Why the Oscars still aren’t giving genre films the love they deserve

Even if you weren’t glued to the announcement this morning, you’ve probably heard that the nominees for the 82nd Annual Academy Awards are in. And the news is deceptively good for science-fiction fans: among the newly expanded list of Best Picture nominees, no less than four movies—Avatar, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, and Up—are genre titles.

Of course, this ebullient crow of geek victory depends on considering Inglourious Basterds as sci-fi because it is an alternate history (though the film itself does not contain any other conspicuous sci-fi elements) and saying that Up qualifies on the strength of a floating house and dogs wearing collars that translate their barks into words. Let us assume, for the moment, that both films do count as genre. Four out of ten nominees for Best Picture are sci-fi films! Now do we declare our supreme geekish victory?

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled that the Academy was forced to acknowledge box-office and critical darlings like District 9 and Avatar. Up has earned the distinction of being only the second animated film—and the first since the Academy banished animated movies to their own category—to earn a Best Picture nomination. (No offense to Up fans, but Wall-E deserved this cross-over recognition more.) Avatar, with its end-of-the-year, continuing-into-the-new-year surge, even had a lot of people predicting that it might take home the Best Picture Oscar come March 7, 2010.

Don’t count on it.

As ever, there are two basic ways to examine the chances of a given film winning Best Picture. One: look at the pre-Oscar award count for each movie. For every award in a major category that Avatar took home—Best Picture, Best Director, etc.—it lost one to The Hurt Locker. If it comes down to recognizing a gritty, gorgeous film about soldiers defusing bombs and a gorgeous if empty film about blue kitty people, the Academy is going to side with The Hurt Locker. The fact that mostly-liberal Hollywood has been thus far unable to put forth a critically successful film about the Iraq war will only tip the scales in The Hurt Locker’s direction even further.

Up received a Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature Film, which was the only film category at those awards in which it was nominated. This is a none-too-subtle reminder that, were it not for the ten nominations to fill, Up would still only have been nominated in that category at the Oscars as well. District 9 might as well forget any hope of recognition, given its track record. One of the surest kisses of death for Oscar recognition has to be something called a “Most Promising Filmmaker” award, of which District 9 has won several for its director, Neill Blomkamp. Nothing says “Better luck next time” like an awards resume  that reads like a kindergarten report card. (“Neill is so friendly with all the other kids!”) Inglourious Basterds looks like a lock on Best Supporting Actor, given Christoph Waltz’s dynamite performance. However, it failed to score any love for its only other major nominations in previous ceremonies—Best Director, Best Original Screenplay—so there is no suggestion that it will win any respect from the Academy, especially not when those other categories feature two more nominations for Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

(Worse, depending on how votes split for Best Supporting Actor, Stanley Tucci’s eerie, perfectly shudder-inducing portrayal of a pedophile murderer in The Lovely Bones could rob Christoph Waltz of his heretofore assumed victory. While the award would go to a genre film regardless, it would seal the statue-less fate of Inglourious Basterds.)

The other way to handicap the Oscars is to look at the other nominations each Best Picture nominee has received. Here, the picture is even bleaker. Avatar, apart from the Best Director nomination—which will be a squeaker, but which is thought to be Kathryn Bigelow’s already—has no acting or script nominations despite the ludicrous rumors that Zoe Saldana might be recognized as Neytiri. (Admit that you were kidding yourselves, Avatar fans.) The nominations for Visual Effects, Sound Editing, et al.? Kiss of death. Avatar will win them, but that’s all that it will get, trampling other, better (there, I said it) sci-fi films, which make up the bulk of those nominees, in the process. No more King of the World speeches.

District 9 scored an Adapted Screenplay nomination—its only other major award—against three other Best Picture nominees, all of which were lauded more for their stories than ever District 9 was. I expect there will also be some hostility towards a film that was adapted from a smaller film versus one adapted from a book or other literary work. (This is the Academy. Expect them to be snobs. Always.) Inglourious Basterds and Up have no chance against The Hurt Locker, end of story.

There you have it. The best science-fiction films can do are awards for special effects; for Best Some Kind of Picture (but not the Best Picture); or the occasional respect shown an actor who outdoes himself despite the perceived disability of being in a genre film. (The Heath Ledger Effect, if you will.) It’s an honor to be nominated, they say. You know what else the Academy said? It said that the only reason they included more films in the Best Picture category was to recognize (read: allow studios to promote their films as Oscar nominees when they do DVD releases) films that were otherwise squeezed out of serious contention. The key word there is recognize, not award—as in, “We recognize that you like these movies, we just do not recognize that they are actually worth our time.” Speaking of time: the Academy has assured weary watchers that the ceremony won’t be a whit longer for the additions, indicating how little honor they actually intend to bestow on the five extra films they nominated. So even if Avatar were to make a dent in the disdain for our beloved genre films, it wouldn’t be a real victory for nerds. It is just arm-twisting for ratings. Puts those four-out-of-ten Best Picture nominations in perspective, doesn’t it?

For my part, I expect that The Hurt Locker will win Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay. Avatar will sweep every statue remotely related to effects, including all those sound awards I can never suss out. I am not sanguine about Up’s chances to win Best Animated Picture if only because I fear there might be a vote split. There were plenty of great animated films nominated this year (enough to nominate five instead of three, as they did last year), so the blessing of a Best Picture nomination might be a curse in disguise. The apex of geekery will be, if we are very lucky, a clip show of nominees for those techie awards. It is the only glimpse you will get of J.J. Abrams Star Trek (nominee: Makeup, Sound Editing and Mixing, Visual Effects), so be sure to set your DVRs.

What do the rest of you think?

Dayle McClintock has been a misanthrope about the Oscars since Titanic beat out L.A. Confidential for best picture. Avatar losing to The Hurt Locker would almost be sweet revenge. (Except for the part where it cuts off her geek nose to spite James Cameron. Because that makes sense.)


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