Monsters have made for some of the greatest movie antagonists, with the best of them having been able to terrify and enthral in equal measure. From Dementors to dinosaurs, there really is something for everyone – and although these creatures may look horrifyingly realistic, over the last four decades many of these have actually been the result of computers going bleep for months on end.
CGI has come a long way in the years since the technology first emerged, and today it can be hard to distinguish between special effects and reality. There have been some CGI misfires over the years, for sure, but there’s nothing quite like a CGI movie monster done right – and here we’ve picked out our 20 favourites.
20. Unnamed monsters (A Quiet Place)
John Krasinki’s directorial debut, A Quiet Place, surpassed box office expectations in 2018 and quickly solidified itself as a favourite of the horror genre.
Made on a budget of $17-21 million, the film sees a family attempt to survive in a world filled with blind monsters. Unfortunately, even though the beasts can’t see, their hearing is particularly acute.
The monsters are hinted at throughout, building suspense until we’re finally granted a glimpse. When we do see them, they appear overwhelmingly large, with long limbs and more teeth than a dentist just before bin day.
Created by Star Wars veterans Industrial Light & Magic, the intention was to make vaguely humanoid creatures from prehistoric and anarchic reference points.
As reported in Vanity Fair in 2018, “the team immediately set about pulling references; prehistoric fish, black snakes, and bats, particularly their movement patterns. Inspiration was also drawn from bog people: cadavers that have been mummified in peat, turning the skin black and giving it a sagging, leathery look”
19. Dementors (Harry Potter series)
Harry Potter is one of the most popular franchises of all time; with wizards, trolls and mystical creatures aplenty, there really is something for everyone. (Unless you like Hot Wheels. There aren’t any Hot Wheels.)
But amidst this influx of terrifying beasts, one stands out among the rest: the Dementors. Charged with sucking out the souls of their victims, the Dementors’ long, billowing robes are reminiscent of a particularly gruesome, black jellyfish.
And that’s not even mentioning what they look like underneath. Basically, Dementors are half-rotten corpses who seek to drain your very life essence. It’s fun for all the family!
For their first film appearance, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, director Alfonso Cuarón was keen to move away from CGI effects in favour of puppetry.
Ultimately, the use of puppets proved too costly and CGI was indeed used. However, video references of Dementor puppets moving underwater informed the digital animation, making the CGI creatures as unsettling as possible.
18. Davy Jones (Pirates of the Caribbean series)
You know when you have far too much calamari at the buffet? Well, that’s what Pirates of the Caribbean villain Davy Jones feels like every day, since he’s literally part squid and part man.
Whilst Davy Jones is portrayed by actor Bill Nighy, the character’s facial effects are the result of some rather advanced CGI techniques.
Remarkably, the character was created almost completely from CGI – Nighy wore a prosthetic only once, for the scene in which Orlando Bloom’s Will Turner steals a key from within his tentacle beard.
The extent and success of the Davy Jones CGI surprised even the filmmakers themselves: in behind the scenes shots, Nighy can be seen wearing makeup on his eyes and mouth, with a view to splicing them into later footage. None of this ended up being necessary.
It’s a shame, then, that the effects stagnated in the rest of the franchise, with 2017’s Dead Men Tell No Tales showing off less ambitious visuals despite premiering more than a decade later.
17. The dinosaurs (Jurassic Park)
The Jurassic Park franchise has entertained viewers for more than a quarter of a century, and although it may be a family favourite, it also has terrifying monsters galore – even if said monsters once freely roamed the Earth.
Despite the first instalment of Jurassic Park having been produced in a time when CGI was still in its infancy, the 1993 film’s effects are extraordinarily realistic and hold up even today.
That’s not to say that Jurassic Park was made with CGI alone. In fact, it’s full of ingenious practical effects.
In post-production, the effects team used so-called Dinosaur Input Devices, which allowed for the CGI dinosaurs to be manipulated like stop-motion puppets.
This was a painstaking process. For every frame of the T-Rex in the rain, the effects took six hours to render – and, if you recall, there’s a lot of rain in this movie.
16. Gollum (The Lord of the Rings series)
Is Gollum a monster or a man? That’s the driving conflict of the character, with several figures in The Lord of the Rings trilogy insisting Gollum should die and some insisting his humanity can be saved. But he certainly looks like a monster.
The creature is a CGI marvel, although he is played with venom and rasping tones by a real person, Andy Serkis. Built with motion-capture technology, Gollum’s appearance marked a watershed moment in the blending of computer-generated and live-action footage.
Weta Digital, the firm behind the trilogy’s special effects, had begun animating Gollum as early as 1998, four years prior to the film’s release, in order to demonstrate that the ambitious project was possible.
Interestingly, every scene with Gollum was filmed twice: once with Serkis physically present, and once without. The effects team soon discovered that having Serkis in the scene drew a much better performance from his co-stars.
As a result, the ‘without’ scenes were scrapped, and Gollum was animated over Serkis using rotoscope technology.
15. Clover (Cloverfield)
Back in 2008, few would have expected that the Cloverfield franchise would leap between the genres of monster movie, close-quarters thriller and space disaster flick. In fact, few expected a franchise at all.
Teasers for the first Cloverfield were deliberately released into cinemas without a title in order to spur speculation. Filmmakers believed that the found footage style of the film, and the glimpses of its terrifying monster, would be intriguing enough – and they were right.
While never given in a name in the film – government officials refer to it only as a Large Scale Aggressor (LSA) – the first Cloverfield movie’s monster was affectionately nicknamed Clover by production staff. Although quite why they had affection for this gargantuan horror isn’t clear.
25 storeys tall and brimming with teeth and bug eyes, you might be surprised to learn that Clover is intended as an infant of its species, with larger versions being seen in 2018’s The Cloverfield Paradox.
In fact, Clover’s eyes are intended to reflect a spooked horse – because though the audience might be afraid of the destruction wrought by the monster, the monster is itself afraid of its strange, puny new environment.
14. The Homunculi (Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark)
In one of the most blatant cases of fraudulent advertising since the film The NeverEnding Story, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a film about terrifying basement-dwellers who come out at night.
Starring Katie Holmes, the film is a remake of the 1973 made-for-TV film of the same name, though this 2011 version had the budget and production talents of Guillermo del Toro to help make an impression.
Unfortunately, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark received mixed reviews despite being a mild box office success. Nonetheless, its CGI Homunculi deserve appreciation.
Inspired by mole rats, the creatures are almost completely blind and hairy in all the wrong places. These monsters, the film tells us, drag human beings into their ashy pit and make them into monsters themselves.
Compared to tooth fairies in the film, this must be one of the most macabre renditions of the mythological creatures ever to disgrace the silver screen.
13. King Kong (King King (2005))
“It was Beauty killed the Beast,” Jack Black tells us at the end of 2005’s King Kong. He was probably referring to Naomi Watts’ Ann Darrow, but he might as well have been talking about the film’s spectacular CGI.
King Kong has come a long way since he was first featured on the big screen in 1933, but the 2005 remake of that epic monster adventure shows significant advances in technology since that debut, right down to the giant ape’s specks of saliva. (You might say it’s the spitting image of a gorilla.)
Andy Serkis clearly has a skill for portraying antagonistic creatures, with King Kong constituting part of the famed actor’s motion-capture golden age.
However, the credit for King Kong should really go to Peter Jackson, who had obsessively attempted to remake the 1933 film since he was a child, filming with a toy gorilla on a Super 8 camera in his youth.
This passion for the project filtered down to everyone involved. In fact, Serkis spent an additional two months filming motion capture after principal photography concluded, so committed were he and Jackson to detail.
12. Arachnids (Starship Troopers)
Starship Troopers was buried in an avalanche of negative reviews on its release, and yet was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. You might wonder how such a gulf is possible, but looking at the film’s monsters explains everything.
With fleshy extremities and spider-like eyeballs, these creatures (known as ‘Arachnids’) are both horrifying and intriguing in equal measure.
Non-technological, the bugs are responsible for the film’s most gore-heavy moments, such as when an officer gets his legs bitten off and someone else gets their brain eaten.
The film as a whole was intended as a satire of nationalism and militarism, which – either due to a lack of communication by filmmakers or a lack of understanding by critics – was initially misunderstood. It has since become a cult classic.
Starship Troopers won numerous Saturn Awards for its costuming and effects, but was almost nominated for Worst Picture at the Stinkers (it lost to Batman & Robin).
11. The bear (Annihilation)
What great movies understand is that fear is just as much about the unseen as the seen. 2018’s Annihilation is the perfect example, particularly when it comes to its infamous bear creature.
The first encounter with Annihilation’s bear, as it approaches the compound in which the scientists are taking refuge, is agonisingly tense. Ultimately, it captures Tuva Novotny’s Cass and drags her away into the forest, all the while mimicking her screams.
It’s only later that we get a good look at the monster: a mutated creature with a human skull lodged in its body.
According to the film’s visual effects supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst, the bear was initially inspired by microscopic tardigrades.
Moving forward from this original idea, Whitehurst became intrigued by the idea that “some of [Novotny’s character] Sheppard’s DNA is somehow added into the bear,” he recalled to The Verge.
“One of the concept artists, in a piece of 3D software, got a scan of a bear skull and a scan of a human skull, and literally just mashed the two together,” he continues. “We looked at that and went, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s horrible. That’s gonna work.'”
10. Edgar the Bug (Men in Black)
Back when Men in Black was a critically acclaimed (rather than critically panned) franchise, it expertly blended practical effects and prosthesis with CGI augmentation. The glory, once again, goes to Industrial Light & Magic.
There are more than enough extra-terrestrials to choose from, but the best combination of practical and CGI in the 1997 film has to be the film’s main villain, Edgar the Bug, played by Vincent D’Onofrio.
Originally crashing to Earth on a rural farm, Edgar spends most of the film wearing the flesh of his first victim as a skin, but bursts forth at the end to face off against Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones.
According to the Men in Black Blu-ray commentary, physical effects were prioritised for static characters and CGI was used for more mobile aliens. Since he towards the end of the film crawls up the side of a building and starts trying to crush the protagonists, Edgar fits in the latter category.
Originally, the climactic sequence was going to be an existential debate between Smith and an animatronic Edgar. When the plot was changed to a more action-heavy, CGI finale, it cost filmmakers an extra $4.5 million.
9. The Behemoth (The Mist)
Based on a Stephen King novella, The Mist sees a group of ordinary people stranded in a supermarket enveloped by the titular mist. Concealed by the fog are innumerable horrors, tentacled and warped in a Lovecraftian style.
While The Mist is undoubtedly born of monster films past, what’s truly horrifying is the depravity of human nature when we’re pushed to our limits, and how our very soul cracks in twain under pressure. Just kidding: what’s truly horrifying is the Behemoth.
There are all kinds of pterodactyl and praying mantis creatures that appear out of the mist, devouring and mutilating any who dare leave the supermarket, but the Behemoth is the worst of all. Why? Because it doesn’t care.
Encountered towards the end of the film, the Behemoth is a six-legged creature with tentacles for a face that moves slowly across the landscape, crushing everything in its path.
While not overtly hostile, the sheer size of the creature, and its impenetrability, makes your existence seem far more meaningless than being eviscerated by an alien limb ever could.
8. Dormammu (Doctor Strange)
2016’s Doctor Strange lives up to the name, and it’s not only because Benedict Cumberbatch plays a doctor. From Tilda Swinton’s controversial casting as a dimension-warping guru, to Cumberbatch’s American accent, there’s a lot here to raise eyebrows.
What irrefutably drops jaws, though, are the film’s visuals, which draw on kaleidoscopes and the natural beauty of distant galaxies to provide a feast for the eyes. So it makes sense that the film’s ultimate villain, Dormammu (also played by Cumberbatch), gets the same treatment.
Described as “a primordial inter-dimensional entity who wields apocalyptic levels of supernatural power,” Dormammu is exactly the kind of character who could have gone drastically wrong. Thankfully, this monstrously galactic being is well served.
From the fire in his eyes to the rugged look of what we’re going to call skin without thinking too much about it, Dormammu looks even better than fellow Marvel character the Hulk.
What’s impressive also is the amount of expression animators get out of space-face, especially when he ends up being tricked by Strange. That’s one wiley Cumberbatch.
7. Prawns (District 9)
District 9 was directed by Neill Blomkamp, who followed it with the tepidly received Elysium and the critically panned Chappie. In spite of this downward curve, however, Blomkamp’s use of CGI has always been on-point.
In particular, District 9 achieves the unlikely feat of making an alien mothership full of humanoid crustaceans appear realistic. While we could talk about the mothership all day, it’s the aquatic-looking monsters that are the focus here.
While you might understandably assume that the so-called prawns are human actors augmented with CGI, these alien characters are actually 100% digital.
Even more remarkably, they were the work of Image Digital, who had never before worked on a project of such scale.
Blomkamp intended for the creatures to initially be disgusting, but for them to eventually show enough emotion that audiences would empathise with them.
6. Non-Terrestrial Intelligence (The Abyss)
It’s no secret that James Cameron is a fan of CGI; whether it’s that famous wide shot of the Titanic, or his ongoing obsession with the blue Na’avi people of Avatar, Cameron has always been at the forefront of computer-generated filmmaking.
This hails from 1989’s The Abyss, which won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its portrayal of an alien water tentacle. Who created it? Industrial Light & Magic, of course.
The plot of The Abyss sees a SEAL team investigate an underwater drilling platform that has been compromised by Non-Terrestrial Intelligences, or NTIs.
To give an impression of the pioneering work that was done to represent these NTIs, 75 seconds of screen time took a staggering six months of work.
Sets were fully photographed, documented, and recreated in a digital space so that the CGI could be accurately superimposed on live-action footage.
5. General Grievous (Revenge of the Sith)
The Star Wars prequels are generally regarded as poor, CGI-infested imitations of the original trilogy. Yet among the films’ grand political narratives and Jar Jar Binkses, Lucas sometimes got it absolutely right.
Such is the case with General Grievous. Introduced in spin-off material between the events of Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Grievous is an alien cyborg warlord who collects the lightsabers of his defeated enemies. And he looks like it, too.
The Grievous of the 2005 film is entirely computer-animated, with an actor in a green-screen suit duelling Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
From his vivid yellow eyes to the sparse remnants of flesh seen beneath his armour, Grievous is terrifying and barely recognisable as a humanoid creature, particular when his arms split and he crawls around like a spider.
And don’t get us started on when Kenobi reveals the General’s pulsating organ sac and then sets him alight with a blaster shot. It’ll put you right off your dinner.
4. Shelob (The Return of the King)
Movies love spiders. Whether it’s the real things, as in Arachnophobia, or the more often employed CGI variety, there’s nothing more terrifying than an eight-legged beast made of eyes and teeth.
Well, except for enormous eight-legged beasts made of eyes and teeth. And that’s exactly what Peter Jackson delivers in The Return of the King.
Shelob features earlier in Tolkien’s books, but her portrayal in the third instalment of the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy is worth the wait. While a less generous viewer might suggest the night-time fight against Shelob helpfully conceals the CGI arachnid, there’s no doubt that the darkness heightens the tension.
Furthermore, there’s more than enough spider to go around: whether it’s her clenching mandibles or terrifyingly ripe abdomen, it’s surprising that Shelob is anything but the real thing.
While surprising, it’s certainly a relief – not even Australian spiders can grow that large. Yet.
3. The Jötunn (The Ritual)
Over the past decade, Scandinavian culture has swept the world in a fashion not seen since Vikings. Whether it’s the so-called Scandi-Noir genre of television, or the continued success of Marvel’s Thor, Scandinavian mythology and sensibilities seem to have infused everything.
It makes sense, then, that the horror genre would get the Scandi treatment too; presenting 2017’s The Ritual, which sees a group of stranded campers attacked by a Jötunn, a giant-like creature and spawn of Loki.
As with many horror films, the creature remains hidden until later in the movie – but when we finally do see it, it’s suitably terrifying.
Part stag, part man, and part something else we don’t really want to consider for any significant period of time, the Jötunn impales people and demands human sacrifices.
The construction of the CGI monster is particularly impressive considering the wooded setting, which forces the creature to traverse between trees and through leaves, and all sorts of terrain that makes for animators’ nightmares.
2. Trespasser (Pacific Rim)
Another entry into the list by Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim sees giant mechs fighting giant amphibians. The 2013 original is del Toro’s most commercially successful film, reaping $411 million worldwide.
Given the simple premise of the film – which isn’t to belittle its underlying themes – it’s clear that the CGI for Pacific Rim’s mechs and creatures needed to be practically flawless. Thankfully, they are.
We could pick any number of the Kaiju (or ‘strange beasts’) for this list, but we’re going to focus on Trespasser for now. The first beast to attack San Francisco, it’s terrifying and awe-inspiring in equal measure.
The greatest strength of Pacific Rim’s CGI is that it somehow makes these megaton creatures believable. There’s a weightiness to Trespasser’s movements, and its hardened skin looks properly tough.
In fact, it’s so tough that it takes a nuclear payload to take Trespasser down. Imagine all the paella you could make out of it (though it’d be a tad irradiated).
1. The Mummy (The Mummy (1999))
The Mummy franchise has had its fair share of CGI disasters – but before Dwayne Johnson ever got involved, the series was known as something of a visual effects pioneer.
Take, for example, the first film and its central antagonist. Boris Karloff’s 1932 rendition of Imhotep gave rise to parodically toilet-paper-wearing undead, but the 1999 film took things a step further.
In 1999’s The Mummy, we actually see Imhotep made flesh, eventually fully transforming into the svelte Arnold Vosloo.
It goes without saying that the hardest part of CGI is melding the digital with the real, but The Mummy’s attempts seem effortless – and this was back in the last millennium!
Still, the effects came at a cost – $15 million of the production’s $80 million budget, to be exact. And who was responsible for them? Say it with us now: Industrial Light & Magic.