The rise of digital techniques in cinema may be the most radical change we have seen in the industry during the last three decades. Almost every step of the filmmaking process has been influenced by new technologies. The creative part is developed on computers more than on paper, and the visual one has to go through some kind of digital work, with few exceptions.
Sometimes it may be simple color correction in post-production, other times entire sections of a movie are digitally constructed. This happens through CGI, the milestone of modern commercial cinema.
Since it has become an habit of using CGI in these films (either with green screen, motion capture, or purely digitally-created elements), it can be said that these techniques are sometimes seen as a shortcut and used without hesitation. This often brings to underwhelming results, both in small and big budget films. This list looks at famous (or infamous) movies that feature a bad use of CGI.
15. The Matrix Reloaded – Neo vs. Agent Smiths
The Matrix trilogy is a staple of modern sci-fi cinema. The Wachowskis created an universe which was a convincing mixture of cultural references (comic books, sci-fi, martial arts, action movies, modern philosophy) and original material. In particular the first Matrix film worked as an exciting new prospect for 21st century movies. The sequels were much more controversial, for a number of reasons.
First of all, the story became too convoluted to be appreciated, and slowly lost itself to the point of creating great confusion in the public. Another reason were the action sequences. Both The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions had great action moments, but often other sequences fell short of expectations, like the now infamous fight between Neo and the many Agent Smiths in Reloaded.
The scene starts really well: the choreography is fascinating and there is a real rhythm to the fight, until the CGI part of the scene starts. This section is a real low point for the trilogy. Sure, it is not as bad as CGI sequences in other movies, but it feels worse since it is featured in the middle of a film that has above average effects. The sudden shift to a completely computer generated fight is too evident and really makes the scene lose its momentum. The better a film is with its graphics, the more evident any slip becomes.
14. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – In the Jungle
There has been a lot of hate towards this film, and with good reason. In particular, it felt insulting to impose a sequel on a beloved character that had his fair share of movies and left a good memory on the public.
The filmmakers know that people will go see these sequels, but to quote another of Spielberg’s films: they “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. And with this Indiana Jones film, it is clear they should have not. The film got criticized by fans for a number of reasons, including the unconvincing CGI.
The visual effects and the photography made the film lose a lot of credibility, depriving it of the realism needed in such a film (which then by comparison would have given more effect to the supernatural elements). A chase scene though the jungle is especially hard to watch, reaching its top moment of cringe when Shia LeBeouf decides to become Tarzan.
13. The Great Beauty – The Giraffe scene
Many movies on this list are blockbusters with a big budget which were supposed to heavily employ CGI and simply fell short of a good result. This should not take the attention away from another type of movie that makes the same kind of mistake: we are talking about films with a normal budget, directed by experienced directors who make movies that mainly have an artistic value rather than a commercial one. When one of these movies uses a special effect and does it badly, the effect feels even worst than the one you get with blockbusters, since it breaks the realistic effect.
The Great Beauty by esteemed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has a great example of this effect: the beautifully shot movie has a single moment of laughable CGI that deprives the scene of every chance of being taken seriously, which is a sequence where the protagonist sees a giraffe in the night. The giraffe does not seem real for a second, and in the middle of such a visually satisfying movie, the animal looks really unconvincing and distracting.
12. Van Helsing – The vampires
Out of all the badly-aged movies in this list, Van Helsing is one of the few which maybe deserves a kind treatment. Sure, it is a mostly ridiculous retelling of the character from the original Dracula novel, but its has its moments of inventiveness, and the way it mixes a steampunk sensibility and classic figures from horror literature makes for a fun ride. The feeling is that the filmmakers took themselves seriously only up to the right amount, which was not too much.
Despite all this, Van Helsing still features a lot of unconvincing special effects. The gigantic Mr. Hyde, for example, or the vampires with mouths that are definitely too big. Some of the effects used for representing the monsters, like the werewolves, are not that bad, but most of them just leave the impression of the shaky CGI typical of the early 2000s, which feels TV-like. The best years of movie graphics was still to come.
11. King Kong – The Stampede
Peter Jackson’s King Kong from 2007 is a good example of an ambitious movie that crumbles under the weight of its own intents. Conceived more as an homage to the original King Kong’s than as a remake, the film is so overly stuffed that it is hard to watch it in its entirety.
Sure, some visuals are stunning, but there is a persistent feeling that the movie is out of the control of the director, who tries to impress with every visual trick as possible, ultimately losing the viewer’s attention.
The CGI-filled parts of the movie occasionally feature some really evident errors: the dinosaur stampede starts as your usual chase scene à la Jurassic Park, but the green screen slowly becomes more and more apparent, until it reaches its maximum point of awfulness. Wait for the part where Adrien Brody runs towards Jack Black to pick him up, and try to understand how the human characters are supposed to be in the same scene as the dinosaurs.
10. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies – The final battle
An endless sea of fans rejoiced when they found out that director of the original Lord of the Rings trilogy Peter Jackson was going to direct The Hobbit instead of only producing it and leaving artistic direction to Guillermo Del Toro.
Unfortunately, the road was only uphill from that point on. Jackson started working after Del Toro already made consistent work on pre-production, and picked up from that. He chose to go with a much more CGI-oriented style than the original saga, meaning that a lot of the effects that had been practical in the Lord of the Rings trilogy were replaced with CGI.
Moreover, he shot the film with an higher frame-per-second ratio (48 fps). These two facts are enough to understand why The Hobbit feels much less realistic and visually convincing than the previous trilogy. Perhaps the problem would not have been as big as it became if not for the production troubles that plagued the shooting of the last two chapters.
Simply put, after the change of director and production team, the schedule of the film could not be postponed, and Jackson was forced to work without a definitive screenplay or storyboard. The behind-the-scenes footage and interviews from filmmakers give an interesting insight into the troubles of the film. The final result is a quite disappointing viewing experience, at least from a visual point of view.
As the final battle shows, the CGI feels unnatural and weightless. The design of the orcs is unconvincing and the armies simply look bad (the digital replication of the warriors is too obvious, for example). A scene as confusing and muddy as most of the trilogy.
9. Green Lantern – Green Lantern’s training
Green Lantern gets a really bad rap, especially from its own star Ryan Reynolds in the Deadpool movies. The film is a great example of how to make a superhero movie fail. It has to be said that it came out in 2011, when a sort of fatigue towards the classic superhero film was happening.
Ever since Raimi’s Spider-Man and Singer’s X-Men, a certain type of comic book movie had been established, and in 2011 it had become clear that in order to get people’s attention you needed to make more ambitious films, like the MCU films which worked as part of a larger universe, or the Dark Knight Trilogy which went for a more realistic tone.
Green Lantern did not seem to have this ambition, and it functioned only as a collection of tired tropes. The movie still could have worked, especially considering that the expert Martin Campbell was directing. Unfortunately, visual effects completely prevented the film from working.
Much has even said about the digital green suit, but the problem is much larger. Sure, Ryan Reynold’s “costume” (especially his mask) is laughable, but the whole movie is drowned into a sea of approximate visual effects that give the feeling of looking at a videogame of medium quality, which is certainly not the effect a big budget movie should give.
The training scene works as a good example of this, especially in a particular shot of Kilowog around the 2:23 mark of this video. Try watching that and not cringe.