I was surprised by some of the online reaction to my recent blog entry, “Could Gravity be the first science fiction film to win the Best Picture Oscar?” It wasn’t so much that people disagreed whether it would win or not. Indeed, I am not actually really expecting it to win myself (12 Years A Slaver currently looks like a safer bet). I was more surprised that some disagreed that Gravity was even a science fiction film in the first place.
This seems odd and my initial thought was that respondents were exhibiting the odd sort of snobbery which often bedevils the genre. Even Canadian author Margaret Atwood has in the past denied that her futuristic novel Onyx and Crake is science fiction, even though, it quite obviously is.
Definitions of science fiction do vary quite dramatically, however, so let’s think about this:
Gravity centres on a major accident in space. In this, it resembles Ron Howard’s film, Apollo 13. But Apollo 13 is clearly not science fiction as it is based on real events. The same goes for the film of Tom Wolfe’s astronaut-themed, The Right Stuff. The fact that both are also set in the past does not matter. Science fiction can be set in the past. Consider the early scenes of The Time Machine or even the Star Wars films which are all set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But these two films (unlike Star Wars or The Time Machine) are not sci-fi anyway as they are based on real events. They are all ‘sci’ and no ‘fi’.
In the loosest sense, then Gravity is constructed around a fictional science-themed scenario. It is not clear whether it is set in the future or the present, although I would presume, the future. However, it also features astronauts dying in space. This has never actually happened, thankfully. A total of seventeen people died in the Apollo 7 fire in 1967 and Challenger and Columbia explosions but none of these were actually in space. It seems likely that had any secret Cold War Soviet space missions ended in fatalities, we would also know about them by now.
This pushes Gravity further into the realm of sci-fi. One respondent cited the fact that the film is “all too plausible” as evidence against it being science fiction. This is silly. Much of the best sci-fi, such as the recent film Contagion, depicting a devastating apocalyptic plague, is very plausible.
One thing my blog totally failed to anticipate, however, was that another science fiction film Spike Jonze’s Her, would also get nominated for Best Picture.
Good luck to them both.