Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2015. It was way ahead at the nominations stage of the Hugos, for reasons that we will get to, and achieved a comfortable victory on the final ballot.

There was an unusually strong overlap between the two awards, as all five Hugo finalists were also on the Bradbury ballot; the other four were Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Interstellar, Edge of Tomorrow and The Lego Movie. The Bradbury Award had one more finalist, Birdman (which won the Oscar, so I’ll get to it next). The only one of these I have seen is The Lego Movie, and I loved it.

769 nominations was the highest number for any Hugo nominee in any category that year. Of course this was the year of the Puppies, when five categories were No-Awarded. Guardians of the Galaxy was in fact the only Puppy nominee which actually won. It’s pretty clear that it would have been on the ballot anyway even without Puppy assistance – there were at most 300 Puppy nominators, so even taking them away has it level-pegging with Interstellar, and both of them well ahead of any other nominee, Puppy or not.

IMDB users rank Guardians of the Galaxy 2nd and 7th best film of the year on the two rankings. Interstellar is top of both lists. Might it have won the Hugo without the Puppies? The winning margin was less than 800 votes, and there were over a thousand Puppy voters. We’ll never know.

I found one actor who had been in a previous Oscar winner, one from a previous Hug winner, and one actor who had been in Doctor Who. The first of these is John C. Reilly, Rhomann Dey here, who got an Oscar nomination for his role as Renee Zellweger’s husband in Chicago.

Returning from a previous cameo appearance in The Avengers is Stan Lee, aged 90 at the time of filming.

The Doctor Who crossover is a bit more prominent; villainous Nebula is played by Karen Gillan, fresh from her portrayal of Amy Pond.

So, I have to say that I was not really all that impressed. It’s basically yer usual Marvel superhero film, where a bunch of good guys (and a gal) get together to save the universe from the bad guys (and a gal), with superb special effects and action, shafts of wit in the script, and a couple of cute humanoids – Vin Diesel stealing many scenes with only three words.

But I was not really invested in any of the characters or in their quest. I’m putting it just ahead of The Avengers, for having Karen Gillan, but below The Princess Bride, so just above the three-quarter mark down my ranking of Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury winners (41st out of 56).

Next up is that year’s Oscar winner, Birdman, of which I know very little. The following year the Bradbury went to Mad Max: Fury Road and the Hugo to The Martian. I’ll get to them in due course.

Gravity

Gravity won both the Hugo and Bradbury Awards in 2014. We have the Hugo statistics which show that it had a very healthy margin over the competition.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Pacific Rim were finalists for both the Hugo and the Bradbury Awards; Frozen and Iron Man 3 were up for the Hugo, and Europa Report and Her for the Bradbury. (That was the year of the last UK Worldcon, when Ancillary Justice won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novel.) The only one of those that I have seen is Frozen, and that’s “seen” as in “was in the same room as small children who were watching it”.

IMDB users rate Gravity 3rd best film of the year on one ranking but a surprisingly low 41st on the other. The voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences were very favourable – it won seven Oscars, the most ever for any film, other than Cabaret, that did not win Best Picture. I’m with the award voters; I really liked it. I’m putting it at about the 40% mark of my Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners list, in 21st place out of 55, below Aliens and above The Truman Show.

There are only two visible members of the cast (a record low, I think, for this sequence of films), and neither had previously been in an Oscar-winning, Hugo-winning, or Nebula/Bradbury-winning film, and neither has ever been in Doctor Who. We do have the unseen Ed Harris, who was the sinister illusory Parcher in A Beautiful Mind and the equally sinister Christof in The Truman Show; here he is the voice of Mission Control, but is not visible, so no photos.

It’s a very straightforward film about two American astronauts marooned in low earth orbit after a disaster destroys their space shuttle. They are played by impossibly cute actors, George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. Like Aliens, it does just one thing and does it very well, for only 97 minutes. Clooney and Bullock are both very watchable, but to be honest we are really distracted from their good looks by the unceasing momentum of the plot and the steadily increasing danger of the situation.

Incidentally, at the time of writing, the ten astronauts currently in space have an average age of 46 years and nineteen days, and a median age of 45 years and eleven months, so we can call it an even 46. The youngest, Anna Kikina, is two months past her 38th birthday. The oldest, Koichi Wakata, is three months past his 59th. So Sandra Bullock, at 49, and George Clooney, at 51, are realistically in the current age bracket for astronauts. (In the early days of spaceflight, things were very different.)

I commented after watching Twelve Years A Slave that I looked forward to seeing why Oscar voters thought that Gravity had better cinematography and film editing. Well, it does. It’s a masterpiece of technology, for much of the film putting a single actor into special effects and getting the maximum believable performance out of both her and the system. The weightless sequences are simply amazing. We haven’t seen anything like this before. I am sure that Bullock did not have to try very hard to act exhausted at the end; the entire film depends on her.

The music won an Oscar as well; I wasn’t blown away by it but I liked it well enough.

Not a lot more to say about this, but I glad that I finally got around to watching it. Next up is Guardians of the Galaxy, which won the Hugo and Bradbury Awards the following year, and is rated higher than Birdman which won the Oscar.

The Avengers

The Avengers won the 2013 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. It had a pretty thumping victory at both stages.

It beat The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which I have seen, and The Cabin in the Woods, The Hunger Games and Looper, which I haven’t. IMDB users rate it 3rd and 8th film of the year on the two rankings. In both cases it is behind The Dark Knight Rises, which I’m really surprised to see came as low as eleventh in the Hugo nomination rankings. (Beasts of the Southern Wild, which won the Ray Bradbury Award, came twelfth.) From the long list I also saw and enjoyed Brave and Wreck-It Ralph. I didn’t vote in that Hugo category that year.

Despite the star-studded cast, just one actor who’d been in previous Hugo winners and one who had been in an Oscar-winning film. Samuel L. Jackson presides here as Nick Fury; in 1993 he was the scientist Arnold in Jurassic Park, and also the voice of Frozone in The Incredibles in 2004.

And Gwyneth Paltrow gets one scene here as Pepper Potts, having won an Oscar as Viola in Shakespeare in Love a decade ago.

This is a film about a bunch of superheroes, the Avengers, getting together and biffing Loki, the god of Asgard, who wants to take over the world. (Or destroy it, I got a little lost.) I think it looks great but I’m not terribly invested in the Marvel mythology, so I’m putting it quite a long way down my rankings, in 40th place out of 53, below The Princess Bride but above The Incredibles.

I had my fourth COVID jab yesterday morning and am feeling under the weather today, so I’ll be brief. The performances are good, but I actually found the script a bit disappointing. My heart lifted when I saw Joss Whedon’s name on the credits; surely we can expect the same crackling humour that he often delivered for Buffy? But there’s not a lot of it.

Thor: Have a care how you speak! Loki is beyond reason, but he is of Asgard and he is my brother!
Natasha Romanoff: He killed eighty people in two days.
Thor: He’s adopted.

The fight scenes are well choreographed and the effects are superb.

But basically it’s a film that is intended to set up and develop the Marvel mythos, and I’m just not terribly interested in that even though it does the job well.

Next up will be that year’s Oscar winner, Argo, the closest that the late great Roger Zelazny ever got to a cinematic award. (If you don’t know, I’ll explain…)

Inception

Inception won the 2011 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, and also SFWA’s Ray Bradbury Award for that year. Hugo voters gave it a thumping win at both stages of the ballot.

IMDB users rank it the top film of the year on both scales. It beat How To Train Your Dragon, Toy Story 3 and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World for both Hugo and Bradbury; the other Hugo finalist was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and the other Bradbury finalist was my favourite Doctor Who episode of that year, Vincent and the Doctor. I voted for it myself for the Hugo.

A few Oscar and Doctor Who crossovers here. At the top is Leonardo di Caprio, here the protagonist Cobb, previously Billy in The Departed and before that Jack in Titanic.

Tom Berenger, Browning here, was a sergeant in Platoon (my least favourite Oscar winner).

And Earl Cameron, credited here as “elderly bald man” though he clearly is not bald, was the astronaut Glyn Williams in The Tenth Planet, William Hartnell’s last story as the lead actor of Doctor Who in 1966, 54 years before Inception.

Slightly to my surprise, neither Michael Caine nor Pete Postlethwaite (who died soon after the film was released) had previously been in Oscar-winning or Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winning films.

Back in 2011, I wrote:

In forty years’ time, when my grandchildren (or yours) ask me how I voted in this year’s Hugos, I think this is the only defensible choice. Admittedly I found it rather hard to follow, due to being in pain and on various drugs while watching it in several installments, but that was true when I watched all the others as well, so in fact not a great excuse. It looks and sounds utterly fantastic, and is clearly paying homage to Philip K. Dick while bringing in various other sexual and social paranoias, in the ultimate example of someone’s personal relationships interfering with their career. I wasn’t totally sure about [Elliot] Page, but maybe my appreciation would have been greater under normal circumstances. In any case, no work of art is perfect, and I can happily give this my top vote.

Again, unfortunately, I watched the film while suffering from a mild tummy upset so again my concentration was not all that it should have been. But I felt that a lot of balls were juggled with consummate skill here – the layers of dreams, the gradual realisation of what is really true and what isn’t, the capitalist struggle for resources taken into the realm of the subconscious. I also liked Elliot Page’s performance more this time around. I’m putting it in 12th place in my rankings, just below Contact and ahead of Superman.

That year’s Oscar winner was The King’s Speech, which I will turn to next.

District 9

District 9 won the Ray Bradbury Award from SFWA (effectively the Nebula for Dramatic Presentation) the first year after it was repurposed, beating Avatar, Coraline, Moon, Star Trek and Up. As previously noted, it actually topped the nominations poll for the Hugo and came close to winning. In a surprising divergence, it ranks 5th on one IMDB rating but only 32nd on the other.

None of the cast had been in previous Hugo, Nebula or Oscar-winning films; they are all South African, and this is the first of any of those films set in that country.

This was as good as people had assured me it would be. It is set in Johannesburg in a slightly different timeline to ours, where several years ago, a spaceship full of aliens arrived in the sky over the city and millions of them came down to the earth’s surface; they are all accommodated in appalling squalor in a camp near the city, and the authorities (mostly white South Africans) decide to forcibly move them to another more distant camp, which will be equally squalid and violent but less visible to the world.

To start with what I didn’t like so much, there are not all that many black characters, though it has to be said that almost all the human characters are pretty evil and most of them are white, which tells its own story. The plot is centred on one white man who finds himself transforming into an alien, and undergoes a character shift as a result. There are so many interesting roots here – the body horror is reminiscent of The Ark in Space, the situation with the aliens from Ian McDonald’s Sacrifice of Fools, the aliens themselves are very well realised.

Also, the action sequences, well done as they are, go on a bit too long, to the point that you start to notice that there is not a lot of actual plot.

But it’s still pretty good. The standout performance is Sharlto Copley as Wikus van der Merwe, set up as the stooge for the alien clearing operation. This was his first major film appearance; apparently he improvised most of his lines. He is tremendously watchable and human, even while he becomes more physically alien – and of course that is part of the message.

Unusually, this is based on a short film rather than a written work or a play. Alive in Joburg, from 2006, has a very similar scenario, but is only six minutes long, and lacks the Peter Jackson production values.

This is the 51st Hugo, Nebula and Bradbury-winning film that I have watched in this sequence. I have been trying to do overall summaries when I reach every tenth film, but miscounted this time. My definitive and unassailable ranking of them all is as follows (the eleven most recent in red):

51) The Canterville Ghost (Retro Short, 1945)
50) Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Retro Short, 1944)
49) Curse of the Cat People (Retro Short, 1945)
48) The Sixth Sense (Nebula, 1999)
47) Heaven Can Wait (Retro Long, 1944)
46) The Incredible Shrinking Man (Outstanding Movie, 1958)
45) A Boy and His Dog (1976)
44) Pinocchio (Retro Short Form, 1941)
43) Destination Moon (Retro, 1951)
42) Slaughterhouse-Five (1973)
41) The War of the Worlds (Retro, 1954)
40) Sleeper (Hugo/Nebula 1974)
39) The Incredibles (Hugo 2004)
38) The Princess Bride (1987)
37) 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984)
36) Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1990)
35) Fantasia (Retro Long Form, 1941)
34) Return of the Jedi (1982)
33) Edward Scissorhands (1990)
32) Bambi (Retro, 1943)
31) The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
30) WALL-E (2009)

29) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
28) Howl’s Moving Castle (Nebula 2006)
27) Moon (2010)
26) Young Frankenstein (Hugo/Nebula 1975)
25) Soylent Green (Nebula 1973)
24) The Picture of Dorian Gray (Retro, 1946)
23) The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
22) District 9 (Bradbury 2010)
21) Serenity (Hugo/Nebula 2005)
20) Stardust (2008)

19) The Truman Show (1998)
18) Aliens (1986)
17) Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
16) Dr Strangelove (1965)
15) Jurassic Park (1993)
14) Pan’s Labyrinth (2007)
13) A Clockwork Orange (1972)
12) Superman (1978)
11) Contact (1997)
10) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Hugo/Nebula 2001)
9) Galaxy Quest (Hugo/Nebula 2000)
8) Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
7) Blade Runner (1983)
6) Back to the Future (1985)
5) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
3) Star Wars (Hugo/Nebula 1978/77)
2) The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
1) Alien (1979)

Next: Inception.

Moon (2009 film)

Moon won the 2010 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating District 9 (which won the Bradbury/Nebula), Up, Star Trek and Avatar. It was actually only third in terms of nominations, and won the award by only 15 votes on the final count, its lead over District 9 having steadily narrowed. I have not been keeping track, but I think that is one of the closest results in this category.

IMDB users rate it 17th and beneath the other four nominees on one system, and 26th and behind all but District 9 on the other, which is surprisingly low for a winner. I have not yet seen District 9, but I must say that while I enjoyed Moon, I would probably have voted for Star Trek myself. It looks like a strong field – I’d have certainly nominated Watchmen and Children of Earth too. (The End of Time would have been a better fit for the following year.)

There’s one returnee from a previous Hugo winner: Sam Rockwell, playing the protagonist Sam Bell in all his versions, was Fleegman the publicist in Galaxy Quest ten years earlier.

Kevin Spacey, the protagonist of American Beauty, is the voice of the computer GERTY, but we don’t see him so no pics.

Sam, our hero, whose surname ends with -ell and is played by an actor whose first name is Sam and whose surname ends with -ell, is mining Helium-3 on the far side of the Moon. He encounters his double and realises that they are just the latest in a series of clones of the real Sam, who are activated in sequence by the evil Lunar Industries and then casually disposed of. His wife, who he thinks he is speaking to on Earth, turns out to have died some time ago; his little daughter is now a teenager.

It’s not so different in concept from The Sixth Sense, but I liked it a whole lot more. It’s a modest plot, with the core concept of discovering that your identity is not what you thought it was, and the desperation of trying to work out what is going on when all available facts seem unreliable. There are some silly bits as well – why mine Helium-3 on the far side? Is animating clones by remote control really less expensive and more reliable than just training and sending new astronauts? But I think it succeeds by not trying too hard.

The effects are convincing – actually I was reading the novelisation of Moon Zero Two while watching this, which reminded me that it’s part of a long tradition. The music is great as well. So I’m putting it exactly half way down my list of Hugo/Nebula/Bradbury winners, in 25th place out of 49, below Young Frankenstein and above Howl’s Moving Castle, which is still a pretty good ranking.

Next up: District 9.

WALL-E

WALL-E won both the 2009 Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, and the last ever Nebula Award for Best Script (it’s now the Ray Bradbury Award). I watched it soon after it came out (on DVD, I think). In both cases it beat The Dark Knight, which actually got my first preference for the Hugo; the other Nebula contender was a TV episode, and the other Hugo contenders were Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Iron Man and an audio anthology, METAtropolis. WALL-E was comfortably ahead of the field at nominations stage, and blew away the opposition in the final ballot.

I must say that re-watching WALL-E, I am a bit ashamed that my cynical curmudgeonly heart did not incline me to go with the majority in 2009. Having said that, IMDB users put The Dark Knight ahead of it on both rankings of 2008 films, WALL-E ending up second on one list and 21st on the other (ahead of Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire in both cases), so my 2009 vote was aligned with today’s critical consensus.

It’s not a flawless film. To have a cute robot with droopy sad eyes, and its even cuter insect buddy, is of course hugely manipulative.

I also noticed that although the humans are somewhat diverse, only the white ones get to speak; and there is a lot of fat-shaming going on.

But the depiction of a devastated, polluted and abandoned Earth is tremendous. It’s an old sf trope, of course, and I was particularly reminded of Brian Aldiss’s “Who Can Replace a Man?

And the humour of WALL-E as fish out of water, trying to understand the ways of humanity and also trying to share his enthusiasms with his new friend once EVE appears, is very nicely done; especially as his hobby is humanity on Earth – and now we’re getting into the territory of another favourite story of mine, Roger Zelazny’s “For a Breath I Tarry”.

It’s also always good to show humans as we might appear to others, even if the others are cute anthropomorphic robots…

And yet, on reflection I think I have argued myself around to my first viewpoint, that this is a cute and sweet and funny film, with moments of greatness, but I think I stand by my 2009 vote.

I’m going to take the next two Oscar Winners before I get to the following year’s Hug and Bradbury films, which are respectively Moon and District 9.

Pan’s Labyrinth

Pan’s Labyrinth won the 2007 Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form, beating four other films which I have not seen, though in each case I have read the book on which they were based (Children of Men, The Prestige, V for Vendetta and A Scanner Darkly). It was in fact narrowly behind The Prestige at the nominations round, but had a strong lead on the final ballot (in which The Prestige came third behind Children of Men).

Pan’s Labyrinth is ranked 5th and 6th of that year’s films by IMDB users, with The Prestige, The Departed and 300 ahead of it on both rankings.

Pan's Labyrinth

None of the actors have appeared in other Hugo-winning, Oscar-winning or Nebula-winning films, or in Doctor Who. Seriously impressed, however, by Doug Jones as Fauno, the main monster; we know him as Baru from Star Trek: Discovery. Apparently he learned Spanish specially for this film (though in fact his voice is dubbed).

I’ve seen two other del Toro films – Hellboy II and The Shape of Water – and liked Pan’s Labyrinth almost as much as The Shape of Water, which is to say, quite a lot. It’s in Spanish, making it the second film in a language other than English to win the Hugo (the first being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The setting is the early years of the Franco regime, shortly after the Civil War. The protagonist, Ofelia, played superbly by 11-year-old Ivana Bauero, crosses back and forth between the otherworldly Labyrinth dominated by Doug Jones’ Fauno, and our world where her Falangist stepfather is hunting down Communists in the woods and her pregnant mother is slowly dying.

I thought it was superbly done. The CGI and other effects of the Labyrinth are totally convincing; the humans of 1940s Spain are more monstrous than the monsters; Ofelia’s own heroic journey is sympathetically depicted. I’ll reserve judgement until I have seen The Prestige, but I felt that the Hugo voters that year knew what they were doing.