Writer Theodore Sturgeon was tired of having to defend science-fiction from seemingly constant attacks on its literary worth when he famously said in 1953 that, yes, 90% of science fiction is crud — but the 10% that isn’t crud is as good as or better than anything being written anywhere.
And while “Sturgeon’s Law” can be applied to just about anything, it seems to have passed by Academy voters, whose apparent bias against awarding sci-fi films best picture kudos has left some glaring holes in Oscar’s record.
“The Oscar folks seem to favor films that have some importance, with a capital ‘I,'” says film critic and historian Leonard Maltin. “That usually leaves out comedies and what we might call popcorn movies, but it even spills over into so-called serious sci-fi films.”
Among the films Oscar passed over for top honors are such ground-breaking and influential films as “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” “Blade Runner,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “The Abyss” and “The Matrix.”
While a few sci-fi films, including “Star Wars” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” earned best pic nominations, the tremendous impact those films have had in the decades since their release makes it hard in hindsight to imagine how they could have been overshadowed for best picture. Only the 1956 adaptation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” has won the top prize, and it had pretty much lost any sci-fi status it had when it was first published in the 1870s.
That established Oscar-winning directors such as Steven Spielberg still have trouble gaining Oscar interest for a critical hit like this year’s “Minority Report” indicates the bias against sci-fi continues.
‘Close’ but no cigar
Spielberg made his reputation in such popular films as the thriller “Jaws” and sci-fi epics “Close Encounters,” “E.T.” and “A.I.” but failed to garner much attention from Oscar until he turned to historical drama with “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” The director won’t say if he thinks the Academy has failed to give the genre its due but he does say that sci-fi films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001” were far ahead of their time.
” ‘2001’ broke the rules of the conventional narrative,” says says Spielberg of Kubrick’s masterpiece. “It felt more experimental. I think it’s the most profound story Kubrick’s ever told. Someone once said ‘the only thing that fits in a pigeonhole is a pigeon’ and it was just impossible for anyone in the ’60s to understand. ‘Was it a movie, was it a ride, was it a light show, a philosophy, was it nonsense?’ The film had a massive effect on different people at different times. I think we now look back and realize what a classic it’s become.”
It’s often the perspective given by time that allows sci-fi films like “2001” or “Blade Runner” to truly stand out, a trait that the increasingly compressed awards season calendar doesn’t easily forgive. “Perhaps it takes time for the resonance of those films to work into the consciousness of the Hollywood community,” says Maltin. “And possibly they don’t value them as highly when they’re new.”
Much of the bias against sci-fi stems from its modern origins in pulp fiction and children’s matinee serials. And while the genre provides pleasing visuals that keep kids in their seats, the best sci-fi taps into the human condition in ways that other genres cannot.
“Sci fi is about ‘What do we build next?’,” says David Gerrold, a sci-fi writer of such books as “The Martian Child.” “That is at odds with what people consider serious drama to be. Look at ‘Blade Runner,’ ‘2001,’ ‘Altered States’ … ‘The Matrix.’ These are films that get into what is the nature of reality, what does it mean to be a human being. Those are answers you don’t get in an ordinary story.”
That complexity makes it hard to process sci-fi stories and tell the good from the bad, a problem compounded by the genre’s self-imposed limitations. The successful models for sci-fi films are “Star Wars,” “Star Trek,” “Planet of the Apes,” “Alien” and “The Terminator,” with most other pics trying to reinvent or regurgitate the ideas and successes of those films.
It has only been in the past few years, with the maturation of CGI technology and films such as “The Matrix” and Spielberg’s “A.I.” and “Minority Report” that a new, broader aesthetic and approach to sci-fi films has begun to emerge.
That, combined with the growing use of technology in our society and the integration of sci-fi ideas and vocabulary into mainstream culture may over time erode Academy voter’s apparent prejudices.
“I think it’s possible that as the membership (of the Academy) is infiltrated by people who spend much of their careers making genre films, that this attitude will change,” Maltin says.