Saturday, December 22, 2007

Review - Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove
1965 Hugo Winner for Best Dramatic Presentation

I'm going to take a bit of a different direction on this since everyone should already know what any review of the actual film will say:

Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest movies ever made, blackly satirical, and perfectly captures the zeitgeist of the cold war. It's wonderfully shot, perfectly acted, has a script that's dead on, and even the editing is great. The movie has completely contaminated the cultural consciousness and in a method similar to Citizen Kane or The Godfather you'll find references to it everywhere. In short if you have not seen it for some reason go see it now.

So that's done now let's get to the real question: should it have won a Hugo?

First, let's jump back a couple of years. The last dramatic presentation Hugo had been given to the Twilight Zone and then for several years the voters chose not to give an award. In 1965 there were two films that were deemed worth nominating: Dr. Strangelove and The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao. I have to confess that I have not seen Dr. Lao so I can't really judge if it was more deserving but I think it's safe to say that it isn't the better film.

The problem that I'm getting to is this: is Dr. Strangelove really science fiction (or fantasy for that matter)? I have to come down rather firmly on the side of "No" unless we open the definitions up so broadly that all fiction fits into the genre.

This isn't to say that Dr. Strangelove isn't speculative, there is a Soviet retaliatory doomsday machine at the center of course, but that's not a greater stretch than your typical James Bond novel. If it had been dropped into a serious drama audiences would not have a problem accepting it as then current technology. The only other thing that might be cited as "future technology" is the eponymous doctor's arm which some people claim is "robotic" though no one says anything about its nature in the movie. My feeling has always been that it is a normal prosthetic behaving oddly for comedic effect.

So the technology doesn't really move things to science fiction but the scenario it presents is speculative so that's good enough, right? Well, no. The plot of Dr. Strangelove is one that could happen at any moment during the cold war. Perhaps not to the darkly comic effect but the possibility of an unintended initiation of a first strike bringing about the end of the world was reality. Saying this movie was eligible for the Hugo because of this speculation means that all movies not based on a true story should be just as eligible and the purpose of the award is lost.

And that leaves Dr. Strangelove with no reason that it should have been awarded a Hugo. The film simply has no science fiction or fantasy elements. It did get robbed at the Academy Awards that year. I mean, My Fair Lady sweeping the awards? (I don't hate My Fair Lady but it's just not on the same level as the cultural shockwave that was Dr. Strangelove.)

It's easy to understand how Dr. Strangelove won an award intended for the best science fiction film. It was popular, it was current, it was very slightly speculative and that was all the justification that science fiction fans at that Worldcon in London needed to toss their votes at it. It's one of those instances where popularity trumped the purpose of the awards and it's not uncommon in the Hugos. Perhaps the best thing that could be said about this award was that it kept the dramatic presentation category alive long enough to reach the late 60's when it really blossomed.