Saturday, February 27, 2016

Sci-fi at the Oscars




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I’ll be honest: the Academy Awards never loomed much on my horizon. The affair smacks of the kind of self-congratulatory swill so necessary to feed certain species of ego, and even the red-carpeted stars and spangles, shimmering with bright camera flashes and expensive regalia, do little to rouse much out of me. But I reserve the bulk of my disillusionment for the staggering amounts of bias that permeate the Academy  - and no, I’m not just talking about the justified accusations of racial and gender  shame hovering over this year’s nominations like an angry storm. Rather, the bias I address is far subtler and, in many ways, even more insidious: genre bias.  A casual glance at the history of Oscar nominations reveals an overwhelming trend towards drama and long, historical epics, with maybe a good nod or two towards the occasional black comedy.  Most comedies and mysteries, along with what one would call the “speculatives” - science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other visions of what isn’t and what could-be - usually come up with the proverbial short straw when awards season comes a’ knocking.  

Explaining the why and how such a bottle-necking of creative output occurs would take another post - and maybe a foray or two into social psychology.  But this season the Powers that Be decided to throw the much maligned science fiction category, at least, a bone.  Two films about would-be worlds were nominated for Best Picture: Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian.  This ties with 2009’s Avatar and District 9, but it doesn’t smack of shallow placation implied in that year; these films are genuinely great, and have as fair a chance as any of carrying away the big prize.  Fury Road got a flurry of other nominations in the the sound and effects categories - old staples of sci-fi films - but also netted a Best Director for George Miller, while The Martian landed a Best Actor for Damon along with Best Adapted Screenplay.  I expected Ex Machina to join the coveted Best Picture club as well, but nonetheless made due with a respectable Best Original Screenplay nomination.

I suspect that pop culture osmosis has a part to play in this, with the superhero tsunami mounting six or so years of momentum, along with some smart showings across the speculative fiction board (although conventional fantasy, unfortunately, has been on the downbeat for the past decade or so).  Only time will tell how well science fiction will do this time around, especially since it’s up against such stiff competition.  But who knows?  We just might see history in the making tomorrow night.

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