In this day and age you can do anything with special effects. But can you do it well? I believe that you can, but Hollywood doesn't seem to be in agreement with my belief. Studios continue to put out movies with special effects that disappoint, and I think it is disrespectful to audiences. Either figure it out, or leave it out. Every time I see a bad effect in a movie, I know it could have been done better, or more imaginatively, and it frustrates the heck out of me. The worst is when I see a bad effect in a movie with mostly great effects, such as in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
A visual effect doesn't have to be great or even realistic as long as it works with the story and is believable -- I'll take Harryhausen or Henson over most of the CGI attempts lately. Unfortunately, Hollywood seems to half-heartedly strive for greatness and realism with every movie, and more often than not it fails to achieve either. In my thirty years I've seen some terrible visual effects, some only terrible in retrospect, some only terrible in perspective with what else has been done. I'm not usually surprised by bad effects, though, because I've developed a cynicism about effects, particularly about CGI, that causes me to expect the worst. Nonetheless, I've picked seven movies that did actually surprise me -- a lot.
1. King Kong (2005)
In The Return of the King, Peter Jackson has some bad effects shots, but at least they're just shots. In his next film, King Kong, he has bad effects sequences. And as with The Return of the King, they are all the more apparent and all the more frustrating because there are actually some great effects shots and sequences in King Kong (it did deserve the Oscar). The worst example in Kong is the dinosaur stampede. At first the sequence is tolerable because the dinos are rendered beautifully and the weak green-screen compositing is not any worse than what many of us grew up with. But as the sequence progresses, the interaction between the actors and the computer-generated dinos looks too fake, too much like something made long ago, before computers were even used. Both the part on the cliff and the part where the animals fall over each other are sloppy and unacceptable. It is a completely ironic sequence, too, since it begins with an exchange about movies looking real. At least someone thought to score the thing sped up with "Yakkety Sax" or it wouldn't be completely useless.
Sure, the original King Kong had its own effects problems, particularly where proportion is concerned, but it also was made 72 years before this remake. And we'd still all rather watch that stop-motion ape who changes in size depending on what he's standing on or next to. Why? Because it still appears more imaginative and it has that unrealistic charm to it. The remake seems to want to appear realistic and fails. For the dino scenes, it didn't even hardly improve on anything done 12 years earlier in Jurassic Park. I have to admit, though, that the Kong vs. Rex sequence that follows the stampede looks great.
2. Logan's Run (1976)
I wasn't alive when Logan's Run came out, and I didn't see it until long after I'd seen Star Wars. When I did finally watch it, I couldn't believe that this was a film released only one year before George Lucas' groundbreaking blockbuster. It had even received a special Oscar for visual effects a mere two months before Star Wars premiered (as did the also-bad 1976 remake of King Kong). I have to say that I do like Logan's Run, but its visual effects don't seem very Oscar-worthy. The models look like models, whereas the models in Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (also released a year later) looked real enough in the contexts of their respective films. Then there's the robot, Box, which looks like it was made by a kid in his home for a Halloween costume. Only a year later we'd have R2-D2 and C-3PO. And it isn't just that visual effects got so much better a year later that make Logan's Run look so terrible. I can't think of any visual effects Oscar winner between 1939 and 2006 that had effects as bad or worse than those in Logan's Run.
3. Spawn (1997)
The first time I ever noticed bad visual effects, where they really surprised me and where they really distracted my attention from the rest of the movie was when I saw Spawn. I couldn't believe the filmmakers thought the Hell sequence was acceptable for public viewing. Nobody could honestly say those effects looked good. But even more surprising to me, as a fan of the comic book, was the way they made Spawn's cape look so fluid -- not drape-like as Todd McFarlane drew it. Was I being picky? Maybe, but after seeing Spawn I really lowered my hopes and expectations for adaptations of my favorite comics.
4. Howard the Duck (1986)
Kids typically don't notice bad visual effects. And being a typical kid, I didn't notice the bad effects in Howard the Duck when I first saw the movie in theaters. But as I grew older and learned more about the background and the cost of the comic book adaptation, I became very surprised at how bad the effects are. Reportedly producer George Lucas spent $2 million on the duck suit, after first wanting to render Howard with CGI. Personally, I think he would have fared better with a cell-animated duck, composited a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit (which came out two years later and still looks better than a lot of CGI composites). Besides the effects budget, though, the reason for my surprise is that this was produced by Lucas, the man who had just previously overseen three visual-effects-Oscar-winning Star Wars films and two visual-effects-Oscar-winning Indiana Jones films. Of course, I grew up with Howard the Duck, and I'd still rather watch it than the Star Wars prequels (none of which won visual effects Oscars either).
5. Fantastic Four (2005)
After the disaster of 1994's so-bad-it-wasn't-released (and maybe wasn't intended on being released) The Fantastic Four, I expected Fox's movie to be perfect. And mostly the effects are perfect. But maybe they were too polished, because they were boring. There was nothing creative or imaginative about the effects in Fantastic Four. The earlier adaptation of the comic looks ridiculous, but at least it's so bad it's funny. Also, despite being one-thousand-times better than the earlier Thing, who's face was more Planet of the Apes than Fantastic Four, the later film's Thing still looked like was made of foam rubber rather than rock.
6. Gothika (2003)
I know, this is a weird movie to include. But it's my example of how surprised I am that visual effects have taken over the thriller genre. The strangest surprise came with The Forgotten -- who expected people to start getting sucked into the sky like that?? At least Gothika was a thriller with a ghost story element, so it did require some effects. But the fire effects at the film's climax were some of the worst I've ever seen in my life. Didn't anyone at either Warner Bros. or Sony (the two studios partnered up for the film) think this was disrespectful toward Halle Berry, who had just recently won an Oscar? Obviously not. Both studios would further help in the actress' downfall with Catwoman and Perfect Stranger, respectively.
7. Hulk (2003)
I think everyone was surprised by the bad effects in Ang Lee's Hulk. The title character looked puffy, he looked like a cartoon and he looked inserted into the movie and never seemed to fit. Then there's the laughable hulk-dogs. After seeing the film the first time, I wanted to defend it, because I liked its overall style. But the more I've looked at it, I realize it isn't worthy. I wouldn't mind if the Hulk was a cell-animated cartoon if he didn't originate from a human actor. Or if Universal hadn't seemed so intent on making him look real. At least we will all go into next year's The Incredible Hulk with lower expectations.