Should we care whether the Academy likes science fiction or not? Does it matter that the genre and its best performances are regularly overlooked by most mainstream awards bodies? Probably not. But consider this: cinema is by now a long-established artform. Movies chart all aspects of the human condition: birth, death, happiness, sadness, ennui, fear, elation, empathy.
The best sci-fi movies arguably achieve the same thing. Where else is the sense of mystery and triumphant discovery felt more keenly than in, say, Solaris? What other genre could explore the nature of addiction with the same humor and pathos as A Scanner Darkly? Could the themes of aging and disease in The Fly be transposed to a realistic drama and still be as thrilling, bizarre, and tragic?
It’s still the case that science fiction is repeatedly passed over by the Academy, particularly when it comes to performance. Nominations for Sigourney Weaver in Aliens and Sandra Bullock in Gravity aside, actors and actresses working in the sci-fi genre have long been overlooked, despite their captivating, sometimes career-best work.
Here are a few examples.
Michael Rennie – The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)
The Day The Earth Stood Still is a masterful Cold War sci-fi from director Robert Wise, memorable for Gort, the hulking and eerily silent robot, and its superb sequence in which all of Earth’s machinery is brought to a dramatic halt. Equal to all this was Michael Rennie’s superb performance as the alien Klaatu, who plays a hauntingly lonely interstellar messiah. Arriving on Earth to deliver a dire warning (in a nutshell, “Stop using nuclear weapons or else”), Klaatu soon discovers just how deeply humanity’s warlike nature runs.
Fifties sci-fi is filled with blandly intellectual characters, and a lesser actor would have played Klaatu as a straightforwardly benevolent figure. It’s to Rennie’s credit, then, that he manages to find extra layers to Klaatu, and his performance is one of the era’s most enduringly gentle and memorable.
Vincent Price – The Last Man on Earth (1964)
Will Smith deserved more attention for his performance in the 2007 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s novel, I Am Legend. Vincent Price’s earlier take on the same role is even better. Admittedly, The Last Man on Earth was made on a poverty-stricken budget, and much of the film’s direction and production design is woefully inept. But beneath the amateurish special effects and snowstorm-like grain (it seems that a decent print of The Last Man on Earth no longer exists), Price works like a Trojan, putting in a performance that is equally as good as his turn in Witchfinder General.
As the titular last man on Earth, Price’s Robert Neville hides from the vampires that lurk outside his fortified house, and struggles to maintain his sanity in a lonely, wind-swept world. Matheson, who wrote the screenplay, was reportedly unhappy with Price’s casting, but the film needs an actor with the gravitas and charisma to hold the audience’s attention – it’s something that Price has always managed to do, and he brought an aching poignancy and loneliness to the role.
Natalya Bondarchuk – Solaris (1972)
Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 rendering of Stanslaw Lem’s classic novel was superbly crafted, and there’s a strong argument that George Clooney deserved some awards attention for his role in it. For me though, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris remains the definitive adaptation of Lem’s book, and stands proudly as one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made. It’s quite common in most films of the genre for human emotions to take a back seat to high concepts or special effects. Solaris is built entirely around the themes of loss and grief.
Donatas Banionis is fantastic as Kris Kelvin, a psychologist sent to a space station orbiting the distant planet, Solaris. There, he’s unexpectedly reunited with his wife Hari (Natalya Bondarchuk), who took her own life years earlier. It soon transpires that Solaris’ ocean is a vast, unknowable consciousness capable of replicating human memories in physical form.
As Kelvin’s resurrected wife, who has no recollection of her own death, or even an awareness that she isn’t human, Bondarchuck’s is a bewildered, fragile performance, and gives the film a truly heart-rending edge that the 2002 version, great though it is, failed to replicate. While Solaris won numerous awards when it was released – including a grand jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival – Bondarchuk’s stunning turn is seldom mentioned. A travesty, really, given the ethereal presence she brings to this classic film.
Bruce Dern – Silent Running (1972)
Radiating warmth where 2001: A Space Odyssey exuded grand, astral coldness, Silent Running marked Douglas Trumbull’s move from effects creator to movie director. Silent Running proved that there was more to Trumbull than visual invention, though there’s plenty of it on show here; his 1972 film proved that he could also tell a simple, emotionally charged story on a tiny budget.
Key to Silent Running’s eco-fable is Bruce Dern’s portrayal of Freeman Lowell, who disobeys company orders and heads off into deep space with Earth’s few remaining samples of flora. Dern was famous for playing villains at the time of his casting here, and some of that mania does remain; there’s a steely, zealous edge to Lowell, but also a warm, well-meaning side, too. Dern understatedly conveys the loneliness of the space traveller, largely through his interactions with the silent, adorable droids Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Silent Running is justly hailed as a genre classic; by now, it’s impossible to imagine anyone but Dern in the role of sci-fi cinema’s loneliest gardener.
Richard Dreyfuss – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
It takes quite a while for the close encounters to unfold in Steven Spielberg’s visitation classic, but that’s no bad thing. For the most part, Close Encounters of the Third Kind is an intimate study of what happens when ordinary people experience something they can’t explain, and how that event affects their relationships. Richard Dreyfuss is on career-best form as Roy Neary, a blue-collar worker whose late-night brush with an unidentified flying object leaves him obsessed and seemingly pushed to the brink of madness.
The famous scene where Dreyfuss carves a tower out of mashed potato is oft-parodied, meaning it’s easy to overlook the sadness in this scene; from the family’s point of view, the father they once loved is falling apart. Dreyfuss lobbied hard to get the role, clearly knowing he could do something wonderful with it. He did, and it’s a performance which deserved far more praise and attention.
Ian Holm – Alien (1979)
For many, there are three major stars in 1979’s Alien: Sigourney Weaver as the coldly capable Ripley, Ridley Scott’s stylish direction, and HR Giger’s rampaging monster. For me, though, it’s Ian Holm’s performance that I find myself repeatedly drawn to whenever I sit down for a repeat viewing. There’s something genuinely interesting and hypnotic about it.
Like Scott’s other sci-fi classic, Blade Runner, the characters in Alien tend to become overwhelmed by the director’s grandiose vision. We know little about them, and much of their dialogue is either mumbled or lost beneath the hiss and whine of the Nostromo. Even Ripley’s character is difficult to relate to at first, and doesn’t really come to the fore as the film’s heroine until relatively late in the story.
Ironically, it’s Ian Holm’s passive-aggressive robot, Ash, who’s the most interesting, relatable person on the ship. He may be constructed from rubber and metal (and appears to have milk flowing through his veins), but he’s a very human bundle of foibles and neuroses. Holm brings all his RADA-trained stage presence to a quite flimsy sci-fi scientist role, and even gets the film’s best line: “I admire its purity. A survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. I can’t lie to you about your chances, but… you have my sympathies.”
Given that Robert Duvall was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant yet absolutely tiny role in Apocalypse Now, I’d say that Ian Holm surely deserved similar attention for his superb performance that same year.
Rutger Hauer – Blade Runner (1982)
Like Alien, Blade Runner is another film whose most relatable character isn’t altogether human – could it be that Ridley Scott is himself some sort of replicant? This would certainly explain why Rutger Hauer’s portrayal of a Roy Batty, a synthetic human searching for a means of extending his lifespan burns through the screen, even as Harrison Ford sulks and broods as taciturn protagonist, Rick Deckard.
Like Ian Holm in Alien, Hauer gets the movie’s best line (which Hauer partially wrote himself), and ultimately serves as the beating heart in a grand and overwhelmingly dark sci-fi dystopia.
Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis – The Fly (1986)
Science fiction often sees its characters undergo some sort of hideous psychological or physical transformation. Jeff Goldblum, who plays the luckless scientist Seth Brundle in David Cronenberg’s icky ’80s classic, inarguably goes through the messiest change of all of them.
Brundle’s drunken and ill-advised tests on a matter transportation device result in his DNA being fused with that of a housefly, and a brief period of physical reinvigoration soon gives way to a slow and gruesome disintegration.
Gooey special effects aside, The Fly is, at heart, a twisted romance. Brundle’s doomed relationship with journalist Veronica (Geena Davis) is all the more tragic because it’s so brief. It’s a time-accelerated version of every human love affair – sooner or later, all death interrupts all romances. Both Goldblum and Davis deserved more recognition than they did for bringing such resonance to their respective roles.
Peter Weller – RoboCop (1987)
RoboCop actually required three performances from Peter Weller, all of them difficult in their own way. The first is Alex Murphy, the idealistic young cop who relishes the idea of fighting crime in Detroit, but is brutally gunned down within hours of his first patrol. The second performance is RoboCop, the lab-developed, metal-clad cyborg compiled from the bloodied remains of what was once Murphy. The third, and perhaps the toughest to execute, is the human being slowly emerging from the circuitry and programming.
Weller accomplishes all of this so articulately, so smoothly and intelligently, that the brilliance of his performance is easily overlooked. Rob Bottin’s suit design is an iconic one, and looks perfect in still images. But Weller makes RoboCop move and gives him life. Weller digs deep into the machine and finds the human spirit within.
Ethan Hawke and Jude Law – Gattaca (1997)
Quite rightly, much has been written about the science in Gattaca’s sci-fi – its future of genetic perfection and its implications. But Gattaca’s real story is about ambition and following dreams. Ethan Hawke’s character has dreams of being an astronaut, but finds himself sidelined because of the flaws in his DNA.
Jude Law plays a genetically pristine “Valid” whose own ambitions are shattered when an accident leaves him in a wheelchair. Together, the pair hatch a plan that essentially sees them become the one, perfect person society requires. Both performances are restrained and endlessly watchable. Law’s turn – his first in an American film – is heartbreakingly poignant.
Jim Carrey – The Truman Show (1998)
Peter Weir’s The Truman Show is one of the few films on this list that actually received some much-deserved awards attention, with three Oscar nominations (but no wins). Weir was nominated for Best Director, Andrew Niccol for Best Original Screenplay, and Ed Harris for Best Supporting Actor.
Criminally, Jim Carrey’s stunning lead performance wasn’t even mentioned at the Academy Awards, nor did it come up at the BAFTAs, where the film itself was nominated for five awards and won three.
While the success of The Truman Show is undoubtedly due to a number of factors, from Weir’s taut direction to Niccol’s script, which owes a debt to the Philip K. Dick novel, Time Out Of Joint, Carrey’s contribution to the movie can’t be underestimated. After all, The Truman Show is all about reality viewed through his character’s eyes.
Truman Burbank is a man whose entire life, on the surface an idyllic manifestation of the American dream, is little more than a meticulously constructed sham, and thanks to Carrey’s performance, we’re constantly gripped by his gradual realisation that nothing is as it seems. His final bid for freedom is a truly emotional sequence.
Sean Gullette – Pi (1998)
Darren Aronofsky is now well known for his ability to wrest superb performances from his actors. This is certainly the case in his debut feature, 1998’s Pi. Sean Gullette plays Max, a startlingly intelligent yet emotionally troubled mathematician.
Max creates a supercomputer called Euclid in order to find patterns in the stock market. Instead, the machine spews out a 216-digit sequence of numbers, which he at first dismisses as nonsensical. Gradually, however, he learns that this number may actually be the underlying, mathematical structure to all things, from the spiral shape of a nautilus shell to the name of God himself.
Suddenly the object of unwanted attention from Hasidic Jews and sinister representatives from Wall Street, Max begins to mentally collapse under the weight of his anxiety and paranoia.
Shot on a miniscule budget and filmed in stark, beautiful black and white, Pi marked a stunning debut for not only Aronofsky as a feature director, but also Clint Mansell as a movie composer (he even makes a tiny cameo here as a photographer), and Sean Gullette as a lead actor.
Like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show, Guillette is the focal point of the entire film, and its success is very much rooted in the sympathy we have for his character. Gullette brings charisma, pathos and twitchy urgency to the role, and for me, his is a far more truthful and interesting performance than, say, Russell Crowe’s turn as the real-life mathematician John Nash in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind. Crowe was nominated for Best Actor for the role of Nash in that film. There’s a strong argument that Gullette should have been singled out for the same level of attention and praise.
Robert Downey Jr – A Scanner Darkly (2006)
The success of the Iron Man movies means that Robert Downey Jr is now closely associated with the role of arrogant billionaire genius Tony Stark. But before Marvel sent Downey Jr soaring back into Hollywood’s A-list, he gave a stunning performance in Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped adaptation of Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly. It’s a magnificent supporting turn in a futuristic story that is by turns bleak and hilarious; Keanu Reeves plays the lead as the drugged-up undercover cop charged with investigating himself, but Downey Jr is the scene-stealer as the duplicitous, unbearably smug Barris.
Downey Jr clearly enjoys wrapping his tongue around Barris’s rambling, self-regarding dialogue. It’s easy, in fact, to imagine Barris as a distant relative to Stark – like Stark, Barris fancies himself as an inventor, but his ideas never quite match up to his verbose descriptions.
Sharlto Copley – District 9 (2009)
There’s an unfettered quality to Sharlto Copley’s acting that makes his performances unpredictable and fascinating to watch. District 9, his debut, provided the ideal platform for his improvisational style; he plays Wikus, the heartless bureaucrat overseeing the relocation of an alien internment camp in South Africa.
Copley’s unafraid to make Wikus a thoroughly loathsome, beetling little character, almost until the end; his gradual transformation into an alien-human hybrid, hilariously, fails to have the immediate Damascene effect we’d expect to see in this kind of story. Instead, fate drags Wikus kicking and screaming into a state of enlightenment; it’s thanks to Copley’s magnificent performance that we can empathise with such a selfish character’s plight.
Sam Rockwell – Moon (2009)
If there’s one sci-fi performance that absolutely, definitely, positively deserved an Oscar, it’s Sam Rockwell’s in Moon. If you’ve seen Duncan Jones’ debut feature, I’m sure you’ll agree that Rockwell’s performance as Sam Bell, a lone industrial worker quietly going out of his mind in a deserted lunar base, was criminally overlooked by awards bodies in both the U.S. and the UK.
Inarguably one of the performances of the year, it seems that Rockwell was overlooked simply because he’d made the mistake of putting all his creative energy into a sci-fi character. Had he pulled off the same turn in a more prosaic, Earth-based drama, he’d probably have received all the gongs and statues he so richly deserved.
Kirsten Dunst – Melancholia (2011)
Remember that bit at the beginning of this piece about sci-fi’s ability to chart all aspects of the human condition? Here’s another example for you. Within the context of Lars von Trier’s operatic film about an impending apocalypse, Kirsten Dunst offers up an unvarnished, entirely convincing portrayal of depression.
It’s a performance entirely free from attention-grabbing showiness – the kind of “Oscar clip” turn Wayne’s World so hilariously pinned down – instead, it’s soul-bearing and vulnerable in a way that is almost painful to watch. Dunst was handed the Best Actress Award at Cannes; why she didn’t win more plaudits is something of a mystery.
Dane DeHaan – Chronicle (2012)
If cinemagoers didn’t know who Dane DeHaan was before going to see 2012’s Chronicle, they certainly did once the final credits rolled. As troubled teenager Andrew Detmer, DeHaan gives the kind of visceral performance that seems to reach out of the screen. He’s one of three youths who are granted various paranormal abilities, and as those powers grow, so the inherent flaws in each of their characters become magnified.
Detmer has his roots in such literary and screen figures as Carrie White or Tetsuo Shima, and DeHaan’s acting is sophisticated enough to make Andrew as memorable as either of them. The brilliance of Max Landis’s script is that Andrew isn’t a villain; he’s an ordinary kid who’s one bad parent and a few bad decisions away from tragedy. That much is on the page, but it takes a special actor to make Andrew likeable, terrifying and entirely unforgettable.
Scarlett Johansson – Under The Skin (2014)
Not since David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth has a performance felt so convincingly, chillingly alien – and all without recourse to special effects. That Scarlett Johansson even took on the role of a van-driving, humanoid alien in Glasgow was brave in itself; that her turn is also raw, honest and entirely out of the ordinary is truly something else.
Through her alien alter-ego, Johansson explores all kinds of questions about femininity, sexuality, humanity, and identity. Johansson’s selfless performance is the making of Jonathan Glazer’s film; she’s both the dark mystery at its centre and also, as the empathy within her alien character grows, its guiding light.
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Charlize Theron is no stranger to Oscar attention – she won Best Actress for her performance as Aileen Wuornos in Monster – but how could anyone predict how affecting her role of Imperator Furiosa would be in Mad Max: Fury Road? Or that she would wind up being the movie’s emotional center, and not Tom Hardy’s title character?
Furiosa’s back story is sketched in between the crashes, fire and blood, but dark history’s written all over her face. This is a fearless, physical performance from Theron, where a tilt of the head or an averted gaze speak of years of pain and regret. Furiosa never explains specifically why she rescued the “brides” from under post-apocalyptic despot Immortan Joe’s clutches, but the way she utters a single word – “redemption” – tells us all we need to know. Theron gives her character mystery, dignity and inner life.
Just as director George Miller gives the impression of a scorched world that lies outside the frame itself, so Theron provides the illusion of a long and difficult history, of psychic and physical wounds that won’t soon heal.