Taking stock of the Best Visual Effects race during the summer blockbuster season

Posted by · 11:04 am · July 9th, 2013

We’re right in the middle of the blockbuster movie season. Some think it’s been a lackluster summer slate. I haven’t had major expectations for much of anything so I guess I’m okay with merely being satisfied so far, but with Guillermo del Toro’s massive-scale “Pacific Rim” hitting theaters this coming weekend, it seems now would be a nice opportunity to look at the race for Best Visual Effects.

This and the other crafts fields will of course be thoroughly covered later in the year when Gerard Kennedy dusts off his series of crafts-centric columns. Just looking at what we’ve seen so far, there are obviously a lot of contenders, but to my eye, few have really stood out as singular.

I can’t remember anything at all about the visuals of “Star Trek Into Darkness,” for instance, though I respect that a lot of hard work went into bringing that world to life again. Speaking of sequels, most seemed willing to give the rather hamstrung “Iron Man 3” a pass but the effects sequences felt uninspired and, much like “Star Trek,” I find myself trying hard to remember the film’s visual signatures.

Even “Pacific Rim” suffers somewhat from the blur of CG spectacle. So much of it is gorgeous with a truly unique neon palette, but just about every battle scene takes place under the cover of nighttime torrential rain. That makes it cheaper to hide this and that, one imagines, but it also makes it difficult to see what’s actually happening from moment to moment. If I’m being honest, I’m more a champion of the film’s design, particularly in the Hong Kong sequences, than I am of its visual effects. That doesn’t mean it won’t, or shouldn’t, be one of the top contenders at the end of the year, it just all kind of blurred together for me is all.

Speaking of feeling fatigued by an onslaught of CGI, I’ll be interested to see if “Pacific Rim” draws the same breathless complaining about endless action that “Man of Steel” did last month. I’m a fan of Zack Snyder’s superhero reboot, though I apparently wasn’t looking for the same things in the film that some of the more disappointed viewers were. And I thought the effects were rather sensational.

Other films have signature work that could be remembered, like “Oz the Great and Powerful” and “The Great Gatsby.” Others still, like the underwhelming “World War Z” and “The Lone Ranger,” seem likely to be relegated to the fringe. Ditto post-apocalyptic tales “Oblivion” and do a lesser extent, “After Earth.” Something like “Fast & Furious 6,” part of an inexplicably forgiven mounting franchise, could even find some traction (though more likely for its sound work).

One film that I think absolutely stands out from the fray, however, boasting its own unique stamp with mostly modest effects that count every step of the way, is “This is the End.” I saw the film a second time last night and boy does it still clock up there, against all expectations, with the best films I’ve seen this year. And the effects work is never embarrassing, always just right and serves the story well at every step of the way. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” couldn’t manage a nomination a few years ago but I would love to see something like this taken the least bit seriously by the branch.

But there is more to come. The frontrunner and likely winner at the end of the year will be Alfonso Cuarón’s “Gravity.” Peter Jackson and his team led by legend Joe Letteri will be back with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” while Jackson’s protege Neill Blomkamp will unleash his “District 9” follow-up “Elysium” next month. More superheroes will try to leave their mark, from “Kick-Ass 2” to “The Wolverine” to “Thor: The Dark World,” and who knows how more specialized effects work in a film like “Rush” will land with voters?

There will be time to chew on all of that and more in the upcoming awards season, but with it being the height of visual effects splendor at the cinemas, it seemed a good time to take stock right now.

Tell us your favorite use of visual effects so far this year in the comments section below.

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