Initially, CGI was funny because it was so rudimentary.
Think pixelated monsters with unblinking eyes, supposedly living beings with stiff robotic arms, explosions more laughable than scary.
But even now it’s become incredibly sophisticated, CGI often remains a punchline.
Computers might be able to render the soft wisps of hair on a forearm or the subtle shifts in tone on the face of a rock, but this just means that special effects teams are more able than ever to deep dive into our nightmares and extract them whole onto the big screen.
Here’s a list of examples that prove we would all be better off if we went back to space ships on strings.
Die Another Day (2002)
You will be both shaken and stirred by the sight of James Bond para-surfing down an iceberg tsunami. Pierce Brosnan’s swansong as the character was so badly received it nearly killed off the entire Bond franchise, but cash cows considered, he lived to die another day.
How did Ang Lee, the mind behind visual megalith The Life of Pi, make the clumsy wreckage that is Hulk? Eric Bana’s face is awkwardly floating in the middle of a rubbery mass of green. He looks like he should be on the back of a sweetcorn can. We don’t like him when he’s angry, but everyone would understand the Hulk’s feelings in this case.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
There are Runescape avatars who look more lifelike than the troll from this Harry Potter film. Even kids with milk teeth wouldn’t find this beast scary. You have to wonder whether director Chris Columbus was trolling his audience.
Star Wars: Attack of the Clones (2002)
People say the worst thing about the Star Wars prequels were Jar Jar Binks but they have obviously forgotten the bit where Anakin surfs on the back of this herd beast on planet Naboo. The CGI is so shakily rendered you might mistake it for a 90s Playstation game.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
It’s difficult to make an alien space slug look realistic, but you’d think one of the biggest movie franchises in history might be able to produce something better than this embarrassment. They should have opted for a latex costume, instead of labouring over CGI effects that wouldn’t have even made the final cut of Sharknado. A new hope? More like a lost one.â
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
The animatronic sharks in this water-thriller are somewhat advanced for the time. But limited by the late 1990s technology, so much of Deep Blue Sea is spent watching Samuel L Jackson reacting to something exploding rather than watching the explosion take place. Thankfully he’s a decent actor.
Justice League (2017)
You might have already heard the story: Henry Cavill had to grow a moustache for his part in Mission: Impossible and since Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it, the special effects team of Justice League had to erase it in post-production. The resulting CGI mouth is horrifying. It looks like he’s wearing a balaclava made out of human skin. Justice for Cavill’s beautiful mouth.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
This fight scene between Neo and hundreds of Agent Smiths brings to mind the experience of pulling out a packet of gum at school. Neo bats away hundreds of arms and legs but they just keep coming. Humourless Matrix fans whinge in response to criticism: “Oh, but look at the choreography”. To which one should come back with: “Yes, but Neo’s face”. He looks like he belongs in Madame Tussauds.
Air Force One (1997)
No part of this plane crash scene makes any sense. Why doesn’t the plane break up into pieces upon impact? Why is there shrapnel but no actual damage on the main model? Clearly, the special effects team took about five minutes on this. Was the last train home due or something?
The Lawnmower Man (1992)
It’s good to be ahead of your time, but not if the technology available cannot realistically render your chosen screenplay. This Stephen King adaptation is a virtual nightmare and not because of the intelligent chimpanzees or scientific experimentation, but because of the dodgy computer game graphics that wouldn’t look out of place on a Nokia brick.
The Mummy Returns (2001)
We know that The Scorpion King was cursed to be a walking plague until the end of time. What we didn’t know was that he would look like a poorly designed PS2 character. Why bother paying The Rock millions to appear in your film if no-one will even be able to tell that it’s him? This CGI is a rock-solid letdown.
If a man were to be blue, would he be that blue? Or would he be more of a dusty muted colour? The VFX team thought the former so that’s why Will Smith’s Genie appears on-screen looking more unrealistic than Robin Williams’ Disney cartoon version.
Green Lantern (2011)
The whole of Green Lantern is basically Ryan Reynold’s grimacing and flexing in a CGI suit on a green screen surrounded by CGI aliens in a CGI world. It could work, but all the effects are awful, especially the eye mask that covers his face so you can’t see how he is feeling. If they wanted to skimp on the budget they should have just made him wear spandex.
Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
DC Comics fans waited years to see Doomsday make his big-screen debut. He’s one of the most fearsome villains in Superman history, a creature who once succeeded in killing the Man of Steel. But like a bad Tinder date, he arrived in Batman v Superman looking nothing like his pictures.
It might be rated U but state of the art digital fur technology helped make Cats more terrifying than The Exorcist. One will never recover at the sight of a CGI Ian McKellen licking a bowl of milk and making meowing cat noises. We will only know the real traumatic impact of Cats once the generation of children who were raised on it can afford therapy to talk openly.
The snake in Anaconda is essentially a long grey tube, so watching B-list actors jump and scream at the sight of it doesn’t quite achieve the bone-chilling terror the cast had hoped for. Fangs for nothing.
The Polar Express (2004)
A Yuletide children’s book brought to life with the help of Tom Hanks – what could go wrong? A lot actually. Bizarrely, the characters in this film have textureless skin, their hands move mechanically and their jaws are hinged on their face in entirely the wrong place. Santa’s naughty list for director Robert Zemeckis.
A Sound of Thunder (2005)
How this managed to have a $100m budget in the 2000s and still ended up with a half-finished CGI lizard baboon is baffling. At least the botched computer visuals offer a distraction from Ben Kingsley’s awful wig.
Fantastic Four (2005)
In a shock twist, Mr Fantastic reveals a superpower nobody knew he had: the ability to transform into the most unconvincing digital Wolverine ever. The effect looks like it was created using a bad Snapchat filter.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
Wolverine’s claws look fine in the first three X-Men films, so why the special effects team working on his standalone film decided to replace physical props with computerised versions remains unclear. The spikes don’t look like they’re protruding from his knuckles as much as hovering over them aimlessly.
Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
No one knows what it would look like if someone’s face was stretched, but you can know for sure it wouldn’t look like how it does in this Star Trek film. When Admiral Matthew Dougherty’s (Anthony Zerbe) skin is pulled in a torturous machine, it looks like someone’s playing around with Photoshop on the back row of IT class.
The Shape of Things to Come (1979)
Most of the effects in HG Wells adaptation The Shape of Things to Come appear to involve plastic toys dangled in front of still-life paintings. The sight of a spaceship landing on Earth is more dystopian than the plot.
Birdemicâ: Shock and Terror (2010)
This dull romance picture takes a turn to the ridiculous when killer birds wreak havoc on the characters. The wholly misguided actors shamefully flail their arms at the air, obviously clueless as to where Nguyen will place the birds in post-production. But we should be willing to forgive Birdemic as it’s budget was only $10,000. We should also be able to forget the film, too.
King Kong (2005)
Andy Serkis’ stop-motion performance of the mighty Kong is awe-inspiring. So how the very same crew ended up making that dinosaur stampede is baffling. As Jack Black and Adrian Brody run away from danger, all the action moves around them making it entirely blatant that they’re standing in front of a green screen.
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Don’t fix what’s not broken. Discontented with keeping the loveable extra-terrestrial in its original prosthetic form, Steven Spielberg recreated E.T. using CGI. Phone home? Phone the police on Spielberg for this criminally ill-informed decision.
This article was originally published in 2021