Editor’s note: Welcome to the twenty-second of a 24-part series dissecting the 81st Academy Awards, brought to you by the Large Association of Movie Blogs and its assorted members. Every day leading up to the Oscars, a new post written by a different LAMB will be published, each covering a different category of the Oscars. To read any other posts regarding this event, please click the tag following the post. Thank you, and enjoy!
By Paul of Careful With That Blog, Eugene.
The Academy Award for Visual Effects is not, as you may think, an award given to the movie that blows up the most stuff. If that were the case, the words “Academy Award” would be synonymous with movies like The Phantom Menace and Transformers.
A high volume of, frankly, awful movies are nominated every year because so many awful movies rely chiefly on visual effects as a crutch, a gimmick, and a lure for the people who watch movies chiefly for the purpose of watching giant CGI robots watch creepy ex-Disney stars make out with hot chicks on the hood of one of their compatriots.
The purpose of the award is not to acknowledge superb special effects of a common nature. It’s one thing to create a digital Empire State Building. It’s quite another to render a giant ape crawling up the side of the Empire State Building as 1930’s Manhattan panics below. So Transformers is not an Oscar nominated film for its gratuitous amount of TNT. Those creepy robots took time, effort, skill, and artistry to create, and it’s nice to acknowledge the highest grossing films of the year somehow, even if said movie sucks.
So we have the 2009 Summer Blockbuster class, and it was one hell of a summer. The movies nominated for Best Visual Effects this year are good by anybody’s standards. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is up for Best Picture. The Dark Knight is widely regarded as having been snubbed, even with its 8 nominations. Iron Man was the best pure action movie of 2008. But, as they say in professional wrestling, THERE MUST BE A WINNER!
My guess is that The Dark Knight has been nominated for two words: Harvey Dent. Dent’s transformation into Two Face, rushed as you may or may not have been depending on how you like your epic movies, resulted in the creation of one of the most grotesque human disfigurements in recent cinema history. Compare and contrast The Dark Knight with Batman Forever and the comic book version:
While Tommy Lee Jones looks like he’s been dipped Mrs. Field’s style into some Willy Wonka experiment gone wrong, Aaron Eckhart not only looks plausible, he often looks real. The people behind Two Face’s design went all the way. Pay close attention when Dent is in the hospital and you can see blood on the pillow. Watch him at the bar and see the little dribble of alcohol dribbling down the lipless side of his face. It’s masterful, incredible, and it subtly adds to the movie. Considering how much went into this movie, that’s saying a lot.
More things blow up per-second in Iron Man than in all but maybe the other Robert Downey Jr. movie that’s been nominated for something, but for good reason: Tony Stark flies around in a tin can with rockets strapped to it.
It is not the Iron Man suit itself that will win Iron Man a statue, if that is indeed its fate. It’s all the little things besides the suit, and maybe that the suits were done in such a way that those watching the film still had a sort of emotional response to the people flying the really expensive WMDs.
Tony Stark’s mansion is a marvel of technology, from the robots that assemble the armor around him to the glowing chest piece that’s keeping him alive. Here is Tony Stark, suiting up to some incredible music:
Some of the robots in Stark’s house have personalities, like Wall-E, but without a soul. The movie moves on to where Tony Stark must face a man in a much bigger robotic suit of armor. The summer’s other Marvel Comics film, The Incredible Hulk, featured a similar match-up between original and bigger newcomer. One looks like it was done on a computer, totally void of actors (extras notwithstanding). The other manages to turn The Dude into an evil, megalomaniacal, first rate corporate executive asshole. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Spider-Man 2, but this won’t be taking home an Oscar.
I wonder if, upon hearing the premise of the movie, the people in charge of nominations screamed “EURKA!” and penciled this in under every category. Benjamin Button is a movie tailor made to win this sort of award, if only because a crew of folks slaving at a computer have succeeded in taking one of Hollywood’s young and beautiful and turning him into an old, decrepit man.
Benjamin looks rather ripped for an old man, but that’s beyond the point. This movie would have been impossible without its visual effects team. There’s a wrinkly old baby, a WWII naval battle, and a long, drawn out procession of Brad Pitt as the stages of aging. Some of the credit for Pitt certainly goes to the make-up department, but this movie features a seamless blend of the two arts: You can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.
Benjamin Button, but the prediction comes with a story. A friend of mine and I always argue about the nature of “special” effects in movies, both of us being big Star Wars nerds. The biggest compliment handed out to any of the prequels was that it “had really nice special effects,” which was a nice way of saying that it was a bad movie that looked good.
I was with the it-sucked-but-was-aesthetically-pleasing crowd. My friend said that the whole movie was basically one effect, rendering none of the effects special. The effects, he argued, acted as a crutch for George Lucas and hampered the actors. I eventually agreed with him. If you watch any of the scenes where Anakin and Padme are discussing serious business amongst so much computer generated opulence, the acting is so heavy that you can almost see the green screen.
It’s almost the same way with Benjamin Button. There isn’t a single “special” effect within the movie because there is no one stand-out scene where the effects break new ground or go away so as to be unnoticed for five minutes, and some really good actors and actresses struggled with that aspect of the movie.
But the winner of this award will be the film judged to have the visual effects that had the most impact on their film, and with the best possible quality. The Dark Knight wins quality points, but effects weren’t necessary. Effects were necessary in Iron Man, but they look better and mean more in Benjamin Button. It may not seem fair, considering that Benjamin Button is one long graphics showcase, but there ain’t nothing special about Best Visual Effects – its just a practical award presiding over an impractical field.