'Aliens,' 'Star Wars' and the Biggest Moments for Geek Films at the Oscars

'Aliens,' 'Star Wars' and the Biggest Moments for Geek Films at the Oscars

Feb 26, 2014

Note: In honor of the Academy Awards this Sunday, we're reposting some of our favorite Oscar-related posts from years past. The following was first published on 2/26/13, and it includes a new intro from Geek Beat author Rick Marshall. 

It's worth noting this year that we have not one, but two science-fiction films nominated for "Best Picture" honors, though it's understandable if the ambiguous futurism of Her is overshadowed by the jaw-dropping, outer-space thriller Alfonso Cuaron has given us with Gravity. Nevertheless, that's two more sci-fi films than typically make the cut for the Academy Awards, and it's something fellow geeks should not only register, but celebrate for the step in the right direction that it is. Of course, I'm probably not alone in keeping my fingers crossed, hoping for Gravity to become the first sci-fi film to be honored as the year's best film at the Academy Awards.

And if Gravity wins this year, what's next? Heck, I'm just going to call it now: If Gravity wins this year, we're one step closer to Rom Spaceknight: The Movie winning "Best Picture" at the 2024 Academy Awards. Let's do this, Oscars. 

Original Geek Beat column, from Chris Clow. Read his new column Comic on Film here.

There are five moments from throughout Oscar history that represent some of the best examples of the Academy proving to be rather progressive in regards to honoring geeky films. In order not to sink to the depths of cynicism once again, here they are from number five to number one.


5) Superman Wins Special Achievement in Visual Effects (51st Academy Awards)

When talking about groundbreaking entries in superhero film, practically every conversation has to begin with Richard Donner’s 1978 classic Superman. Although it didn’t take any awards for writing, performance or direction (no matter how well-deserved), the Special Achievement in Visual Effects earned by the film marked the moment when superhero films not only broke into the blockbuster mainstream, but also broke into the attention of the Academy. While the film was nominated in three other areas that year, the fact that it was at least able to bring this one home is definitely an achievement for the genre it spawned. That’s without mentioning the fact that the film earned this award through the sheer phenomenal work that went into making all of us believe a man could fly.

However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t a degree of “snubbery” even then. As director Richard Donner publicly maintained in David Hughes’ book Comic Book Movies, Donner was “disgusted” that two men were left off of the nomination roles for their work in the film. Those men were John Barry, the production designer (who won an Oscar for his work on Star Wars), and Geoffrey Unsworth, the cinematographer. Since both Superman and Superman II were filmed back-to-back, this work would be their final released contributions before their deaths. When seeing the construction of each shot and the particular way characters and scenes were lit, as well as the awe-inspiring designs of Krypton, the Andrew Wyeth-like inspirations for Smallville, and the frenetic and realistic take on Metropolis, it becomes rather easy to share Mr. Donner’s disgust at those lack of nominations.

Still, though, this award ushered in the true beginning of the modern geek film’s recognition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.


4) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Wins Best Picture (76th Academy Awards)

This, perhaps, may be the only time in Oscar history where a “geek” film has been an absolute no-brainer when it came to the coveted Oscar for Best Picture. The win for The Return of the King in this category and it’s other 10 nominated categories in 2004, upon first glance, is a testament to the greatness of the finale of the story, but it’s also pretty easy to take another approach to this win: Did this film’s giant sweep through the Academy honor just this film, or did it also honor all three simultaneously? 

The entire trilogy seems most honored through this entry’s 11 Oscar wins, because timing-wise, it makes most sense. Hollywood decided to give the full efforts of the entire production team of the trilogy one big, glorious night filled with wins and celebration for Peter Jackson’s efforts to bring the world of Middle-earth to life. That ceremony in 2004 should surely go down as perhaps the one single, solitary night of the entirety of Oscar history where the interests of both geekdom and the Academy were most aligned, and the results were glorious.


3) Sigourney Weaver Nominated for Best Actress in Aliens (59th Academy Awards)

Ripley and Newt

Perhaps one of the more surprising turn of events to come to pass in Academy/geek history, its recognition of Sigourney Weaver’s powerful performance as Ellen Ripley in Aliens has to mark quite the ceiling being broken. Not only was Aliens a balls-to-the-wall action film, but it was a vehicle for a fight between humans and extraterrestrial creatures bent on impregnating us through our face holes and making babies to destroy everything else around them. Strictly on concept, that doesn’t exactly sound like typical Oscar fare from a performance perspective, but Sigourney Weaver proved everyone wrong with her singularly powerful and nuanced return as that human space trucker that returns to LV-426, bringing death to the monstrosities that keep her up at night. The film’s tagline of “This Time, It’s War” proved to be a truer and more multifaceted statement than most realized.

When looking at the people behind the scenes, usually they are the ones most confident of outside recognition for their work. In this instance, though, it’s easy to see watching Aliens’ “making of” documentary on the Alien Anthology Blu-ray collection that surprise came from both sides! Everyone from Michael Biehn and Bill Paxton to producer Gale Anne Hurd all expressed a great deal of surprise that Weaver’s performance earned its spot. Although she didn’t take the Oscar home that night, the fact that she was even nominated for that role, for that film, was likely a turning point that allowed for future successes. Such as…


2) Heath Ledger Wins Best Supporting Actor for The Dark Knight (81st Academy Awards)

While it seemed many Hollywood insiders were surprised at the snubbing of The Dark Knight for Best Picture at the 81st Academy Awards, there was absolutely no question that Heath Ledger earned his nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his haunting, idiosyncratic, dynamic and terrifyingly unique performance as the Joker. While the shock and sadness of Ledger’s death may have played into the nomination a bit, the end result is hard to dispute. The precedent this win set, though, is almost equally as astonishing as the win itself.

Although it is easily set apart from what are deemed the typical trappings of a comic book movie, The Dark Knight is still a comic book movie spawned from the genre of superheroes. Ledger’s performance and win in this category made the statement to film professionals and fans everywhere that it’s possible for such outings to have a seat at the very exclusive table of Oscar winners in performance categories.

If you gave me 30 more pages, I would not be able to rightfully espouse my love of Ledger’s take on the Joker, as both a film fan and as a comic book fan. His performance will surely stand the test of time in cinematic history and influence an untold number of future comic book creators, but it will also be because he did it first that an actor or actress will win another performance Oscar for being in a geek film, and for many of us, that day can’t come soon enough.


1) Star Wars Is Nominated for Best Picture (50th Academy Awards)

When Star Wars was initially released in May of 1977… well, I don’t have to remind you of how huge it was. It spawned an entire generation of incredible sci-fi, helped to craft the modern blockbuster, and began one of the most influential space opera sagas of all time. When you look at what a modern geek film is, practically every facet of its lineage leads back to Star Wars. The night of the 50th Academy Awards, Star Wars took home seven Oscars out of 10 nominations and one Special Achievement. It obviously swept the technical categories (which is important given the time period), but in addition to those it was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Original Screenplay, as well as taking it home for Best Original Score.

The fact that Star Wars got into the class of Best Picture nominees that year, though, says a lot. It provided a foundation from which many other genre films have been able to build upon, including many of the more modern examples seen in examplesfive through two. Because this groundbreaking film caused the Academy to take a very close look at practically every level of its production, Star Wars made sure that modern filmmakers tending toward geeky genre films get their chance to have the ultimate recognition in Hollywood, which means that I really have no choice but to recognize it in the top spot of this particular list.

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