by Eden O’Nuallain and Gabriel Valdez
That’s kind of an odd phrasing, isn’t it? Best use of visual effects? The Academy Awards give out “Best Visual Effects,” full stop. What’s the difference?
Too often, visual effects nominations go to films that simply spent the most money on visual effects. They don’t necessarily go to the most creative film or the film where visual effects become a story element rather than a showpiece.
Let’s get started:
“Ant-Man” used visual effects to wonderful comedic effect, but otherwise stuck to Marvel’s tried-and-true approach of flashy CGI fight choreography.
We liked “The Martian” overall, but none of us felt that its visual effects added anything very crucial to the story. The heart of the film was carried by its actors, not by its design. That’s hardly a bad thing, but it fails to make it stand out in this category.
“Jurassic World” did a wonderful job of creating a creature horror movie, but it missed many opportunities to add personality to its creatures. This made them feel glossed over at times, and a little less fearsome than we would’ve liked.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” just missed out on the cut. Each use visual effects in brilliant ways to make their worlds stand out and feel unique, but they balance on that line between contributing to the story and acting as showpieces. Each film uses its showpieces to say more, but often these themes are left to be carried by more traditional film elements. Essentially, they’re our fourth and fifth choices, respectively.
If it were just up to the fidelity of visual effects, there’s no way “Chappie” makes this list. In terms of how the visual effects are used to create a singular character, however, “Chappie” is in the rarest of company. Unlike a film like “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” the visual effects in “Chappie” weren’t true motion capture. Instead, the effects artists were entrusted to paint actor Sharlto Copley out of every frame of the film and replace him with their vision of Chappie. It’s a rough, risky way of tossing most of the rules for motion capture out the window and rewriting them from scratch. Yet the rough-hewn, art-over-realism feel of Chappie as a character is exactly what makes him feel so human. As a character, he’s more of a collaborative artistic creation, and less a series of motion capture measurements.
2. Ex Machina
Welcome to that rarest of company. “Ex Machina” has been the subject of a lot of controversy in our discussions of film of the year. You either love it or you loathe it. We all agreed that Alicia Vikander’s Eva is the definition of why this award exists. Even if her character is more costume design than you’d expect at first glance, the parts that are visual effect are blended seamlessly. If we have to believe as an audience that Ava should be treated as real as any human, and begin to question the nature of her captivity because of it, our impulse to feel for her starts at the meeting of actor, costume, and visual effect. It’s the visual effects that may do the most to make her seem vulnerable, since we can effectively see her internal organs and brain. The artistic decisions made surrounding the visual effects are some of the most evocative in the film.
1. Jupiter Ascending
If you remember, we’re part of the cabal that basically thinks “Jupiter Ascending” is simultaneously a kind of bad and essentially brilliant film. At first glance its visual effects might seem of the set piece variety. Many of them are (gravity boots, anyone?), yet the visual effects fill a wide range of roles – they deliver much of the film’s comedy and do a lot of the work in terms of world-building. They have personality and that personality gives you incredible amounts of information about the universe you’re watching. In creating a universe that nods to “Flash Gordon,” “Brazil,” “The Fifth Element,” “Dune,” and comic book artist Moebius, “Jupiter Ascending” is essentially telling you to kick your feet up and relax as if you were watching a cartoon (the main character’s name is Jupiter Jones, for godssakes). Not enough critics did that, unfortunately.
Yet few films required their visual effects to do so much over the course of the entire movie. They are colorful, sumptuous, threatening, weird, and busy, but in the curious universe that “Jupiter Ascending” creates, they all feel home to someone and they all seem to have practical use, even if that practical use is downright bonkers. For doing more of the lifting than visual effects are usually required to do, “Jupiter Ascending” stands out.
The seven voters are S.L. Fevre, Eden O’Nuallain, Cleopatra Parnell, Amanda Smith, Rachel Ann Taylor, Vanessa Tottle, and Gabriel Valdez