Astronomy, Movies, and the Oscars

The coveted Oscar nods are out, which science stories will win this year?. Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

Each year, there are always a few movies in the running for Academy Awards that have space and astronomy as part of their story lines. Some years have a few science-related movies, other years there are more. Sometimes they do well in the nominations process and walk away with a slew of little golden statuettes. Other times, the films get barely a nod. Yet, astronomy is tailor-made for well-told stories and is a source of inspiration for many.

Science Fiction in the Movies

For some astronomers, movies in the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises interested them in space and the stars, even though the films were more science fiction than science. For others, such films as the world-famous 2001: A Space Odyssey, which focused on humanity's exploration of the Moon and the outer planets (with a strong hint about alien life), was the impetus for a career in astrophysics or even to become an astronaut. In 2017, the only science-related movie to win an Oscar "Best Picture" nod was Hidden Figures, the story of the black female computers who worked at NASA in the early days of the Space Age.The Oscar nominees in 2018 included some science fiction, but not in top honors. 

How well do science and science fiction movies do at Oscar time historically? Let's look at a few recent nominees. 

Mars and the Oscars

In 2016, The Martian was the only science-related film in the running for a statuette or two. It's a very realistic story about a future astronaut stranded on Mars and surviving (on potatoes!) for years until he can be rescued. It was a great movie, but didn't win in any of the categories for which it was nominated: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Writing adapted from a book. These nominations do reflect the amount of work it took to make living on Mars look so realistic on a movie set.The Golden Globes recognized the movie for Best Motion Picture: Music or Comedy, which was a bit of a puzzler, but it's good to see that somebody recognized the film's achievements.

One thing that The Martian teaches audiences that planetary scientists know very well is this: living on Mars will never be easy. Given the rising interest in Mars exploration and colonization, making a movie based on Andy Weir's scientifically accurate book was a no-brainer and it did lend itself to some very dramatic scenes based on the reality of the Red Planet.

Mars may be a rocky world like Earth, but it's a barren desert planet. It has less atmosphere than our planet does, and that atmosphere is largely carbon dioxide (which we can't breathe). The surface is more heavily bombarded by solar ultraviolet radiation than Earth due to the thinness of the Martian atmosphere. There's no water flowing on the surface, although there's ample subsurface ice that can be melted for farming and life support. 

If you subscribe to the idea that films can teach us about places we've never been, and do it in a very human way, the The Martian succeeds in all aspects. It portrays the barren red planet with such great accuracy, and with so very few scientific bloopers that most astronomers and space fans embraced it warmly as a sneak peek at what life on Mars might be like for the first Martians -- whenever they get there. 

Oscars for Science and Astronomy

In recent years, with the rise of good computer graphics and science visualizations, filmmakers have embraced them, which allowed them to use space and astronomy as part of the story line in a more organic and almost natural way. Such films as 2017's Hidden Figures, and in prior years, Interstellar and The Martian, along with Gravity have told gripping stories while teaching audiences about some concepts that astronomers and space experts deal with a lot: black holes, Einstein's theories of relativity, gravity, and life on an alien world.

While these films are often quite entertaining, one big question remains: how well do they do at the Oscars? Not always as good as fans would like. Most of these films have memorable characters played by good actors, the directors are usually very good, and the special effects have gotten very good.

Let's look at one of the more memorable science/science fiction films — 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was nominated for for Best Director, Best Writing, Story and Screenplay, and best art direction and set decoration. It won for Best Special Effects, particularly for the spectacular trip through space that one of the astronauts endures through the last part of the film.  

Interstellar — which was widely lauded for its amazing visual effects — won for those effects, but the story and acting remained unnoticed. The film took some difficult subjects — the extreme physics of black holes and their gravitational effects in a story about an astronaut sent to rescue others from a threatened mission — and made them relatively easy to understand in that movie. For that effort, it should have at least gotten a writing nod. Luckily, the film was awarded Best Science Fiction film by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA. 

In 2014, the movie Gravity did much better at the Oscars. It walked away with an amazing eight Academy Awards, telling a story of what happens when astronauts encounter disaster in near-Earth space and have to grapple with the effects of gravity on themselves and their damaged spacecraft. It won for cinematography -- which was breathtakingly close to real life, as well as directing, film editing, music, sound editing and mixing, visual effects and of course, best picture. That makes it one of the winning-est science-related movies to come from Hollywood in recent years.  

Gravity's win shows that you can tell a good story, use science, and still win the hearts and minds of audiences (and the Academy).