Written By: Nick Poulimenakos
Every year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences honour some of the best films of the year. Every year however, aside from an incredibly small number of films, the horror, sci-fi, superhero and action genres are often subjected to snubs by the Academy. While these films strike a chord with audiences, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in box office revenue, they rarely take home major Academy Awards.
This leads us to 2018, the premiere of the historic 90th Academy Awards. When the Awards nominations were announced back in January, many fans were shocked to see several genre-based films being nominated for major awards such as Logan for Best Adapted Screenplay, Jordan Peele and Guillermo del Toro both getting Best Director nominations and much more. As the telecast continued on, fans were even more shocked when it was announced that Jordan Peele won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, Guillermo del Toro won for Best Director and The Shape of Water took home the biggest award of the night, Best Picture. These may not seem like a lot but the fact that a sci-fi and horror film took home three of the biggest awards of the night is a small but meaningful win for the future of cinema.
When it comes to the Academy Awards, most people look towards the drama genre for nominations as the Academy feels serious dramas that have weighty-inspirational themes or are based off true events are more serious contenders for their awards when compared to something such as a comic book movie. No matter the subject matter of said comic book movie, it will always be looked down when stacked up against the next great biopic. Paul Levinson, professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and author of the time-travel book The Plot to Save Socrates, once said that “the members of the Academy somehow think that a science fiction [film] is not as serious as a movie like Spotlight.” He goes on to mention that “People just have trouble accepting science fiction as something that has relevance to our real life, which science fiction at its best does.”
Therein lies one of the biggest problems within the Academy. Why would a film such as The Dark Knight for example, a movie that deals with very real themes such as conflict, escalation and morality, be seen as a lesser project when compared to another 2008 film, The Reader. The Reader is an interesting film because, while it was nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards, it received mixed-to-positive reviews, averaging a mere 61% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Neither critics nor fans took to kindly to the film’s premise which was seen by many as mediocre. The Dark Knight however, was met with universal acclaim and an astounding 94% approval rating on the aggregate site. So why was it not nominated for any big award other than Heath Ledger’s posthumous supporting actor nod? Because, it is a comic book movie and history shows that the Academy does not give those films the time of day… until now.
Besides the fact that Wonder Woman was horrendously snubbed at this year’s Oscars, James Mangold’s Logan received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. No superhero film before had ever received such a nomination, though there were a few that deserved one. Logan is a film that borrows from several different sources to formulate one, emotionally-driven finale for the X-Men‘s most famous mutant. A pseudo-dystopian era epic that chronicles an older, more weary Wolverine, Logan forgoes the “spectacle-based” approach to filmmaking in favour of a more personal, gritty-western that went beyond the confides of a superhero film. While it did not win, the nomination alone marks an important turning point for a genre that attracts as much hate as it does adoration.
Switching gears from a potential win to an actual win, Jordan Peele took to the Oscar stage after being announced as the winner for Best Original Screenplay for his horror film, Get Out. In an emotional acceptance speech at , writer-director Jordan Peele said he nearly stopped writing his debut feature, about 20 times, because he thought it was an impossible film to write, and that he wouldn’t be able to get it made even if he did finish the script. The story is a racially charged horror story about a black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) meeting his white girlfriend’s family and uncovering an eerie plot. It was a truly emotional moment to watch someone who worked so incredibly hard on a film that he never thought would even make it this far, accept an award for writing, one of the tightest races every year at the Oscars. Yes, it is true that horror has somewhat been represented at the Oscars before but Get Out represents a new breed for the genre. It is not a traditional horror film as it treads along the lines of social thriller. But make no mistake, the film is as terrifying as it is eye-opening and it is probably what sold Academy voters who still have an aversion to the typical horror feature. With Get Out winning, one can hope that it will be enough to to convince the Academy that they’re not honoring something that’s “just” a horror movie. It is a social commentary that pushes the boundaries of diversity in the film industry and it does so in a horrific but exciting fashion.
We end with two of the biggest awards of the night, this time with zero mistakes about who’s taking home the coveted trophies. The Shape of Water, a romantic sci-fi classic from the imaginative mind of Guillermo del Toro won Best Director as well as Best Picture. As stated above, the Academy does not view sci-fi features as being as serious as a drama. But The Shape of Water is a different kind of film. It is one that focuses on the fear and alienation some can feel when faced with people and things they may not understand. At its heart is a romance between a mute woman and an amphibious humanoid.
In his Best Directing acceptance speech, the Mexico-born filmmaker spoke about what this win meant to him, saying: “I am an immigrant. And in the last 25 years, I’ve been living in a country all of our own. Part of it is here, part of it is in Europe, part of it is everywhere. Because I think the greatest thing that art does, and that our industry does, is erase the lines in the sand when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
Once again, the Academy has recognized sci-fi before but the big awards have not seen a presence from the genre, aside from a few outliers. The Shape of Water is a film that balances heart, comedy, politics, family, diversity and much more in a visually mesmerizing manner. Del Toro blends genres seamlessly while never losing its sci-fi roots, all while telling the simple story of star-crossed lovers.
And then, the unthinkable happened. Winning over favourites such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water took home the Academy Award for Best Picture. Finally, the Academy said to the sci-fi genre, we recognize your contributions to cinema.
In his Best Picture acceptance speech — which he made as producer of the movie, instead of as its writer and director — del Toro was briefer and punchier. He spoke about growing up in Mexico watching foreign films, and about adding his own legacy to the legacy of the filmmakers he was inspired by. He also suggested The Shape of Water could be seen as an example to other filmmakers, proving that genre fantasy can be used to address real-world issues and controversies. “This is a door,” he ended with. “Kick it open and come in.”
Finally after films like Made Max: Fury Road and Arrival being snubbed in its major categories it was nominated in, a film like The Shape of Water debuts to say, yes, sci-fi films do indeed have a chance at being presented on the grandest stage in cinema. One that put a spotlight on disabilities and diversity and was not afraid to challenge society’s norms.
Now, obviously in the title I said “small but meaningful.” I titled it this way because there were still plenty of films this year that were overlooked and outright snubbed. War for the Planet of the Apes, Blade Runner 2049 and Wonder Woman in particular were three films that boasted fantastic writing and direction as well as superb performances and stunning visual effects. But the stigma of genre based films struck again and sadly, all films were left out of contention in major categories, save for Blade Runner 2049 which took home two technical awards (one being for an incredibly deserving Roger A. Deakins). However, after the wins of Get Out and The Shape of Water, it seems as though the Academy is making small steps into a new era of movie awards. One that does not only look towards what dramatic outing has people crying in their seats. At a time where the public and critics are a bigger divide than ever, maybe the Academy is looking to recognize films that fans continuously flock to, whether it be to see their favourite superhero or to see some much needed diversity in Hollywood. For years the Academy added buzz to mainly small films. Now, it may be the time where everyone gets a fair chance at the coveted prizes. One can only hope that history does not repeat itself and see the Academy retread similar waters for future shows.