Top 24 worst special effects of all time

News Martin Anderson
14 Dec 2008 - 21:16
A pretty toothless CGI shark from Escape From L.A. (1996)

Sometimes the effects just aren't very special, as these videos will prove...

Let's get two things clear: I'd rather sit through a good film with bad special effects than a yawn-fest employing the latest tech from Weta digital. Some of the films here are amongst my favourite movies.

Secondly, I'm not after shooting rats in a barrel. Bad SFX in a very low-budget movie are only to be expected. It's when the effects fall well below the general production values of the film that it enters shooting range…

24: The Shape Of Things To Come (1979)
- Light speed!

The Shape Of Things To Come (1979)

Like a lot of people, I tend to say 'That's the worst movie I've ever seen' far too often. I didn't mean it. For the last 29 years, this is the movie I have been talking about. George McCowan's ultra-cheap Star Wars knock-off is the worst film I have ever paid money to see at the cinema. Dreamcatcher was Citizen Kane by comparison, Ghosts Of Mars a luminous masterpiece. Not only does TSoTTC waste (and embarrass) Jack Palance and Barry Morse, not only does it have some of the nastiest special effects in science-fiction cinema, but worse, it has the audacity to build them up: the cloned 'jump to hyperspace' of our heroes' spaceship turns out to be…yet another shot of an accident in an Airfix factory being dangled in front of a black backlit curtain with holes poked out for stars...

23: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
- emergency shuttle landing

Altered States FX-meister Bran Ferren was the cut-price choice when Paramount had its hands tied about letting Bill Shatner have the reigns of the hugely successful Trek movie series in the 1980s. Leonard Nimoy had delivered two huge hits (Search For Spock and The Voyage Home) and the Shat was getting restless for the helm, but his yarn about a search for God had everyone twitching, and rightly so. To make matters worse, virtually every SFX house in Hollywood was booked, and there wasn't much global farming-out happening yet in the field of visual effects. One potentially very exciting sequence involves our heroes having to re-board the captured Enterprise in a shuttlecraft without any braking power. Unfortunately the model-work and motion-control are extremely poor and - in Shatner's defence - he was hamstrung by the studio's meanness both in this sequence and in the sequence where the crew gazes in wonder on…a mouldy old bit of desert (supposed to be a heavenly environment at the centre of the galaxy, but the FX bill turned out to be too much). That said, Final Frontier needed more than that to save it from being a star turkey. The shuttle sequence has been very slightly tarted-up for the special edition re-release, but there wasn't really any money available for that either.

22: The People That Time Forgot (1977)
- dinosaur attack!

In all fairness this can sit - in terms of quality - with its stable mates Warlords Of Atlantis (1978), At The Earth's Core (1976) and predecessor The Land That Time Forgot (1975), all but Warlords distributed by American International Pictures. The popularity of the papier-mâché Godzilla movies seemed to have convinced AIP that people raised on the first-class work of Ray Harryhausen were suddenly going to find Blue Peter-level monster suits an acceptable alternative. In this particular example, the dinosaurs attacking Patrick Wayne and cave-girl Dana Gillespie are particularly 'boxy', as if the clay solution was just slapped onto cardboard boxes. And exactly what species is that meant to be anyway…?

21: Van Helsing (2004)
- 'Wolf out' and fight

It certainly is exciting; the prospect that one day we will be able to see someone transform into a werewolf in one continuous shot. When that day comes, posterity will look back on the likes of this scene from Van Helsing (as well as others in this list including Hulk and American Werewolf In Paris) in much the same way as modern aviators laugh at that old footage of the car with a pneumatic umbrella trying to take off in the days before the Wright Brothers…

20: Titanic (1998)
- 'Poser people' on deck

I have tried to find some footage to demonstrate the moment where the SFX team on James Cameron's blockbuster truly overreached themselves, but I'm afraid you'll have to seek it out for yourself. I refer to the 'flyover' shot after the Titanic sets sail from Southampton, an SFX segue leading up to live-action footage of the purser giving captain Bernard Hill his cup of tea. The mannequins on the almost texture-less deck seem to be running a kinematics routine from Poser, and in all fairness, this was a shot that should have been abandoned as either unfeasibly expensive or just plain impossible with the technology of the time.

19: Superman (1978)
- The
Hoover dam spills down into the valley.

Richard Donner's epic and untouchable superhero movie rightly won an academy award for its special effects, helmed by optical FX master Derek Meddings. Unfortunately Meddings had moved on to Moonraker by the time these inserts were needed, and had little input. That said, large-scale natural disasters continue to be the most challenging of all SFX shots, together with the creation of human faces, and the scaling problems of water will only yield so much to slow-motion, special mixtures and large-scale models. This is a 'Hornby' moment we're glad to overlook in the context of a geek classic…

18: Hulk (2003)
- 'Hulk-out'

In the DVD commentary for his highly divisive version of the Marvel hard-man, director Ang Lee excused the credibility gap - perhaps not unreasonably - by noting that since the Hulk is a huge green man, there's really no way he will look real, even with the very best technology. This theory seems to have been borne out by the 2008 Edward Norton version. However, at least Louis Leterrier toned down the vivid green hue of the skin, which really hurts the 2003 incarnation. One thing Hollywood CGI artists cannot seem to get right is the human jaw, and Ang Lee's hulk has the same unwarranted motility around the mouth as was found in the Brendan Fraser Mummy films and in I Am Legend. Perhaps Weta and ILM need to hire some experts on anatomy…?

17: Jaws (1975)
- Shark on deck!

About 26 seconds into the clip below, you'll see the out-of-water hydraulic shark trying to look frightening on the deck of Robert Shaw's Orca, even though it's flailing about like a limp dick and gnashing its teeth like a sprite from an (early) 80s videogame. The problems Spielberg had bringing the shark to life are legendary by now: production designer Joe Alves had one of the hardest years of his working life trying to make the three-stage shark function out beyond Martha's Vineyard, and principal photography went into record-breaking overtime. All was well in the end; Verna Fields edits her way round the latex let-down, and the legacy of 'fake shark' jokes (including the corker in Back To The Future Part II) does little harm to one of the best thriller/horror films ever…

16: Westworld (1973)
- shuttle to the compound

There's something very 'Gene Roddenberry' about the commercial hover-liner that takes Richard Benjamin and James Brolin to their worst-ever holiday in Michael Crichton's enjoyable technophobe romp. Somewhere between the Martian ships from Byron Haskin's War Of The Worlds (1953) and the Romulan ships in Star Trek:TOS, it's not an unpleasing shape. Unfortunately it's just stuck, rock-solid, in front of some stock ariel footage, a technique so raw that even Thunderbirds tried harder. Realising the shots weren't going to pass muster, they are relayed instead on TV screens in a monitoring facility within the film (see clip below), a 'generational remove' which worked well for Ridley Scott in Alien (1979) and James Cameron in Aliens (1986) - but those two films were using the 'hand-held' technique to get away with it; in Westworld, the liner just looks like a bad SFX shot on a TV…

15: Exorcist: The Beginning (2004)
- hyena attack.

Even leading man Stellan Skarsgård agrees that the devilish hyenas that crawl out of a well to attack a young boy in Renny Harlin's emergency re-shoot are pretty damn poor. Many would lump in the CGI deer in Ring 2 and I Am Legend with this, but at least I didn't notice their non-existence immediately. There are a number of problems with creating animals that are already familiar to us (at least out of documentaries), the main one being that they never do what the director tells them; if they're 'acting', they must be fake. We're also years away from understanding the chaotic patterns that define how fur moves, and how animals would move if they were going to do what we wanted them to. That said, these particular hounds are just a bit under-funded…

14: A Sound Of Thunder (US TV, 2005)
- anything.

Ray Bradbury deserved a lot better than the Lightwave plug-ins that menace the protagonists of this adaptation of one of his best and most famous short stories. I guess if Hollywood wasn't ready to make Jurassic Park IV, then it wasn't ready to properly fund a big-screen version of this fairly slight yarn about time-travelling big-game hunters who screw up the future by killing a butterfly. Shame…

13: Total Recall (1990)
- Head-split

I'm a big fan of this film and of Rob Bottin, who created the hugely inventive prosthetic effects for it, and some of the problems with this shot are more concerned with the conception than the execution. When Schwarzenegger's 'fat woman' disguise goes on the fritz, the 'eject' routine for the mask seems to prove beyond doubt that the Governator is brainless - where the hell was there room in the cranial space for that absurd gismo to emerge from? More problematic is that the spectacular split of the head itself involved so many internal workings that it wasn't possible to fit Arnie himself underneath it, and by the time the head has 'reformed', it's clear that a rubber Arnie was hiding in there, rather than the real thing…

12: 300 (2006)
- You sending the wolf?

In all fairness, once the sabre-tooth tiger is out in the open in 10,000BC (2008), it isn't any better than this notoriously fake CGI wolf in Zack Snyder's historically-inaccurate hit. Trouble is, this mutt has all the advantages of stylised darkness and still looks like a refugee from Hanna-Barbera…

11: Doctor Strange (1978)
- The demon Balzaroth

This TV pilot, starring a Magnum-style Peter Hooten as Marvel Comics' sorcerer-about-Manhattan, never made it to a series, but did enjoy a brief theatrical release in Europe. Like The Shape Of Things To Come (see above), it features 'Edie Benton' (actually Sledge Hammer's Anne Marie Martin) as love interest, and also shares that film's proclivity for ghastly FX. Balzaroth seems to have been made out of plasticine as the after-dinner past-time of an untalented teenage animator…

10: An American Werewolf In Paris (1997)
- anything.

Fans of John Landis's superb tale of lycanthropic tourists were appalled not only at the poor writing of this sequel - which seems to be more interested in mimicking Interview With A Vampire than following up the 1981 hit - but with the ghastly CGI werewolves that only continued to prove that that you needed top-dollar to get any value out of that emergent technology. The Lycans in Underworld were little better

9: Anaconda III (US TV, 2008)
- anything with an anaconda.

You can't throw a stone anywhere in the Anaconda movies without hitting a bad CGI snake, and that includes the Jon Voigt original from 1997. Back then they didn't have the technology, and now they don't have the money. Here Crystal Allen is menaced by the 'Snake' preset in Maya…

8: War Of The Worlds (Pendragon version, 2005)
- anything.

No less than three versions of H.G. Wells' classic tale of alien invasion hit the public in 2005, and I had high hopes for the version that was sticking to the original book and setting the film in Victorian England. I even remember signing up for the Pendragon pictures mailing list in 2004. Could it be? Could one of the greatest works of British science-fiction literature finally get its due cinematically?

No…

7: Deep Blue Sea (1999)
- Shark gives his opinion on Samuel L. Jackson's speech

Renny Harlin makes his second appearance - and the second Stellan Skarsgård flick - in this list. I've long admitted that I love this clunker of a movie, whose virtues and faults become confusingly intertwined; it's full of excruciatingly bad dialogue, the very worst of which comes in Sam Jackson's motivational speech to the troops. I completely agree with the fake CGI shark in his judgement on the script…

6: Lost in Space (1998)
- 'Blarp'

Maybe it's because I'm not a big fan of the original series, but I have no particular problem with Stephen Hopkins' adaptation; the effects and sets are well-done and it's a brainless amusement. The CGI space-monkey is an exception. Not only is the design of 'Blarp' absurdly comic, but the footage of it in the movie looks like a raw test render where they didn't have time to do a 'detail pass', and it's so far below the general standard of the movie as to really stand out…

5: Star Wars (1977)
- Han Solo walks over Jabba [re-release 1997/2005]

This much you knew. The original scene featured a portly actor in costume as Jabba the Hut, harassing Harrison Ford over his debts. George Lucas had in mind that he would superimpose effects footage onto the scene, but seems to have shot it without providing any contingency for doing so (no blue-screen, excessive camera movement, etc). Unhappy to leave the mighty Jabba so humble in appearance, Lucas wisely excised the scene. In 2004 he less wisely ordered ILM to insert the Jabba character from 1983's Return Of The Jedi into the scene, for the cinematic re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy. CGI Jabba was over-animated, poorly textured and looked hardly anything like the despot from Jedi. So Lucas had another go for the 2005 re-release, and this attempt raised the standard from atrocious to just plain awful. The necessity of having Ford climb over Jabba's (then) non-existent tail led to an SFX hack that remains of YouTube quality. Leave it out, George…

4: Escape from L.A. (1996)
- Another shark!

You'd think these flowing and almost textureless creatures would be a breeze for CGI artists, but I haven't seen a good one yet. Nor have I seen a worse one that that which briefly menaces Kurt Russell in his underwater trip to Earthquake-riven Los Angeles in John Carpenter's hugely under-rated sequel to Escape From New York (1981). Many argue that the surfing scene with Russell and Peter Fonda is worse from an effects point of view, but it's such audacious and outrageous fun that you can forgive its technical shortcomings. Anyway, here it is then, 35 seconds in, the very worst shark in the history of screen special effects…

3: Logan's Run (1976)
- Introduction to the domed city

Never out of my personal top 20 films, but many are mystified that Logan's Run won an Oscar for its special effects. It's far more likely that the Academy were honouring the superb matte paintings of Matthew Yuricich than the Metropolis-style miniatures that open the film. Narrow depth-of-field is absolutely fatal to miniature work involving landscape and architecture - there's no alternative but to stop down the lens, flood the miniature with light and hope the studio doesn't catch fire. Otherwise you get what you'll see in the clip below - foreground/background blur where the mechanics of cinematography just wouldn't permit it. Additionally the initial pan down onto the inner city reveals that the distant parts of the urban landscape are painted on a background strip, an illusion designed to work only from a low angle, and yet allowed to intrude into the frame as the camera descends…

2: The Langoliers (US TV, 1995)
- The Pac-Men

Actors such as Bronson Pinchot should maybe be grateful - rather than complain - that they have to act to nothing when confronted with monsters that will be inserted later. If he had known he was going to be up against Pac-Man, he may not have been able to keep a straight face. Can you…?

1: Saturn 3 (1980)
- Harvey Keitel rides through Saturn's rings

An Alien rip-off conceived by Oscar winning-production designer John Barry, Saturn 3 got a new director in Stanley Donen when Barry died at age 43 in 1979. The production was chaotic, the demands of star Kirk Douglas made it into screenwriter Martin Amis's novel Money, and Harvey Keitel was so appalled that he refused to dub his voice in post-production (which duty was taken over by Roy Dotrice). Colin Chilvers' effects are variable at best, but one shot simulating Keitel's journey through Saturn's rings proved a shortcut too far; the rocks supposedly composing the rings are clearly sitting on sheets of glass, and you can even see the reflection…

Supplemental controversies:

The worm attack in Dune (1984)
The shots of the gigantic worms attacking the spice mining vehicles in David Lynch's 1984 sci-fi epic were a laughing stock for years, the butt of cartoonists and satirists. I was mystified - having seen the film at the cinema, this particular segment made my jaw drop, in a good way. Alien and E.T. armature wizard Carlo Rambaldi designed the tripartite mouth, and the creatures combine wonderfully with the Chris Foss mining vehicles. Does it suck, then? Decide for yourself…

T2 (1991) nuclear bomb
James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day contained Another SFX sequence that had the media guffawing, even if critics and public alike generally lauded the film, and this time I can see what they mean - throwing cars about in the wind is something CGI is far more suited to, and though Cameron and his SFX team have clearly studied footage from genuine nuclear bomb tests, reproducing the scale of the carnage proved problematic…

Dishonourable mentions:
Air Force One (1997) - plane crash

Top 50 movie special effects shots

Top 10 most depressing movie endings
Top 10 mindfuck movies
Top 10 exploding people

Posted 15th December 2008

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