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John Scalzi – The 2010 Summer Sci-fi Wrap-Up

Unless you count the limited rerelease of Avatar this weekend (now with more Na’vi sex), all the summer science-fiction releases have hit the screens. So now’s as good a time as any to do a summer science-fiction postmortem.

First, despite the fact that there were relatively few science-fiction films this summer, it was a fine summer for science fiction at the box office. Iron Man 2, Inception, and Despicable Me have grossed $800 million between them to date, or about 11 percent of the entire 2010 box-office haul so far. Hollywood’s not going to complain about that.

Now, intellectual honesty requires me to note that in two of those three cases the movies were science fiction too, rather than promoted as science-fiction films directly. Iron Man 2 is a superhero flick (which genre is often but not always science-fictional), while Despicable Me was marketed as an animated family film. But this can be seen as a feature, not a bug. Enough science-fiction tropes have been embedded in the public consciousness that when Gru tells his genetically engineered minions that he plans to steal the moon in Despicable Me, no one in the audience has to wonder whether enjoying that moment makes him or her a nerd. And that’s how science fiction eventually wins the day. Second, the most successful science-fiction films this summer were also generally not dumb. Inception, of course, is so brain twisty that people are going to it more than once just to figure out whether they actually like it. But Despicable Me was smarter than it had to be (smarter than last year’s comparable Monsters vs Aliens, for example), and Iron Man 2 was also pretty decent, within the context of being a superhero film. Before that statement gets you all riled up: this is not damning with faint praise. It’s acknowledging that with superhero films you have to allow for certain things to be wonky, like physics. Superhero universes — especially Marvel-superhero universes — tend to be awfully complicated places. Moving along, Splice, which underperformed at the box office, was also fairly sharp, and Predators, if not placing a premium on brains, was at least not actively stupefying, like the Alien vs. Predator installments that preceded it.

This relative braininess is an uptick from 2009, when summer science fiction was represented by the likes of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, all of which encouraged jabbing a pen into your forebrain prior to viewing, and the new Star Trek,
which, while highly enjoyable, was better if you put your hands over your
ears and went “la la” during Spock’s science-murdering speech. Yes, there was also District 9 last summer. We’re talking overall percentages here.

I’m aware that currently there’s a bit of an Inception backlash
going on, in which folks are complaining that the movie isn’t nearly as
smart as it thinks it is. I think that if a debate about a film is over
whether it’s really smart or just smart that you’re doing okay.

Speaking of Inception,
I noted a couple of weeks ago that I suspected the film might have some
award nominations coming its way. To be more specific, looking at both
its critical and box-office success, and because folks in the Academy
are going to want to make up for slighting Christopher Nolan two years
ago with The Dark Knight, I’m going to go on record and say that if Inception doesn’t garner both Best Picture and Best Director nominations I am going to
be extraordinarily surprised. I also suspect (with a lower level of
confidence) that Nolan will get a Best Original Screenplay nod and
if he does this will be the Oscar he goes home with, because
screenwriting Oscars are very frequently the consolation Oscars for
directors. (See: Orson Wells, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Haggis.)

predictions are contingent on how the rest of the year in film unfolds,
but to be honest, looking at the rest of the film schedule for 2010,
not much else is leaping out at me. In years past I’d say that Everything You’ve Got, the new James L. Brooks film, was a shoo-in, but Spanglish took
the bloom off that rose. Nor are there tons of contenders in the
films that are already out. And with the possible exception of Toy Story 3,
none of them are of the “We spend hundreds of millions to get back even
more hundreds of millions” blockbuster variety that Inception is.
Science-fiction films have an easier time getting on the ballot in weak
Oscar years, which 2010 is shaping up as, and the Academy is sticking
with ten Best Picture nominees this year.

So add it all up and not only do I think Inception‘s bagging a Best Picture nomination but Inception is so far the only obvious Best Picture nominee for the year. And that’s a fine way for science fiction to end its summer.

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