Built on Facts

Best Picture

Today I’m going to soapbox about something utterly inconsequential and only tangentially related to science. Apologies all around. It’s the weekend though, so I trust you’ll forgive a bit of a deviation from the usual!

The nominations for the Oscars are out, and generally it’s a pretty mundane lot. Take the Best Picture nominees, for instance:

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Reader
Slumdog Millionaire

To be perfectly honest I’ve seen none of these. I’m sure they all have their charms, but no one I’ve talked to (and my friends have good taste) really painted them as “Best Picture” quality. Surely the academy can be forgiven for the lack of Batman, which was a great movie but I’m not sure I’d call it great film. On the other hand I don’t think many people think it’s any more silly in its plot than Slumdog.

But again I’m personally unqualified to judge on the grounds that I haven’t seen them (except for Batman). Nonetheless surely they could have pitched one of those five to make room for what I thought was a legitimately great piece of science fiction film: Wall-E.

“But Matt,” you might say, “it’s a computer-animated kid’s movie about robots falling in love. It can’t be a serious film.”

Well, so what? It tells a beautiful story with pathos and sympathy, and does so with an aesthetically and technically stunning style. I don’t think there’s much more you can ask from great film. For comparison, take a look at the “Best Animated Film” nominees:

Kung-Fu Panda

Let’s be serious. This is like having a “Best Legal Thinkers” category and nominating Marcus Tullius Cicero, Barney Fife, and Boss Hogg. It’s almost insulting to the intelligence.

Some of this might be sour grapes on my part. A large part of what I read growing up was golden age science fiction and to this day I have a soft spot in my heart for the rare movie that is legitimately good science fiction in the literary sense. Most people don’t even recognize those movies as such when they appear – The Prestige is very pure science fiction but I doubt if 10% of the people in the theaters watching it were aware of that fact. (It is also a powerful and amazing film regardless of genre, probably my favorite of 2006)

Now I’m no critic and my own opinions are not likely to be nearly as well-informed and nuanced as the Academy voters. But since ScienceBlogs has of late been pontificating about the “rightful place” of science in America, as a scientist I officially issue my ex cathedra pronouncement about film: Wall-E is the best one of 2008.


  1. #1 Stephanie Z
    January 24, 2009

    Wall-E is the best film I’ve seen in several years, not just in 2008. It’s amazing political fiction (with more subtlety than it first appears to have) on top of being good science fiction. And it’s just a damned good story.

    I’m getting very tired of the speculative/animated/accessible to children/humorous/happy ending/popular ghetto for art. It doesn’t matter how serious your purpose is in creating something. If no one interacts with it, it makes no difference in the world.

    [/rant] Ahem.

  2. #2 The Ridger
    January 24, 2009

    Wall-E is excellent, but Slumdog is the best film on that list, including Wall-E. IMO, but that’s what makes it entertainment, right?

    Of course, movies like I’ve Loved You A Long Time or Reprise or Caramel never get nominated. (The Visitor was brilliant, too.)

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    January 24, 2009

    Couldn’t agree with you more about the “best animated” category. Were there only three animated features made last year? That is the only way I can imagine Panda making the list.

    I haven’t seen several of the films on the Best Picture list (Frost/Nixon just made it into the theaters, for goodness sake, and I trusted the panning a local reviewer gave Button), but Slumdog is a really good movie. Every little bit you see is significant, but early on you don’t realize why some of it matters. Toward the end I found the plot fairly predictable, but at that point the same was true of Casablanca and On the Waterfront … and certainly almost every Pixar movie ever made.

    I’d put Wall-E above most of the others nominated for Best Picture, but not above Slumdog. I thought Wall-E was fantastic, but it did not engage me the way Slumdog did. There were extended periods of time where I thought Wall-E was simply filling time with an amusing view of the McD Supersize Me 7-11 culture.

    Further, if you know that punka-walla and chai-walla mean about the same thing in India as Fieldhand and House N* did in the southern US, not to mention the religious subtext that likely kept it from being released in India until recently, the political issues raised by Slumdog are important ones – but not the reason to see the movie. They exist merely to tell you why this person is suspected to be fraud by everyone from a higher caste or the dominant religion, which is almost everyone in power.

    PS with spoiler –

    Are you telling me that Batman commits suicide to save Gotham? If not, you don’t really have a way to claim it has a similarly silly plot to Slumdog.

  4. #4 llewelly
    January 24, 2009

    I have not seen any of the movies mentioned in the article. However, Kung Fu Panda has by far the most revolting advertisements, so I suspect it will win an award.

  5. #5 dreikin
    January 30, 2009

    Not much to say on the awards themselves, except that Wall-E better win best animated. However, until I read this, I had no clue that The Prestige was even close to a SF movie – now I’m going to have to go watch it.

    I also wish there were more good SF movies. I’d LOVE to see a good SF space-opera movie – could you imagine getting to see a huge space battle that was actually intelligently done, and involved high-speed, high-energy physics? Like Star Wars, but good! (ack – every time I watch it I keep noticing all the glaring military flaws, amongst other things). OTOH, I think it’s interesting that most current SF ‘cinema’ that’s worth it is/was on TV (Farscape, star trek, stargate, etc) – I think the feedback from the SF fans tends to nudge the writers in a ‘better’ direction than movies, which don’t really have that available.

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