Bad special effects look bad in any movie, but they tend to look even worse they’re in a multimillion dollar blockbuster as opposed to a B-movie where a lack of quality SFX is somewhat excusable. Whether it’s due to bad compositing—placing a computer-generated element in a live action environment or vice versa—poor design or an unrealistic level of detail, the following effects will leave you wondering where the film’s budget went.
7. Spawn (1997)
Based on Todd McFarlane’s astoundingly successful comic book series, Spawn was one of a few independent comic adaptations in the 1990s along with The Mask, Men in Black and Tank Girl. It tells the story of a contract assassin who is betrayed and murdered, sent to Hell for his crimes, sent back to Earth as a scarred, heavily armed supernatural being, and who hopes to one day find redemption. It also features the perhaps the most abysmal CGI in the history of cinema. Spawn’s cape is frequently portrayed using computer graphics, making it look less like an extension of his organic armour and more like a failed tech demo for animation software high school students might use. And Malebolgia, for all intents and purposes the “Satan” of the Spawn universe, looks like a final boss from a Nintendo 64 or original PlayStation game. The producers could have spent less on John Leguizamo and more on decent CG or even animatronic effects, but hindsight is 20/20.
6. Lost in Space (1998)
An adaptation of the 1960s family science fiction show, Lost in Space was intended to be the first film in a potential franchise. The movie was somewhat successful at modernizing the look and feel of the original TV series, including an intricate animatronic rendition of the show’s iconic robot. However, its alien creatures—a swarm of carnivorous spiders and a wide-eyed, orange extraterrestrial monkey—were the product of some of the most overtly and comically ineffective computer generated imagery by both contemporary and modern standards. Its worst effect, a long-limbed hybrid of Gary Oldman’s Dr. Smith and one of the spider creatures, looked like it didn’t even belong on the same plane of existence as the other actors. By comparison, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which had been produced for $7 million less, further refined the standard for quality CG that its predecessor had set in 1993. Though Lost in Space was ultimately a success in spite of all this, earning over $136 million at the box office, plans for a sequel and the franchise as a whole were scrapped, ensuring that audiences wouldn’t see better rendered CG primates until at least King Kong.
5. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
While 1999’s Deep Blue Sea didn’t pull in nearly as much in box office receipts as did Star Wars: Episode I, The Sixth Sense, The Matrix or The Blair Witch Project, it still grossed nearly three times its $60 million budget worldwide. Even Roger Ebert gave it a positive review. But for all the flack Jaws gets for its visibly mechanical Bruce the Shark prop, it still looks leaps and bounds better than Deep Blue Sea’s roster of CGI mako sharks. In Deep Blue Sea’s most memorable scene, Samuel L. Jackson’s investor character is snatched by one of the sharks mid-speech and is devoured underwater with a level of visual realism more befitting of a video game cut scene.
4. The Mummy Returns (2001)
Detractors of Stephen Sommers’ sequel to The Mummy highlighted the subpar CGI used to animate the final, part-scorpion form of the Scorpion King, saying that he looked plastic and toy-like. Apart from this effect being indisputably bad, especially for a big budget film, there’s actually a neat technical explanation why it doesn’t work. In the rare case you’ve been privy to industry talk about computer graphics, there’s a good chance you heard the word “shaders” at some point. While it sounds like technobabble or a derogatory term for shady people, CG animator and Cracked.com columnist Christina H. says that a shader is a program that determines the texture, colouration and opacity of the skin of a computer generated model. The more complex the shader is, the more realistically it’s able to portray the subtle translucency of human skin, its pores and wrinkles, etc. Long story short, the visual effects wizards on The Mummy Returns didn’t use decent shaders, and that’s why when the Rock emerges as the half-arachnid Scorpion King at the end he resembles not so much a living being as one of the monstrosities Sid constructed in the original Toy Story.
3. Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
Renny Harlin’s 2004 prequel to horror classic The Exorcist had an interesting and troubled history. For starters, it had been edited from an already-produced film: director Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. The heads of Morgan Creek Productions were concerned that Schrader’s more meditative film would be a box office bomb—ironic, considering that the even more meditative and relatively lower budget original Exorcist grossed over $441,306,145 worldwide. Morgan Creek handed the reins to Renny Harlin so the Die Hard 2 director could turn it into a more violent, action-packed summer film. Though The Beginning’s budget added a full $50 million onto Dominion’s $30 million, it’s difficult to say that it showed through the movie’s new special effects. Perhaps its most notorious was a pack of clearly mechanically-operated hyenas. Until recently, one of these puppet monstrosities could actually be purchased through a movie prop collectibles site, perhaps to use as a Halloween decoration. As for Exorcist: The Beginning, it barely grossed $78 million, just short the project’s entire $80 million budget.
2. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Made for twice the budget of the first X-Men film, Wolverine naturally should have had effects at least on par with those of its predecessors. But even though Origins had three credited effects supervisors and 17 effects companies in its employ, the use of its budget and resources didn’t exactly show. Wolverine’s claws, which had primarily been depicted using physical props throughout the series, were rendered in CG for a decent portion of Origins and stuck out not so much like a sore thumb as a pair of foot-long, poorly composited visual effects. In some shots, it looks as though the blades had been pasted onto Hugh Jackman’s knuckles like a shoddy Adobe After Effects job. For a sequel to X-Men, once considered the most realistic superhero movie ever made, Origins looked like a cartoon.
1. The Hobbit Trilogy (2012-14)
It seems unfair to place the whole Hobbit trilogy on this list when the third and final entry has yet to come out, but unless Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop plan on changing up their methods for There and Back Again this December it’s pretty safe to say it won’t look much better than the first two. While Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy is considered a landmark in special effects, with entirely CG creatures like Gollum wowing audiences worldwide, the same level of quality hasn’t carried over to its prequel series. The abundance of green-screened sets, a digitally-altered colour palette and Jackson’s increasing preference for computer-generated orcs and goblins over their prosthetic counterparts have lead the Hobbit films to look more like a video game than big budget movies. Compounding this is the fairly new use of 48 frames-per-second photographic technology, the combination of its high speed and minimized motion blur looking unnatural a lot of people in the audience used to the 24fps of film.
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