Gravity Is the First-Ever Sci-Fi Film to Win a 'Best Director' Oscar

Why you should expect to see more 'respectable' sci-fi snagging awards soon, too.

Image: Gravity Promo

Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity won six Oscars last night, including the coveted Best Director award. That's the biggest haul of any film this year, and a pretty remarkable achievement for any film—but especially one that belongs to a genre that's typically marginalized by the Academy. In fact, as I was scanning the award count, I realized that I couldn't recall a single science fiction film that had ever won best director, much less best picture. It turns out my intuition was right: In the entire 85-year history of the Academy Awards, no sci-fi film had ever won either of its top two awards. 

No sci-fi winners. Not a single one. In fact, you can count on one hand how many had even been nominated for best director: E.T. (1982), Star Wars (1977), A Clockwork Orange (1971), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and Dr. Strangelove (1968) are the only clear-cut sci-fi finalists I discerned on the entire list. The best picture category was nearly as sparse, though in recent years, thanks to both a resurgence in interest in the genre and the expanded nominee list, more sci-fi has been showing up: Both Inception (2010) and District 9 (2009) were short-listed. 

So what gives? Why has one of cinema's essential genres been snubbed for so long? And why did it take an exceedingly well-produced but mostly insubstantial space suspense flick to buck the trend? A lot of it likely has to do with the same stereotypical criticisms that sci-fi has historically been plagued with; it's too nerdy, too juvenile, too goofy, too esoteric, or too escapist to contend with the glittering period pieces and weighty biopics and gritty dramas that typically win statuettes. Sci-fi cinema is burdened with even more pragmatic problems than its written cousin; it's a lot harder to show people a convincing alternate or futuristic reality than it is to tell them about it. 

That's maybe why, from the late 60s throughout the 70s, the genre briefly drew critical interest from the Academy. Special effects had become good enough to get people to forget about the cheesy creature features and rampaging robots of the 50s, and could convincingly transport audiences into environments that offered an entirely new mode of social critique or satire, an aesthetic toolkit for exploring novel visions of what the human experience could look like. 

But the much more audacious sci-fi filmmaking never went home with an award—perhaps most notably, Stanley Kubrick's timeless 2001 lost out to the instantly dated musical Oliver! that today, not even the omniscient, monolithic black slab of humanity is aware of. A Clockwork Orange lost out to the serviceable but unambitious French ConnectionStar Wars to Annie Hall.

And it was only downhill from there. Academy soon tired of aliens and ultraviolence and alternate cold war timelines, and the 80s to the mid-aughts brought another drought for award-nominated sci-fi. Which isn't to say that the films were lackluster; they were anything but. Some of the best sci-fi films ever made (and best films, period, in my opinion) were released around then: Blade Runner, Brazil, The Fly, RoboCop, Gattaca, Children of Men, the list goes on. A few were given the obligatory special effects or set design nods, but sci-fi mostly got shut out. The bold, provocative Children of Men wasn't even nominated, yet the totally mediocre The Departed won thanks to an Academy-engineered mea culpa for Scorsese's entire neglected career.

But now we're wading back into sci-fi friendlier waters; not only did Gravity finally break the mold, but Spike Jonze's Her, an even more overtly science fictional film, won best original screenplay. The only precedent there, by the way, is the vaguely sci-fi Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; otherwise the screenplay category is just as dejected as the Big Two. 

Expect the sci-fi renaissance to continue, and for it to be more successful, respected, and critically acclaimed than ever before. Here's why I'm virtually sure this will happen: In the 60s, 70s and 80s, 'serious' directors embraced sci-fi as the ultimate vessel for cinematographic metaphor—HAL was the inscrutable, all-powerful technology encroaching into our lives, the Alien was a grotesque allegory for the fear of birth, Alex's brainwashing at the hands of the state was a mirror to certain social policies of the era, Brazil's labyrinthine technocracy was a cautionary tale of ever-expanding bureaucracy, and Jeff Goldblum's transformation into the Fly was AIDS taking hold.

But Gravity is just a space mission in the future gone awry. Samantha is just a smarter Siri.

Previously, sci-fi auteurs used the medium to explore a point in hyperbolic dimensions; now, fiction set tomorrow looks as real as today's. Most of the things that we've spent the previous decades imagining—space travel, advanced user interfaces, body-modding technology—are realities. Which makes it easier than ever to convincingly render the future, as Jonze and Cuaron both did, in a way that the ever-conservative Academy is comfortable declaring 'important'. The institution demands heft, the tackling of big issues, gravitas. Now that entire generations have grown up ensconced in science fictions, and have watched them predict, mod, and mold the technologies that now populate our world, sci-fi seems less like escapism than a definitive palette that colors most, if not all, stories we tell about the present and future.

It's a slightly ironic, but perhaps fitting, that the title of the first sci-fi film to take home a top honor is also a direct rebuke to the notion that the genre is somehow too frivolous or insubstantial. Science fiction has gravity now, and we're all in its orbit.