It made a huge splash over the summer; it sparked many a heated debate, both in the world and on the internet; it made a soul-wrenching “BRRRRRRRRRRRRRWWWWWWWWW” noise that we all felt coming up through the floor from miles away… There can be no denying that Inception was one of 2010′s Important Films. Innovative in myriad ways, it’s one of those movies that film students will undoubtedly study for years to come. And yet, there’s an issue, and that issue’s name is Oscar. Though Inception took many of the technical awards this year (as well it should have), after Sunday’s ceremony, it will now join the ranks of such films as A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, Jaws, Star Wars, E.T., District 9, and countless others: all well-made, well-written, gripping, smart films that stood little to no chance at the “serious” awards like Best Picture. Why? It’s a science fiction film. Again: Why? Try this: When you get down to it, sci fi films are mostly about ideas, and therein lies the problem.
Though much maligned as genres, good sci fi, fantasy, and horror always take whatever ideas are floating around in the current cultural zeitgeist and examines them through a fantastical lens: spaceships; Jedis; Hobbits; dystopian futures; planets full of blue people; even dreams. These ideas can range from anything from such grand issues as fear of governmental power to more personal questions of identity and reality. And while all good films have strong ideas behind them, in sci fi, the story is often the vehicle that conveys the idea: That is, it can be said that the idea comes first, and the story is secondary to the idea. This is primarily due to the fact that sci fi usually originates from a “what if?” scenario: What if juvenile delinquency grows so out of hand that the world lives in constant fear of random violence? What if, then, the government is granted the power to rehabilitate these delinquents using a type of psychological conditioning that would once have been considered unethical? From these two what-ifs, we have a story of morality and whether the ends justify the means. We also have the story of A Clockwork Orange, nominated in 1971 (it lost to The French Connection). Here, the story is in service of examining this moral quandary, because without the moral quandary, the story wouldn’t exist. QED.
The films that tend to win Best Picture, however, work the other way around: The story comes first and foremost and everything else follows. This all comes back to Aristotle’s Poetics. According to Aristotle, the primary element of any tragedy is the plot, or mythos. Character (ethos) is next, thought (that is, the idea) comes third, and diction (or, how the thought is expressed), melody, and spectacle bring up the rear. Yep: the idea behind a story comes in a measly third place behind plot and character. True, Aristotle intended these rules to apply strictly to tragedy; however, these days, they’re acknowledged as useful tools of analysis no matter what the genre, so forgive my slightly relaxed use of them. Take a look at most of the Oscar-winning Best Pictures and you can see that they tend to follow Aristotle’s format: They’re big stories about big people, with the ideas more or less trailing in their wake. I’m overgeneralizing a little here, yes, but by and large, films like The Hurt Locker, Schindler’s List, Amadeus, The Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia, and so on are the rule, not the exception. I’m not entirely sure why this trend exists– maybe it goes back to sci fi’s history as a pulp thing or “low” culture– but then again, film was “low” culture as well once upon a time, so who knows.