Today sees the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations. But with all the questions raised by this year’s unusually strong field of contenders (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Philomena amongst them), one question remains more tantalising than any other: could Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity becomes the first science fiction film to secure the coveted Best Picture Oscar?
It would certainly be a first. For while sci-fi films have been the recipient of countless technical and science fiction awards, the genre despite (or perhaps because of) the big box office it has generated, has generally been viewed with lofty disdain by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences throughout its eighty five year history.
Even the advent of higher quality sci-fi at the end of the Sixties changed little. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes (both 1968) went unrecognised in the Best Picture category. The latter was even based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, the French author who had previously penned the source material for the multi-Oscar winning Bridge on the River Kwai. But it was all to no avail. Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange was nominated in 1971, although its science fiction content was generally overshadowed by controversy over its violence.
Then, in 1977, a new hope. Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture. True, it was beaten for the main prize by Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (a fairly unusual case of a comedy winning. This has only happened three times since). But with sci-fi entering a new period of high quality in the next decade (Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner and James Cameron’s Aliens and Terminators), did this mean the genre would finally receive its due?
Alas, no. the Eighties was also a period in which the Academy went out of its way to award worthy films (Amadeus, Out of Africa, Driving Miss Daisy) rather than those that were necessarily entertaining. Sigourney Weaver got a nomination for Aliens. But nothing from the genre has won since.
What has changed? Well, for one thing, 2004 saw the final part of the Lord of the Rings saga, The Return of the King carry off the Best Picture statuette. No, that is not a science fiction film and yes, Daniel Radcliffe is right to complain none of the Harry Potter films were ever nominated in the big categories for anything. But it feels like a start.
Then, in 2010, James Cameron’s blue creatured 3D space epic Avatar came tantalisingly close to Best Picture glory, only for gritty (and, frankly, overrated) Iraq drama The Hurt Locker to seize the crown.
Also, we seem to be enjoying another era of high quality sci-fi courtesy of The Huger Games films, Ender’s Game and Elysium.
And finally, Gravity has received a wealth of critical acclaim rarely bestowed on a film of the science fiction genre. Even Alien and Blade Runner never received such praise at the time of their release.
Whether Gravity ends up carrying off the greatest prize at the awards ceremony in March, or not, it has certainly struck a blow for this critically unsung genre. We shall have to wait and see.