Let's take a look at Oscar's history with science fiction films. You're a savvy crowd so it probably goes without saying that the Academy thinks that the Visual Effects and Sound categories are the only default place to award sci-fi pictures. They don't even tend to win art direction prizes and they're also rarely seen in costume design categories, Star Wars being an exception on both fronts.
The Only SciFi Best Picture Nominees
- 1971 A Clockwork Orange (4 nominations, 0 wins)
- 1977 Star Wars (10 nominations, 6 wins. Plus 1 special Oscar)
- 1982 E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (9 noms, 4 wins)
- 2009 District 9 (4 noms, ??? wins)
- 2009 Avatar (9 noms, ??? wins)
The expansion to ten Best Pictures ended the drought with a double whammy! I suppose if you loosen your definition of sci-fi up a bit you might find another...
- 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey (4 nominations, 1 win but no Best Picture spot)
- 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind (8 noms, 1 special prize but no Best Picture spot. One can assume it came very close to the shortlist)
- 1982 Bladerunner (2 noms: art direction and visual effects, both of which it lost. Utter Insanity... especially when it comes to the art direction. Possibly the most influential work in that category in the past 30 years or so)
It's possible I've forgotten someone(s). Help me out in the comments if I have.
- Melinda Dillon, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
- Alec Guiness, Star Wars (1977)
- Laurence Olivier, The Boys From Brazil (1978)
- Jeff Bridges, Starman (1984)
- Don Ameche, Cocoon (1985... winner)
- Sigourney Weaver, Aliens (1986)
- Brad Pitt, Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Which should go to show us that that brief burst of Zöe Saldana talk was just that, talk. They don't go for acting in sci-fi movies even when they aren't given computer assists. If you included fantasy films, you'd have to add. But I'm trying to keep this sci-fi.
- 1927 Metropolis (zero nominations. Inside Oscar lists this as an eligible film that failed to be nominated in the Academy's first official year as an organization. But the IMDB lists its release as March 1927 which was before the eligibility period which stretched from August 1927 through July 1928)
- 1931 Frankenstein (snubbed)
- 1935 Bride of Frankenstein (1 nomination, sound recording)
- 1951 The Day the Earth Stood Still (zero nominations... though the Golden Globes noticed its Bernard Herrmann score)
- 1953 The War of the Worlds (3 nominations, 1 win)
- 1959 Journey to the Center of the Earth (3 nominations)
- 1966 Fantastic Voyage (5 nominations, 2 wins)
- 1968 Planet of the Apes (2 nominations and 1 special Oscar)
- 1968 Barbarella (snubbed)
- 1973 Soylent Green (snubbed)
- 1979 Alien (2 nominations and 1 win)
- 1980 The Empire Strikes Back (3 nominations, 1 win. Plus 1 special Oscar)
- 1984 Dune (1 nomination, sound)
- 1984 The Terminator (snubbed)
- 1986 The Fly (1 nomination and win, makeup)
- 1989 The Abyss (4 nominations, 1 win)
- 1991 T2: Judgment Day (6 nominations and 4 wins)
- 1997 The Fifth Element (1 nomination, sound effects)
- 1999 The Matrix (4 nominations and wins: editing, sound, sound fx and visual fx)
- 2002 Minority Report (1 nomination, sound)
- 2007 Transformers (3 nominations, both sounds and a visual effects. The safe categories for massive grossing sci-fi movies that aren't "respectable", critically speaking)
That honor still goes to Star Wars which managed to take home 1 special and 6 competitive Oscars. E.T., T2 and The Matrix are tied for second place with 4 competitive trophies each.
So the question is...
How will Avatar fare on Sunday night? I think we can safely expect four statues: Art Direction, Cinematography, Visual Effects and at least one of the Sound categories. If it can manage a second sound category win and just one more trophy (Score? Film Editing?) it'll tie Star Wars as Oscar's favorite sci-fi flick. But my guess is it's going to fall short of that lofty goal, a mark which is itself considerably shorter than some pundits were guessing a month ago when a lot of people thought it was taking two handfuls of gold men. The Hurt Locker has too much heat to lose the race... or does it? You tell me.