‘Star Wars,’ ‘Jurassic World,’ ‘The Martian’ Highlight Visual Effects Oscar Race

Another competitive lineup of blockbusters and high-concept prestige pics.

This year’s Oscar race for best visual effects is, as ever, loaded with summer blockbuster fare, prestige pics with eye-popping visuals and layered theatrical experiences that beg for a slowing of the inevitable march to a standard of home viewing. Coming out of the hot months, where a number of these contenders tend to plant their flag, it seems as good a place as any to begin our weekly dissection of the Academy’s 10 below-the-line categories.

At the top of the list would have to be Robert Zemeckis’ “The Walk,” which made waves last weekend after a New York Film Festival debut. Working with supervisor Kevin Baillie (“Flight”) and with effects house Atomic Fiction leading the charge, it could be a threat to win the prize at the end of the day. Even if the tone of the film’s first two acts didn’t work for a great many, everyone can agree with the wonder of its finale.

Not unlike “The Walk,” Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is a popcorn pic with an air of prestige about it. Interesting, then, that their releases are a mere week apart. Scott and his team, spearheaded by two-time Oscar nominee Richard Stammers (“Prometheus,” “X-Men: Days of Future Past”), do a lot with effects beyond merely putting the audience on Mars alongside Matt Damon’s astronaut castaway; there’s a lot of meticulous little details. With perfectly rendered 3D to boot (Scott is one of few who opts to shoot 3D natively rather than convert in post), it’s one of the most pristine examples in the lineup this season.

Save for 2005’s “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” the VFX branch has recognized all of the films from the beloved “Star Wars” franchise, so indeed, J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is probably a no-brainer here. Even in the years when there wasn’t a competitive Oscar in play, AMPAS saw fit to bestow special achievement awards (to “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi”). Three-time Oscar nominee Roger Guyett (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “Star Trek,” “Star Trek Into Darkness”) heads up an ILM team that must have been kids in a candy store here, and certainly the focus on blending CGI with practical effects wizardry will be a selling point with the branch.

Oscar nominee Tim Alexander (“The Lone Ranger”) led the way with summer record-breaker “Jurassic World.” Taking on vendors from Vancouver to Denmark, the ILM-led crew tried to breathe life into a franchise that hasn’t been recognized by the Academy in nearly 20 years. They also stepped into the shoes of titans of the field like Dennis Muren and Stan Winston to do so. Will it be too difficult not to recognize the year’s box office champ somewhere?

Jurassic World” recently leapfrogged “The Avengers” on the all-time domestic box office chart. The visual effects artists were the only ones to speak up for that superhero team-up, so its sequel, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” could well be fitted for a return. But has the novelty worn off? And is the saturation of effects in this film, with all its orgasmic splash-page moments, too much even for the folks who work in this trade? Or will a character like Ultron be enough to bring it some love? ILM has a lot of players this year so it will be interesting to see where support congregates. (Marvel’s other entry, “Ant-Man,” is also in the mix.)

Speaking earlier of practical effects, Sam Mendes’ James Bond actioner “Skyfall” came pretty close to a nod three years ago. You have to figure “Spectre” will be in play this time around, with the effects and stunt featurettes already coming fast and furious. Also dabbling heavily in a blend of computer enhancement, practical madness and intense stunt work is “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Much of the film’s amazing look is owed to a meticulous post-production process, so you can count on branch members giving it a serious look.

Also, keep an eye on Ron Howard’s “In the Heart of the Sea.” Water work can be a very tricky task for effects artists and there’s plenty of it to deal with in this dramatization of the events that inspired Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Finally, a pair of films that, like Howard’s film, pit protagonists against the untamed elements. Baltasar Kormákur’s “Everest” strives to put the viewer alongside doomed mountaineers on the world’s tallest peak, while Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s “The Revenant” tells a harrowing story of fur trapper and frontiersman Hugh Glass in the early 19th century. The latter could provide interesting talking points for its rendering of a vicious bear in an extended mauling sequence, not to mention employing the extended-take stitching technique that made Iñárritu’s best picture-winning “Birdman” such a spectacle last year.

Those are the 10 top contenders as I see it in these early stages, but others are certainly in the mix. The more modest work of “Ex Machina” could find support, as could the massive environment renderings of “Pan” and “San Andreas.” “Terminator: Genisys” might get some attention as well, particularly for pitting Arnold Schwarzenegger against his younger self. And you never can tell when the branch might finally spark to a “Mission: Impossible” or “Fast & Furious” installment.

We’ll see how it plays out, but you can keep track of the visual effects Oscar race yourself all season at the category’s dedicated Contenders page. And be sure to follow all of Variety‘s below-the-line coverage via Artisans.

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