Every since 1971, the rule has held that no Best Picture nominated film has lost Best Visual Effects to a film not also nominated for Best Picture. It certainly buttresses the belief that Academy members simply vote for the movie they like in categories they don't really understand, and visual effects is arguably the most "technical" of the so-called "technical" awards (I always find that term so vulgar).
But if ever that rule was to be broken, this would be the year.
With three Best Picture nominees in the category splitting the popularity vote, Star Wars: The Force Awakens seems poised to sneak up the middle and claim at least one golden boy for its tremendous success. It may not be as respected as its competition, but neither would a win for it here be at all embarrassing. The CGI is solid (with 4 VES Awards and a BAFTA, it's clearly admired within the profession), while Oscar winners Chris Corbould (Inception) and Neal Scanlan (Babe) poured a great deal of work into capturing as many in-camera effects as possible.
Of course, if you're a fan of practical effects (and who wouldn't be?), then Mad Max: Fury Road presents a unique achievement unto itself. Every set piece is bursting with dazzling pyrotechnics and complex vehicular stunt rigging. And with thousands of post-production shots, from grand creations like The Citadel or the sand storm right on down to subtle sky painting, there's more than enough to please the digital crowd. Consider Andrew Jackson and company strong contenders here.
The other possibility no one seems to be talking about is The Martian. With seven nods, Ridley Scott's enjoyable space adventure is the third place nomination leader, but few are predicting it to win anything. I might call it a dark horse here. True, having its effects grounded in reality makes it tougher sell against Star Wars' overt fantasy illusions, but a space-set Best Picture nominee should never be counted out of this race. T'would be a pleasant surprise for Richard Stammers, enjoying his third nomination in four years.
As for the other two, their CG work is very strong, but used in a more supporting context that will make winning this category a tall order.
We can rule out Ex Machina right off the bat; Andrew Whitehurst and his team did too good a job at keeping the brilliant effects job on Ava from dominating our attention. For them to have earned the nomination is a small miracle, and a satisfying one at that, but a win is out of the question.
As for The Revenant, much credit can be owed to the stunning bear mauling sequence, which has already nabbed animator Matt Shumway et.al. two VES honours and an Annie Award. But can they actually win the Oscar for a single bravura set piece that lasts all of four minutes?
Will win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Runner-up: Mad Max: Fury Road
Should win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Should be nominated: The Walk