What the Oscars Didn’t Talk About When They Talked About Gravity

Clocking in with a running time on par with one of the Hobbit films, last night’s 86th Academy Awards was a fairly short affair, considering its epic (bloated?) length and pacing in previous years. Though less overt geeky references were made by this year’s host—Ellen DeGeneres—than Seth McFarlane last year, the former brought some class and wit the latter sadly squandered. It was a good, watchable, pleasant Oscar night. Except for one thing: Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in thanking any of the real heroes who travel in space.

Since time memorial there’s been a natural relationship between genre-leaning films being recognized when it comes to the technical awards. And the most lauded realistic science fiction film in ages—Gravity— cleaned up on the technical side real hard. It won for Sound, Sound Editing, Cinematography, Score Editing, and Best Director. This, to me, all of this makes sense. Gravity is a magical film, if only because it seems like it was actually shot in space. However, it was more than a little odd that not one single person who accepted an award for Gravity, not once, at all, mentioned the real astronauts who not only currently orbit our planet on the real International Space Station, or the long and impressive accomplishments of human space travel not only blasting off from America, but the world over.

The astronauts themselves were not as negligent:

You might think that it’s not all that odd, because really, the Oscars are all about the celebration of the films themselves. But, from experience, we know that the Oscars is a place where the award-collectors endlessly thank their families, collaborators, corporate sponsors, and also take a moment to use the platform to pontificate about current events. Celebrities show that they care, they mention real-life causes which their film raises awareness of, they tell the world this movie matters and why. Why, then, did no one mention real space travel? Real astronauts? Real scientists? Are those events not current enough for the Oscars?

The marginalization of actual space travel in favor of platitudes about space fantasy has been one consistent criticism leveled at Gravity, which, if it wasn’t going to be addressed by the people who made the movie themselves, could have been at least placated to a little bit by the programming at the Oscars. Every year there are dumb, seemingly slapped together montages of movies from the past, present and future, cobbled together under weird thematic banners. This year saw two different montages of this sort, both ostensibly about “heroes.” Despite Gravity taking home several awards, the Oscars couldn’t get it together to do a montage featuring movies about space travel or one about how the pursuit of science can improve the human condition and enliven the stories we tell. Nope. In a year when two science fiction films are nominated for Best Picture, a montage/tribute to the hope the pursuit of science brings wouldn’t have been too far of a stretch. Is the Academy so technophobic that even the makers of films like Gravity don’t acknowledge the source material? What gives?

To be fair, explaining why someone should care about space travel is difficult, because the effects of all of its potential are so far reaching. If a certain celebrity is concerned about starving children, or basic human injustice, that’s easy to understand in the here and now. It’s a little harder to explain that space travel could eventually solve over-population problems, cure diseases, help us save our environment, and more. The hope in investing emotional capital and dollars in space travel is a gamble of potential. We who believe in human beings going to the stars place a bit of faith in the idea that we’re not just living for ourselves right now, but for the future, too.

To be certain, people should be praised for using huge celebrity influence to fight ills in the here and now! No question. Angelina Jolie is a better person than me. But, without public opinion in support of space programs, our potentially bright future might not happen. And the relative short-sightedness of the lack of acknowledgment of real astronauts, scientists or space exploration agencies every single time Gravity picked up another Oscar only compounds the culture’s general apathy towards human space exploration. Here, being in space is just one more dramatic movie. Somehow a movie about astronauts suddenly isn’t thanking the astronauts.

And though the genre fan in me enjoyed Bill Murray’s shout-out to Harold Ramis, Pink’s EPIC version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Cumberbatch’s U2 photobomb, and Ewan McGregor’s weird ponytail, I couldn’t help but feel pissed about all the love for Gravity without any of the discussion. Big, zeitgeist-altering films are supposed to entertain us and excite us and, in the case of Gravity, totally immerse us. But the conversation shouldn’t just end there. The reality is this: human beings have been venturing into space, epically, heroically, since 1961. As a result of space exploration, our species has been forever changed, enriched, and more united than ever before. I could list all the direct medical and scientific advances connected to space travel, but that’s not the point. It’s a human venture which is awe-inspiring and largely devoid of cynicism. Granted, these noble qualities make it hard to make realistic conflict-ridden films about space travel, but now that one got made, wouldn’t it be nice to acknowledge all of that real-life stuff?

Astronauts and people involved with NASA and other space organizations spanning the globe do amazing work, which seems to be going underappreciated in the zeitgeist every day. Like Sandra Bullock spinning out into the void, I worry this collective cultural snubbing of the real wizards behind space travel is a sloppy slip in the wrong direction. I worry for the day that it will be really hard to remind people that real space travel was ever anything other than beautiful, gripping science fiction.


Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com.

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