Oscars 2016: Why has no sci-fi movie ever won Best Picture?

The films 'The Martian' and 'Mad Max: Fury Road' are nominated for Best Picture this year. Do either of them have a chance of becoming the first science fiction movie to take the big prize?

Aidan Monaghan/20th Century Fox/AP/File
'The Martian,' starring Matt Damon, is nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Actor and Best Picture.

This year, according to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, some of the best films looked beyond our own world. 

Two of the nominees for the 2016 Oscar Best Picture are “The Martian,” based on Andy Weir’s novel about an astronaut stranded on Mars, and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” set in a future dystopia where both water and gasoline are scarce.

The two sci-fi nominees are raising eyebrows, as no sci-fi film has ever won Best Picture and “genre” films in general rarely receive the statuette. The only fantasy film to ever win Best Picture was the 2003 movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and the only horror movie to win Best Picture was the 1991 psychological thriller “The Silence of the Lambs.” 

Why has no science fiction film been named the winner of the year?

In an interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of the time-travel book "The Plot to Save Socrates," says that the members of the Academy "somehow think that science fiction is not as serious as a movie like 'Spotlight.' "

In recent years, a few sci-fi movies, including the 2013 movie “Gravity,” the 2010 movie “Inception,” and the 2009 movies “Avatar” and “District 9,” have received Best Picture nods. One contributing factor may be the increased number of nominees. For the 2010 Oscars, the Academy announced that 10 movies would be nominated for the top prize. Now between five and 10 films make the cut. 

Levinson says the increased pool of nominees have helped sci-fi movies like these get on the short list. "But science fiction hasn't won," he points out.

“Martian” and “Max” are facing particularly stiff competition this year. “Spotlight,” “The Big Short,” and “The Revenant” are all viewed as potential frontrunners, and possible harbingers of Best Picture victory like the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Directors Guild Awards have gone with mostly different movies.

Despite the repeated Oscar snubs, fans seem to love science fiction, if the box office is any indication. Superhero movies are ruling Hollywood, and most of them include sci-fi elements: radioactive spiders, gene mutations, exploding planets – one of the genre’s biggest hits, “Guardians of the Galaxy,” took place almost entirely in space.

Long-running science fiction series like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek,” among others, have raked in big commercial successes as well. 

In the future, Levinson says he could see someone like "Martian" director Ridley Scott – a titan in science fiction, having directed such films as "Alien" and "Blade Runner" – win the best director award (he's not nominated this year), but the film itself still won't take the top honor, he predicts.

"When it comes to individual people, they're usually more likely to be rewarded by best director," Levinson says. This occurred in 2014, when "Gravity" director Alfonso Cuaron received the best director prize but the Best Picture award went to "12 Years a Slave."

The lack of Best Picture wins for sci-fi speaks to a larger misunderstanding of the genre, says Levinson.

"People just have trouble accepting science fiction as something that has relevance to our real life, which science fiction at its best does," he says.

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