Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Avatar, Science Fiction and Oscar

By now, Pandorans have probably already begun weeping, swaying side to side from their seated, cross-legged position in communal mourning. Only Eywa can save Avatar's Oscar chances now. [Listen to the podcast for more on foot-in-mouth James Cameron] but Eywa doesn't take sides so Pandora is basically SOL. Like most pundits, I'm predicting The Hurt Locker to triumph. If Avatar does manage a Best Picture win, Goliath dodging David's stone-throw if you will, it'll be the first Science Fiction film ever to nab the top honor. Incredible but true.

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...
Its Reputation Suggests It Was Nominated. It Wasn't
  • 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)
The Only Oscar-Nominated Performances from Sci-Fi Films
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.
Random Sampling of Famous Flicks and Oscar's Reaction
  • 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)
Biggest Awards Haul To Date
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.


Marsha Mason said...

I'd count Don Ameche's win for Cocoon as sci-fi.

Dr. Stan Glick said...

Saw AVATAR in 3-D yesterday. While watching part of me knew that I was experiencing a monumental achievement in cinema. Perhaps like seeing BIRTH OF A NATION or THE JAZZ SINGER when they first came out. Films that made such an incredible mark on filmmaking and viewing. AVATAR is the kind of film that the word "awesome" was created for. Have not yet seen THE HURT LOCKER so I can't make a judgement as to which I feel is the better film. Hoping that I'll catch LOCKER before Sunday's fete. In any case, AVATAR was fantastic. For me it was one of those "rebirth of wonder" moments Ferlinghetti wrote about in his poem "I Am Waiting."

Marsha Mason said...

Another sci-fi performance nod -- Olivier in Boys from Brazil.

par3182 said...

depending on whether or not dodgy medical procedures count as sci-fi, frederic march in dr jeckyl and mr hyde or kate winslet in eternal sunshine of the spotless mind ?

BeRightBack said...

I realize many many people like it, but I would be disappointed if Avatar was the first Sci-fi film to win. It's so generic, especially at the level of allegory and aesthetic. It's especially disheartening in the same field as the infinitely more interesting and compelling District 9, which, for all of the reasons that some are offended by certain aspects of its allegory, at least risked enough to be able to *be* possibly offensive in a specific way than the generic Avatar mishmash of colonial guilt and appropriation of the indigenous position, which is just offensive in a grindingly generic way.

Also, I honestly didn't think it was such a qualitatively different experience of movie-watching to justify rewarding on those terms alone. I just didn't buy it, top to bottom. Sorry, Avatar fans, I guess I just didn't get it.

Rebecca said...

Mmm, young Jeff Bridges shirtless.

I have to go rent 'Starman'.


Marsha -- thanks! I've added them.

do we count Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hmmmm.


dr stan glick... obviously i was pretty wowed by avatar too. I didn't think it lost anything on second viewing either (which surprised me)


berightback -- i see why this bothers people. but thinky sci-fi is even less popular with the academy than more 'fantasy' leaning sci-fi so i don't think you'll get what you need from them in that way. you know. in terms of aesthetic.

BeRightBack said...

Okay, my splenetic anti-Avatar-ism distracted me from the point of this exercise! Sorry!

What about Brazil? It was nominated for original screenplay and Art Direction in 1986.

Ángel Ramos said...

Art Direction, Sound Editing and Visual Effects. That's all.

Anonymous said...

Wow, the decade from '77 to '86 was huge for sci-fi acting nods.

Rob T. said...

Avatar's visuals are marvelous, but I agree with BeRightBack that District 9 is the better (or at least more thoughtful) work of science fiction. (And I'm willing to grant the possibility that Moon, which I haven't yet seen, might be better still.) At this point I suspect Avatar, The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds will all win three Oscars apiece, with Avatar taking the visual effects and both sound Oscars. I think at least some Oscar voters won't vote for its cinematography and art direction because so much of it was obviously done through CGI.

One science fiction film that hasn't been mentioned yet is Charly, for which Cliff Robertson won an Oscar, making him one of the few actors (along with Don Ameche and, marginally, Fredric March) to do so for a science fiction performance. Some fans would also consider Dr. Strangelove a science fiction movie; it won no Oscars but was nominated for four, one of which was for Peter Sellers's performance.

Finally, my favorite recent science fiction film is WALL-E, which won the animated feature Oscar and was nominated for five others.

Ryan T. said...

Avatar will not walk away empty-handed and it already has nearly $3 billion in gross, so I'm not too worried about it.

It's just sad that District 9 will most likely walk away empty-handed. But hey, it managed to nab four Oscar nominations (and all pretty awesome ones at that--Picture, Screenplay, Editing, and Visual Effects) which were way more than I ever expected, so yay!

collin said...

Nice post. I liked it.

For the sake of having fun take the Avatar IQ Test and find out how much do you know about the movie. I have taken the test and enjoyed a lot. Hope u too will enjoy it. Have Fun!!

potenta said...

my cousin is the only guy i heard watch the movie in IMAX and did NOT like it!

can't imagine why...but i must see it :)

Glenn Dunks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Glenn Dunks said...

District 9's "message" is just as obviously done as the one in Avatar, I gotta say. Like, REALLY?!? It's about apartheid? Couldn't have noticed that. It's just as much a "yeah, i get it" moment as Avatar.

Robocop was nominated for 2 Oscars including a biggie with Best Edition and won a special Oscar for its sound editing, btw.

And I just noticed you said "random" cause I was gonna be all "where are all the other Star Wars movies?" and so forth.

The fact that Art Direction has been so friendly towards sci-fi just makes me more disappointing that Moon wasn't pushed. Even if that's all it got it still would've been able to proclaim itself as an Academy Award nominee. Hey, Transformers 2 can!

adam k. said...

For Avatar, art direction is a gimme simply because there is no real competition. So digital or not, it can't really lose there. Sound effects editing seems like a sure thing, too, but I wouldn't be totally shocked if Hurt Locker won it in a sweep.

I'm guessing Avatar wins 4, including also cinematography, simply because Richardson has already won so many times, and because Avatar is so pretty, and it makes sense for them to run up its tally in the visual categories.

I do keep thinking now that Hurt Locker will win both sound and film editing, but will lose screenplay (just like in the Film Bitch Awards!), making it a 4, 4, 2 split for the top three.

Anonymous said...

Jane Alexander in Testament (1983)
and Ed Harris in The Truman Show (if that counts as a sci-fi)

Kirby said...

In addition to "WALL-E", Animated Feature nominees that are sci-fi include "Jimmy Neutron - Boy Genius", "Treasure Planet" and possibly "The Incredibles".

ShoNuff Lives said...

i'm still in the "avatar is animated" camp, which means the meticulous construction of the production, including the art direction & cinematography, really shouldn't be part of the same category as something like the hurt locker where the entire production was created physically, not graphically. its apples to oranges, much like the academy's earlier split of black & white from color cinematography. just too different from a starting point to compare at this point.

also, i'm expecting the long running coattails phenom to bring the hurt locker more wins than it should have.

Marsha Mason said...

lol @ Glenn. I think the District gets a bit of a pass because it's a little film that could, whereas Avatar...

Anonymous said...

You forgot "A.I." (2 noms, 0 wins).

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Scene-Stealers said...

If aggregating all online talk is anything, it looks like Avatar will win--although I'm pleasantly surprised at how many peeps are talking about The Hurt Locker as well:

It'll be interesting to see if there's any correlation between online chatter and the winner...we''ll know Sunday!

rubi-kun said...

Also Children of Men (3 noms, zero wins).

Reni said...

Hi, this is Reni speaking :)
well to be honest I don't know will 'Avatar' win the golden statuette or not :) but have I noticed one interesting thing (or you may say funny point of view) about 'Avatar' and I want to share it with you all. I wrote about it on my blog :) My question to all fans of 'Avatar' movie is:'Do you remember the late 90's video spot by the group 'Eiffel 69' and their massive hit 'I'm Blue'' :) If you don't remember check it out on the youtube :) And tell me what do you think :)
Cheers to you all and good bye!
'Reni has left the building ;)'

Watch Avatar Online for Free said...

I think Lord of the Rings was Sci-Fi. what is the real difference between outspace sci-fi, and old spell and magic sci-fi

Rachel said...

So looking forward to Repo Men!
Check out this awesome interview about the film!