Everyone knows the Academy Awards have a bias against certain genres. Biopics, dramas, and epics are like catnip to voters, and the more tears a voter sheds, the more likely it is that they will vote for it. As a result, genres like horror and sci-fi rarely get recognized by the organization outside of technical categories like Visual Effects or Sound.
With Everything Everywhere All at Once poised to be the first science fiction film to win Best Picture at the 2023 Oscars, it’s time to look back at the few sci-fi films besides 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars that managed to break through and win the coveted Academy Award in one or multiple categories. From a far-out adventure into the human body to a modern parable about the dangers of artificial intelligence, these films won Oscars for a reason and should be watched by an appreciative audience.
Editor’s note: some consider The Shape of Water, which won Best Picture in 2019, a sci-fi film. Not this critic; it’s more of a creature feature and a love story than science fiction. Agree to disagree.
Fantastic Voyage (1966)
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One of the first Oscar-winning sci-fi films ever is perhaps the grooviest as well. Made in 1966 by journeyman director Richard Fleischer, Fantastic Voyage stars Stephen Boyd and Raquel Welch as scientists who decide to shrink down to the molecular level to save the life of a doctor who invented the procedure. Throw in a ticking timebomb (the scientists only have 60 minutes to save him before they revert to their normal size) and a Cold War saboteur subplot and you have a surprisingly suspenseful thriller.
Is the film dated? Sure. But the Oscar-winning special effects (the film also won an Oscar for Best Color Art Direction) have a certain charm and the film seems to recognize that’s it a bit funny and absurd to see white blood cells attack and kill Donald Pleasance. Fantastic Voyage is a groundbreaking sci-fi film from when the genre still radiated optimism and good cheer for the future rather than the doom and gloom that came to define the genre in the 1970s and 1980s.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
1977 had another groundbreaking sci-fi film that everyone went gaga for and that you don’t hear too much about today. I wouldn’t say Close Encounters of The Third Kind is underrated, but it frequently gets forgotten about when discussing the genre of Steven Spielberg’s body of work. That’s a pity, because the film, about a man who drives away his family to pursue his visions of an approaching extraterrestrial presence, is still a one-of-a-kind experience that realistically depicts humankind’s first experience with the fantastic.
Close Encounters is perhaps the best sci-film to capture the wonder of us contacting an alien life form. In her contemporary review of the film, Pauline Kael called it “a kid’s film in the best sense,” and she’s absolutely right; it’s filled with child-like glee at discovering the unknown. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film won only for Vilmos Zsigmond’s beautifully textured cinematography. It should’ve won for his groundbreaking visual effects too, but Star Wars came out that year too, and nothing was going to beat Star Wars in any technical category.
Cocoon is perhaps the nicest sci-film you’ll ever watch. A fairy tale about finding the fountain of youth, this Ron Howard film focuses on a group of Florida retirees who discover their new next-door neighbors are a group of glowing yellow aliens pretending to be human. Biding their time on Earth before they eventually return to their home planet, these aliens have special powers that allow them to never grow old and to live forever. The retirees decide to help their Boca Raton E.T. pals after the authorities are alerted and their return flight back is threatened.
Look, I know Cocoon‘s plot sounds goofy and slightly stupid, but the execution is far more sophisticated than the concept. The visual effects, which won the Oscar that year, are good, with believably out-of-this-world floating creatures and a mothership that’s truly impressive to see. The effects, combined with the warm rapport the cast of veteran character actors like Don Ameche (who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor), Wilford Brimley, and Jessica Tandy share with one another, make this the rare sci-fi movie that warms your heart without making you puke.
The Fly (1986)
Come for the Oscar-winning makeup, stay for the profound metaphors about watching someone you care about slowly rot away before your eyes! In this remake of the classic 1959 Vincent Price movie The Fly, Jeff Goldblum stars as weirdo scientist Seth Brundle, who has just invented a device that can teleport an object from one pod to another. After testing it out on a few baboons, Seth tries it out himself, neglecting to notice a small housefly in the pod with him. After a few days, Seth discovers he has a newfound taste for sugar, slowly loses his fingernails, has superhuman strength, and is quickly losing his mind.
That’s right, Seth is turning into a fly, or in his words, a “Brundlefly,” something not quite human. The genius of David Cronenberg’s remake is that it takes its silly premise very seriously. The audience watches Seth deteriorate in slow-motion, and Cronenberg makes sure we feel every minute of it. The makeup effects by Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis are appropriately impressive and revolting, helping sell the far-out concept of a grown man turning into a human fly. Watch it and be afraid, be very afraid.
Ex Machina (2014)
With the rise of ChatGPT and AI-generated art, what better way to celebrate humanity’s embrace of a Skynet future than by watching Alex Garland’s modern masterpiece Ex Machina? The film tells the story of Caleb, a computer programmer who wins a contest to spend the week with the reclusive CEO of his company, Nathan. Once there, Nathan challenges Caleb to spend time with his humanoid robot Ava to determine if she’s capable of human consciousness.
To reveal more of the plot would ruin the fun, except that there are mind games, betrayals, and a minute-long dance scene involving co-star Oscar Isaac that has already been memorialized by the Internet. A surprise Oscar winner for Best Visual Effects, Ex Machina probably won Alicia Vikander her Oscar that year too. While she technically won for dreary biopic The Danish Girlher turn as the conflicted android Ava undoubtedly impressed voters with her considerable range.