It happens to everyone: you plop down $12.50 to check out the latest over-hyped effects-laden summer blockbuster and right there in the middle of the spinning CGI wizardry, there?s some effect, some scene that sticks out. It doesn?t quite look right, doesn?t match with the rest of the film. Sometimes it looks like the effects team popped a squat over the negative.
Even worse is that in today?s hi-definition age, we revisit movies that may have blown our proverbial socks off in the theater, but displayed on the unmerciful resolutions that plague today?s plasma screens, they look abysmal. In hindsight, some of these hold up better than others. Here are a few that don?t.
10) Star Trek: Insurrection – Death by Face-Smudge
To be fair, it?s not like Star Trek movies have ever had spectacular effects. Normally they?re completely utilitarian, unobtrusive and don?t really look all that different from the TV show. Insurrection, which has the dubious honor of being probably the crappiest Star Trek movie ever (tied perhaps with Nemesis and Star Trek V) broke that tradition of humility.
The film?s chief villains are the Son?a, a bunch of cloak-wearing douchebags who artificially extend their lives using this machine that stretches and folds their skin, which makes them look like they have their faces perpetually stuck in a wind tunnel. They?re in cahoots with Admiral Dougherty, a corrupt Starfleet officer who?s helping them harvest some fountain-of-life stuff to? well, it doesn?t matter, but the deal goes south and Dougherty winds up finding his head trapped in the skin-stretching machine, the result of which looks like the artist simply dropped these frames into Photoshop and used the smudge tool to widen his eye sockets (the terribleness starts at :30). It looks even worse than when God?s ethereal head is chasing Captain Kirk around and shooting lighting from his eyes at the end of Star Trek V. Seriously.
9) Van Helsing – Giant Vampire Mouths
Easily the worst movie in criminally untalented director Stephen Sommers? filmography, Van Helsing continued Sommers? bad habit of getting $150-million-plus budgets to produce terrible summer tentpoles based on Universal?s classic monsters. After two financially successful yet soul-crushing Mummy flicks, he produced this steaming turd, which crams in all the other Universal monsters into one ugly convoluted crapfest.
The effects are largely passable, with the notable exception of these giant vampire mouths seen at 6:31. Sommers must have some kind of obsession with stretchy monster mouths, because the mummies in his earlier films could also stretch their maws out like this for no discernable reason. Not only is the effect completely unconvincing and silly-looking, it doesn?t even make sense?why would a vampire even need to do this? In case it needs to swallow a whole chicken?
8) Spider-man – The Pumpkin Bomb
It?s tough to rip on the first Spider-man movie. By all accounts, it?s a decent superhero movie, which in the early part of this decade was still a rare thing. Sure, it?s easy to make fun of the Green Goblin?s ridiculous Power Rangers costume, but beyond that, it?s a solid effort. The only problem is that the effects haven?t aged well at all and really weren?t that great in the first place.
There are plenty of ugly, badly-composited effects shots in this movie but for a brief summary that includes almost every CG mistake that pops up over the film?s run time, all you need to do is watch the scene where the Green Goblin attacks Times Square during a Macy Gray concert (who, incidentally, is also a sign that this movie hasn?t aged very well). There are bad green screen shots, rubbery CG-puppets jumping around, and worst of all, a poorly-conceived shot of a Pumpkin Bomb going off that disintegrates the flesh of a handful of partygoers, turning them instantly into a pack of hilarious cartoon skeletons that immediately collapse. At first you?re thinking ?no way can the effects get any worse than these shots of CG Tobey Maguire leaping around? but then that Pumpkin Bomb shows up and you?re proven wrong.
7) The Matrix Reloaded – The Burly Brawl
Warner Bros. made a huge fuss over this sequence during the run-up to the premiere of the first Matrix sequel (after which an entire nation of nerds struggled to find the exact right anguished noise to express utter letdown), using it in all the trailers, talking it up on the junket circuit. The concept was, admittedly, pretty solid: Neo fights a hundred Agent Smiths. Sounds like it could be pretty cool, right? Wrong.
At several moments during The Matrix Reloaded the entire film turns into a mediocre cutscene from a PlayStation 2 game (at 5:42 in the video above, specifically), and nowhere is it more apparent than this sequence. For the first few minutes it?s pretty clear that they?ve got Keanu Reeves on a wire kicking around stuntmen in suits, but as soon as enough Agent Smiths get into the room, it immediately becomes a CG cartoon, featuring countless Gumby-esque Hugo Weavings getting knocked around like pinballs with no real weight to them. It looked bad in 2003 and it looks hideous now.
6) Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace ? Yoda?s Odd Transformation
It?s pretty pointless to sit around and complain about how unbelievably sucky The Phantom Menace is; it?s been said a million nerdy ways by a million nerds since the film was first spat into multiplexes back in the summer of 1999. That said, the visual effects are really the only elements in the film that are difficult to legitimately criticize. They?re still pretty solid even today; the CG has largely aged well.
Except for Yoda. For whatever reason, Lucas decided to have someone make a really crappy-looking Yoda puppet and used that instead of just applying the technology they?d already developed to give birth to the universally reviled Jar-Jar Binks. They could have had a full-CG Yoda, as seen in the two sequels, but instead we get this awful puppet. But that?s not the mistake here ? for two wide shots, when Obi-Wan is kneeling in front of the Jedi master, Yoda becomes a shaky, shambling CG creature. They very next shot he?s back to being an awful puppet. It?s jarring and obvious; apparently, though, Lucas has replaced crappy puppet Yoda with less crappy Episode III-style Yoda in preparation for an upcoming DVD re-release of Phantom Menace, which is desired by absolutely no one.
5) Blade II ? Blade Fights Some Ninjas
Guillermo Del Toro is probably one of the most promising directors working today; his brilliant Pan?s Labyrinth deserved more Oscars than it won in 2007. That movie was good enough to forgive him for Blade II, which in addition to being forgettable teenage nerd-baiting genre trash, has one of the worst CG-puppet-replacement fight scenes in history.
It?s almost impossible to remember what the hell Blade II was about other than Wesley Snipes shooting vampires and Ron Perlman stalking around in a leather trenchcoat (although to be fair, virtually everyone in this film is wearing a leather trenchcoat), but at one point, for some reason, Blade has to fight some ninjas in front of a big bank of floodlamps. It?s all well and good for a little while, but at the very first sign that Snipes might have to strap on a wire and leap around, they switch to completely awful CG puppets that move like Looney Tunes characters (watch at about 2:31). These things look utterly terrible, like they completed this sequence using unimpressive technology in 1996 and kept the reel in a vault, dropping it into Blade II untouched. Even Del Toro and Snipes rip on how bad this fight looks on the DVD commentary.
4) The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring ? Legolas vs. The Cave Troll
It?s hard to believe that it?s been seven years since the first time we saw Sam gaze lovingly into Frodo?s eyes following a 10-minute slow-motion helicopter shot of Elijah Woods opening his hand to reveal the One Ring. All in all, the Lord of the Rings movies hold up pretty well; nobody?s going to argue that the special effects are bad, especially after winning the Best Visual Effects Oscars three years in a row.
This shot is pretty horrible though. During the never-ending Moria chapter where we spend about 45 minutes watching some folks walk around in a cave, the Fellowship finds themselves fighting an endless wave of goblins, and at one point a Cave Troll comes charging in. Legolas, former teen idol, leaps on the Cave Troll?s back to fire some arrows right into his neck. It?s not so bad for the first few seconds, but before he leaps off (at about 5:54), it?s pretty clear we?re watching an embarrassingly badly-animated and composited CG Legolas flail around. His weightless jump off the creature?s back is the icing on the cake. Frankly, this bit looked crappy in 2001; even wide-eyed geeks orgasming over every frame of Peter Jackson?s opus noticed that this looked like they handed it off to sleep-deprived WETA interns and never checked their work. It?s not as bad as some of the other mistakes on this list, but the fact that it?s in the middle of one of the biggest effects achievements of all time makes it stand out like a sore thumb.
3) King Kong ? Brontosaurus Stampede
King Kong, Peter Jackson?s highly anticipated follow-up to his Lord of the Rings trilogy cost roughly 80 billion dollars to produce and wound up with a final runtime of 9 and a half hours. It was supposed to be the spectacle of the decade, and what it wound up being was a bloated, surprisingly boring but not unwatchable love letter to the original movie, with a whole bunch of other unnecessary crap stuffed in at the seams. The problem with King Kong isn?t that the effects are bad; overall they?re pretty good, but there?s so much junk on the screen at any given time that little of it looks convincing.
Of all the scenes that don?t really work, by far the worst is the brontosaurus stampede, which exists in the film for precisely no reason at all except to jam more excess in. It?d be a fair guess to assume this was one of the last effects sequences they worked on, because it doesn?t look finished. The green screen is so visible and so obvious it resembles a test reel. At one point it?s pretty clear Jack Black is running on a treadmill. The colors don?t match; most of the actors look like they?re being lit by an entirely different source than the scene they?re in, and the brontosaurs themselves are rubbery and cartoonish. To be fair, though, this does feature a bit where Adrian Brody jump-kicks a Velociraptor in the head, and it?s tough to think of any other film that would?ve delivered a scene like that.
2) The Mummy Returns ? The Scorpion King
It?s hard to know where to start with The Mummy Returns; say what you will about the first one, but the effects weren?t bad for their time and, in spite of being the birthplace of Stephen Sommers? obsession with stretchy monster mouths, at least most of the effects look completed. The Mummy Returns is a whole different story?save for a few setpieces, it looks terrible all the way through. It?s probably because this pile had a release date before it had a finished script, which results in a tremendous rush on the production staff, so Industrial Light and Magic can?t really be blamed for barely finishing effects sequences rather than finessing them into something that resembles professional work.
As bad as the visual effects are throughout this mess of a film, they save the worst for last. After fighting through a jungle overflowing with muddy-looking, barely-animated pygmy things, Brendan Frasier and his team of adventurers with one-dimensional personalities face down a giant scorpion with the upper body of former wrestling legend Dwayne ?The Rock? Johnson, also known as The Scorpion King, which was spun off into its own awful movie. Saying it looks like a video game cut-scene (it begins at 2:30, and our apologies for it being a terrible music video) is an insult to video game cut-scenes?this is more like a midterm project from the untalented kid in your computer animation class that landed him a C- and a dirty look from the instructor.
1) Pretty much all of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer?s Stone
Before Alfonso Cuaron came along and showed us all that Harry Potter movies could be pretty decent didn?t have to be unwatchable hacky garbage, director Chris Columbus stank up the first two franchise installments with his trademark charmless moviemaking skill, first seen in classics like Stepmom and Home Alone 2: Joe Pesci Gets Cruelly Tortured for 90 Minutes. It?s not clear whether or not the special effects in this movie are uniformly terrible because Columbus hadn?t really worked much with digital effects before, but it?s possible, considering that his previous masterpiece, Bicentennial Man, starring an undying robot version of Robin Williams, was mostly achieved with practical effects.
Regardless, this movie looks like puke. There aren?t really any ?good? moments, but the worst bit is probably when the film?s main characters fight a troll in the bathroom. The troll looks like a transplant from a cheaply-produced animated film, and once Harry Potter mounts it and stuffs his wand up its nose (which sounds far dirtier than intended) he also turns into a cartoon character. If that?s not enough for you, there?s a centaur in the third act that looks as though it were designed and animated by Mrs. Hanson?s Third Grade Computer Animation Class and also a bunch of really terrible compositing work during the ?thrilling? Quidditch sequence, not to mention a host of other embarrassingly bad effects. Then again, the man in charge of all this also wrote and produced Christmas with the Kranks, so maybe we?re expecting too much from a $125 million dollar movie that adapts one of the 20 best-selling books in the history of print.
Robert Bricken is one of the original co-founders of the site formerly known as Topless Robot, and its first editor-in-chief, serving from 2008-12. He brought the site to prominence with “nerd news, humor and self-loathing” as its motto, raising it from total internet obscurity to a readership in the millions, with help from his savage “FAQ” movie reviews and Fan Fiction Fridays. Under his tenure Topless Robot was covered by Gawker, Wired, Defamer, New York magazine, ABC News, and others, and his articles have been praised by Roger Ebert, Avengers actor Clark Gregg, comedian and The Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, the stars of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Rifftrax, and others. He is currently the managing editor of io9.com. Despite decades as both an amateur and professional nerd, he continues to be completely unprepared for either the zombie apocalypse or the robot uprising.