Where would we be without CGI? With a green-screen and a dab hand on post-production, you can transport a film anywhere, any time, without going through the cumbersome process of scouting locations and building sets. Plus you can queue up all sorts of crazy fireballs and big space battles and previously unthinkable fantasy paraphernalia. But only if you know what you’re doing.
It doesn’t always go to plan. For every good CGI story, there are 20 disgusting, gloopy failures – and it just so happens that we’ve corralled the worst examples of visual slime into this list. Hope you haven’t had lunch!
20. The Shark from Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Samuel L Jackson’s career has been… varied. For every Jurassic Park (1993) and Pulp Fiction (1994) there’s a Snakes on a Plane (1995) and, worst of all, Deep Blue Sea.
Honestly, for a shark film, it could be a lot worse. Jaws set an unbeatably high watermark in 1975, and Deep Blue Sea’s storyline of genetically modified sharks feels like classic aqua-thriller gold.
Unfortunately, the entire visual effects department got food poisoning, apparently, so they had to get the janitor to do it instead.
At least, that’s what it looks like. Whereas Jaws relied on a mechanical shark – and, conveniently, the fear induced by not seeing the shark at all – Deep Blue Sea plumps for showing off the sharks in all their chomping glory.
Deep Blue Sea’s CGI fish never look particularly good, but the worst example has to be Russell Franklin’s (Jackson’s) death scene.
Surprised from behind by a shark, Franklin is chewed in its big, rubbery mouth – having turned rubbery himself – in a scene that looks like the shark from Toy Story picked a fight with Stretch Armstrong in an Amazon warehouse.
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19. The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns (2001)
In resurrecting one of its oldest properties for 1999’s The Mummy, Universal struck gold. When wrestling superstar and future movie overlord Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson joined the cast of the follow-up, The Mummy Returns, the studio rubbed its hands in glee and immediately green-lit a spin-off/prequel in 2002’s The Scorpion King.
Unfortunately, the rush to spin a franchise from the studio’s initial, unlikely hit led to one of the most notorious examples of terrible CGI in movie history.
We should probably mention that most of the visuals in The Mummy Returns are fine, especially since 2001 is practically medieval in terms of the development of CGI, but Dwayne Johnson’s appearance at the climax of the movie threatens to derail the entire thing.
With a grotesque sheen to his skin and an utterly absurd physique, not even Dwayne Johnson can save this abomination of visual effects.
BEFORE & AFTER!! We attempt to Fix the Worst VFX Shot of ALL-TIME, The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns. Mention your friends, throw us a retweet, let us know what you think! ALSO, let us know if there is another VFX shot you’d like us to try and fix in the thread below! pic.twitter.com/T5ec5s0lW8
— Corridor (@CorridorDigital) July 12, 2019
In the years since, as Johnson’s box office numbers have bulged like a flexing bicep, fans have taken to restoring the Scorpion King’s unpolished look, in something of a reverse Ecce Homo. (See the above tweet as evidence.)
18. Superman’s upper lip in Justice League (2017)
You all knew it was coming. In one of the most galling examples of CGI misuse in the past few years, Henry Cavill’s Superman had his upper lip – and sometimes his entire lower jaw – digitally reconstructed in 2017’s Justice League.
In this case, the CGI is so bad that the ‘I’ might as well stand for Insult. To be frank, Justice League has come to symbolise everything wrong with DC’s cinematic universe: baggy storylines, multiple reshoots, and stars who look like they’d rather be anywhere else.
In Cavill’s case, he really did want to be somewhere else. Reshoots for Justice League clashed with filming for Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) which, if you recall, sees Cavill sporting a beard and a particularly magnificent moustache.
Cavill’s Superman, however, is clean-shaven, and the actor needed to be for those Justice League reshoots. Cue a wrangling over facial hair unprecedented in Hollywood; since Cavill was firmly in the clutches of Mission: Impossible, it seemed that DC might have to heavily delay the release of their film.
Step forward some canny producers, who claimed they could digitally redo Cavill’s mustachioed face to leave it looking smooth. Alas, with the irony of a witch’s curse, Cavill looks so smooth in Justice League that he resembles the filling of an egg tart.
17. The vampire assault in I Am Legend (2007)
Adapting a classic novel for the silver screen is always a tough task, not least when it’s scheduled to be a Christmastime blockbuster with Will Smith in the lead. Sadly for I Am Legend, it was a case of so close, yet so far.
For those unfamiliar with the film, Legend follows US Army virologist Robert Neville in a world where he is the last human in Manhattan, the rest having been killed or monstrously transformed by a virus. Neville seeks to survive and fight off the nocturnal infected ‘vampires’, occasionally capturing them to test his countermeasures.
The film was mostly praised but for one thing: the ending. In the novel, Neville realises that the ‘monster’ horde are in fact an organised society who have retained their humanity, and he is therefore a butcher and criminal in their eyes.
Offered a suicide pill, he takes it. In the film, this ending is jettisoned in favour of a ‘heroic’ self-sacrificing grenade blast that kills dozens of vampires and buys time for the cure to be ferried out of Manhattan.
Worse still, the film’s vampires were, on-set at least, actors wearing prosthetics. In post-production, however, these were converted into bizarrely spongey CGI figures, removing any trace of humanity the creatures might have had left, and utterly undermining the whole point of the original text, or even the film.
16. Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars: A New Hope – Special Edition (1997, 2004)
When Star Wars was released in 1977, it was praised for its scope and its brilliant special effects, many of which involved the use of models and tiny quantities of gunpowder. However, George Lucas felt constrained by budget and deadlines, and thus set about making changes to his beloved trilogy for the films’ later releases on home media.
You’ll likely have heard ‘Han shot first!’, a fan battlecry about one of these alterations, but in our book the worst has to be Jabba the Hutt turning up in what is now known as Episode IV: A New Hope.
To be fair, Jabba had been in the script for Episode IV, and Lucas had even filmed a scene with an actor performing opposite Han Solo, intending to integrate the slug as a stop motion character in post-production.
Ultimately, due the pressures of money and time, the scene was cut. Later, however, Lucas got his wish, and inserted Jabba into the scene as a CGI character in 1997. Not only does the galaxy’s foremost mob boss gastropod look completely out of place, the scene adds nothing to the film.
For the DVD release in 2004, Jabba was updated again to better resemble his appearance in later films, but the damage was done: Jabba’s inclusion remains the crowning vainglory of Lucas’ Star Wars rehashes.
15. Renesmee in Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Part 1, 2 (2011, 2012)
Twilight, a book and film series that deftly combines vampires and teen angst, has certainly received its share of criticism. With pallid lighting, glittery vampires, and disquieting performances from future arthouse darlings Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart, there’s a lot about this franchise that feels uncanny and not quite right.
Adding insult to injury is the completely mortifying portrayal of Renesmee, the half-vampire half-human spawn of Bella Swan (Stewart) and Edward Cullen (Pattinson).
Producers originally wanted to use an animatronic baby to convey the unearthly beauty of the lead characters’ child, but instead opted to construct it entirely out of CGI. No matter – as we all know, some babies are just plain ugly, and what else is CGI for if not reconstituting the faces of ugly children?
The next steps taken, however, were more questionable. Renesmee is portrayed as a little girl by actor Mackenzie Foy, but the character rapidly ages. As a filmmaker, this is a problem: how can you have a series of actors playing the same person yet maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief?
Easy: just digitally graft Mackenzie Foy’s – that is, a child’s – face on to a conveyor belt of teenagers and grown women. Vampires might suck blood, but this use of CGI makes us start coughing it up.
14. Glacier surfing in Die Another Day (2002)
After the tepid reception to Timothy Dalton in Licence to Kill (1989), Bond had been written off as a Cold War relic. Instead, Pierce Brosnan came roaring back as a suave, more modern 007 in GoldenEye (1995). So when 2002’s Die Another Day was announced, critics and audiences were keen to see how Bond could be reinvented for the new millennium.
The answer? CGI, of course! While this is also the film that features an invisible Aston Martin, we’re going to focus on its worst computer-generated crime against cinema: the glacier-surfing scene.
The plot of Day sees Bond track down a rogue North Korean colonel, who has acquired a satellite that can melt things. Unfortunately for 007, the superspy is caught snooping around said colonel’s secret ice palace, and is forced to make a kitesurfing getaway as the satellite takes effect. So far, so Bond.
The trouble is – and you might have guessed this – Pierce Brosnan is not in fact the world’s most prodigious kitesurfer, especially not with giant sheets of ice falling from the sky.
As a result, Brosnan is ineptly green-screened into an arctic landscape and replaced by a spaghetti-like figure for the big stunts. This one really hasn’t aged well.
13. The plane crash in Air Force One (1997)
Do you remember anything about Air Force One, other than that Harrison Ford plays the president? True, it was one of the most popular action flicks of the 1990s, with a healthy dose of critical acclaim and golden box office receipts to boot, but what might have slipped your mind is the film’s amazingly dated CGI finale.
In the film, President James Marshall (Ford) is forced to fight off Russian insurgents on board his plane – you know, like all good hyper-masculine politicians should – who have snuck on board thanks to the help of a mole.
That mole turns out to be Secret Service agent Gibbs, played by Xander Berkeley, the head of the President’s Protective Division. Just as Marshall arrives to give Gibbs a lecture on the constitution of his fists (which we’re calling the First and Second Amendments), Air Force One is attacked by Russian loyalists, putting it on a crash course.
Marshall manages to escape using a parachute, leaving a despairing Gibbs behind, followed by a remarkable sequence in which something that looks vaguely like a plane tumbles into what vaguely looks like an ocean.
We promise, this really is part of one of the best-performing films of the 90s, and one of Harrison Ford’s best known standalone efforts.
12. The golden dwarf in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy was critically acclaimed for its visual effects, in particular its physical effects that director Peter Jackson had honed as a B-movie horror filmmaker: the orcs are beastly, with matted hair, and the sets are grand and tangible.
But when Guillermo del Toro was booted from the highly anticipated adaptation of The Hobbit, Jackson decided to indulge in a little more CGI than normal.
In terms of CGI misfires, there’s a lot to choose from in Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy. Still, we’re going for the moment in the second film, The Desolation of Smaug, in which the eponymous dragon (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is lured by a giant golden statue of a dwarf.
But then the statue melts, coating the dragon in a thick metal coat and apparently, at least for a few seconds, sealing his doom.
We see a similar gold-melting scene in The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) to convey Thorin’s madness, which makes sense as a hallucination. For Smaug, however, the strange physics and sickly sheen of the molten metal just don’t work.
11. Legolas and the Oliphaunts in The Return of the King (2003)
Oh, it isn’t just The Hobbit that shows off some real CGI chicanery. Yes, the Lord of the Rings trilogy was visually spectacular in all sorts of ways (mostly Helm’s Deep ways), but that doesn’t mean everything about the three films is perfect. And since The Return of the King is so beautiful, its flaws only become more apparent by contrast.
The most striking example occurs during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, which most viewers will remember for two things: the death of the Witch-king, and those big elephant things that still only count as one.
Known as Oliphaunts to Hobbits, and Mûmakil in their own land, the beasts strike an imposing presence on the battlefield. Unknown to Sauron’s forces, however, one of the heroes of this story is a bow-wielding energiser bunny.
Legolas leaps on to an Oliphaunt and stands his ground against both the creature’s thrashing and its attendant soldiers. Visually, however, all we see are blurry green-screen shots of Orlando Bloom and then a rubbery elf bouncing around, culminating in Legolas ‘sliding’ down the trunk of an Oliphaunt.
In reality, this must have been Bloom jumping from a box on to the floor about 20 times until they got the right take. Ten out of ten for ambition, but a generous three out of ten for execution.
10. The surviving children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
In 2005, a new version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was put into production, dropping Wonka from the title but making the gonzo chocolatier the undisputed focus of the film, backstory and all. After all, Johnny Depp is the lead, in a film directed by Tim Burton – what did you expect?
What this means in practice is that we see much more of the tooth-rotting dandy’s story after the Golden Ticket competition. In the 1971 film, we’re told (but not shown) that the noxious children will be “completely restored to their normal, terrible old selves.” Burton chooses otherwise.
Cue a parade of warped homunculi – no longer children, but freakish, CGI beasts who are certainly anything but their normal selves.
Violet Beauregarde is recoloured a ghastly blue, which isn’t so bad, but then she begins to contort, her blood and organs having been replaced entirely by blueberry juice.
But perhaps the worst horror of all is Mike Teavee, stretched by a taffy puller into a Jack Skellington-esque figure. Sometimes it’s better to leave such terrors to the imagination, not CGI.
9. Molly in Toy Story
Every disaster on this list – and, not forgetting, every CGI success – owes a lot to Toy Story. Without its pioneering ambition, and its proof of how CGI can create stories and worlds hitherto unexplored, we’d probably still be watching comedies about grumpy romantics in New York. But that doesn’t justify Molly.
It might not be a name you recognise, but you’ll surely remember Andy’s younger sister. After all, she’s the reason Bo Peep is part of the group, and her gross fingers and mouth drippings are the sad fate of any wayward toy.
We certainly remember Toy Story with thick nostalgia goggles, especially given its breathtakingly beautiful sequels. But back in 1995 it was a different story, and today Molly comes off the worst.
There’s something going on with human eyebrows and oddly-pursed mouths in this film, and when Molly goes after a toy, it’s like a saliva-drenched Godzilla with a lumpen mesh of limbs.
In fairness, Pixar had already made huge advances in rendering children in CGI by the time Toy Story came around in 1995. We challenge you to watch the studio’s short Tin Toy, from 1988, and somehow get a good night’s sleep.
8. The locker ending in Men in Black II
When Men in Black arrived in cinemas in 1997, its visual effects pushed the limits of CGI. After all, who can forget Edgar the Bug, the giant insectoid who wears Vincent D’Onofrio’s skin as a disguise?
When sequel Men in Black II rolled around five years later, hope was high that the sci-fi franchise would continue to blend practical effects with premier quality CGI. And, for the most part, that was true.
Where the film begins to tear at the seams, however, is during the locker scenes. It’s explained that there are such things as ‘locker universes,’ which host alien creatures who worship Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
Once the frantic plot is wrapped up, K reveals that the universe, as we know it, is in fact little more than a locker in a giant alien train station.
This could be a humorous twist, but it’s undermined by the lanky spaghetti demons trouncing around the foreground. It’s like the filmmakers got to the final moments of the film and took their feet off the gas.
7. The cemetery scene in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines
It’s no secret that Terminator 3 was a disappointment. Following in the footsteps of James Cameron’s classic The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, this long-delayed sequel featured a sexy lady robot and lots of explosions, such was the style in 2003, but little substance.
It’s nonsense, and a grand old time if you forget the ground-breaking films that came before. But given that the first two movies revolutionised visual effects, T3 had a reputation to uphold. Let’s talk about the cemetery scene.
The T-X, played by Kristanna Loken, is sent back in time to kill John Connor’s future wife; thankfully, John and a reprogrammed T-800 arrive in a bullet-riddled hearse to save the day. Oh, and this is important: Arnold Schwarzenegger is carrying an RPG.
With Arnie having fired rocket at the T-X, we’re treated to some incredible CGI rag-dolling, followed by a collision with a CGI tombstone that looks like it’s made of fudge.
Even better, there are other tombstones in the background that have also been hastily CGI’d in – you know, to make sure the one they built in MS Paint doesn’t stand out. This film was the most expensive ever made at the time of its release.
6. Princess Leia in Rogue One
Rogue One has come in for its fair share of criticism. Hot on the heels of The Force Awakens, this was the film that foreshadowed some sketchy decisions in the Star Wars universe, and was subjected to constant rewrites, re-shoots and re-edits.
The film also generated controversy for ‘resurrecting’ Peter Cushing, who had died more than two decades earlier, as Grand Moff Tarkin. You could argue this was the biggest CGI moment of the decade, and has been both praised and maligned.
But caught in the middle of arguing whether Tarkin’s wooden performance and uncanny valley look is due to CGI, or Cushing’s inherent gauntness, you might have forgotten that there are two computer-generated time-skippers in this film.
Princess Leia certainly comes off worse in Rogue One. A hasty inclusion, Leia looks like a porcelain doll. Presumably happy with their efforts on the Grand Moff, the Rogue visual effects team decided to go buy-one-get-one-free on rejuvenated actors.
Tragically, Carrie Fisher died only two weeks after Rogue One’s release, furthering debate about whether actors’ likenesses should be recreated after their deaths.
5. Fighting Nick Nolte in Hulk
When you hire Ang Lee to direct your film, you know you’re going to get something original. Looking back on Hulk from the vantage point of today’s Marvel-dominated box office, it’s clear that this film stands out. Unfortunately, the CGI is garbage.
The Incredible Hulk himself is surprisingly credible. For an enormous, verdant ogre, the effects are surprisingly strong – though this is helped along by the film’s general aversion to smashing and clobbering.
Where it all begins to fall apart is at the film’s climax. Bruce Banner is forced to fight his own father, David, who has riddled himself with gamma radiation; he now exhibits the powers of several of Hulk’s comic book foes.
Able to transform himself, phase through solid objects, and control electricity, this character is a smorgasbord of supervillainy. The role is played by Nick Nolte, who came aboard the project after Ang Lee described his film as a Greek tragedy.
Unfortunately for Nolte, it’s the visual effects that turn tragic. Once Banner Sr becomes a storm cloud with Nick Nolte’s face, all while fighting a muscular green bean, it’s impossible to know what’s really going on.
4. Werewolf Lupin in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
For one of the world’s most dominant franchises, the effects in Harry Potter can feel sloppy. There’s more than enough excellent costuming, and the core appeal of the series – magic – is represented with flair, both visually and aurally. Less so the creatures.
There are certainly CGI misfires in the first film, The Philosopher’s Stone – after all, Fluffy, the three-headed dog who guards the titular artefact, is a classically squishy computer-generated animal. The trouble is, by the third film, we expected better.
In part, that’s because The Prisoner of Azkaban is objectively the best film in the franchise. Its cinematography is astounding, as is its score and suitably magical plot. And yet, like so many other films on this list, it falls at the final hurdle.
The person in the accursed role of Defence Against the Dark Arts professor is one Remus Lupin, revealed to be a werewolf later in the story. Transforming at the climax of the film, we’re treated to a suitably threatening performance by actor Marnix van den Broeke (a reliable monster actor much like Shape of Water’s Doug Jones).
Unfortunately, the CGI is slapdash, presumably intended to be masked by the nighttime setting and the thrill of the moment. In reality, it’s a damp squib of a finale.
3. Sandman in Spider-Man 3
From a pop culture perspective, Spider-Man 3 is remembered for two things, and two things only: emo Peter Parker, and more villains than the total population of Andorra.
We’re exaggerating, of course, but the scale of Spider-Man 3’s ambition means it lacks visual effects finesse. In particular, Sandman feels a little muddied-up for our tastes.
Jon Dykstra won an Academy Award for his visual effects work on Spider-Man 2, but declined to work on the third film. So began the team’s efforts to understand the physics of sand under the leadership of Scott Stokdyk, which largely involved throwing sand in stuntmen’s faces.
Since the team developed their own CGI software, and the film ultimately contained more than 900 visual effects shots, there’s a lot to applaud. But the moment we lose Thomas Haden-Church, the actor playing Sandman, everything begins to go wrong.
All of a sudden, it’s not an actor augmented by sand physics CGI. Instead, it’s a big brown face in the sky. Did nobody learn the lessons from Hulk?
2. Entering the mainframe in The Lawnmower Man
The Lawnmower Man was a film considered cutting edge at the time of its release, but the Stephen King adaptation has also dated so poorly as to feel like an elaborate prank today. It doesn’t help that the name of the film has little to do with its sci-fi, techno-god plot.
The Lawnmower Man sees Pierce Brosnan star as an expedient scientist conducting research into intelligence-boosting treatments. After tests on the institute’s disabled groundskeeper result in a development of psychokinetic abilities, the film quickly begins to unravel.
In terms of visuals, the big jump occurs when Jobe, the groundskeeper, abandons his body and enters a computer mainframe, seeking to infect and control all of the digital systems in the world.
Since this film was released in 1992, Hollywood’s visual representation of cyberspace is still confined to a garish blue expanse riddled with geometric shapes. Even worse, Jobe now looks like Homer Simpson – if he’d been designed by HP Lovecraft.
When this CGI monstrosity first showed up in cinemas in 1992, audiences hadn’t seen anything like it. Thankfully, they haven’t since.
1. Gloopy Neo in The Matrix Reloaded
The Matrix Reloaded is another film that broke new ground with its visual effects, and it’s worth stating upfront that the scene we’re talking about is brilliant (as for the rest of the film, we’ll leave that up to you).
The sequence, popularly known as the Burly Brawl, has Neo face off against a growing army of Agent Smiths, and is perhaps one of the most elaborate fight sequences in history, with Neo beginning the skirmish fighting multiple agents at once.
But then Smith begins to convert other Agents into clones for more and more manpower. At this point, with the scene accelerating, CGI begins to be shovelled on like someone hurrying to bury a body.
Neo turns gloopy as the camera spins – flying and kicking, and the punching and blocking gets even faster as Keanu Reeves spins like a centrifuge, flinging off uncanny valley Hugo Weavings into CGI buildings.
When all is said and done, and Neo zips off into the sky like Superman, it’s hard to sympathise with Agent Smith’s look of annoyance and unfulfilled revenge. All we feel is tired relief.