The Observatory: Science Fiction’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Oscars

(From Everything Everywhere All at Once, 2022.)

So the Academy Awards happened last month, whose proceedings were impressive for both good and bad reasons. I don’t mention it often, but I’m a film buff. I majored in film studies and for a couple years I tried (and failed) to find a position in that industry. Still, while film is my wife (on paper), science fiction is very much the mistress I love at least as much if not more—like with those lovey-dovey letters Albert Camus wrote to his mistress. As such I have a history of getting excited and subsequently let down whenever it looked like an SF film might gain that most coveted of film awards: the Oscar for Best Picture. Hell, in the 2000s we had two Hugo winners (for Best Dramatic Presentation) that were also quite eligible for taking that Oscar, those being Gravity and Arrival. Gravity is all style and no substance when you get down to it, but while Arrival had no realistic chance of taking on La La Land and Moonlight, it would’ve been a very deserving winner.

Thing is, up until 2023 there was not a single SF movie that won Best Picture—an award that’s actually gone to a few fantasy films (including another Hugo winner with The Return of the King) and even a horror film with The Silence of the Lambs. But no science fiction. Indeed most of the classics in the genre, which nowadays are held up as high art and placed alongside such films as Citizen Kane and The Godfather, were not even considered for Best Picture. To think that 2001: A Space Odyssey, the most revolutionary film of its kind for a good decade, was not up for Best Picture, its biggest nomination being for Best Director (which it should’ve won handily). Blade Runner, even in its somewhat botched theatrical cut, would’ve been a fine contender, but not only was it not nominated for Best Picture, the legendary and absolutely BANGER score by the late Vangelis was not up for an Oscar either. The Empire Strikes Back, the best and most sophisticated of all the Star Wars films, was also snubbed, although, for what it’s worth, A New Hope was a major contender for Best Picture.

Most recently, prior to this year’s Best Picture winner, there was Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s fresh adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel. Villeneuve already won a Hugo for Arrival and he’d win another for Dune, but both movies, on top of being superb science fiction, were also Best Picture nominees. Dune swept the technical categories (visual effects, sound, etc.), but to everyone’s dismay and confusion, Villeneuve was not up for Best Director. HUH? How did this happen? Oh yes, this movie which conveys a sense of scale and awesomeness very rarely seen in any medium was apparently helmed by someone who did not deserve recognition for heading that visual strength and cohesion. (He got nominated for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, but you know what I mean.) Dune is not unique in this fuckery, though, because the decades-long relationship between science fiction and the Oscars can be boiled down to SF films doing well in technical categories but eating shit everywhere else. Amy Adams gave one of her best and most acclaimed performances in Arrival, but she got snubbed, I guess because great acting can be discounted if aliens are involved.

Some truly bewildering snubs, especially for movies that in hindsight have aged better than their competitors… but recently this all changed, or at least a major exception was made. Yeah, you know I’m gonna talk about Everything Everywhere All at Once, albeit not in too much depth.

I saw EEAAO in theaters twice, and that was about a year ago. I had been following Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan since their first feature together, Swiss Army Man, one of the most lol random but also charming indie films of the 2010s. A lot of people didn’t like Swiss Army Man, but upon seeing it some years ago I knew that we were dealing with giants in the making, which is why EEAAO‘s excellence did not strike me as a surprise. It’s a visual wonder of a film, especially impressive considering its small budget, and while thematically it’s not as deep or layered as it could’ve been, it does a lot with so little. The direction and editing were the highlights for me, along with costume design that, again, went pretty hard given the limited resources. The performances, despite the occasional silliness, were also all around excellent, with special mention going to Ke Huy Quan, who deservedly won awards at pretty much every ceremony.

What surprised me a good deal more was how EEAAO not only instantly became one of the most acclaimed films of 2022, but how it built up an inertia for awards attention that it never lost. After a while I started to think, “Could this be the one…?” There were a couple things going against it, namely that it was released theatrically way back in March, and also that it was produced by A24, who for several years had a bad reputation for not bothering to campaign their movies properly during awards season. The biggest obstacle, from my perspective, was that EEAAO is unabashedly and unambiguously SCIENCE FICTION; it’s goofy and unhinged, but the basis for its universe-hopping hijinks is very much science-fictional. There’s an internal consistency and set of rules for how one is supposed to tap into the lives and “powers” of one’s alternate selves. The film’s logic is actually not dissimilar from a short novel I reviewed some time ago: Fritz Leiber’s Destiny Times Three. The line between a Campbellian Golden Age romp and a movie with a mostly Asian cast that came out last year is straighter than you’d think, but the point is that this movie was not Oscar material.

Until it damn near swept on the big night, anyway.

It won Best Picture, but it also became the first film in Oscar history to win Best Picture and also three acting Oscars. Only two films had done that before, those being A Streetcar Named Desire and Network. It was the first Best Picture winner to win more than five Oscars since Slumdog Millionaire. It was the second ever Hugo winner to also win Best Picture. It was, as I said before, the first SF movie to win Best Picture. It was both a critical and financial success, and already the Daniels have a blank check to do whatever the hell they want with their next film—this time with Universal writing the check. The Daniels are clearly intelligent, if quirky, filmmakers, but of their two films together only one has been science fiction, so I’m not sure yet if they’re students of the field or if they rather simply used science fiction as a diving board for a plot germ that couldn’t have happened without SF trappings. Villeneuve clearly loves science fiction for its own sake, for its capacity to explore all avenues of human thought and emotion in ways other genres don’t allow, but it could be that people in the film industry were charmed by the Daniels and their film because neither seemed all too loyal to any genre, never mind science fiction.

The question I have at the end of all this is: Does this mean we’ve finally broken the glass ceiling with SF being respected by the Academy? Personally I don’t think so—not yet. EEAAO went up against big odds and won out, but it might also turn out to be the exception that proves the rule. True, it’s the second Best Picture winner in five years to feature a predominately Asian cast, and it did manage to get away with some insane gags and an overall lack of predictability; and yet EEAAO‘s runaway success tells us surprisingly little about the collective attitudes of industry folks who partake in these award circuses. We’ve been burned before. Remember Parasite winning only a year after Green Book? 12 Years a Slave the year after Argo? (I like Argo, but it’s a very by-the-book kind of movie.) Then we had Nomadland, a protracted Amazon commercial, and CODA, a movie nobody has actually seen. The Academy getting it right with EEAAO feels inexplicable, and that’s because it might have been. Maybe none of this means anything.

We’ll see…


3 responses to “The Observatory: Science Fiction’s Love-Hate Relationship with the Oscars”

  1. Everything Everywhere All at Once: I liked the title. Didn’t care for the film. I admit though that I couldn’t make it past the first half hour. Perhaps you could review it next.


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