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Terrible Special Effects In Popular Sci-Fi Movies

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Science fiction films have some truly groundbreaking special effects... and really awful and awkward ones, even considering the forgiving eye fans cast on the visual aspect of movies as they age. For every Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Alien, or Mad Max: Fury Road, there's a film with a moment (maybe several) when you think "Why?" instead of "How did they do that?"

It isn't a matter of whether practical effects look better in some films than CGI. The effects that don't hold up, even upon their release, tend to call attention to themselves — and not in the best way. As Ann Hornaday, film critic at the Washington Post and author of Talking Pictures put it, "Although great special effects are the result of intensive planning, imagination, and meticulous, time-consuming execution, when they're presented to the audience, they should be nearly invisible."

With all that in mind, here's a look back at some terrible special effects in popular sci-fi movies that took us out of the stories and worlds they were supposed to enrich — as well as some special effects arguably more infamous than their films.

The Matrix Reloaded: The fight of a thousand Smiths

The Matrix won four Academy Awards, including one for Best Visual Effects. Even decades later, its signature "bullet time" looks otherworldly as Neo (Keanu Reeves) dodges bullets and blows in a way perfectly befitting the film's artificial reality. The film's first sequel, 2003's Matrix Reloaded, had a budget of about $150 million and promised effects that were even better — and it includes a freeway chase sequence that certainly clears that bar. On the other hand, a scene of Neo facing off against dozens of clones of his nemesis Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) in a courtyard is disappointing. Officially dubbed "The Burly Brawl," this set piece took hundreds of takes a day in a 250,000-square-foot hangar, with martial artists performing stunt work that would transform into various Smiths in postproduction. Nevertheless, Reeves, who defies gravity while leaping, spinning, and running, still looks and moves like a human throughout while the Smiths, while at first formidable, dissolve into a blur of suits and ties.

I Am Legend: Into the maw of madness

This 2007 adaptation of Richard Matheson's iconic 1954 novel is the rare film whose fans embrace the first two thirds and tend to give the ending a pass for the most part. As Will Smith's Robert Neville navigates a desolate New York City after a pandemic, the film becomes a poignant and lyrical depiction of loneliness. But whenever Neville crosses paths with one of the infected and mutated humans left behind, the film veers into punched-up action territory, with creatures whose malleable jaws hang low and wide like one of Imhotep's minions in 1999's The MummyVeteran creature designer and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos (Underworld, Pitch Black, Dark City) came up with the overall look, but the creatures' unnatural jaws and physicality becomes jarring during the climax when the Alpha Male (played by Dash Mihok, Romeo + Juliet, Punisher: War Zone, TV's Ray Donovan) hollers and tosses his cohorts about like dolls.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope: A not-so-special meeting

To mark the 20th anniversary of the Star Wars saga in 1997, Lucasfilm released "special editions" of the original trilogy with various changes, such as altering dialogue, replacing matte background paintings with digital versions, adding digital aliens and stormtroopers, and reviving scenes cut from the original. The most infamous is a meeting between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt, originally portrayed by the late Irish actor Declan Mulholland (Doctor Who, Time Bandits) wearing a furry vest. This Jabba appeared in the tie-in comics, but because he wasn't onscreen, no one minded when he became a gargantuan slug and more menacing adversary in 1983's Return of the Jedi. Unfortunately, creator George Lucas's idea to insert the sluglike Jabba over Mulholland's performance was memorable in the worst way. Ford looks fine, maintaining the visual quality of the 1977 film, but the digitally crisp Jabba disconcertingly seems like he slunk in from somewhere else.

Van Helsing: necks appeal?

After Hugh Jackman made his cinematic mark as Wolverine in 2000's X-Men and 2003's X2: X-Men United, he appeared in this 2004 attempt to feature the monster hunter from Bram Stoker's 1897 Gothic horror novel in his own film series. Anthony Hopkins hammed it up as Van Helsing in 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula, which also played up Dracula's sex appeal, so it's no surprise this film gave the count (Richard Roxburgh, Hacksaw Ridge) three comely brides. Characters like Dr. Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein's Monster, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde camp it up along with the vampires until scenes call for the brides to menace possible victims like Kate Beckinsale's Anna Valerious with their exaggerated lantern jaws. Perhaps director Stephen Sommers liked this effect from his Mummy films, but it's more Silly Putty than sexy or scary — more like "Mr. Ed laughing," as one writer put it.

The Lawnmower Man: The oversize ghost in the machine

Granted, virtual reality was nowhere near as advanced in 1992 when The Lawnmower Man debuted, although it was still ripe for storytelling inspiration (see 1995's Virtuosity and 1999's The Thirteenth Floor, among others). This film, which lifts only its title from a Stephen King story, attempts to tell a cautionary tale about a scientist (a pre-007 Pierce Brosnan) who introduces a developmentally disabled man named Jobe (played by Jeff Fahey of Lost and Alita: Battle Angel) to virtual technology. Unfortunately, whether because of a low budget or a lack of imagination, the virtual world here turns out to be a pretty dull array of geometric mosaics reminiscent of a coloring app. Once Jobe's mind expands and merges with the machine, the digital rendering of Fahey's huge head, complete with eyes that look pasted from a different illustration, flops on the wrong side of the uncanny valley. 

Lost in Space: A Blarp in the jungle

Before Netflix reimagined this Swiss Family Robinson in space, New Line Cinema launched a 1998 remake of the popular 1965 TV series Lost in Space ("Danger, Will Robinson!") with a cast that included Gary Oldman, William Hurt, Mimi Rogers, Heather Graham, Lacey Chabert, and Matt LeBlanc. Set in 2058, the film sends the Robinsons and company to colonize another planet after Earth suffers the effects of global warming. Unfortunately, the actors share screen time, if not physical space, with a CG critter named Blarp, a kind of extraterrestrial monkey. The filmmakers shot Blarp (voiced by veteran foley artist and creature vocalist Gary A. Hecker) with an animatronic puppet that remained in close-up shots, but the special effects department under supervisor Nick Allder (Alien, The Fifth Element, and later Underworld and Hellboy) went digital in post-production for everything else. The result leaps out as a creature that's not really there, as the actors obviously aren't interacting with an object in the same scene and have no idea even where to look.

In Time: No time for a stunt

Writer/director Andrew Niccol is responsible for creative and clever films such as 1997's Gattaca and 1998's The Truman Show, and with venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins aboard, 2011's In Time held a lot of promise. The plot is a twist on 1970s sci-fi favorite Logan's Run, set in a future where people don't live past 25 unless they can buy or otherwise finagle more life. But the filmmakers must have run out of time to stage a proper stunt or visual effect once protagonist Will Salas (Justin Timberlake, The Social Network, Inside Llewyn Davis) goes on the run with Sylvia Weis (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!, You Should Have Left). How else to explain the unintentionally hilarious sequence in which the couple careens off the road in a convertible? The flipping car looks like a toy — and one that magically lands upright.

Green Lantern: The desolation of smog

Ryan Reynolds jokes in Deadpool 2 about starring in the flop 2011 superhero origin story Green Lantern, which we've admittedly singled out before for digitizing the character's distinctive uniform. But the greater distraction -– especially considering the film's reported $200 million budget –- is the depiction of the villain Parallax (voiced by Clancy Brown of The Shawshank Redemption and Thor: Ragnarok). Parallax is supposed to be the living embodiment of fear, and in the comics, it's more buglike. But the film's roiling black and yellow cloud that spreads over the city in the climactic battle reminds us of that foam sealant that snugs around pipes. It's hard to feel that Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is in danger when he's facing off against an angry cloud. Or bad weather. Even if a toothy skull pops out once in a while. One positive postscript: This film did bring future spouses Reynolds and Blake Lively together.

Independence Day: Splinters and bits

Independence Day has the throwback charm of the space invasion films of the 1950s (The Thing from Another World, It Came from Outer Space) and preposterous energy that makes it tough to dislike. This 1996 film's visual effects team even won an Oscar -– but that doesn't prevent us from giggling at two of its signature moments. As the film's aliens coordinate annihilating various landmarks, they obliterate a five-foot scale model of the White House. It's made of sandstone in real life, but based on the flying splinters, the model was mostly wood. Meanwhile, simultaneously in New York City, the aliens attack the Empire State Building, for which director Roland Emmerich (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, White House Down) ignores geography. Instead of sitting squarely on the corner of a city block where it belongs, the famous skyscraper here appears to rest in the center of the street — the perfect spot for its explosion to flip cars into the air.

Total Recall: An eye-popping finale

1990's Total Recall, a film adaptation of Philip K. Dick's short story "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale," uses practical and CG effects with uneven results. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave the visual effects team a Special Achievement Award, but it's difficult not to take issue with the woman's mask that Quaid (Arnold Schwarzenegger) removes once it starts to malfunction at a checkpoint, revealing an unconvincing facsimile of the star underneath. There's also unfortunate humor in Quaid, Melina (Rachel Ticotin), and the villain Cohaagen (Ronny Cox) struggling to breathe on the surface of Mars during the film's climax. The actors gamely clutch at their throats and gasp while latex masks of the actors inflate with air pockets to exaggerate their distress. But as their struggle continues, the bulging eyes resemble Tex Avery cartoons. Cox's villain bears the brunt of this, but the changing atmosphere conveniently keeps Quaid and Melina from showing any lasting effects before their final kiss.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture: A lackluster voyage(r)

The original crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise journeyed onto the big screen with this 1979 film whose Oscar-nominated visual effects nevertheless failed to thrill. The climax particularly looks peculiar, as crewman Decker (Stephen Collins) opts to merge with the Voyager spacecraft. The real Voyager missions launched in 1977 and involved twin spacecraft, initially targeting closeup views of Jupiter and Saturn. (NASA says Voyager 1 is still collecting data and crossed the threshold of interstellar space in 2012.) This film imagines Voyager became sentient on its travels through the solar system and adopted the name "V'Ger." The contentious shoot first used special-effects house Robert Abel and Associates, then Douglas Trumbull (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), and included a number of injuries as the crew fell through the lights, panels, and plastic surrounding V'Ger when it and Decker meet. The end result is rather meh, with Decker appearing backlit while his hair blows and sparkly lights cascade around him. 

Flash Gordon: Ming-a-ring-ring

1980's Flash Gordon adapted the classic 1930s comic strips in search of movie magic, and although the end result is spectacularly cheesy, it still inspires a lot of affection, partly because of Queen's soundtrack ("Flash... ah-ah! He'll save every one of us"). The costume and production design from BAFTA nominee Danilo Donati (Red Sonja, Life Is Beautiful) is also a standout, oozing retro kitsch among all that red and gold. The effects team deserves kudos for inventiveness, creating memorable images like Mongo's multicolored clouds, which fits within the film's aesthetic alongside the lasers and winged Hawkmen. But the demise of the merciless Emperor Ming (the legendary Max von Sydow of The Seventh Seal and Game of Thrones, among many others) fares worse. A wounded Ming holds Flash (Sam Jones) at bay with a pulsing red glow from his ring, saying "Pitiful fool! My life is not for any Earthing to give or take." Then the ring zaps him, dissolving the merciless leader into the jewelry. Out of the picture, but not exactly out of this world.