Oscars: Why doesn't sci-fi win best picture?

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

Image caption, Sci-fi has barely dented the Academy Awards through the years

When it comes to the Oscars, science fiction films are rarely rewarded outside the technical categories. So what chance does British director Chris Nolan's nominated film Inception have of being named best picture this year?

"Inception hasn't got a chance of winning in the same way that District 9 didn't have a chance last year," says Dave Calhoun, film editor of Time Out.

"If we had five instead of 10 best picture nominees it's unlikely that Inception would have been nominated."

The Academy increased the number of best picture nominees in 2010, which saw District 9 and James Cameron's 3D juggernaut Avatar rubbing shoulders with low-budget indie fare like the Coen brothers' A Serious Man and The Hurt Locker.

It was the latter film - Kathryn Bigelow's bomb disposal drama - that won on the day.

Technical awards

Oscars history shows that sci-fi films haven't fared well when up for best picture.

The original Star Wars (1977) may have starred a robot that looked like a golden Oscar statuette, but the top prize that year went to Woody Allen's Annie Hall.

George Lucas's space adventure was rewarded with seven other Oscars, including editing, visual effects and music.

In 1982, Steven Spielberg's blockbuster ET: The Extra-terrestrial was beaten by Gandhi.

"There's definitely a sort of film the Academy likes to honour," says Calhoun. "It likes to honour the craft of acting, the craft of writing.

"Sci-fi is seen as a showcase for the technical art of film-making. I don't think anyone walks out of Star Wars and thinks - 'wow, wasn't the acting terrific in that?'"

Calhoun sees Avatar in a similar way. "I thought Avatar was an impressive technical spectacle, but it wasn't about the acting. A lot of Avatar fans say the 3D looked brilliant, and the way they captured human performances was fascinating, but it was a pretty corny story."

Image caption, Inceptions effects wowed cinema audiences

When science fiction films spring from traditional literary sources, then it is more likely to be taken seriously, Calhoun points out.

"That says something about the attitude toward sci-fi - in a literary sense it's not seen as being very credible," says Calhoun.

Author Kazuo Ishiguro, whose science fiction novel Never Let Me Go was adapted by Alex Garland for the big screen, echoes that sentiment.

"Never Let Me Go certainly has that speculative, dystopian dimension to it," he tells the BBC.

"If you're a novelist of my generation, we grew up with a prejudice against sci-fi - we felt slightly snobbish about it, whereas people of Alex Garland's generation embrace computer games, manga, and graphic novels. They mix all these things with highbrow ideas.

"I've learnt a lot from them, and being friends with those guys helped me lose my prejudices and a whole exciting world opens up. In cinema it's never been like that. Some of the greatest highbrow films like Metropolis, 2001 or Solaris have been sci-fi movies."

Director Neil Marshall, whose films include Dog Soldiers and The Descent, describes sci-fi genre as "the cinema of ideas", adding that since many Academy voters are actors - they might favour a film that's more performance-led.

"Maybe it's just too popular. Avatar and Star Wars get the money so they give the awards to the other films," he says.

Western resurgence

At the Venice Film Festival in 2007, director Sir Ridley Scott declared that the science fiction genre had "nothing original" to offer and was going the same way as the western.

But the western genre is seeing something of a resurgence this year with the Oscar-nominated True Grit, produced and directed by the Coen Brothers.

The siblings have enjoyed huge success at the awards with more than 30 nominations for their films. So is there any chance they will ever tackle a sci-fi movie?

Ethan Coen tells the BBC: "That's one genre that I don't know that we would know what we were doing," he says.

"It's funny given the degree to which some of our movies are stylised, but there has to be some kind of anchor in reality in order to get our minds around a story."

In Time Out's own recent list of British Top 100 Films, chosen by industry experts, science fiction barely makes a dent. Its first appearance is Terry Gilliam's Brazil at number 24.

Says Dave Calhoun: "I suspect if we polled a wider group of the film-going audience you would get a bit more sci-fi/fantasy.

"Frankly, the industry itself is a little bit sniffy about sci-fi, and that applies to the Oscars as well."

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