The biggest win went to the smallest movie
MARCH 1ST, 2016 — POST 057
So Leo finally won his Oscar. And a mediocre movie won for best picture. Chris Rock put Jada Pinkett Smith on blast in his opening monologue as host. And the lamest duck of all, for which the industry confused falling with flying, The Martian didn’t get a single gong despite extensive nominations. Most of The Martian’s nominations, at least those where it might have won, were in the technical categories. And Mad Max: Fury Road utterly dominated these, almost performing a clean sweep. Almost. Cinematography, as expected, went to The Revenant (because everyone knows a small golden man is the best cure for a focus puller’s frostbitten fingertips) so that was one technical award Mad Max wouldn’t get its warboy hands on. The other award that was clinced by another is the more interesting story.
The award for Visual Effects went to Ex Machina. This is the kind of result I dream of when looking at the nominees but my jaded sense of The Academy’s tastes (and their record) has me predicting a more sensible choice. And the category was filled with other sensible choices. Mad Max, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian, and The Revenant were the high rollers at this poker table whilst Ex Machina seemingly was topping up everyone’s whiskeys. Looking at the previous winners in this category just proves why anything but Ex Machina would have made more sense. To bore with a list momentarily:
- 2005 — King Kong
- 2006 — Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
- 2007 — The Golden Compass
- 2008 — The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
- 2009 — Avatar
- 2010 — Inception
- 2011 — Hugo
- 2012 — Life of Pi
- 2013 — Gravity
- 2014 — Interstellar
- 2015 — Ex Machina
There is almost no precedent for a movie like Ex Machina winning in this category. Visual Effects is, in a sense, a bought award. Invariably, the winners had some of the biggest budgets which afforded them the resources to craft the most dazzling visual effects. Even if we look at The Curious Case of Benjamin Button as distinctly different from the rest of the field in its focus, it still had a shit tonne of cash behind it to the tune of $150mil. Ex Machina got up with only $15mil behind it. To give a wider context:
- Mad Max: Fury Road — $150mil
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens — $200mil
- The Martian — $108mil
- The Revenant — $135mil
The shock isn’t that Ex Machina was lauded for its display of incredible visual effects work (as well as pretty much every other bit of film work). The shock is that the quietist craft of a four-character sci fi set (almost) completely interior in a single (fucking massive) house was allowed to rip the rug out from this year’s titans.
Mad Max had an ace up its sleeve in this category as well. Almost every publication that wrote about the movie waxed romantically about the return of practical effects. Explosion after explosion after car flip after pole vault after explosion mostly were shot for real out in the desert. Star Wars too, whilst nowhere near to the extent of Mad Max, returned somewhat to the practical aesthetic of the original trilogy, specifically in its use of puppets to populate its franchise-defining bar scene will all manner of alien species. In the cases of both these movies, the visual effects were intergral to the gradest scale of world building. Almost every frame is stuffed full with effects to the point of choking to demand the audience acknowledge they’re in a completely unique world.
Ex Machina really only had to do one trick: craft a believable bionic woman. It goes without saying that yes, they absolutely succeeded. There was a delicate refinement in the production design that the visual effects realised with the most precise touch. Throughout the movie, the camera spends so long lingering on the bionic form that even the most minor visual hiccup would have broken the illusion. Ex Machina’s visual effects were rightly rewarded for being the ballsiest, the most fine, and the most focussed.
To have this focus of craft acknowledged on the most public of stages is truly remarkable.