If Science Fiction Can’t Be the Enemy, Then Your Movie Doesn’t Deserve Recognition? On the Interstellar Oscars Snub

The 2015 Oscar nominations are out and everybody is delighted and upset. Some actors, like Selma’s David Oyelowo, were obviously slighted just as some actors, like Eddie Redmayne’s performance as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, were honored. Meta-fictional genre-blending film Birdman also got plenty of nominations, which should make people happy who love movies about Raymond Carver and comic books. But there’s a planet-sized hole in the nominees list and that is the exclusion of one of the best and most heartfelt science fiction film in years: Interstellar. The reason why this movie didn’t get nominated for anything other than “Original Score,” is because mainstream media gatekeepers and a big portion of audiences still don’t really care for a science fiction movie about science fiction.

For those readers who didn’t like Interstellar or for those totally on-point scientists like Phil Plait who had all sorts of science problems with the film, let’s have a truce: if you’re predisposed to like Interstellar but you didn’t like it because the plot was too confusing, or it was too long, or the movie was too pretentious, or the maths were all over the place, or whatever, I hear you and might even agree with you a bit. This is not about that. This is about representation of what was an attempt to make an epic and thoughtful science fiction film dealing with the importance of space travel as it relates to the preservation of the human race generations and generations from now and as it relates to our motivations on an individual level.

Collectively, the science fiction fantasy community has stuck up for and praised movies much worse or at least on par with Interstellar, and many of them have even won or been nominated for Hugo Awards. Neil deGrasse Tyson even approves of this movie. So, if we’re collectively interested in representation of space travel as depicted in what attempted to be a hard SF movie, we can at least agree that Interstellar tried. Because the fact is, as a science fiction fan, I’d rather live in a world where Interstellar wins a lot of awards OVER last year’s Oscar darling, Gravity.

I liked Gravity, but I didn’t love it. And I didn’t love it precisely because it does what so many science fiction movies set in outer space do: it made space exploration, and by extension, science fiction, the enemy. I’ve ranted about this in more detail a few summers ago for The Awl, but my essential assertion is this: too many big Hollywood science fiction movies—even the good ones—present the science fiction element as the conflict to be overcome, which subtly creates a tendency in the genre of sci-fi movies to pit the “human element” against “the sci-fi element.” As the Doctor said in the most recent Doctor Who special, “There’s a horror movie called Alien? That’s really offensive.” From killer robots (in every popular robot movie ever except Pacific Rim) to being trapped in space until Sandra Bullock barks like a dog, to even the bizarre ending of Battlestar Galactica where the big message is to stop using computers and start farming again, there’s an almost pre-programmed knee-jerk reaction to make sci-fi stuff the enemy in your sci-fi movie. It’s hard to work against, and I really don’t blame anybody, but as I’ve pointed out before, Gravity isn’t really an interesting movie, and doesn’t really get people excited about space travel.

I’m not saying a movie should always have an agenda, but when it comes to sci-fi movies set in space, there’s a huge deficit of ones that aren’t pseudo-horror movies or kill-the-bad-guy epics. (2001 immediately comes to mind. It will turn 57  47 this year.) The last time mainstream culture sat-up and paid attention to a science fiction movie that tried to be real was 1997’s Contact, which wasn’t nominated for Best Picture either, and also did not give Jodie Foster a Best Actress nomination, which she should have fucking won. That McConaughey guy isn’t bad in that movie either, and just like Interstellar, Contact took cues (albeit more direct) from real scientistss like Kip Thorne and, of course Carl Sagan.

From a purely entertainment standpoint, Anne Hathaway’s performance in Interstellar is better and more nuanced than Sandra Bullock’s in Gravity. Matthew McConaughey is better than Clooney. David Gysai in Interstellar was better than Ed Norton in Birdman and Jessica Chastain was better than Emma Stone in Birdman, too. The writing and overall concept and the direction and scope and guts and everything is better than everything about the horror-survival flick of Gravity. Also, refreshingly, Interstellar wasn’t a navel-gazing high-concept film about the nature of art and stardom like Birdman. (Again, for the record, I like both Gravity and Birdman.) No. Interstellar was about something.

This is an epic film about the dangers of scientific ignorance and the hard pill to swallow that survival of the human race—IN GENERAL—has to be thought of in terms of multiple generations. Cooper isn’t the hero in the end, and neither is Murphy, it’s the various generations of people who had faith to invest in the human race to spread out into space, even though it seem insane. This, is not the feel-good movie of the year at all, but instead, the feel-bad-movie of the year because it’s really hard it is to think about the hugeness of existence. It’s a bummer! I know! And you’d think that the Oscars would like that, but they didn’t. Interstellar wasn’t “recognized” by the establishment of film people because it’s not a safe movie. No one wanted this movie from Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and everybody would be happier with McConaughey or Hathaway or Chastain playing people with more purely terrestrial (read: relatable) problems.

This is inherently closed-minded. Science fiction—and specifically Interstellar—isn’t escapism or an attempt to depict non-realism, it’s a statement about looking at reality in a way that is clearer, because reality is bigger. The hyperbole of Interstellar is its strength, and by extension, the strength of all heartfelt science fiction. Complain all you want about how the film tries to equate love with science, but you do so at your own peril. Because if the big awards and the big recognitions don’t go to a movie like Interstellar at least a little bit, the love for all science fiction movies will leak out of world and into a black hole where nothing but cheap thrills and killer robots live and collect money.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com. He is the author of Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths, forthcoming for Plume Books this November.


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