During recent discourses regarding bad CGI special effects, boosted by both questionable and reasonable takes displayed on social media, there’s something we seemed to have forgotten. Everyone’s fixated on pointing out what looks bad and borders on the ugly, or spends their time attacking what people like or how something looks. It’s become boring.
What we forgot is that sometimes it’s not about what looks noticeably bad or good, but about what you can’t notice firsthand, or what you can’t even believe. It’s actually one of the arguments for some of the picks we gathered for the ultimate list of CGI effects in films. These are the brilliantly subtle CGI effects, sure, but also the unbelievable, the ones you still can’t believe you saw at the time, even if years have passed. We’re not including more recent milestones like CGI effects on TV shows, or recent releases likeAvatar‘s sequel because that will be material for other lists.
We welcome you to join this discourse instead of the other, more negative one. This is the discourse where we celebrate achievements for what they were at the time, when artists were ahead of their craft and created the impossible on the screen, even if, decades later, they may not look as impressive. At the time, they made us believe in things that don’t exist, extinct beings, other worlds, or technology that’s not possible for now. These are the absolute best CGI movie effects of all time.
26 Terminator 2: Judgment Day
The 1991 blockbuster, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, has an importance that’s unquestionable and, to this day, it’s an action sci-fi thriller landmark that serves as an example of film production. The practical effects prepared by Stan Winston are great to say the least, but Dennis Muren’s contribution with CGI still looks fantastic. Those effects haven’t aged a bit, and we’re still wondering how they did them. Liquid metal was only found in thermometers until T2 created a shape-shifting killing machine capable of morphing into apparently everything.
25 Jurassic Park
This time it was all about mixing the practical and the computer-generated. Director Steven Spielberg actually allowed us to see dinosaurs in a way we never had before. The Land That Time Forgot and The Lost World came before, but effects weren’t as good back then, and Jurassic Park convinced us through CGI effects that this is how they moved.
Phil Tippett’s work in stop-motion and some really advanced computers and motion capture were responsible for animating creatures that still look impressive today. Every single frame of the T. Rex in the rain took six hours to render, which is indicative of the meticulous craft at work here.
We were all surprised when, in the year Fury Road won every Oscar possible, the surefire award was won by Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. But there was a reason. Ex Machina‘s heavy use of CGI effects was crucial in putting us inside a claustrophobic and sterile environment where machines could have something we didn’t think they’d ever have: emotions. It’s one of the most recent films on the list, but this doesn’t mean we aren’t asking ourselves, “how did they accomplish something so realistic?”
When James Cameron creates new technology for his films, you can be sure you will witness things you didn’t think were possible up to that moment. In 2009’s Avatar, a new world and species were created with computers and motion-capture was implemented in levels that still look great. Want to know how important the CGI images are regarding size? The Pandora world required 1 petabyte which equals to 2000 years of MP3 songs.
Now imagine the improvement of all those effects, and you get Avatar: The Way of Water, a groundbreaking CGI extravaganza.
22 The Matrix
It’s “bullet time,” baby! The Wachowskis were responsible for bending the rules of physics by introducing us to a world where if you were powerful enough you could stop bullets and fly. It was made through the use a CGI effect where the camera moves at super speed while characters move in ways the Matrix allowed them to. But it wasn’t only this. The Matrix also featured beautiful CGI animation of a future we definitely don’t want to imagine.
This is Christopher Nolan’s deep space film, and he made sure it was a credible one. For modern science fiction, it’s almost a requisite to have good CGI, but in Nolan’s film it becomes a theme. For Interstellar he brought back Paul Franklin as an effects supervisor (and yes, his other film appears further down the list), but Nolan actually demanded the CGI to be designed first so that the characters would act considering a whole landscape that didn’t consist of green screens. Talk about ambitious.
20 Blade Runner 2049
Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner 2049, is a visual triumph, a film that looks like no other, and one whose visual landscape was only possible through the rendering of modern computers. Add an outstanding work by cinematography genius Roger Deakins and you get a film that will become relevant with time even if the box-office did not agree. In the world of replicants, the future is bleak and claustrophobic, and special effects are the essential resource to bring this world to life.
19 Hollow Man
Paul Verhoeven’s thriller Hollow Man wouldn’t be the same without the ability to convince the audience that a man actually became invisible. Special effects were based on clone technology and shooting each piece of footage twice, and they were special for Verhoeven’s tone of a film that was actually more violent than we had access to. Several cuts had to be made which means we didn’t see all the effects. It’s uncanny how this one lost to Gladiator in the effects Oscars.
The literal universe of dreams was brought to life by a special effects team commanded by a director who’s very meticulous about how things look. The massiveness of every frame in Inception was possible because of practical effects and CGI renders that allowed rules to be bent in a world where dreams can be manipulated, and nightmares are the gateway to limbo.
17 The Irishman
“De-aging” special effects have improved throughout the years, but in Scorsese’s The Irishman, the concept was crucial to the chronology of the story. People were actually critical to effects, but we believe it’s because they knew it was De Niro behind layers and layers of CGI. The film looks amazing, and we can’t encourage enough a revisit to Scorsese’s behemoth of film.
In 2013, Gravity became the film with most VFX shots. Yes, more than Avatar. Director Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi thriller is an invasive film that was way better than usual if you saw it on Imax. If you’re thinking of way it looked so good, it was because of 1.8 million LED lights that were controlled to emulate lighting in space.
15 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dean Man’s Chest
The sequel to Curse of the Black Pearl is only superior in its CGI effects. The story in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dean Man’s Chest is weaker and the adventure side of its predecessor is missing. But its creature effects are staggering, specially those of Davy Jones and Bootstrap. To those of you who saw it on the big screen: don’t you remember feeling you could actually touch the decaying body of Stellan Skarsgård’s character? And yes, there was CGI there.
14 War for the Planet of the Apes
The first film of the reboot was very good. The second one was actually impressive. But the third one, War for the Planet of the Apes, was spectacular in every aspect. The recreation of the Planet of the Apes franchise is rich and exciting, and actually gets better with every entry. One of the reasons? The CGI effects that make practical costumes seem outdated and frankly unnecessary. The motion capture technology is so well-used that the audience seems to be able to observe the performances by real actors and no franchise has done this. Yeah, not even the Cameron one with beings from Pandora.
13 The Jungle Book
The live-action Disney remakes haven’t been as well received as most thought. There’s just something expression that simply works better with old-school animation. Curiously, The Jungle Book, the first one of the bunch is an excellent film that surpassed expectations. Perhaps, it’s a real actor playing Mowgli what put it beyond its peers. But we like to think its CGI effects are impressive enough to let people believe a giant bear can actually talk and sing. The composition between computer-generated images and the environment is amazing.
12 Forrest Gump
Forrest Gump is a good film. Perhaps, the discussion of whether it should have gotten Best Picture in 1995 is another one, but no one can say this fairy tale is a bad flick. Just take a look at the early CGI that was so crucial to the film. From Lieutenant Dan’s legs to Gump meeting dead politicians. It simply looks great, and this is one of those films that even as a visual effects extravaganza, it never seems excessive when compared to a human yet extraordinary story.
11 The Perfect Storm
A relatively underrated and unknown film based a true story, The Perfect Storm is a heartbreaking film that was sadly spoiled due to a Hollywood-style marketing plan that revealed everything about the demise of its characters. The trailer showed the film’s most prominent element: One single CGI shot of a fishing boat going up a wave.
This shot is the reason why it’s on this list, aside from a realistic portrayal of chaos in a lethal and raging sea. We didn’t include it as a featured image because we want you to see it for yourself when you revisit it. Just don’t let the sadness keep you from observing the great CGI effects (and try to stop the film before the final minute or two, a weirdly sentimental ending which kind of ruins the power of what came before it).
10 Life of Pi
Life of Pi is one of those films where you will rub your eyes to try and see if there are any flaws in the frame. The CGI is impressive because of the composition and animation, but still it’s one of those films where the story is heavily enhanced by a technical achievement, and it never falters due to an invasive nature of what you know isn’t real.
Herbert’s Dune was only possible through CGI and a production design that’s remarkable to say the least. In Villeneuve’s films, it’s all about a landscape that provides background to an emotional story. Peril in Dune is weird, but CGI makes it real from the tiniest details of a box, to the massiveness of a very hungry sand worm. Dune looks like nothing you have ever seen, and it was only possible to adapt it through modern cinema and its symbiotic relationship with technology.
8 War of the Worlds
You may like or hate Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds, but it’s hard to deny how impressive the special effects were, for 2005 and even today. The running in the street scene was a memorable one, but the CGI in the ferry scene is evidence of size. We got up close and almost breathed the panic of victims screaming for their lives as a giant tripod emerged and confirmed Spielberg’s capacity of hatching underwater monsters.
Jan de Bont’s natural disaster film. Twister is ridiculously fun and lead by two very decent actors facing an inexplicable threat. We remember that first trailer that promised an innovation in visual effects. But what we got was a groundbreaking film where the audience was close to the eyes of hurricanes that definitely destroyed everything in their path. It’s not only the flying cow we remember, but a great force of nature pulling a truck into the sky and eliminating it from this Earth.