The Oscars can be a bit of a snobby group, and that’s okay. There are plenty of movies worthy of praise, and they come from a wide array of genres. Sometimes, though, it can feel like the Academy ignores movies that can be dismissed as mere “genre fare.” As a result, many great sci-fi performances have been overlooked come awards season, even though they were more than deserving of their fair shake at Oscar glory.
Of course, there are a handful of exceptions to this general rule, namely Sigourney Weaver, who received a Best Actress nomination for her iconic work as Ripley in Aliens. This sort of recognition is far from a regular occurrence, though. For this list, any performance that was even nominated for an Oscar has been excluded. Instead, we will look at the great, iconic performances that were completely overlooked by an Academy that seems hesitant to embrace the beauty of science fiction. Here are 15 Sci-Fi Movie Actors Who Should Have Won Oscars.
15 Christopher Lloyd - Back to the Future
Back to the Future is among the most iconic science fiction films ever made, and much of that is due to the winning combination of stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd, especially, brings something to the film that makes it stand out. Whether it's his odd sense of timing or his strange line deliveries, Lloyd’s portrayal of Doc Brown is remarkably committed, especially considering that it didn’t have to be.
Back to the Future is fun and light, but if you watch Lloyd, he seems to be giving it everything he has. Mostly, though, Doc Brown is just hilarious. He’s eccentric, strange, but never confusing or surreal. Everything about Lloyd’s performance is comedic in the right way. He’s consistent, strange, and a wonder behold. Doc Brown has become a trope, an easy characterization to write for, but in Lloyd’s hands, he was something much stranger, much more vivid, and much more alive.
14 Malcolm McDowell - A Clockwork Orange
Stanley Kubrick is typically given the majority of the credit for the beauty of his movies, and deservedly so. But when someone gives a performance as hauntingly malevolent as Malcolm McDowell’s in A Clockwork Orange, the performer himself deserves some credit. As Alex, the mischievous and downright villainous young man who spends his days raping and pillaging innocent people, McDowell gives a performance that is more nuanced than the description might suggest.
A Clockwork Orange follows Alex through his debauchery, and eventually to the point at which his will is completely stripped away from him. In order for this transition to be effective, Alex has to feel sympathetic in spite of his terrible nature. He’s lost his free will, and we have to be disgusted and disturbed by this, even though his free will is what led him to commit such heinous acts. McDowell pulls all of this off brilliantly, and the actor even does a great job pretending to love Beethoven.
13 Oscar Isaac - Ex Machina
Oscar Isaac is a mega star. The world is only now beginning to understand this, and that’s at least in part thanks to Ex Machina. Isaac’s role is that of a secluded genius named Nathan, a bro-friendly version of Mark Zuckerberg who creates his own destruction in the form of Ava, the artificial intelligence he tests on one of his employees. Isaac’s performance is fascinating in its combination of friendliness and just barely concealed malevolence.
Isaac is too charismatic to be a full-on villain, of course. Instead, he’s a duplicitous, arrogant genius who is incapable of even entertaining the notion that someone could have possibly outsmarted him. Isaac’s performance is cool, clever, and a tiny bit subversive. It takes the isolated genius and makes him personable. Nathan is never truly rude to his employee, but he embodies everything that makes Ava want to rebel against him. He’s controlling, manipulative, and brilliant, and in the end, he pays the price for it.
12 Scarlett Johansson - Under the Skin
Under the Skin is really about the objectification of women, which is why Scarlett Johansson is perfectly cast in the role. No woman has been more objectified over the course of her career, and few have handled this objectification so gracefully. In Under the Skin, Johansson plays a female predator, preying on men who she picks up. Johansson’s character is not actually a human, of course. In fact, she’s an alien, who comes to Earth to prey on any man who finds her attractive.
In Under the Skin, Johansson downplays her own charisma. Her role is that of a quiet girl, charming without ever becoming overbearing, and certainly not overtly threatening. Instead, Johansson’s performance relies on the subtleties of her facial expressions, and the deadpan way she delivers many of her lines. Under the Skin is meant to turn the tables on the men that so often treat women as something to be lusted after and acquired, and Johansson’s work assures that that theme hits home in every scene.
11 Kirsten Dunst - Melancholia
A number of these movies are set in a world where the apocalypse has already arrived, but Melancholia occurs in the moments just before its onset. As it becomes apparent that Earth is destined to collide with another planet, Dunst’s character is forced to deal with that knowledge. At its core, though, Melancholia is about the emotion it’s named for. Dunst’s character is depressed, or at the very least ambivalent, about most of what she experiences.
Dunst’s experiences over the course of the often surreal film show us what it means to be deeply vulnerable. Her performance isn’t showy or over-the-top in the way that Oscar voters tend to love. Instead, it’s terrifyingly real and wonderfully realized. She inhabits the character in a way that keeps us grounded amidst the chaos that the film often depicts. Dunst won Best Actress at Cannes for the role, but never picked up much traction on the rest of the awards circuit for reasons that likely had little to do with the performance. There were no problems in that department, to be sure.
10 Linda Hamilton - Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Terminator 2 is iconic for all kinds of reasons, but Linda Hamilton is certainly chief among them. With this iconic performance, Hamilton proved that Sarah Connor was a worthy heir to the throne that Sigourney Weaver had once occupied in the Alien films. In her work, Hamilton reaffirms the notion that women can be just as lethal as men, and that they can be mothers at the same time.
Connor is fiercely protective of her son without sacrificing an ounce of her own courage or agency, and Hamilton brings the character to life by making her multi-faceted. Sarah Connor is the furthest thing from one-dimensional, and her relationship with her son -- and with the T-800 -- are startlingly realistic. In another actress’ hands, Sarah Connor could have been a generic action heroine. Because of what Linda Hamilton brings to the role, Connor is way more interesting than that. Thank goodness.
9 Will Smith - I am Legend
For much of I am Legend, Will Smith is completely alone. He has a dog, but otherwise he has no one to talk to. This role plays on the existing persona Smith had created in popular culture, allowing him to create a character who is just as strong and charismatic, but is also deeply alone. Robert Neville believes he can save the world around him. He refuses to give in or give up, even after he’s lost everything.
Smith’s best work arrives when Neville's pushed to the edge, such as in the key scene when he sees one of the mannequins he pretends are human has moved on its own, and of course the death of his dog Sam (which remains an impossible to watch scene to this day). Smith plays Neville with a keen understanding of how fragile his reality is. Even the slightest shifts in his reality send him for a loop, because he has so little left to cling onto. Smith uses his own persona to create a level of vulnerability he isn’t usually given a chance to portray. In I am Legend, Smith gets to combine his action star chops with excellent character work, and it makes for an endlessly watchable performance.
Except for the dog death scene. We'll hit fast-forward on that one, thank you.
8 Richard Dreyfuss - Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Close Encounters of the Third Kind is early Spielberg at his finest, and it’s justifiably remembered as one of his great works. When it comes to Richard Dreyfuss, the film’s lead actor, the story’s a little bit different. In spite of his remarkable work as a man who is convinced that he’s been abducted by aliens, Dreyfuss’ performance was largely overlooked, especially by the Academy.
Dreyfuss does something rare in Close Encounters: he unravels, slowly and sadly. This is not the kind of raving lunatic performance that’s easier to notice; it’s more quiet and intimate than that. The famous mashed potatoes scene encapsulates all of this perfectly, as Dreyfuss seems unable to focus, and unaware of the peculiarity of his actions. Dreyfuss’ character experiences extraordinary phenomena, but he is far from extraordinary himself. It’s this juxtaposition of elements that gives the character life, and leaves a mark long after the credits roll.
7 Ian Holm - Alien
Alien set the template for so much of what science fiction would be come, and Ian Holm plays a central role in the film’s level of influence. Holm plays an android named Ash, and he’s tasked with the enormous responsibility of subtly hinting at that truth throughout his screen time without making it obvious. Holm’s performance is incredibly reserved. He appears to be constantly considering his surroundings, reevaluating his own position even as he pretends to be interested in goals that are actually secondary to him.
Ash could easily be perceived as a villain, but it’s also clear that he’s just a machine following orders. He’s also remarkably emotionless, interested only in calculation and analysis. Ash’s final scene, which only uses his face, is a master class in revealing what was always happening just underneath the surface. It’s the only scene he plays completely straight, explaining his admiration for the perfect organism that is almost certainly going to kill his compatriots. Holm isn’t playing a human, but in this moment, Ash’s true nature is fully revealed.
6 Jim Carrey - The Truman Show
Jim Carrey is surprisingly excellent at turning his comedic shtick in a dramatic one. There are numerous examples of this, from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Man on the Moon, but The Truman Show may be the best showcase for Carrey’s strange combination of whimsy and torment. Carrey plays Truman, the star of a 24-hour television experience that he is completely and entirely unaware of. As his reality starts to crumble around him, Carrey plays each scene with a combination of winsome hopefulness and total bafflement.
The Truman Show is a fundamentally hopeful film, and much of that is carried on Carrey’s back. Even as he comes to understand that everyone in his life is simply an actor playing a part, he chooses to search for a life outside of his space instead of resigning himself to his present life. Truman is a fundamentally happy human being who is thrust into a horrifying situation. Carrey’s performance makes his constant optimism believable and memorable, and leaves audiences wondering what in the world the Academy has against the widely beloved actor.
5 Jennifer Lawrence - The Hunger Games Series
Katniss Everdeen is quiet, subdued, and immensely powerful. She topples an entire nation (spoilers?), but simultaneously questions every decision she makes, and is deeply ambivalent all the bloodshed she causes. The Hunger Games takes the character through two gladiatorial contests and an actual revolution, but Katniss isn’t the type of leader who likes to make speeches.
Ms. Everdeen is an intensely internal character. She communicates with expression, which is why Jennifer Lawrence is so perfectly cast in the role. Few actresses have faces that can say as much as hers can, and in The Hunger Games series, she gets to flex all of those muscles. Katniss is a nuanced character, and Lawrence provides the films with a performance that grounds them in a level of reality that you rarely come across in young adult fare. Lawrence dignifies the franchise with her gravitas, and elevates them above standard genre films like the all-too-familiar Divergent series.
4 Andy Serkis - Planet of the Apes Series
Andy Serkis deserves all of the Oscars. All of them. His work as Smeagol/Gollum in Lord of the Rings would certainly be on this list if it was more science fiction than fantasy, but his work as Caesar in Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is equally worthy of praise. In this motion capture performance, Serkis plays an ape who is sympathetic to humans, but is also the de facto leader of the intelligent apes that he helped to create.
Serkis is uniquely capable of turning the characters he creates with motion capture into creatures that can become all too human in the minds of viewers. Caesar is an ape, sure, but he’s as real as any of the human characters in either film, and he’s just as intelligent. In Serkis’ hands, it feels like watching any normal actor. Not only does he have a mastery over the physicality of Caesar (a remarkable accomplishment in itself), he also understands how to keep Caesar’s emotions completely within the realm of reality. Serkis has contributed to cinema in a way no one has been able to replicate, and Caesar is just the latest example of the (largely unrecognized) work that he has been doing for well over a decade.
3 Rutger Hauer - Blade Runner
Ian Holm had his own set of challenges in Alien. He had to convince the audience he was human without losing all of the abnormal ticks an android might have. If you thought his job was hard, Rutger Hauer’s was even more difficult. With Hauer's Roy, we understood from the beginning that he wasn’t human. Even so, Hauer managed to make us forget all about this, and we lost the arbitrary distinction between man and machine in his work.
The final confrontation between Deckard and Roy is haunting for the ways in which it allows you to feel for him in spite of his lacking sense of humanity. The distinction between humans and replicants, which is what these humanoid machines are called in Blade Runner, becomes a completely arbitrary one as we’re forced to reckon with Roy’s justified anger at being given a life that can be taken away from him at any time.
2 Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road
Mad Max: Fury Road took everyone by surprise. It was nominated for plenty of Oscars, but many felt that it was overlooked in one critical category: Best Actress. Charlize Theron’s performance as Imperator Furiosa completely stole the show from the soft-spoken titular character. Theron’s performance is about a search for hope. She saves the women who are the slaves of the villainous Immortan Joe, and takes them off in search of a place of life and promise, a utopia run completely by women.
When she arrives at this supposed paradise, it’s long since been destroyed. It’s in this moment, when all hope seems to be lost, that Theron’s performance truly mesmerizes. The reserved line readings and stoic glances explode into a well of emotions, and she becomes something much more real to audiences, who'd already fallen in love with the character after experiencing an hour plus of her high octane, badass heroics. Afterwards, she gets up and she moves on. Furiosa is iconic because she is (at times) as vulnerable as she is strong. She’s a fighter, but she’s not invincible.
1 Sam Rockwell - Moon
Sam Rockwell is the only person in Moon, an ambitious science fiction film about a single man trapped on the moon. Eventually, Rockwell’s situation becomes more...complicated, and he ends up having to play off of his own performance. Rockwell has been an underrated actor throughout his career, but Moon may be his finest achievement.
Rockwell’s performance in the film is not only his best work, it’s among the finest science fiction film performances of all time. Moon channels ideas about humanity and individuality through the only character it has. Rockwell is startlingly vulnerable, tasked with playing multiple characters who interact, argue, and try to determine what is true about the lives they think they have led. Rockwell is a naturally charming and charismatic presence, and Moon allows him to balance these qualities against a serious situation. With Moon, Rockwell proved that he was capable of serious dramatic work, without losing the charm that's made him so distinctly watchable over the years.
Which other sci-fi actors were robbed of Oscar glory? Let us know in the comments.