“Avatar” has become the highest grossing movie of all time, surpassing the Oscar-winning film “Titanic.” Will “Avatar” make a big mark on Oscar night too? We talked earlier to Rebecca Keegan, the author of “The Futurist: The Life and Films of James Cameron,” and here she weighs in on why this could be the year a science-fiction film wins the Oscar for best picture. — Jevon Phillips
Slasher films, pot comedies, anything starring The Rock — there are some movies that no one expects to win Academy Awards. And traditionally, Oscar’s no-fly list has included science fiction. Academy Award-winning films are supposed to be serious, weighty, historical — if your movie takes place in a galaxy far, far away, well, you can leave your tuxedo in the closet until it’s time to accept a somewhat less prestigious prize shaped like a rocket ship.
This year, however, is looking like a breakthrough year for sci-fi, as the alien vehicles “Avatar,” “District 9” and “Star Trek” have earned critical praise and accolades from the industry groups that tend to foreshadow Oscar nominations. Thanks to a convergence of factors, including the expansion of the best picture category from five movies to 10, the ascendance of the post-“Star Wars” generation in Hollywood and the imposing box office success of James Cameron’s “Avatar,” this Rodney Dangerfield of movie genres looks like it may finally win some respect come Oscar time.
“The academy has always thought of sci-fi as a secondary type of exploitation film,” says Roger Corman, who was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in November, in large part for his role in producing the low-budget sci-fi films that gave directors like Cameron their start. “They’re only beginning to realize that there is seriousness and depth within the genre.”
A sci-fi film has never won best picture, and to a certain generation of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members the genre is still the ignoble territory of the drive-in, the rubber suit, the B actor. In 1968, influential film critic Pauline Kael called Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” “a monumentally unimaginative movie. . . . If big film directors are to get credit for doing badly what others have been doing brilliantly for years with no money, just because they’ve put it on the big screen, then businessmen are greater than poets and theft is art.” It seems many in the academy agreed with Kael’s dismissal of “2001,” because Kubrick’s now iconic film earned only one Oscar, for its special effects, and was not nominated for best picture.
The academy primarily rewards sci-fi in its technical categories, as it must, since so much of cinema’s innovation comes from artists depicting alien worlds and futuristic wars. But after years of largely ignoring the genre in its other categories, Hollywood was virtually forced to acknowledge sci-fi in 1977. “The academy had to admit that there was this 800-pound gorilla in the room and that was ‘Star Wars,’ ” says John Scalzi, author of “The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies.” An undeniable cultural phenomenon, “Star Wars” was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including best picture, but lost to the cerebral comedy “Annie Hall.” At the 1982 Oscars, another sci-fi gorilla, Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” lost to “Gandhi,” a three-hour Richard Attenborough-directed biopic of a beloved historical figure — in other words, a made-for-Oscar film. In his acceptance speech, Attenborough demurred the honor, saying, “I was certain that not only would ‘E.T.’ win, but that it should win. It was inventive, powerful [and] wonderful.”
Perhaps the biggest impediment to sci-fi’s acceptance at Oscar time has been actors. With actors accounting for the largest branch of the academy (1,300 out of the body’s 5,800 members), a genre that showcases ideas rather than performances is at a disadvantage. Only a handful of actors have ever been nominated for a sci-fi performance — Alec Guinness for playing the sage Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars,” Sigourney Weaver for the role of intrepid space heroine Ellen Ripley in “Aliens,” her last pairing with director Cameron before this season’s “Avatar.”
“If you’re just shooting ray zappers and ducking at other people shooting at you, then you’re not going to get a nomination any more than the actors doing the same thing in a western did,” says academy Executive Director Bruce Davis.
Even films with sci-fi premises, like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” with its erased memory story line (and for which Kate Winslet was nominated), are often categorized more simply as dramas. “There’s a cognitive bias against sci-fi,” Scalzi says. “In that, if it’s good, it can’t possibly be sci-fi.”
But the demographics of the academy, like the demographics of Hollywood, are changing. New academy members in 2009 included young actors like Michael Cera, who wasn’t even born when “E.T.” hit theaters. For young Hollywood, sci-fi has been big-budget entertainment their whole lives. “New generations maintain their early interests and passions,” Davis says. “They may think of ‘Star Wars’ as an old classic.”
There have been recent signs the academy is inching toward an embrace of sci-fi. The awarding of best picture and a record-tying 10 other Oscars to Peter Jackson’s 2003 adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” signaled a softening toward fantastical movies — albeit ones with a literary pedigree. Last year, Warner Bros. mounted a best picture campaign for Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” a comic book movie that shares some of sci-fi’s DNA. For the academy, which has been concerned in recent years with the shrinking audience for its award show’s telecast, having a box office hit like “Dark Knight” in the mix was attractive.
But despite earning widespread critical praise and eight nominations in other categories, Nolan’s film couldn’t crack the top 5 for best picture. “Dark Knight’s” omission prompted a hue and cry in some corners of Hollywood and helped motivate the academy’s expansion of the category last June. “We wanted to give certain kinds of films more of a chance,” Davis says. “Not just sci-fi, but we would love it if we found room for an animated film or two or a documentary.”
Sci-fi may be just what the Oscars need. In Hollywood’s current, risk-averse environment, it’s hard to imagine a studio green-lighting a film as lavish and elaborate as “Gone With the Wind” or “Ben-Hur” — the kind of grand, epic movies that have historically lent the ceremony glamour and mass appeal. Science fiction has become the last refuge of epic filmmaking and “Avatar,” with its heroic, blue-skinned characters, sprawling story set on the alien moon Pandora and extravagant, 3-D spectacle, is closer to Scarlett’s Tara or Ben-Hur’s chariot race than any of its competition. The blockbuster is also, as everyone from the Vatican’s film critic to the U.S. Marine Corps’ newspaper has pointed out, stuffed with allegories about war, the environment and spirituality. For academy members who have long considered sci-fi kids’ stuff, it’s hard to deny that Cameron’s film has given adults plenty to think about. And as it closes in on the box office record, and having taken best dramatic motion picture and best director at the Golden Globes this month, “Avatar” is emerging as a best picture front-runner.
Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9” too is rich with political metaphor. A faux documentary about crustacean-like aliens who make their home in a hostile South Africa, “District 9” earned a best picture nomination from the Producers Guild of America and screenplay nods from the Golden Globes and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. As a sleeper hit with a pointed message about xenophobia, “District 9” gives academy voters a chance to acknowledge the art and the business of moviemaking. Even “Star Trek,” J.J. Abrams’ slick rebooting of the ultimate geek franchise, has earned love from both the producers and writers guilds. There is, apparently, room this awards season for a popcorn film that simply does what it’s supposed to do — entertain.
It’s safe to say that none of these directors set out to make Oscar-bait movies or they surely would have chosen more earthly stories to tell. But if multiple sci-fi films are nominated for best picture this year, or if one wins, it will be a landmark for the genre.
“I felt I was being accepted to a club I never thought would accept me,” Corman says of receiving his Oscar last fall at age 83. “I just never thought it would happen.” Not in this galaxy anyway.
— Rebecca Keegan
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Photos: Neytiri of “Avatar” (top) receiving an Oscar, Alex Gross / For The Times; “Star Wars,” 20th Century Fox; Gertie (Drew Barrymore) with E.T. in “E.T,” Bruce McBroom / Universal Studios; “District 9,” TriStar Pictures.