In 1968, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey started a trend that eventually brought science fiction films from low-budget “B-movie” ratings to the big-budget status we now take for granted. As presented by Hollywood (and on television), science fiction today reaches far beyond mere respectability to real cultural and marketplace power. Its characters, settings, jargon, and fictional science have become recognized parts of popular culture the world over. Science fiction wields enormous commercial clout, too. Although James Cameron’s Avatar stands out as the highest grossing film ever at $2.6 billion, it’s not alone. At last count, 19 of the 50 all time top-grossing films – nearly 40% – are science fiction in one form or another.
For all this success, though, no science fiction film has yet made it onto Hollywood’s true A-list; that is, none has won an Oscar for Best Picture, or Directing, or both. A few films touching on science or scientists have been nominated and even won at this level; Dr. Strangelove, for example, was put up for Best Picture in 1965, and A Beautiful Mind, about mathematician John Nash, won Best Picture in 2001. But although straight science fiction films such as 2001, A Clockwork Orange, the original Star Wars, Close Encounters, and E.T. have been nominated for Best Picture or Directing, all they won were less significant awards such as Visual Effects.
This year, however, seemed the best bet so far for science fiction to finally make it big. Avatar was nominated in nine categories including Best Picture (for which it was one of the favorites) and Directing, and District 9 in four categories including Best Picture. But District 9 walked away from the awards ceremony with nothing, and Avatar, like many of its predecessors, only with Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography and Visual Effects.
What went wrong? Many of Avatar’s viewers, myself included, thought it lacked the compelling story and well-developed characters it needed to complete its beautifully portrayed alien world and pull us into it. On Oscar night, I live blogged the proceedings for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) along with its film critic Jesse Wente, who commented on the hole at the center of Avatar. Other critics have agreed, as reflected in the film’s rating of 82% favorable reviews on rottentomatoes.com – high, but below the 90% that District 9 earned.
Reviewers saw District 9 as intelligent and fresh, with an emotional charge, and carrying layers of meaning related to South African apartheid and even bigger issues in today’s world. But if District 9 had a story and a depth that Avatar lacked, why didn’t it win a major Oscar either? The answer, at least partly, has to do with the two sides of what the Academy Awards are about – excellence, but also popularity. Box office receipts are a quick way to express the momentum that comes from reaching lots of people. That’s where Avatar has it all over District 9, which grossed only $200 million, less than one-tenth what Avatar earned. However, a film that’s good enough can overcome that handicap too. This year’s winner for both Best Picture and Directing, The Hurt Locker, has so far brought in just $15 million (estimated).
So maybe we have to simply conclude that science fiction films aren’t yet good enough to compete with the best of the best in other genres. Stunning special effects still need the essential elements of plot, character, and narrative drive – and we should add the category of “ideas” to those dramatic necessities. Some of the best science fiction has done a superb job of showing where science and technology are taking humanity. Somewhere out there, I hope, are the screenwriter, director, and producer who’ll create that thoughtful, yet exciting and money-making film, and then step up to receive their well-deserved Oscars in say, 2015.