What’s my Genre Again?: The In(s)anity of the Saturn Awards

The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films comes together every year to recognize the best in genre entertainment (in both film and television) at the Saturn Awards. This is, at least in my view, a noble endeavour, and the awards have offered a space where shows like Battlestar Galactica and movies like The Dark Knight have been awarded deserved prizes that may not have been awarded at the Emmys or Oscars thanks to what is considered a bias against genre entertainment in general.

The problem is that, over time, the Saturn Awards have stretched the meaning of genre so far that it legitimately has no meaning, welcoming both genuine confusion and some outright derision based on some of their categories. The sheer volume of nominees and the rather ridiculous range of categories means that this year the Saturn Awards skew dangerously close to the Oscar while simultaneously veering dangerously towards an opposite and unflattering direction, while on the Television side their definition of what defines as genre may be the most confounding awards show process I’ve ever confronted, as demonstrated by this year’s nominees.

Rather than seeming like a legitimate celebration of science fiction, fantasy or horror, the Saturn Awards read like an unflattering and at points embarrassing collection of films and television series which reflect not the best that genre has to offer, but rather a desperate attempt to tap into the cultural zeitgeist while masquerading as a celebration of the underappreciated.

On the film side, the Saturn Awards nominate films for Best Science Fiction Film (okay), Best Fantasy Film (works for me), Best Horror Film (seems only logical), and…Best Action/Adventure/Thriller. It’s the last one that bugs me, primarily because that encompasses a LOT of cinema. And, in fact, when you look at the category, there’s so many different genres here that I don’t entirely know where to begin:

Best Action/Adventure/Thriller Film

2012 (Sony)
Brothers (Lionsgate)
The Hurt Locker (Summit Entertainment)
Inglourious Basterds (The Weinstein Co.)
Law Abiding Citizen (Overture)
The Messenger (Oscilloscope Pictures)
Sherlock Holmes (Warner Brothers)

For the sake of the fact that they both feature a fair deal of action, I’ll accept the inclusion of The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, even if I’d argue the latter really doesn’t pace itself as an action film in pretty well any respect (just because there IS action in a film does not define it as an action film). And there’s no question that Sherlock Holmes is an adventure film, and quite a good one. However, the other four nominees in this category are fairly problematic: first off, the idea that 2012 and Law Abiding Citizen should be competing in the same category as Best Picture contenders is ridiculous, to the point of making the category seem like a cruel joke (and making the mediocre films seem even worse than they are when compared to such high quality cinema). And secondly, and perhaps even more damning: in what universe are Brothers and The Messenger anywhere even close to being “genre?”

Now, if the Saturn Awards want to admit that they only watched the commercials for Brothers before nominating it, then perhaps I understand their confusion that the film is in some capacity a thriller:

Brothers: Trailer 2

However, if you watch the original trailer, or actually watch the film (or, in my case, ask people on Twitter who have watched the film), you’ll find that the film has thriller elements, but only in that tense scenes are set to particularly thriller-like music in its trailers.

Brothers: Trailer 1

Now, I don’t blame simple observers from getting this sort of things mixed up, but is a single misleading advertising campaign built around really powerful enough to define a film’s genre for the purpose what is supposed to be an impartial awards show? If they are so concerned about the future of genre entertainment, shouldn’t they be speaking out against practices which allow advertising campaigns to manipulate a film’s genre and mislead the moviegoing public in the process? And they have absolutely no excuse with The Messenger (nominating Woody Harrelson for Zombieland instead in the Supporting Actor category), which is so far away from these genre distinctions that I’m quite literally confounded (I know Ben Foster does intense quite well, but really?):

The Messenger: Trailer

In total, there’s 25 films nominated for the four Best Film categories, and the sheer volume means that Star Trek competes against X:Men Origins: Wolverine, Avatar competes against The Time Traveller’s Wife, and the only category that lacks a particularly embarrassing matchup is horror. The problem is that the categories are too diverse: in a year where Oscar has recognized both Avatar and District 9 (which is illogically placed as an International Film for the Saturns), making them seem open to the potential of genre film, the Saturn Awards feel like they’ve opened the floodgates and been forced to choose some substandard films purely to seem more inclusive.

On the television side, I just don’t understand what they believe genre stands for, as shows are divided by Network/Cable instead. For example, they include The Tudors as an example of Genre programming, recognizing it as a Television “Event” due to its short, miniseries-like seasons (ABC’s V was placed in the same category). And yet, outside of being a period drama, what precisely makes it an example of genre television beyond its soapy premise? And if we consider that period drama as genre, why is AMC’s Mad Men not included: is a period drama only genre when the period being depicted was at least one hundred years ago? Two hundred? And is Breaking Bad genre television entirely because it involves drugs, or is there enough action to consider it genre (at which point we question whether action is, in fact, an actual genre).

My point is that their distinctions are all over the map, which creates a lot of questions and comparisons that do little favours to the award’s legitimacy. While we question choices like The Ghost Whisperer and Heroes from a subjective standpoint, it’s another thing when we’re questioning how The Closer could ever be considered genre television: when we get to a show like Leverage, then, we not only question how it is a genre show, but also why other, better cable shows like it (for example, Burn Notice) weren’t considered for the spot instead. It leads to a convergence of subjective and objective concerns with the process, which makes what should feel like a celebration of non-mainstream entertainment into the genre equivalent of the Golden Globes (or, perhaps, even worse).

I know you’re likely wondering why I care so much about a pointless awards show, but I think the Saturn Awards serve an important purpose: they award outstanding achievements in genres that might not otherwise be rewarded at the Oscars or the Emmys, a place where True Blood can face off with Battlestar Galactica, and where performances by the likes of David Tennant, Zachary Levi, and Michelle Forbes get their due in a way that they might not at an awards show with a more narrow definition of what makes good television. The problem, however, is that while I’m happy for Chuck garnering a nomination for Best Network Series, these types of concerns strip that nomination of any value: when it’s competing against Heroes and The Ghost Whisperer, the awards shift from celebrating genre television to confusing and in some cases insulting it.

Obviously, considering I don’t very much like Heroes and think Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin are by far True Blood‘s weakest links, there’s all sorts of problems with these nominations on a personal level (for example, ignoring the entire cast of Battlestar Galactica in favour of Benz, Hodge, Pannetiere, etc.). But while I am very willing to accept that some people’s definition of good film or television can differ from my own, I am more concerned about the sort of generic confusion that they’re creating here, and the rather unfortunate breakdown of legitimacy that comes with it. The absolutely worst response to an awards show is one where you ask whether or not the people choosing the nominations actually see movies or watch television, and considering their focus on representing and rewarding genre television I would expect better from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films…as weird as that sounds when I type it out.

Cultural Observations

  • One of the other problems when you feature so many films comparable to the Oscars is that when you veer away from their nominees it seems a bit off. So when you include The Hurt Locker in your main categories, is there any way you can justify not nominating Jeremy Renner for Best Actor?
  • The one film that got a boost here that, isolated on its own, is a good accomplishment is Moon, with nominations for Science Fiction film and Sam Rockwell for Best Actor: I haven’t seen the movie, but it seems like that’s a film which got hurt by its genre leanings and by a minimal campaign, so if the show was filled with examples like that I think it would be a completely different ball game.
  • Most nonsensical nomination: Charlize Theron in The Burning Plain, a film that earned only $200,000 at the box office and is not even close to fitting into any of those genres.
  • Despite my concerns, always glad to see Melanie Laurent and Sigourney Weaver get attention for pivotal, and entirely overlooked, roles in two of the year’s biggest films. Weaver’s work isn’t Oscar-worthy, but Laurent’s was, and I wish she had picked up a Bridesmaid spot to Mo’Nique to help launch her career further after serving as the heart of Basterds.

1 Comment

Filed under Award Shows

One response to “What’s my Genre Again?: The In(s)anity of the Saturn Awards

  1. Tausif Khan

    Where is the fine line between Sci Fi and drama? Why aren’t the CSIs and House considered Sci Fi?

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