If you consume enough breathless analysis of the Academy Awards race, you may find yourself getting drawn into a slightly surreal, life-is-entertainment zone – one in which the verdict on Oscar night seems to matter every bit as much as, say, the outcome of the US presidential campaign.

The real question should be: does it matter at all? The Vegas horse-race aspect of the Oscars is, of course, irresistible, but apart from that, what meaning, if any, does the contest really have? Does it tell us anything about the movies nominated, or about film culture in general?

The Revenant looks like the past but, in fact, represents where movies are going

In certain years, it tells us a great deal – and this is one of those years. Like most industry honours, the Oscars are to some degree a politically motivated popularity contest, but that doesn’t mean they don’t reflect real passion – on the part of the Academy voters, and also on the part of the movie-going public, whose tastes are inevitably channeled into the choices that get made.

This year, the two ballyhooed front-runners for best picture, The Revenant and Spotlight, are notably weaker films than in previous years. Yet the way the contest has shaped up between them speaks volumes about what contemporary movies have been and where they’re going.

The reason Spotlight crested, and then quickly faded, as a favourite, is that it represents not great film-making so much as powerful nostalgia for a lost moment in the cinematic past. The Revenant, by contrast, looks like the past but, in fact, represents where movies are going. It’s the film of the moment and, just maybe, of the future. That’s why I predict it will win. (I’ve left The Big Short out of this equation because to me, at least, it’s an amusing but trivial comic gloss on the 2008 financial crisis that I don’t suspect will have much impact on Oscar night.)

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The first time I saw Spotlight, I had a reaction that was similar to that of many others: I walked out babbling about how the film triumphantly revives the investigative newspaper drama, how it takes us back to the glory days of All the President’s Men – and, not so incidentally, to the era when newspapers could change the world with their well-funded reporting staffs. Spotlight, in other words, represents a fond look back at New Hollywood values and pre-internet journalistic relevance. It hits a sweet spot of neo-1970s cachet.

Beyond that, there’s no denying the impact of its subject: not just the disturbing epidemic of sexually abusive priests, but the Catholic Church’s role in covering up their actions, effectively shielding criminals from the law. On paper, at least, Spotlight adds up to a crackerjack movie. It was only a while after seeing it when I began to acknowledge that the film lacks a certain raw intensity and surprise. I saw its hidden limitation: that the things Spotlight evokes are more potent than the movie itself.

The fact that Spotlight has come along just as the power of daily newspapers is being capsized by the internet certainly makes Spotlight an unassailable message movie

Simply put, Spotlight is no All the President’s Men. Despite its terrific cast, it lacks characters as finely etched as Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward, Dustin Hoffman’s Carl Bernstein, or Jason Robards’s Ben Bradlee, and the scandal it’s about, though undeniable in its importance, is frankly old news – the Boston Globe investigation into the Catholic Church took place 15 years ago. The film lacks an original vision, an audacity all its own.

The fact that it’s come along just as the power of daily newspapers is being capsized by the internet certainly makes Spotlight an unassailable message movie, a clarion call for the era when the force of print mattered. But there’s a difference between a movie that trumpets its own relevance and one that makes you feel that relevance in your bones. Spotlight, after a burst of enthusiasm from critics, has failed to gain much of a foothold in the culture, and that’s because the conversation it briefly ignited was a kind of rerun, rooted in a “Remember when?” aesthetic.

Lost in the woods?

Spotlight does remain a vastly superior movie to The Revenant. Yet there’s a reason why Alejandro G Iñárritu’s grandly poetic frontier revenge saga has become the far bigger crowd-pleaser, as well as the Oscar-night favourite. As drama, The Revenant works overtime to be ‘elemental’, but it’s like the 1972 classic Deliverance with nothing to deliver. Its narrative has almost no zest; Leonardo DiCaprio’s mauled and ravaged Hugh Glass spends the entire second hour of the movie wandering and healing and saying nothing. As a dramatic experience, The Revenant is so hollow and heavy-handed that it offers virtually nothing to hook an audience besides its voluptuous violence and technological majesty. But that, as it turns out, is the film’s secret weapon: it’s really a highbrow cinematic videogame that invites you to enter its world and fuse with its seductively impersonal sensationalism.

The Revenant might have been engineered to succeed with the widest possible international audience

The way Iñárritu’s camera keeps thrusting upward, gazing at trees and faces, or literally hurls itself off a cliff, or places you at the dreaded epicenter of an attack by Native Americans or finds intimate communion with every torturous rip and bite of that grizzly bear attack: in scene after scene, The Revenant replaces drama with sombre spectacle, as if it were a B-movie directed by Terrence Malick.

A fair portion of the film’s publicity has centered on how hellishly difficult it was to make: the subzero cold, the way everyone on the set was miserable, the fact that DiCaprio, tearing into raw bison liver, looks like he’s in nearly as much agony as his character. None of this should mean much when it comes to evaluating the movie, but to some Oscar voters it probably does. They may watch The Revenant and feel that every moment of hardship is right up there on screen, and that it’s all a testament to what a heroic crusade film-making can be. 

Yet far more significant than the circumstances of its making is the global import of The Revenant’s ponderously mythic and monosyllabic style. This is a movie that might have been engineered to succeed with the widest possible international audience – especially among non-English speakers – since it bypasses any hint of linguistic subtlety.  It is, in essence, a gravely spectacular yet knowingly one-dimensional silent film. Is it any wonder that DiCaprio barely has room to act?

If one requirement for winning best actor should be to create a character who is actually interesting to watch, then DiCaprio – this year’s overwhelming favourite for the prize – would have to line up behind dozens of other performances this year. As Glass, he’s a scraggly, haunted abstraction, out-acted by the grunginess of his facial hair. What he gives isn’t so much a performance as a master class in physical suffering.

But if Leo and The Revenant do wind up taking the ultimate honours on Oscar night, what will be rewarded is not, I would argue, a film, or a performance, that deeply moved people. Rather, it will be an experience that showed audiences how to stop worrying and love the savage eye candy. And that’s just the kind of 21st Century movie that Hollywood loves, because it can rule the world by celebrating not humanistic art but the dazzling abolition of it.

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