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Got an e-mail from a reader:
I have a question for you about The Dark Knight (does it count as science fiction? Oh, well): It's a big hit, and the critics liked it, and people are talking about an Oscar for Heath Ledger. But what about the movie? Could it get nominated for Best Picture? Could it win?
First: Is The Dark Knight science fiction? Only glancingly; it's not science fictional the way, say, Iron Man or The Incredible Hulk are. But superhero films in general can be lumped in with science fiction/fantasy films because they share a number of relevant characteristics. For example, many (though not all) are amped-up effects-happy spectaculars, aimed at popcorn-shoveling young men. And in general -- and why I want to talk about it here -- outside the technical categories (sound and visual effects and editing), they're mostly ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Will The Dark Knight break through anyway and get nominated for Best Picture? Actually, I do think it's possible. And the reasons are in line with what my e-mailer has pointed out:
1. It's immensely financially successful: The Dark Knight powered past $300 million in domestic box office in ten days, and by the time you read this, it will have overtaken Iron Man as the highest grossing film of the year. You think: Big deal, lots of science fiction/fantasy films make a lot of money but don't get Best Picture nods. True. But the sf/f films that do get Oscar nods are always among the top grossing films for their year. Star Wars. Raiders of the Lost Ark. E.T. Ghost (yes, Ghost). The Sixth Sense. And all the Lord of the Rings films. All of them were either the top-grossing film of their year, or right behind at number two. The Dark Knight clears that hurdle pretty easily.
2. It's critically lauded: The Dark Knight has a 94% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, which makes it currently one of the best reviewed films of the year in any genre, much less the superhero genre. And this also matters, since if you look at all the other sf/f Best Picture nominees above, you'll note that, with the exception of Ghost, each of the films was also hugely critically lauded in its time (Ghost did OK with the critics, actually; just not to the level of E.T. or The Dark Knight). The Academy likes having the critical backup to go with the financial windfall.
3. It's got at least one Oscar-nominatable performance by a human: Yes, it matters. The largest block of the Academy is the actor's branch; if they're willing to sign off on a film for a performance, they're more likely to sign off on it for the big prize. This for me explains Ghost: the actors nominated Whoopi Goldberg for her supporting role, and while they were at it, dropped Ghost in for the last Best Picture slot on their nomination ballot. And indeed, with science fiction and fantasy, the nominatable perfomance is usually a supporting one: Alec Guinness in Star Wars, Goldberg for Ghost, Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment for Sixth Sense and Ian McKellan for The Fellowship of the Ring. At this point, if Heath Ledger doesn't get a nod there may be riots -- not just from the fan boys, but from the actual critics.
4. The director's fame comes from outside the genre: This is one that doesn't show up in the e-mail, but I think it's worth noting nonetheless: If a director comes into science fiction (or in this case, superhero films) after being celebrated outside of it, he drags his credibility with him; i.e., it's OK to think about the film seriously because this is a serious director. Thus: George Lucas (who had been Oscar-nominated for directing American Graffiti), Steven Spielberg (Jaws), and Peter Jackson (screenplay nomination for Heavenly Creatures). Even Ghost's Jerry Zucker was better known as a comedy director (Airplane!). The Dark Knight's Christopher Nolan made his bones with the twisty, arty Memento (for which he received an Oscar screenplay nod), and burnished them with Insomnia and The Prestige. It's part of why he's getting credit now for elevating the superhero genre.
So what does The Dark Knight have going against it? Simply: It's a superhero film, and one of those has never been nominated for Best Picture before -- indeed, none has ever been seriously suggested for Best Picture before, despite the fact that (at the very least) 1978's Superman, 1989's Batman and 2004's Spider-Man 2 were all arguably financially and critically well-received enough to make a run for it. The Academy has been historically resistant to genre: It took 50 years for it to nominate a science fiction movie for Best Picture (Star Wars) and another 24 years to nominate a fantasy that didn't have singing Munchkins in it (The Fellowship of the Ring, which featured little people of a different sort). It's only been 30 years since the '78 Superman graduated superheroes out of serials and B-movies; the Academy, notoriously conservative, might still not be ready.
But I think it will be. Here's my prediction: Yes, The Dark Knight will be nominated for Best Picture, and I suspect Nolan and Ledger will also get Oscar nods and the film will also snatch tons of technical nominations.
Will it win Best Picture? No. In the end, I expect giving the Best Picture to a movie about a guy in a bat suit will still be out of the mental comfort zone of the Academy.
And besides, that would mean not giving the Best Picture Oscar to Wall-E.
Winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies as well as the novels Old Man's War and the upcoming Zoe's Tale. His column appears every Thursday.