August 22 - 25, 2024

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LET'S RANK: 5 Sci-fi Movie Oscar Face-Offs

By: Alan Abuchaibe

It seems we’ll have some semblance of "Awards Season" this year. More importantly, we’re finally starting to find out what movies might get some Oscar love in 2021. For us pop culture fans, this time can be frustrating. Usually, genre movies are snubbed by critics and the organizations that award the best of the best of previous years. We know that everything fantasy and superheroes will be looked down on. Horror and anime? Don’t even think about it. And of course, science fiction is one of the most overlooked film genres in history. Or is it?

The truth is that most of the time the Oscars go for (period) dramas, but that doesn’t mean they don’t go for sci-fi. In fact, there have been years in which various sci-fi films have competed for Academy love. So, this month we’ll be ranking, in chronological order, the most exciting sci-fi face-offs in Oscar history.

Oscars 1969 -- 2001: A Space Odyssey vs Planet of the Apes.

An astronaut in an orange suit stands in a futuristic white and black lit up tunnel

You can trace back the origin of two of the main modern science fiction sub-genres to this moment. The modern existential space opera was born with 2001: Space Odyssey. Kubrick’s classic sets up the theme that has been a part of pop culture since this film opened: the relationship between humanity, space, and existentialism. We’re still riding that wave with films such as Gravity (2003), Arrival (2006), Interstellar (2014), and last year’s The Midnight Sky.

On the other hand, we have Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes. An apocalyptic sci-fi adventure film that offers a grim look at the future. Sounds familiar? Think of 28 Days Later (2002), Children of Men (2006), and of course the rebooted Planet of the Apes franchise (2011 – 2017.)

Face-Off Stats:

2001: 4 nominations (Director, Writing, Art Direction, Special Visual Effects)

Planet: 2 nominations (Costume Design, Original Score)

And the Winner is... Tie. 2001 won Special Visual Effects and Planet won an Honorary Oscar for best Make Up.

Oscars 1978 – 'Star Wars' vs 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'

Chewie, Luke, Obi and Han sit in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, looking serious

If 2001 and Apes were looking to the future, Star Wars and Close Encounters were honoring the past. It’s widely known that Star Wars is a space western and that George Lucas had created this adventure inspired by the matinee cinema from the 40s and 50s films that he grew up watching. Needless to say, Star Wars launched what is known nowadays as a "universe", a concept that defines an imagined world that lives in interconnected films and/or media. Since then, universes have popped up everywhere. We have the wizardry world of Harry Potter and the Marvel and DC Universes, just to name a few.

Spielberg, who is just a couple of years younger than Lucas, went to see the same matinee films and made Encounters as a way of re-creating his favorite film genre, space films. Interestingly enough, some of these early sci-fi films were a staple at the Oscars during the time of their releases - War of the Worlds and Forbidden Planet, for example - but they were mostly nominated for Special Effects.

Face-Off Stats:

Star Wars: 10 nominations (Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, Screenplay, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Editing, Visual Effects, Costume Design, Sound, Original Score)

Encounters: 9 nominations (Director, Supporting Actress, Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction/Set Decoration, Sound, Visual Effects, Original Score)

And the Winner is... Star Wars with 6 statues and a special Achievement Award for Sound Effects. Encounters won 1 and also got a Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects Editing.

Oscars 1980 – 'Alien' vs 'The Black Hole' vs 'Star Trek: The Motion Picture'

An alien with large teeth and no discernable eyes growls to the side of the image

This is a three-way face-off! From these three films, Ridley Scott’s Alien is the one that has aged the best. The pioneer of the modern space horror thriller, Alien is also heavily influenced by the 1970s horror concept of the "scream queens" - a group of people being killed one-by-one by a “monster.”

But what about the other two? The truth is that The Black Hole and Star Trek were cash grabs, as a result of Star Wars’ success. Still, they were still good enough to get some Oscar attention.

The Black Hole is a slick-looking space version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that manages to be eerie and campy at the same time. Star Trek was a revival of some failed attempts to bring back the show to mainstream audiences. Its most interesting aspect was the visual effects oversaw by 2001 special effects mastermind, Douglas Trumbull.

Face-Off Stats:

Alien: 2 nominations (Art Direction, Visual Effects)

The Black Hole: 2 nominations (Cinematography, Visual Effects)

Star Trek: 3 nominations (Art Direction, Visual Effects, Original Score)

And the Winner is... Alien with one win for Visual Effects

Oscars 1983 – 'E.T. The Extraterrestrial' vs 'Blade Runner' vs 'Tron'

A little girl in a striped sweater talks to an alien holding flowers

Yes, another three contenders. Spielberg goes back to space with this tender tale of an alien left behind in an American suburb. I would argue that more than Ghostbusters and Batman later in the decade, this is the first modern blockbuster. Merchandise was abundant and the film was a smash hit.

Ridley Scott’s highly influential Blade Runner didn’t make the noise we might imagine. The movie fused all the sci-fi trends of the time (existentialism, grim future, action-adventure) with a compelling visual treatment and some film noir flair. Finally, we had Tron, which at this point was considered one of Disney’s biggest failures. Ironically, the film didn’t qualify to be nominated for Best Visual Effects because The Academy considered using computer animation cheating.

Face-Off Stats:

E.T: 9 nominations (Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Film Editing, Original Score, Cinematography)

Blade Runner: 2 nominations (Art Direction/Set Decoration, Visual Effects)

Tron: 2 nominations (Costume Design, Sound)

And the Winner is... E.T. with 4 wins (Visual Effects, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, Original Score)

Oscars 1987 – 'Aliens' vs 'The Fly' vs 'Star Trek IV The Voyage Home'

A human-like man with a deformed face and widened eyes looks startled

Our final face-off is another three-way. This shows that, again, once upon a time the Oscars really didn’t mind sci-fi. Just the year before, in 1985, another battle occurred between Cocoon, Back to the Future, and Brazil. But some of those movies aren’t as exciting to fandom as the ones fighting for Oscars in 1987.

Aliens is one of those rare sequels that’s as good as the original. Still a classic, this film is James Cameron’s first success after his breakthrough movie, The Terminator. It was also his official welcome to Hollywood’s tight club of trailblazing directors. The Fly, directed by David Cronenberg, was actually a remake of another 50s sci-fi film of the same name. Star Trek, directed by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, is the fourth film in the first Star Trek film saga. Despite its campy set-up and its at-the-time strange environmental theme, The Voyage Home was well received by audiences and Academy members.

Face-Off Stats:

Aliens: 7 nominations (Best Actress, Visual Effects, Sound Effects, Film Editing, Original Score, Art Direction, Sound)

The Fly: 1 nomination (Makeup)

Star Trek IV The Voyage Home: 4 nominations (Cinematography, Original Score, Sound, Sound Effects)

And the Winner is... Aliens with two statues (Visual Effects, Sound Effects). Star Trek walked empty-handed and The Fly won for his legendary makeup.