An ill-kept secret of Oscar-season politicking is the degree to which box-office success dictates a film’s awards chances. Of course, plenty of smaller movies not widely seen by the general moviegoing population garner nominations, especially now that the Best Picture field can include as many as 10 nominees. But even the little-seen movies on that expanded list tend not to be box-office flops so much as smaller movies intentionally held in limited release, waiting for that precious awards-season bump. (Nebraska, for example, hovered below 150 theaters for its first month of release, until awards nominations could assure people it was safe to go see.)
Box-office success holds particular sway in the technical categories—especially those, like Best Visual Effects, not dominated by the year’s prestige pictures. A quick perusal of recent visual-effects nominees reveals very few movies that weren’t at least moderate financial successes. There are occasional exceptions: The Golden Compass not only got nominated despite its franchise-killing domestic box-office, but it beat out its competition to win, despite boasting the worst work in contention. (The Academy has a bizarre weakness for talking animals.) But even as the field has gotten more crowded over the last 10 years, the Academy’s choices continue to trend toward the well-liked hits.
This is especially strange because the visual-effects nomination process very much encourages judgments that are removed from the context of a movie’s cultural cachet. An executive committee of the Academy’s visual-effects arm chooses a shortlist of films (this year, there are 10), which then participate in a “bake-off” where members view 10-minute sections of each film before voting on the final three or five. As such, it’s possible to know the Visual Effects category’s limitations well ahead of the nominations, to realize when true left-field candidates like The Fountain have been pre-disqualified (as it happens, 2013 mostly lacks smaller-scale effects movies worth stumping for), and to predict the likely and unlikely nominees. Of the 10 finalists from 2013—Elysium, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Oblivion, Star Trek Into Darkness, Thor: The Dark World, Pacific Rim, and World War Z—one title stands out as particularly unlikely: The Lone Ranger, because it’s the second-lowest-grossing (its domestic gross was barely edged out by Oblivion), and probably least-liked movie of the bunch.
To some extent, this makes sense. Why would Academy members vote for effects from a movie they may not have liked much? An argument in favor of The Lone Ranger’s effects becomes, at least in part, an argument in favor of The Lone Ranger. While I’m willing to make that argument—The Lone Ranger is a more inventive and interesting movie than at least four of those candidates—I’d further argue that its effects contribute to what’s best about the movie rather than undermining it.
The Lone Ranger may be overlong and over-plotted, but its mise-en-scène and action sequences deftly mix practical and digital effects to create an Old West laced with, but not overwhelmed by, the fantastical. Early in the film, there’s a train robbery-turned-crash that goes beyond what could be practically achieved via stuntwork and models alone—but not so far that it descends into meaninglessness. Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer don’t look like they’re in real danger, but the careening train does have the weight to blend into the movie’s real-life locations.
But the main showcase for The Lone Ranger—both as an effects achievement and as a bloated but often-delightful movie—comes in its second and final big action sequence. (The movie really only has two big-scale set pieces, probably one reason it’s easy to feel its protracted 150 minutes). The climax of the film involves the Lone Ranger, Tonto, a damsel in distress, and a bunch of bad guys crisscrossing paths as sections of high-powered locomotives race around interlocking train tracks—all set to the William Tell Overture.
To be clear, as with the earlier train crash, not every effect in this sequence looks “real.” It may not, in fact, be possible to realistically render a relatively tight shot of a horse jumping from the roof of a high-speed train into the car below and landing safely. Cartoonishness is a property often (and rightfully) dismissed in effects; in many films, the effects work resembles computer animation gracelessly plunked down in the middle of a live-action environment.
But The Lone Ranger’s effects, while reasonably convincing for this sort of thing, also take on the properties of animation to create a heightened crossbreeding of Looney Tunes, Buster Keaton, and Indiana Jones. They aren’t just chasing a spectacular wow factor; they’re after a trickier, interlocking dance of inspired silliness: Trains switch tracks, people jump trains, and the Ranger himself gains the split-second timing he needs to ride a horse through a train car while engaging in a shootout with a bad guy in another, parallel train car. Depp’s Tonto, meanwhile, has a neat bit of silent comedy with a long ladder that rhymes the actor’s initial entrance as Captain Jack Sparrow 10 years ago. In The Lone Ranger’s climactic set piece, its effects become an extension of the comic and action choreography, which is as good as that of any big-budget movie this year.
There isn’t, of course, an award for Coolest Action Sequence, at least not at the Oscars or any of the more respectable award-bestowing organizations. (Nor is there an award for stunt work, as action fans have long grumbled.) But beyond the occasional movie where the effects actively drive the film’s story and themes (like last year’s winner, Life Of Pi, or this year’s presumptive winner, Gravity), Best Visual Effects basically is that Coolest Action Sequence award, isn’t it? The Lone Ranger isn’t a perfect movie, but few of the 10 bake-off candidates are—and plenty of them are far more entertaining when they eschew big action blowouts. At least in Gore Verbinski’s movie, special effects don’t contribute to any of its problems, and often provide its greatest pleasures. In an age of effects-drowned Hollywood features, that’s an achievement unto itself.