What History Tells us about how Much the Academy Loves Space Movies

by Josh Lange

The Academy Awards always provide plenty of pomp, some touching tributes, passionate speeches, so-so jokes, several “train wreck” moments, and a few upset wins. When the dust settled and the Kodak Theater emptied, 20th Century Fox Studios proved to probably have the best 2014 out of all the major film studios; coming in #1 with market share; earning the most Oscar nominations; and winning numerous major categories, including Best Picture. The cherry on top for the studio was a music tribute to its 1965 box office smash and five-time Oscar-winning The Sound of Music. A mural of Julie Andrews in those iconic Swiss Alps still hangs at the studio lot, and I passed it each day when working on postvisualization for Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb last fall. The massive success of The Sound of Music helped save the troubled studio back then, just as modern-day studios strongly rely on their visual-effects-driven blockbusters.

In a year with many heavy favorites, the 2015 Best Visual Effects winner proved a little harder to determine. Director Christopher Nolan’s space epic Interstellar, ended up taking home the Academy Award, which surprised those in the VFX industry who assumed that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes would win on the back of its hyper-realistic cast of computer-generated talking apes. Dawn had won the Visual Effects Society (VES) Award earlier this year, which is voted on by visual effects artists who are knowledgeable of the industry’s latest techniques and technology and have extremely critical eyes toward this aspect of filmmaking. Although the voting body of the VES Awards reliably determines what truly can be considered the year’s best visual effects, the British Academy of Film and Television (BAFTA) Awards have actually sided with the Oscar winner two more times since the VES Awards began in 2002.

Even though Interstellar won this year’s BAFTA for Special Visual Effects, a possible knock on the film’s chances at getting the Academy Award was that Gravity won last year for Best Visual Effects, and an argument could be made that it would be unlikely that two movies, both using the same setting of outer-space, would win back-to-back. Despite this, the Academy sided once again with the BAFTA winner, giving the Oscar to Paul Franklin, Andrew Lockley, Ian Hunter, and Scott Fisher. With a two-year trend now established for space movies winning the Best Visual Effects Oscar, it begged an examination at how the genre had done historically throughout the Oscars, including back in the early years when the award was for “Special Effects” and “Special Achievement in Visual Effects.” How many times had space-themed movies won? How many years had one or more been nominated? Did the Academy tend to reward the genre once it became nominated?

Using the Visual Effects Oscar winners Wikipedia page, I recently made a list showing how many times a story involving outer-space has been nominated for Best Visual Effects (or its equivalent) and then compared it to its fellow nominees for those years. I kept track of how the “terrestrial” movies (ones that did not significantly involve outer-space) did in these years, as well. The breakdown is below:

Bold: Space-themed winner.
Blue: Year with multiple space-themed nominees.
Red: Terrestrial beat a space-themed nominee.
Purple: Terrestrial beat two space-themed nominees.

2014: Interstellar
2013: Gravity
2012: Life of Pi
2011: Hugo
2010: Inception
2009: Avatar
2008: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
2007: The Golden Compass
2006: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2005: King Kong
2004: Spider-Man 2
2003: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002: The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
2001: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
2000: Gladiator
1999: The Matrix
1998: What Dreams May Come
1997: Titanic
1996: Independence Day
1995: Babe
1994: Forrest Gump
1993: Jurassic Park
1992: Death Becomes Her
1991: Terminator 2: Judgment Day
1990: Total Recall (uncontested)
1989: The Abyss
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
1987: Innerspace
1986: Aliens
1985: Cocoon
1984: Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
1983: Return of the Jedi (uncontested)
1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial 
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark
1980: The Empire Strikes Back (uncontested)
1979: Alien (4 space nominees)
1978: Superman (uncontested)
1977 (“Best Visual Effects” from this year onward): Star Wars
1976 (“Special Achievement in Visual Effects”): King Kong
1975 (“Special Achievement in Visual Effects”): The Hindenburg
1974 (“Special Achievement in Visual Effects”): Earthquake
1972 (“Special Achievement in Visual Effects”): The Poseidon Adventure
1971 (“Best Visual Effects”): Bedknobs and Broomsticks
1970 (“Best Visual Effects”): Tora! Tora! Tora!
1969 (“Best Visual Effects”): Marooned
1968 (“Best Visual Effects”): 2001: A Space Odyssey
1967 (“Best Visual Effects”): Doctor Dolittle
1966 (“Best Visual Effects”): Fantastic Voyage
1965 (“Best Visual Effects”): Thunderball
1964 (“Best Special Effects”): Mary Poppins
1963 (“Best Special Effects”): Cleopatra
1962 (“Best Special Effects”): The Longest Day
1961 (“Best Special Effects”): The Guns of Navarone
1960 (“Best Special Effects”): The Time Machine
1959 (“Best Special Effects”): Ben-Hur
1958 (“Best Special Effects”): Tom Thumb
1957 (“Best Special Effects”): The Enemy Below
1956 (“Best Special Effects”): The Ten Commandments
1955 (“Best Special Effects”): The Bridges at Tokyo-Ri
1954 (“Best Special Effects”): 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
1953 (“Best Special Effects”): The War of the Worlds (uncontested)
1952 (“Best Special Effects”): Plymouth Adventure
1951 (“Best Special Effects”): When Worlds Collide
1950 (“Best Special Effects”): Destination Moon
1949 (“Best Special Effects”): Mighty Joe Young
1948 (“Best Special Effects”): Portrait of Jennie
1947 (“Best Special Effects”): Green Dolphin Street
1946 (“Best Special Effects”): Blithe Spirit
1945 (“Best Special Effects”): Wonder Man
1944 (“Best Special Effects”): Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
1943 (“Best Special Effects”): Crash Dive
1942 (“Best Special Effects”): Reap the Wild Wind
1941 (“Best Special Effects”): I Wanted Wings
1940 (“Best Special Effects”): The Thief of Baghdad
1939 (“Best Special Effects”): The Rains Came

As it turns out, Interstellar became the nineteenth space-themed “Best Visual Effects” winner throughout that specific award’s lifetime. In seventy-four years of the award’s history, a space-themed movie has been nominated thirty-one times, losing twelve times. Twenty times in the last thirty years, there have been at least one nominee of this kind. Not only have there been multiple back-to-back years of space-related movie winners, there was even a four-year streak, between 1977-1980, during which the visual effects of space movies were apparently irresistible to the Academy. Life of Pi was the only terrestrial movie able to win the “Best Visual Effects” Oscar in a year against multiple space-themed nominees.

On the flip side of these wins, there have been some notable losers with a space theme. They are as follows: George Lucas’ Star Wars Episodes I and II; the third-highest grossing of all-time, The Avengers; Ridley Scott’s Prometheus; the seven-time nominated space-drama, Apollo 13; the cult-classic, Predator; and more. One of the easier trends to notice throughout the history of the award is that the Transformers movies, Star Trek moviesand Star Wars prequel movies have never won in any of their seven total nominations; interestingly, Star Trek movies have only lost to other space films. Three out of seven times, have terrestrial movies won against a Star WarsStar Trek, or Transformers film (winners: The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Hugo, respectively). As a side note, now that I have mentioned The Lord of the Rings movies, their director Peter Jackson is two-for-three in defeating space-themed contenders for a Best Visual Effects Oscar. The films made by Interstellar director Christopher Nolan are now two-for-three in this category. On the whole, when space-themed movies get nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, history shows that they win 61.3% of the time (19/31). If they are not a Transformers movie or Star Wars prequel, they beat a “terrestrial” movie 67.9% of the time (19/28). This indicates that space-themed movies are likely to win the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, should they be nominated.

Although they have been nominated thirteen total times, comic book movies like The Avengers are almost always doomed to lose the Best Visual Effects category, with wins only for Superman and Spider-Man 2. Setting a record, three comic book movies were nominated this year: Captain America 2Guardians of the Galaxy (space-themed), and X-Men: Days of Future Past. However, all came up short. In earlier years, all three Iron Man films were nominated, yet lost; two of the three times, they lost to terrestrial movies. Despite its space content and plentiful CG aliens, The Avengers lost. Every Batman film that has ever been nominated has lost; even the win for Superman was during a year when it was actually unopposed (a quirk the category has since moved away from). Both Spider-Man nominations occurred in contested races, and one ended up winning; however, that win was during without any space-themed nominees.

As it does in the other Oscar categories, the Academy sides overwhelmingly with dramas over flat-out comedies, with the exceptions being only Death Becomes Her, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Doctor Doolittle, and Mary Poppins. Depending on the age and taste of the viewer, The Return of the Jedi might be considered the most intentionally-funny space movie to win the Best Visual Effects Oscar, which is saying something since it would never be categorized as a comedy. With so much of a strong track record against comedies winning, it was a feat in itself for this year’s silly space-comedy Guardians of the Galaxy to have been considered a contender for the award at all. Another stark difference between Guardians of the Galaxy and Interstellar was the Academy Award credentials of its cast members. Interstellar‘s lead actor Matthew McConaughey was hot off a “Best Actor” Academy Award win last year, and its supporting cast included the Oscar-winning Anne Hathaway, Matt Damon, Michael Caine, and Ellen Burstyn. By contrast, the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy had only a few Oscar nominees, so it can be said that the number of Academy Award winners on a film’s team of filmmakers can also be a factor in who wins the award (perhaps this warrants an examination of its own).

Upon examining the history of the Best Visual Effects Academy Award, it has become clear that space-themed nominees tend to do very well against other films, especially if they are dramas with many Academy Award nominees on their team. By now, audiences have seen black holes, worm holes, exploding planets, and aliens of every shape and size, and it seems like everything they can imagine has been shown by this point. However, the VFX industry continues to surprise us with its capacity to visualize an enormous range of concepts. The outer-space sci-fi subgenre remains fascinating and relevant, so there will assuredly be many more nominees and winners with this theme. These factors are worth considering when Oscar viewers fill out their ballots at home in the years to come.

Josh Lange is a Los Angeles previsualization artist who has worked on feature films such as The Avengers, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Godzilla. His original post on this subject can be found on his blog Chalk Outlines.