Will Gravity be the sci-fi film to finally win a Best Picture Oscar?

Other great sci-fi films have been nominated for Best Picture, but have never won. Will Gravity finally break that trend, Ryan wonders...

As you’ve probably noticed by now, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity has earned widespread applause both from critics, pal filmmakers and also the movie-going public. At the time of writing, the movie’s UK Twitter feed is filling up with retweets from notable filmmakers and celebrities.

Edgar Wright described it as the “best movie of the year.” Eli Roth said it was his “best sci-fi experience I’ve had in a theater since Alien and Avatar“, while Michael Moore used the terms “breathtaking” and “brilliant”. The second man on the Moon, Buzz Aldrin, even weighed in with his own review, stating that he was “very, very impressed with it.”

No less a director than James Cameron led the charge earlier this year, describing Gravity as “the best space movie ever done.” That widely-shared quotation set the pace for the adulation to come, with the sci-fi survival movie’s buzz gathering through its various festival screenings before its surprisingly (and reassuringly) successful general release in US cinemas last weekend.

Unfortunately, the vagaries of UK screening embargoes mean we can’t share exactly what we thought of Gravity with you just yet (it’s not out until November on these shores), but we can at least echo many of the sentiments you’ve probably already read about elsewhere: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are both excellent as the respective scientist space rookie and seasoned astronaut, and Cuaron’s direction is just about flawless.

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All of these positive quotations and critical notices have naturally led to speculation over next year’s Academy Awards. Could Bullock, Clooney and Cuaron be up for awards in their respective fields? Could Gravity be nominated for Best Picture? And, perish the thought, might it actually win that coveted Oscar?

Oscar history

Unfortunately, history isn’t exactly on Cuaron’s side. Generally speaking, if science fiction films are nominated for anything at the Oscars, it’s in the technical categories; Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, for example, was nominated for things like Visual Effects, Art Direction and movie Editing among its haul of eight nominations – its only win being for Best Cinematography.

When it comes to the Best Picture Oscar, sci-fi films are occasionally nominated, but always lose out to something else. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove lost out to My Fair Lady in 1964. A Clockwork Orange lost to The French Connection in 1971. Star Wars lost to Annie Hall in 1977. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial lost out to Gandhi in 1982.

Even in 2009, when two sci-fi films were nominated due to the expanded number of nominees, Avatar and District 9 both lost to The Hurt Locker. The following year, Inception lost to The King’s Speech.

Won direction

In Cuaron’s favor, Gravity isn’t really a sci-fi movie in the same sense as most of the genre films nominated in previous years. In fact, its devotion to scientific plausibility (albeit with some elements of creative license) have led some to question whether it’s really a sci-fi movie at all. Although it arguably is a sci-fi movie – in that it’s a fiction story about science, with a slightly frightening ‘what if’ scenario at the center of it – the minimalism of its plot and the creativity of its direction makes it very different from something more crowd-pleasing like E.T. or Avatar.

In fact, Gravity’s more akin to an arthouse, outer-space survival movie, which essentially places it in a category of one – sure, Apollo 13 was a fact-based story about astronauts trying to survive a disastrous mission and get back to Earth, but its direction and tone were entirely different from the existential leanings of Cuaron’s one-of-a-kind picture.

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Strip away the science bit of the plot, which sees Gravity’s two stars trapped in space after their shuttle’s destroyed by orbiting debris, and you’re left with the kind of story the Academy quite commonly warms to. Previous Best Picture winners may hint at a bias against the sci-fi genre, but Gravity contains lots of drama, bravery and transformative performances – all things it typically looks for in its Best Picture winners.

Even if you thought Avatar really was worthy of winning Best Picture in 2009, you’d probably at least agree that it didn’t contain the best performances of that particular year. But Sandra Bullock, on the other hand, has a strong case for earning a nomination for Best Actress, such is the strength of her turn in Gravity – and that dramatic depth may in turn prompt the Academy to nominate it for Best Picture, too.

For Cuaron’s part, he more than deserves attention for his technical achievements alone. Like his two leading stars, Cuaron’s camera floats smoothly around the action, utterly unfettered and offering moments of both beauty and outright terror. If the Oscars are indeed designed to reward the “excellence of cinematic achievements”, then Cuaron’s work here is surely worthy of recognition.

Gravity and gongs

It’s certainly possible that the Academy will continue on previous form, and either shower Gravity with lots of awards but not Best Picture (as it did with Apollo 13), or nominate it for Best Picture but ultimately give the golden statue to someone else. If it does choose to do that, then so be it – like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and E.T., Gravity stands as a great movie that’s sure to be talked about for years to come, irrespective of how much of a fuss (or otherwise) the Academy chooses to make. 

At the same time, it’s somewhat ironic that a body called the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should so frequently overlook a genre that, very often, is at the cutting edge of filmmaking as both an art and a science.

And more than any other sci-fi movie of the last few years, Gravity manages to serve as a boundary-pushing piece of technical filmmaking and a beautiful work of art.

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For this reason alone, it’s arguably the perfect time for the Academy to break its track record, and finally give a science fiction movie the award for Best Picture.

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