There is nothing quite like a special effects extravaganza, is there? This is especially true when there is a story that backs it up. However, sometimes this category, unlike others I have perhaps made wrongful assumptions about, can be seen as a true technical category. I know I have seen my share of visually impressive films that failed to connect on a deeper level. Consider such past nominees as Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Poseidon, and Transformers. It is films like these that do have jaw-dropping effects, but are not exactly intellectually stimulating.
As I look at the nominated films over the past few years, I cannot help but miss the days of primarily practical effects. As good as computer effects have gotten and as amazing is their integration with live action, there is still something about practical effects that I love. They bring another level of tangibility that CG effects could never have. As I am writing this, I have the original Dawn of the Dead playing and the effects there still hold up, mostly (some are exposed by Blu-ray definition but I am not going to hold that against them).
The award was first introduced in 1963 and was called Special Effects. It lasted only one year and saw Cleopatra win over The Birds. Probably the right choice. The following year it was renamed Special Visual Effects. Mary Poppins won that inaugural award. That name would stick until 1971 after which the award went on hiatus.
It returned in 1977 as Special Visual Effects. This was also the year that the world of Hollywood effects would be changed forever. The winning film was Star Wars and there is no denying the impact that movie had on special effects. Industrial Light and Magic was formed and instantly became the premiere effects house.
This would essentially be the status quo throughout most of the 1980s. It is the end of this decade that saw the dawn of the computer age when The Abyss won in 1989. This transition to CG dominance would continue two years later when Terminator 2 won and was complete with 1993's Jurassic Park. Since then virtually all of the nominees have been computer driven.
This year sees three films competing for the top prize. In alphabetical order they are: Avatar, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen, and Star Trek. All three worthy nominees, although I think that District 9 and perhaps Terminator: Salvation as possible snubs, particularly the former. I also think there was good work in Watchmen, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Halloween II.
Now, let's take a closer look at the three nominees in the order I think they will finish, although it should be pretty easy to guess who the winner will be. Of course, there could be an upset like there was in 2007 when The Golden Compass defeated both Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and the film everyone thought would win, Transformers. That one was a shocker to me as I did not think The Golden Compass looked all that great.
Easily the dark horse of the bunch, I do not see this re-imagining going anywhere near the top. The film does look spectacular and has some great looking action sequences, but best of the year? Not really. Not to diminish the film's accomplishments, but I would have much preferred to see the previously mentioned District 9 in this spot. While Star Trek nailed the space sequences and featured some great looking designs, District 9 made me believe in aliens as the all CG creations interacted flawlessly with live action. I cannot complain too much, both films made my top ten and I did see Star Trek three times in the theater.
Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen
In just about any other year this would be your winner. Even with the soulless core of the film and its lack of an actual plot, the effects are just stunning. If you did not believe in alien robots that can transform into vehicles before, this is the movie that will make you believe. I am amused. Both Transformer films push the boundaries of what you can do with effects technology. They also show that it is possible for effects to overshadow a film. Considering, that may not be a bad thing. The first film lost in an upset to The Golden Compass; this one is going to lose too, but not in an upset. While the robot creation and real world interaction pushes tech to the brink, it is not the most impressive film of the year.
Here is your winner, hands down. Barring any sort of miraculous upset, Avatar is going to walk away with the prize. This is one of, if not the, most immersive films I have experienced. James Cameron and his team worked on this movie for years and the end result is a movie that pushes the limits much like Star Wars did back in 1977. Yes, this is one step further away from the practical effects, bit it is still quite the feat. Is it the be all, end all of effects? No, but it does pioneer new technology and it created new techniques to achieve that next level of immersion. I know watching this it felt like Pandora was a real place. It is fantastically realized and so genuine in appearance that you may even be fooled into thinking it is not made up of bits and bytes from a computer.