The 2016 Oscar Nominations Were Unusually Kind To Science Fiction

The Oscars have rarely been interested in science fiction and fantasy. There have been exceptions, thanks largely to the sheer creative force of directors like Peter Jackson and Alfonso Cuaron. This year, however, it looks like that might be in the process of changing.

There’s a long history of science fiction getting snubbed at the Oscars. Children of Men received three nominations, only one in an artistic category, and won none of them. 2001: A Space Odyssey famously lost Best Original Screenplay to Mel Brooks’ The Producers, losing in a category that’s traditionally been tough for comedies to win. The Empire Strikes Back was given a special Oscar for special effects, but not a single nod in any artistic category. It’s an effect that extends to movies that have even the whiff of the fantastic: The Dark Knight was heavily favored to be an Oscar juggernaut, and yet wound up largely beaten out by The Reader. The Best Picture category’s subsequent expansion to up to 10 films — and theoretically include a greater variety of movies — was partially in response to this.

Despite its origins, that rule change has proven to be a good thing, one that’s benefited science fiction films: Mad Max: Fury Road was arguably the true hit of the summer, beloved by critics and audiences alike while giving the franchise a feminist slant rare in action movies. The Martian, meanwhile, was a movie people genuinely loved, staying in the box office top 10 for nearly two months.

Just as surprising, though, was the breadth of the nominations bestowed on each film. Mad Max has been nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and a host of technical awards. The Martian got nods for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay and is up against Mad Max in some technical categories. Between them, they’ve got a staggering 16 nominations. That’s not an obligatory technical nod to box office hits, these are movies genuinely respected by their peers.

True, there are some gaps. It’s puzzling that Charlize Theron wasn’t nominated for Best Actress, and that Ridley Scott hasn’t been given a fourth nomination for directing The Martian. Similarly, the Academy almost completely ignored Ex Machina, which had a lot of Oscar buzz both for its cast and Alex Garland’s filmmaking, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, while a dark horse, couldn’t even get an effects nomination. And neither are the most-nominated films; that honor belongs to The Revenant, which seems an early bidder to take home the gold. Still, in a year when everything from hard science fiction to post-apocalyptic nightmare drove pop culture, it’s good to see the Oscars finally give science fiction greater notice.