Can “Gravity” boldly go where no space movie has gone before, to the stage of the Academy Awards?
One Saturday screening of Alfonso Cuaron’s groundbreaking adventure suggested that it’ll definitely get a lot of tickets to the ball, but was less conclusive as to whether the film can emerge as the night’s big winner.
The 1,000 Academy members (and guests) who jammed the huge Samuel Goldwyn Theater for the film’s official AMPAS screening on Saturday night might have paled next to the millions who paid to see the film in multiplexes around the country, but they were a crucial audience for a film that has a chance to buck the Academy’s long-standing reluctance to fully embrace sci-fi and special effects films.
After all, Stanley Kubrick’s visionary “2001: A Space Odyssey” was not nominated for Best Picture, and its only Oscar was for special visual effects. (“Oliver!” was named Best Picture that year.)
In subsequent years, “Star Wars” was beaten by “Annie Hall,” “The Right Stuff” by “Terms of Endearment,” “Apollo 13” by “Braveheart,” “Avatar” by “The Hurt Locker.” No “Star Trek” movie has ever been nominated for picture, director, acting or writing.
And even though a good number of us thought Cuaron’s previous movie, the down-to-earth but futuristic drama “Children of Men,” was the best film of 2006, it was shut out of the Oscar picture, director and acting races, and didn’t win any of the three categories for which it was nominated.
So history suggests that “Gravity” faces long odds – although as Guy Lodge wrote in a recent HitFix panel that discussed whether the film could win the top Oscar, the conventional wisdom was that no horror film could win until “The Silence of the Lambs” won, and no fantasy could win until “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” won.
Lodge also pointed out that “Gravity” isn’t really sci-fi at all, not in the way that “2001” or “Avatar” were – it’s a human survival drama set in a recognizable present, and the fact that it takes place in outer space only makes the technical achievement that much more spectacular.
So the history of space movies at the Oscars is perhaps less important than the competition “Gravity” is going up against this year – competition that this year includes the wrenching drama “12 Years a Slave,” which could overcome being tough to watch by virtue of the fact that it’s a landmark exploration of an important subject.
Also in the race: John Lee Hancock’s “Saving Mr. Banks,” a story about Hollywood (as were the last two Best Picture winners, “Argo” and “The Artist”) that has reportedly left most early viewers in tears, and David O. Russell’s “American Hustle,” which has released some eye-catching posters and had a couple of very quiet research screenings near Los Angeles in the last couple of weeks.
The AMPAS screening of “12 Years a Slave” doesn’t take place for another week, and “Saving Mr. Banks” and “American Hustle” have yet to be scheduled. So for now, Academy members were more eager to see “Gravity” than anything else this awards season – although the Goldwyn seats more than 1,000 people, it was completely filled, and some members were turned away.
According to voters who frequent the screenings, this is the first time the theater has been over capacity this year, putting “Gravity” in a class with last year’s screenings of “Argo” and “Lincoln,” at which members were turned away. (Last weekend’s screening of “Captain Phillips” was packed, but nobody was turned away.)
Applause at the end of the film was resounding, but one member said it fell short of being as “thunderous” as it was for “Argo,” “Lincoln” and “Les Miserables” last year.
One caveat: Since the Academy began holding post-screening Q&As with the cast and crew of the films they screen, the amount of applause has been skewed by the presence of talent. Unlike, say, Sunday’s screening of “All Is Lost,” which featured a post-screening Q&A with star Robert Redford and director J.C. Chandor, and unlike those three screenings from last year, the “Gravity” screening did not include a Q&A, which meant its reaction wasn’t artificially boosted by members trying to be nice to the talent in attendance.
The consensus from those in attendance is that the film is a lock in the Best Visual Effects category, that Sandra Bullock is a formidable Best Actress contender and that the film will be a Best Picture nominee.
You can certain add a number of other categories – directing, film editing, production design, sound editing and mixing – which ought to make the film one of the year’s most-nominated features.
As for whether it can pick up the momentum to actually beat “12 Years a Slave” and the other contenders, that’s a trickier question, and one that isn’t answered by one Academy screening, a bunch of rave reviews and a great first-weekend gross.
I have it ranked second on my list of likeliest winners, behind “12 Years,” and I didn’t change the order after seeing the film a second time and hearing about its Academy screening.
But it’s still early. Cuaron’s movie had an impressive launch and just might have the right stuff to go all the way – but it’s safe to say that “Gravity” faces lots of chances to end up lost in space before its splashdown at the Dolby Theatre on March 2.