Visual Effects Shortlist – Scene Breakdown

This article originally appeared on The Film Experience

The 10 finalists for the Best Visual Effects Oscar have been announced by the Academy.  Though once reserved for films that push the barriers of what film can accomplish, the Oscars have gravitated towards spectacle and bombast in the last few years. 

Of the 10 films, none came from an independent studio or had a budget less than $100 million.  That isn’t to say their effects should be discounted, but don’t expect to see something like Ex Machina or shortlisted documentary Welcome to Chechnya from last year.  Visual effects are usually meant for outright spectacle, and these shortlisted films reflect that.

Instead of just listing the shortlisted films, I would like to focus on a specific setpiece that highlights the visual effects artists.

Black Widow
The Red Room in freefall

While Natasha Romanoff’s solo adventure came a few years too late, the climax of the film features the usual Marvel outlandishness at its most captivating.  Having destroyed the mid-air-suspended Black Widow headquarters, Natasha (Scarlett Johannson) leaps out of the window and fights further enemies on the way down, dodging debris along the way.

Yes, it is patently ridiculous, but it’s also pure spectacle.  Marvel films already don’t follow the rules of reality, so why should a gigantic free-falling gunfight be any different?

Dune
Sandworms attack the harvester

Dune‘s world is so futuristic that visual effects are essential for the world to be conveyed successfully.  The visual effects are more of a compliment to the world.  As Paul (Timothee Chalamet) and the other members of House Atriedes come to the rescue of a stalled spice harvester, an incoming sandworm threatens the people and the equipment.

More than anything, this scene conveys the true scope and size of the sandworms and the destruction they can wreak.  Instead of sandworms being something that is talked about, it is something personified.

Eternals
Eternals fight the deviants

Chloe Zhao’s Eternals might have received a critical lambasting, but that didn’t mean some dynamite action sequences were left out.  Early in the film, the team of Eternals fight off the deviants to protect the people of Earth.

Though it is standard “punch and lasers” fighting, the deviants are spectacularly rendered by the Marvel visual effects teams.  Each Eternal’s powers are equally impressive, especially the clean super-speed of Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).

Free Guy
Guy vs. Super Guy

Free Guy is itself an excuse to have crazy effects on screen since the setting is in a video game world.  Ryan Reynold’s titular Guy does all sorts of crazy things throughout the film, but the climactic fight against a suped-up version of himself (also Reynolds) gives the effects a chance to shine in a quieter way.

While the majority of the film is bright and bombastic, this fight is more low-key, with smaller enhancements like a Hulk fist or Captain America’s shield.  Plus, the dual Reynolds are seemless.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife
Chasing Muncher

These soft reboots or loose sequels always have the “learning how to do the thing” sequence, and Ghostbusters: Afterlife utilizes its most famous apparition to do it.  After discovering Muncher, he is released on the streets, but chased after and caught by the group of kids giving chase in the famous Ecto-1.

Some of the best visual effects are used to assist a scene, not dominate it.  In the case of this chase scene, almost everything is practical, with the exception of the ghost and proton streams.  All the violence and damage done by the chase are done with practical effects.  If the rest of the film would have taken this approach, it would have benefited greatly.

Godzilla vs. Kong
Battleship Fight

If you are going to call your movie Godzilla vs. Kong, you better have the opening bout be memorable.  While transporting King Kong across the ocean, Godzilla is alerted to his presence and attacks.  They exchange punches on top of an aircraft carrier as they cause havoc in the ocean around them.

I’m not sure of a more memorable visual than Kong punching Godzilla on top of a ship, but it all looks as preposterous as it is supposed to.  With all the technology of the world around them, there is something blissfully wonderful about two animals attacking each other with nothing but their bodies.

The Matrix Resurrections
Chase on the streets

Choosing one visual effect element from The Matrix Resurrections seems preposterous, but I want to focus on a chase scene late in the film.  Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) flee a group of minions, but are herded into a “kill zone.”  A group of helicopters fire missiles, but Trinity’s driving and Neo’s deflections allow them to escape.

It’s all very confusing, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t look cool.  Cars exploding, deflected projectiles, smashed cars…it all looks real, despite the messiness of the narrative.

No Time to Die
Climbing the stairs

Sometimes, the best visual effects are ones that aren’t even noticed.  In an attempt to destroy a potentially world-ending facility, James Bond (Daniel Craig) must fight his way up a staircase to open up blast doors on the reactor.  He runs into some interference.

Just as he did with True Detective, director Cary Joji Fukanaga centered an action setpiece around a continuous take.  At least, in this case, some digital help was needed.  What followed is a propulsive piece of fight choreography and perfectly seamless visual effects.  This is what I hope visual effects to achieve.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
The Great Protector joins the fight

The titular ten rings don’t get a true showcase until the final battle when Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is forced into battle to protect his mother’s village from the threat of the mythical Dweller-in-Darkness.  Joining Shang-Chi in the fight is the long-dormant Great Protector, a giant flying dragon/snake.

When it comes to effects, if you are going to have something happen, you better make it big.  When the Great Protector joins in the fight, not only do you get the flying dragon you would expect, you get the full effect of how powerful the ten rings can be.  Yes, it’s more punching and lasers, but it’s big and bold punching and lasers.

Spider-Man: No Way Home
Mirror dimension fight

Doctor Strange is one of the more underrated films in the Marvel Universe, so it’s no surprise they stole that film’s greatest sequence for the third Spider-Man film.  Faced with a conflicting ideology on how to handle things, Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) battle across the mirror dimension in New York over a spell box.

Buildings folding in on themselves and trains flying through the air is cool enough, but the mirror dimension puts everything in an even better place.  With no actual threat to the people on the ground, the audience is much more comfortable when things get wacky.

Who will end up being nominated?  Check out Nathaniel’s predictions here.  He did pretty well on his shortlist predictions, going 9/10 and missing only Black Widow.

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