Once upon a time, special effects were created with physical models and actual explosions. These days, many effects are created with the aid of computer-generated imagery (CGI). While both have their merits, one thing is for certain: with the amount of money that goes into creating blockbusters, the special effects better be masterful. While the latter is true for many big-budget films over the years, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy (budget:$281 million) or The Matrix, which revolutionized the way effects were created, there are some noteworthy effects that fail to live up to the expectations we’ve created for big-budget filmmaking. Here’s our list of the 15 worst special effects in blockbuster movies.
The Mummy Returns (2001)
No list of CG disasters is complete without The Mummy Returns, which ends with a fight between Brendan Fraser and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s face mapped on to the body of a scorpion, which kind of looks like a lobster centaur. To say that the Scorpion King looks weird is an understatement. The face is glossier and more plastic looking than all of The Real Housewives combined, and while the body is a little bit more realistic, it still looks too artificial compared to everything else onscreen.
Even with this CG fail, The Mummy Returns ended up grossing $433 million. However, for $98 million budget, one would think that more time and money would have been put into creating a convincing adversary for the finale.
Regarded by many critics as one of the best movies made in 1987 and one of the top action movies ever made, RoboCop is a smart sci-fi thriller that uses over-the-top gore and violence to satirize American culture. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards, including Sound Effects Editing and Best Sound, taking home the editing prize.
RoboCop was made on an estimated $13 million budget, which is pretty modest considering the attention to detail that went into creating the Enforcement Droid (ED) 209 prototype and stop-motion effects. While the effects in RoboCop were mostly acceptable for the time (stop motion was soon replaced by CGI), the scene in which in which evil corporate heavy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) falls to his death from a skyscraper is egregiously bad. A dummy was used to film the scene, but it would have been more realistic had the dummy not had arms the same length as the body.
Freddy vs Jason (2004)
After fans of the A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises campaigned for a crossover film depicting a fight between Freddy and Jason, New Line and Paramount tried to make a Freddy vs. Jason movie in 1987, but the two studios failed to agree on a story. After 15 years of on-and-off development and approximately $6 million spent on eighteen unused scripts from more than a dozen screenwriters, New Line finally produced Freddy vs. Jason in 2003. After years of anticipation, many fans were disappointed by the horrible plot and shoddy effects throughout.
Throughout the Nightmare on Elm Street film series, Freddy Krueger focuses on the respective person’s biggest fears to come up with inventive ways to kill them from within their own dreams. While there are many creative ways this serial killer has enticed his victims throughout the years, the “weed caterpillar” takes home the prize in stupidity. Character Mark Davis is a stoner, so Freddy waits for him to light up a joint before making his move, which is to take the form of a caterpillar with a bong. While not even remotely scary, the “weed caterpillar” is one of the most idiotic CGI monsters to appear onscreen.
Ghostbusters II (1989)
After the success of the original Ghostbusters, producer/director Ivan Reitman and writers Dan Akroyd and Harold Ramis were pressured to make a sequel by Columbia Pictures. While initially hesitant, Reitman, Akroyd, and Ramis eventually signed on. It’s not nearly as well-liked as its predecessor, but Ghostbusters II grossed nearly $30 million in the opening weekend and almost $215 million worldwide.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when the four ghostbusters bring the Statue of Liberty to life by using positively charged “Psychomagnotheric Slime” and Howard Huntsberry’s “Higher and Higher.” While a lot of work went into this scene – including the use of miniatures, a large head sculpture for close-up shots, and some full-scale set pieces – the long shots make it obvious that the Statue is merely a man in a costume.
Fun fact: Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis originally conceived the idea of the Statue of Liberty as a force of evil used by Vigo, but out of respect to Lady Liberty, they decided to make her a positive influence.
Total Recall (1990)
At $65 million, Total Recall was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release. You can tell that most of the money was put into the film’s visual effects. Total Recall was one of the last major Hollywood blockbusters to use large-scale miniature effects rather than computer-generated imagery. Five different companies were brought in to handle the effects, but the only CGI was used for X-ray skeletons of commuters and their concealed weapons.
Total Recall was the given the Special Achievement Academy Award for visual effects. While most of the effects in the movie are inspiring and imaginative, that’s not the case in one particular scene. When Arnold ditches his fat woman disguise because it starts malfunctioning, he – or something that kind of resembles him – is revealed underneath. The head is clearly a model – and not a good one.
The Fugitive (1993)
The Fugitive is based on the 1960s television series of the same name created by Roy Huggins. The film spent six weeks as the number one film, and it grossed nearly $369 million on a budget of $44 million. The film was nominated for six Academy awards, and Tommy Lee Jones took home the award for Best Supporting Actor.
The film did not receive a nomination for visual effects. Not to say there were none – the scene where a train crashes into a bus is remarkable, especially considering it was filmed in one take. The sequence cost $1 million and 13 cameras to film, three of which were destroyed in the process. The same awe-inspiring effects did not translate into the scene where Harrison Ford’s character jumps off a hydroelectric dam. Viewers have noted that the body taking the plunge down the waterfall looks like a dummy, and they are correct. In fact, there were six dummies and they cost $12,000 a pop.
Escape From L.A. (1996)
Escape from L.A., a sequel to Escape from New York (1981), was a box office bomb, only earning roughly $25.5 million from its $50 million budget. Albeit receiving mixed reviews, many fans revere Escape from L.A. for its campiness. Still, critics and viewers alike have noted that the film is missing the dark, post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the first Escape movie. Even the director, John Carpenter, thought the script for the second Escape film was hard to take seriously.
The campiness is evident throughout the film, especially in the scene where Kurt Russell and Peter Fonda hang 10 on a tsunami wave. While the scene is playful and humorous, the effects are downright cheesy. And perhaps that’s the point – viewers can tell that the film is making fun of itself. Considering the film was made in 1996, however, you’d think there would be a bit more artistry in the sequence
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (2008)
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was a financial success, grossing over $786 million worldwide, becoming the franchise’s highest-grossing film (when not adjusted for inflation), and the second highest-grossing film of 2008.
Spielberg stated before production began that very few CG effects would be used to maintain consistency with the other films. However, significantly more CGI work was done during filming than initially anticipated because it proved to be more practical. There ended up being a total of about 450 CGI shots in the film, with an estimated 30 percent of the film’s shots containing CG matte paintings. While there is an abundance of CGI in the film, which is evident when some of the Soviet villains are eaten alive by a swarm of red ants. The fourth film strayed from the old-fashioned adventure film of its three predecessors, and fans were justly disappointed.
Air Force One (1997)
A box office success with decent reviews from critics, Air Force One was one of the most popular action films of the 90s, grossing $315 million worldwide. Then sitting U.S. President Bill Clinton praised it, but also noted certain elements of the film’s version of Air Force One, such as the escape pod and the rear parachute ramp, did not reflect features of the actual plane.
Clinton’s support aside, no viewer can support the ending crash scene. For a big-budget blockbuster, you would expect more for the CGI sequence. The plane bounces on the water a couple of times, and then takes the cheesiest nose dive in the ocean where it then proceeds to break in half. It looks like something you would see in an old video game, rather than a film with an $85 million budget.
Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Deep Blue Sea was originally inspired by Australian screenwriter Duncan Kennedy, who witnessed firsthand the horrific effects of a shark attack when a victim washed up on a beach near his home. The event brought on a recurring nightmare for the screenwriter where he was stuck in a passageway with sharks that could read his mind. This undoubtedly inspired the plot of Deep Blue Sea, where sharks become smarter and more dangerous due to genetic alterations by scientists.
While that all sounds terrifying, the actual film is not so much so. It’s campy, full of cheesy dialogue, though guessing which character will bite the dust next makes for a decent drinking game. The scene where Samuel L. Jackson’s character meets his demise is shocking simply for the fact that he is killed so early in the film, but it’s also amusing. Jackson is at the end of giving an uplifting, emotional speech, when an unconvincing CG shark dives behind and grabs him by the teeth. In the next sequence, viewers see the shark chopping away at a mannequin with Jackson’s likeness before it disappears underwater.
Blade II (2002)
The Blade series was one of Marvel’s early forays into sequels. Blade II released on March 22, 2002, and became the most financially successful film of the Blade series, making $80 million in the United States and $150 million worldwide.
Though financially successful, viewers have noted that many of the fight scenes feel video game cut scenes. This is most certainly the case when, early in the film, a band of vampire ninjas attack Blade in his industrial “bat cave.” As it progresses, Blade looks increasingly more computerized. It may not have been so bad if the film didn’t keep cutting from a close-up of Snipes’ un-computerized face to a wide shot of Gumby Snipes. However, that look may have been the intention of director Guillermo Del Toro, who wanted the film to have both a feeling of comic book and Japanese animation.
Deemed by many critics and viewers alike as one of the worst movies ever made, Catwoman not only has horrible script and plot, but also some of the worst special effects ever seen. The film took $100 million to make, but only grossed approximately $90 million worldwide.
The film was banking on the appeal of Halle Berry, but she was animated for most of her scenes and her movements were odd and disjointed. What the CGI in Catwoman lacks in quality, it more than makes up for in quantity. In addition to CG Catwoman, there are dozens of other poorly executed CGI sequences, including sweeps of the city, several cats, a spider, and even a seagull that attacks Berry.
King Kong (2005)
Peter Jackson was nine years old when he first saw the original 1933 film. He loved it so much that at age 12, he attempted to recreate the film using his parents’ Super 8 mm film camera and a model of Kong made of wire and rubber. Even with his obsession, Jackson initially turned down Universal’s offer to make King Kong in 1996. However, Jackson became so disturbed that someone else would produce a terrible remake, that he accepted the offer. With the onslaught of ape movies in the late 90s, production was stalled in 1997 and it wasn’t revived until Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was in post production. The stall was perhaps a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Jackson to bring over many key crew members from The Lord of the Rings films, including the cinematographer, art directors, production designer and more.
Like The Lord of the Rings trilogy, many of the visual effects in this remake of King Kong are breathtaking – and with a $207 million budget they should be. However, in the midst of awe-inspiring CG effects, there is one scene where the excessive CGI is quite obvious. The scene in question is when the film crew sets out to explore Skull Island, but then gets caught up in a group of Tyrannosaurus rexes chasing down their prey. Various times in the sequence, it’s hard for the viewers to believe that the actors are in any sort of danger, as it’s clear they are running in front of a green screen from dinosaurs that look pasted on to the background.
I Am Legend (2007)
I am Legend is the third feature film adaptation of Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel of the same name. Will Smith gives an inspiring performance, but the film loses its credibility with some questionable special effects.
CG was brilliantly used to create the illusion of an empty New York City; however, the film takes a turn for the worse when the Dark Seekers appear in full view. The poor facial animation – particularly of the eyes – makes it hard to consider these things as remotely human. They aren’t the worst CGI creatures ever created, but given how creepy and tense the first couple of acts in the movie are, the big reveal of the creatures is pretty much a letdown, as they look far too digital to be even remotely terrifying. Director Francis Lawrence comments that he rushed to complete the CG for the film’s final third act, which was reshot after negative reviews from test audiences.
Green Lantern (2011)
The Green Lantern received generally negative reviews, primarily for its screenplay, deviations from the comics, choice of cast and villains, and overuse of CGI. The film underperformed at the box office, grossing just $220 million against a budget of $200 million.
With such a large budget, it’s disappointing that the film has some of the shoddiest CG in recent film history. The worst decision may have been to make Hal’s suit completely CG, as it made him look flat-out silly, especially with the pulsating light. Superheroes should look commanding, but this suit made The Green Lantern look like a lighting fixture from an electronic dance party. The suit detracts from the movie rather than adding value.
There are too many films out there for us to really come up with a definitive list of the worst special effects. Every week, there are new films coming out, and despite advances in technology, many of them don’t bother to do anything special or interesting with their visuals. For every Interstellar, there’s an R.I.P.D.. Did we miss anything especially bad? Let us know in the comments!