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Created in 2003 from the ruins of the old Best Dramatic Presentation category along with its sister award aimed at shorter films, The Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation (Long Form) enjoys the same mix of reverence and outrage that accompanies many of the other Hugo awards.

Arguably the most prestigious awards in the science fiction field, the Hugos are selected on the basis of votes cast by members of the World Science Fiction convention. As you might expect, this tends to mean that in practice the awards do a better job of tracking the tastes of science fiction fans than they do of singling out the best books and films of the year. With the exception of Spirited Away (2001) and 28 Days Later (2002), nominations for this award have been mainstream Hollywood hits, with smaller genre films or foreign-language films resolutely ignored.  Indeed, all five of this year's nominees are based on established properties, being adaptations, continuations, or reinventions.

However, despite the constraints of popularity, this year's contest is an interesting one, as all five nominees are potential winners. In fact, there's something for everyone ...

The one for the kids

The Chronicles of Narnia

You could almost feel the chill that ran down the movie industry's collective spine when Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy finally concluded.  Released at Christmas and boasting epic battles, fantastical creatures, and a potentially wide box office appeal, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe seemed designed to fill the hobbit-shaped hole left in the hearts of film fans the world over.  However, despite box-office success, the film didn't capture the public imagination in the way the Rings films did. A decidedly downbeat critical reaction saw the film follow the original books in being dismissed as being "for kids."

Unfortunately, the reaction was justified, as The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe suffers from two sets of problems, both of which can be laid at the door of director Andrew Adamson.

Firstly, Adamson shows little engagement with the material. By choosing to inflate a simple story into a bladder-challenging 140-minute epic, he produces a film that nearly buckles under the weight of its poor pacing. Action sequences that Lewis deals with in a sentence or two are expanded to fill the intentionally "epic" run time, leaving the film lurching from one box-ticking set piece to the next.

Secondly, while Lewis's heavy-handed Christianity was always going to sit less well with modern audiences than Tolkien's multiculturalism, Adamson cravenly downplays the Christian elements of the film, presenting them as simple plot points rather than religious metaphors. This serves to lessen the power of the film's mystical moments and opens its plot up to the kind of questions atheists have long been asking of the Bible. "Credo ut intellegam," as the churchmen say, but can faith really be used to plug the holes in a plot?

Adamson's flat direction and failure to adapt Lewis's decidedly dated stories for a modern audience means that this film shows no evidence of the skill that made his direction of the Shrek films so successful.  Adamson clearly has an excellent understanding of the fantasy genre and enough detachment from it to bring fantasy films to a wider and less forgiving mainstream audience, but neither quality is on display in this film.

The one for the fans

Serenity

When Joss Whedon's Firefly was cancelled halfway through its first season, the sci-fi community reacted with shock and dismay.  With Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, Whedon had effectively reinvigorated genre TV, distancing it from the simple-minded characterisation and technobabble of the Star Trek franchise and bringing it a lot closer to mainstream drama, thereby opening genre up to a much wider audience. The thought of Firefly's stories remaining untold galvanised the fan community and they started a campaign to see Whedon's intelligent blending of science fiction and Westerns return in one shape or another. However, in many ways, Firefly's legacy has proved to be a mixed bag.

Made for surprisingly little money, Serenity was without a doubt one of the best action movies of 2005.  Beautifully written, the film contained the humour and high-quality dialogue that have become Joss Whedon's calling card.  The largely unknown cast produced some wonderful performances, telling a story in which one man's politics and personal life come together, forcing him to make a stand. However, while equally beautifully made and directed, the film suffered for its understandable desire to appeal to more than just Firefly fans.

Firefly marked a watershed in genre TV because it was not afraid to push genre and action into the background and produce episodes that were about nothing more than the relationships between the characters.  In this respect, Firefly was the next step in the evolution of genre TV; where Buffy stressed that its characters were real people, Firefly seemed to suggest that regardless of your time and place, all conflicts were essentially human and needed to be treated as such.  While Serenity is a superb genre film, and a top-notch action movie, this approach is less evident. The film consequently seems like a step back from proper drama and a step towards the standard formula of explosions and space ships that blights the Hollywood approach to sci-fi.

Perhaps it was foolish to want Serenity to embrace Whedon's vision of sci-fi as a setting for drama rather than a genre in itself, especially since this vision that got Firefly cancelled in the first place.  But foolish doesn't mean wrong …

The one for people who didn't like Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter

After two decidedly lack-lustre and child-friendly Chris Columbus-helmed outings, the Harry Potter franchise took an unexpected turn under the hands of Y Tu Mama Tambien's Alfonso Cuaron. Cuaron's Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) was dark and moody where Columbus's films had been smug and cosy, turning what up until that point had been considered a kids' franchise into a series with some credibility.  This credibility no doubt contributed to the Mike Newell-directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire having one of the most successful opening weekends of any film ever.  However, now that the dust has settled, the picture is far less rosy.

Pompously described as an "actor's director," Newell struggled to reconcile the traditional Potter set-piece formula with Rowling's somewhat misguided conviction that she could write drama. The result is a film that works nicely when it is in the midst of action and danger, but drags when trying to sell the unconvincing alienation of Harry from his fellow students or the cliché-ridden horror of the ball where Harry and Ron predictably struggle to find dates and then refuse to dance.

The Goblet of Fire also saw the franchise drift away from the sense of danger and dread that was present in Prisoner of Azkaban. Admittedly this sense is not hugely present in the books, but Potter's world is nevertheless a dangerous one where dark forces move in the shadows just out of view. Cuaron understood this and brought that tangible dread to the screen, but Newell drifted back towards the whimsy and cosiness of the Columbus films, sacrificing the series' hard-won credibility in the process.

The one for people in rubber pervert suits

Batman Begins

Boasting a top-notch cast and direction by Christopher Nolan (Memento [2000] and the under-rated Insomnia [2002]), Batman Begins promised a return to source for the long-since burned out and bankrupted Batman franchise.  However, despite much talk of re-interpretations, this film still stands very much in the shadow of its cinematic predecessors.

Batman Begins' plot was an intriguing mix of Miller's seminal Batman: Year One (1997) with the gadget obsession and gothic design of Tim Burton's Batman (1989) and an ambitious but not entirely successful collection of psychoanalytic sub-plots that dealt with Bruce Wayne's mental illness, the extent to which mental illness can be controlled and focussed, and the question of whether Batman is Bruce Wayne in a mask or whether it's the other way around.

Like its fellow nominee Serenity, Batman Begins was one of the best action films of 2005.  Painstakingly designed and intelligently made, the film was deeply atmospheric and boasted a number of wonderful set pieces.  However, as with Serenity, it is the film's ambition that ultimately leaves it feeling less than utterly satisfactory.  Responsible for turning Blade from a minor Marvel character into a successful franchise (albeit one that imploded like a ... um ... "Cock-juggling thundercunt," to quote Ryan Reynolds in 2004's Blade Trinity), David S. Goyer showed himself again to be a decent action writer who struggles when asked to do anything more complicated than string action sequences together. 

Clearly Goyer has some interesting things to say about Batman, but with Batman Begins it is as if he struggles to steer the conversation around to the issue of the character's true nature.   This leaves the only real insight into Batman to be delivered as a chunk of expository dialogue in the epilogue, giving the impression that Goyer is only going through the motions of exploring his characters while his real interest lies in explosions and toys.  It's not clear why Goyer chose to shy away from exploring Batman's character; one can guess that it had something to do with wanting to have his cake and eat it, by trying to appeal to high-minded cinema-goers without alienating younger and less discerning fans who might have resented having to sit through "talky" bits.

The one for people who like cheese

Wallace and Gromit

In the UK, Wallace and Gromit are frequently described as being a "national treasure."  This very British term is usually applied to British actors or works of art that are universally loved but don't necessarily ever get to see any real money as a result of it.  But while retired comedians and dead members of the Royal family might bask in such status, it's really not good news for an animation studio that needs to worry about how its next film is going to be funded.  Aardman Animations have long had a cult following, but their first shot at the global stage, Chicken Run (2000), received a somewhat mixed response.  The quintessentially English feel of the Wallace and Gromit films had been replaced by a bland mid-Atlanticism symbolised by Mel Gibson's presence amid the otherwise all-British cast.  So the challenge was to produce something that could appeal to Americans without selling out the characters.

Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit marked a triumphant return to form.  A family film in the best possible sense of the term, it features sharp, funny writing, some skilfully drawn characters, astonishing animation, touching emotional depth, and a gag rate that the producers of Will and Grace would sell their souls even to approach. At times almost inaccessibly British, the film compensates with the sheer depth and quality of its production values.  Full of sight gags, film references, self-parody, and some positively filthy jokes about melons, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit simply doesn't leave any time for scepticism as it sweeps all before it in a tide of warm-hearted joyous fun.  The film took five years to make and you can see the work that went into it in every single frame.

Who should win?

Of the five nominees, there are three standouts.  While The Goblet of Fire and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe are reasonable genre films, they seemed to lack the extra panache or intelligence that would transform them from a reasonable afternoon at the cinema into Great Films.

Both Batman Begins and Serenity showed that you can make genre films with a bit of wit and intelligence to them.  Both good films in their own right, they stood out from the crowd and would not be out of place on the DVD shelf of even the most demanding genre fan.

However, in this writer's opinion there can be only one winner. Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit managed to be funny, touching, and intelligent, as well as incredibly well made, while having no higher pretensions or ambitions than entertaining people. The detail and the sheer quality of the writing, voice performances, and production values make it easily the best of the five films nominated for this year's Hugo.

Who will win?

Depending upon the mood of the voters and who actually bothers to fill in the voting slip, any of these five films could walk away with this award, as their pre-existing fan bases and mainstream appeal ensured that they were all big commercial successes.

However, if forced to guess, this writer would argue that the fact that three of these films were clearly aimed at a family audience might damage their credibility enough to see them pipped at the post by the phoenix-like cinematic resurrection of either the Batman or the Firefly franchise.

A life-long resident of London UK, Jonathan McCalmont holds post-graduate degrees in philosophy and war studies. Unable to find work as a Philosopher King he teaches, writes, and spends altogether too much time playing Football Manager 2006



Jonathan McCalmont lives in a wood in East Sussex. Twice shortlisted for the BSFA Award for Best Non-Fiction he writes mostly about film on his blog Ruthless Culture and mostly about science fiction as a regular columnist for the British science fiction magazine Interzone.
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