We often time our prediction articles, perhaps shamelessly, days after a guild has announced its winners so we can get a better sense of how some strata of the Hollywood establishment feels about Oscar’s nominated films. This is meant, of course, to make this process a little less complicated for us, but then nothing about this year’s Oscar season has been simple. When the Visual Effects Society handed four awards to Star Wars: The Force Awakens last week, this should have been an open-and-shut case, except the victories for The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road in some of the guild’s below-the-line categories may reveal more than just this particular group’s feelings about what truly matters when it comes to special effects in movies.
A victory for The Force Awakens at the Oscars, given the film’s commercial and critical success, would be nothing short of redemptive, as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi all won Oscars for their visual effects. George Lucas’s subsequent trilogy of films…well, we know where audiences, and Oscar, stand on those. But if the purpose of this award is to honor VFX artists for reinventing the wheel, and the list of past winners in this category suggests that AMPAS believes this to be the case, then there’s only redundancy in handing an Oscar here to a film that had to pathologically, if successfully, carbon-copy itself after the original Star Wars so as to guarantee itself the approval of a franchise’s nostalgia-blinkered fans.
While Ex Machina must be considered a sleeper, for deploying VFX in ways that feel as if they haven’t been seen before, it may struggle to convince enough voters that it’s been nominated for more than just the single effect of grafting the faces of beautiful actresses onto the bodies of intricately wired robots. In a sense, The Revenant faces a similar challenge. Its publicity machine has gone to great lengths to convince us that the ostensibly “real” impression of the main character’s endurance test was summoned with very little effects. And it’s a strategy that’s working, as the VES awarded the film the prize for Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Photoreal Feature, in addition to two other prizes for its memorable bear attack.
Only one film, Hugo, has won the Oscar in this category after winning the VES award for supporting VFX—which is to say that you probably won’t win here unless you’re halfway leading with your special effects. Which brings us to Mad Max: Fury Road, which is all effect, at once pyrotechnic and poetic. A misleading narrative that may or may not be damning—and probably won’t given how few outlets have run with it—is that much of the film’s almost surreal kinetic wonderment was made in camera. But the Oscars, like the VES, which very tellingly awarded the film in the category of Outstanding Effects Simulations in a Photoreal Feature, can sometimes recognize a vanguard achievement when they see one. That the film is only one of five films to ever be nominated in all seven technical categories can’t hurt. And if anything can it’s that The Revenant and Hugo are two of the others.
Will Win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Could Win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Should Win: Mad Max: Fury Road