With a green screen and a dab hand in post-production, you can transport a film anywhere, any time, without going through the cumbersome process of scouting locations and building sets. But only if you know what you’re doing. 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.
20. The Shark from Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Any shark movie is doomed to pale in comparison to Jaws, so when we say Deep Blue Sea is probably the second best shark movie of all time, there’s still a significant gap between the two. Where Jaws relied on a mechanical shark (and, conveniently, the fear induced by not seeing the shark at all) Deep Blue Sea shows off the sharks in all their chomping glory via animatronics, real shark footage and of course CGI.
Deep Blue Sea’s CGI fish never look particularly good, but the worst example has to be the death scene of Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson). Unexpectedly caught from behind by a shark, Franklin is chewed in its big, rubbery mouth, having somehow turned rubbery himself. It looks the shark from Toy Story picked a fight with Stretch Armstrong in an Amazon warehouse.
19. The Scorpion King from The Mummy Returns (2001)
Such is the star power of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, his small role in The Mummy Returns saw studio Universal immediately green-lit a spin-off solo movie for his character in The Scorpion King. This despite the fact that Johnson’s breakthrough film role boasts one of the most notorious examples of terrible CGI in movie history.
While most of the visuals in The Mummy Returns are fine, the whole movie is building up to the reveal of Johnson’s ancient warrior in half-scorpion form – but when he finally appears at the climax, it doesn’t inspire gasps of awe but roars of unintentional laughter. With a grotesque sheen to his skin and an utterly absurd physique, not even Johnson can save this abomination of subpar CGI.
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. Reshoots for the movie clashed with filming for Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) which, if you recall, sees Cavill sporting a magnificent moustache.
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 vampires in I Am Legend (2007)
Adapting a classic novel for the silver screen is always a tough task. Sadly for I Am Legend, it was a case of so close, yet so far. The film follows US Army virologist Robert Neville (Will Smith) as seemingly the last human being in Manhattan, the world having been ravaged by a virus that killed most and turned the rest into mutant vampires.
On set, the vampires were all 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 leaving everyone in the audience wondering what in the world the filmmakers were thinking.
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, mostly practical special effects. However, George Lucas felt constrained by budget and deadlines, and thus set about making changes to his beloved trilogy for the later ‘special edition’ releases, which add plenty of unnecessary digital additions.
In our book the most egregious such addition is the early appearance of Jabba the Hutt (a digitally augmented version of a deleted scene from the original Star Wars movie). 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.
15. Renesmee in Twilight: Breaking Dawn – Parts 1 & 2 (2011, 2012)
Without wishing to be unkind, there’s a lot about the Twilight franchise that feels uncanny and not quite right – not least 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.
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 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)
When Pierce Brosnan took over as James Bond in 1995, the long-running spy franchise enjoyed a significant boost in popularity. By the time of his fourth film, 2002’s Die Another Day, critics and audiences were keen to see how Bond could stay relevant in 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. Brosnan (who, sad to say, isn’t actually the world’s greatest kite-surfer) 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, not that it ever looked good in the first place.
13. The plane crash in Air Force One (1997)
Air Force One was one of the most popular action movies of the late 90s, famed for starring Harrison Ford as cinema’s first action hero President of the United States, and Gary Oldman as the scenery-chewing Russian bad guy who hijacks the President’s private plane. It’s all well-executed enough in that Die Hard style, until we come to the inevitable CGI-fest of a climax.
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 remains a revered chapter in blockbuster history, yet its prequel series The Hobbit stands more as a cautionary tale of the perils of big budget excess. Making three epic films from three mighty tomes might have made sense, but doing the same with a book that’s only 304 pages long really doesn’t.
This overkill spirit naturally extends to the Hobbit trilogy’s use of CGI. While there’s no shortage of misfires throughout the three films, the worst offender in our eyes comes in The Desolation of Smaug, when the eponymous dragon is lured by a giant golden statue of a dwarf which then melts, coating the dragon in a thick metal coat. The strange physics and sickly sheen of the molten metal just don’t work.
11. Legolas and the oliphaunts in The Lord of the Rings: 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, but that doesn’t mean everything about the three films is perfect. Take the Battle of the Pelennor Fields in The Return of the King, 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, the beasts strike an imposing presence on the battlefield.
It should be spectacular: Legolas leaps on to an Oliphaunt and stands his ground against both the creature’s thrashing and its attendant soldiers. However, all we see are blurry green-screen shots of Orlando Bloom bouncing around, culminating in him ‘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 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, we’re told (but not shown) that the noxious children will be “completely restored to their normal, terrible old selves.” However, in 2005’s second big screen adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, director Tim 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.
Early digital renderings of humans were distinctly nightmarish and unnatural in appearance, and Molly is one of the worst offenders in this regard. When she goes after a toy, it’s like a saliva-drenched Godzilla with a lumpen mesh of limbs. Happily, they’ve come leaps and bounds since then, hence Bonnie of Toy Story 3 & 4 inspires reactions of “aww” rather than “argh!“
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, so 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, two movies which revolutionised visual effects, T3 had a reputation to uphold. So, let’s talk about the cemetery scene. The T-X, (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, armed with 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.
6. Princess Leia in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The first Star Wars prequel, 2016’s Rogue One proved divisive among fans of the sci-fi saga. Amongst other things, the film 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.
Given the prominence of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Cushing, 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. Given that Carrie Fisher died only two weeks after Rogue One’s release, the whole thing left a bad taste in the mouths of many cinema-goers.
5. The final battle in Hulk
When you hire Ang Lee to direct your film, you know you’re going to get something original. Looking back on 2003’s 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. While the Hulk himself is mostly well-realised, it all begins to fall apart is at the film’s deliriously over-the-top climax.
Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) is forced to fight his father David (Nick Nolte), who has riddled himself with gamma radiation. Able to transform himself, phase through solid objects, and control electricity, this character is a smorgasbord of supervillainy. Alas, once Banner Sr. becomes a storm cloud with Nick Nolte’s face doing battle with 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
Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban is objectively the best film in the franchise. Its cinematography and designs are astonishing, setting new, darker tone in contrast to the gaudier look of the initial two films. Yet like so many other films on this list, it falls at the final hurdle, once Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) is revealed as a werewolf.
Transforming at the climax of the film, we’re treated to a suitably threatening performance by creature actor Marnix van den Broeke as Lupin in wolf form. 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
To create Sandman in Spider-Man 3, the filmmakers went to great lengths to understand the physics of sand, 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 in the film from a technical standpoint. (Let’s sidestep the question of Spider-Man 3’s plot problems.)
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’s climax, or The Scorpion King’s reveal in The Mummy Returns? Without the human element, CGI creatures simply don’t connect with audiences emotionally.
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 (extremely loose) Stephen King adaptation has dated so poorly as to feel like an elaborate prank today. Pierce Brosnan stars as an expedient scientist conducting research into intelligence-boosting treatments using virtual reality, transforming Jeff Fahey’s gardener Jobe from a mentally-challenged man-child to something resembling a god.
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, digital 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 single-handedly battle a growing army of Agent Smiths.
However, as the scene progresses, CGI is 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 a video game cityscape. What starts out exhilarating quickly becomes exhausting.