first of all, most of the other films don't have a chance. The Hurt Locker seems to be the only other big contender with Basterds and Up in the Air as dark horses. I think all three films were better than Avatar, but I'd still be happy to see the blue aliens take home the gold statuette.
Thing is, I don't think Best Picture is really about the, er, best picture. The type of film that I like rarely wins Oscars. Avatar actually fits the Best Picture bill better than the other films - it's big, successful, technically revolutionary, and it has a message. It's also predictable and far from revolutionary when it comes to storytelling, plot, and character. The only thing that would make it better Oscar bait is if it were a biopic. If the Academy is not going to reward films for taking storytelling risks and asking existential questions (the kind of things I like in a film), then I might as well modify my expectations about winners.
As I often remind myself when working through this blog, awards are not the final arbiters of quality, but they do bring recognition and express appreciation. While James Cameron has gotten more than enough recognition and appreciation (many would say too much), science fiction has not. The genre is an important cornerstone in the film history that has only increased in influence in the past few decades. I think Avatar is good enough, interesting enough, and, perhaps most importantly, Oscar-pandering enough to bring that recognition.
But, my gut tells me that The Hurt Locker will win, and I won't really mind if it does. And, I'd be thrilled to see Basterds win as well. ;)