Admittedly, we’ve gotten a little jaded. Digital effects are so omnipresent in our blockbusters that we’ve come to expect the impossible from movies. Our sense of awe has been, perhaps, a bit dulled, even as we’re very easily disappointed (although I don’t see the human-feline CGI monstrosities from Cats pleasing anyone in any era). We watch movies for the rush of a brilliantly constructed moment — chasing the high of the coolest things we’ve seen in movies that we’ve loved.
In the hands of true artists and craftspeople, those moments still happen. Scenes that blow our minds, and just as often make us wonder: “how the hell did they do that?” These are some of those moments, past and present, in hope of more awe-inspiring special effects to come.
The Matrix (1999) — Bullet Time
A (radical) reinvention of age-old time lapse photography techniques, bullet time allows for filmmakers to slow down time and to track action from every angle in ways that were impossible previously. The effect has become ubiquitous, but it started with the Wachowskis and the wizards at Manex Visual Effects.
Inception (2010) — Dream Training
Christopher Nolan and the Double Negative team began with footage a real-life Parisian block, which needed to be recreated in photorealistic detail so it could be folded like origami, in this standout sequence involving Leonardo DiCaprio, Elliot Page and a warping cityscape.
Black Panther (2018) — Welcome to Wakanda
Ryan Coogler’s film won several VFX awards, in part for its impressive fight scenes (some of which are more successful than others). The initial transition from pastoral countryside to Wakanda proper, though, is particularly stunning.
Doctor Strange (2016) — Street Fight
Taking Inception’s reality bending city streets several steps further, Doctor Strange places Mads Mikkelson and Tilda Swinton inside an urban Escher painting and sees them fight it out in grand, geometric style.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) — Liquid Metal Killer
Groundbreaking and still effective, relatively little of T2‘s screen time was given to 3D digital effects. Those few minutes of morphing Robert Patrick, though, are incredibly memorable.
Jurassic Park (1993) — Welcome
We’ve had decades to track the progress of dinosaur-related CGI, but the original Jurassic Park still slaps.
Star Wars (1977) — Dykstraflex
There are any number of technical innovations visible in the original Star Wars trilogy, but one of the most significant was the computer motion control photography system developed by John Dykstra and company, a system that allowed for far more dynamism and realism in space-set ship battles than had ever before been possible.
Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) — Podrace
The first Star Wars prequel is, for better and worse, a triumph of technology, using computer systems designed solely to bring images in George Lucas’s head to the screen. The podrace sequence, comprised of over 300 special effects shots, is a highlight — and maybe the only part of the movie most everyone agrees is worth watching.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) — The Holdo Manoeuvre
Big action set-pieces are typically building to the big explosion; here, it’s all building to an equally stunning moment of silence. (Haters who complain that this use of a hyperspace drive contradicts prior films, pipe down.)
Inception (2010) — Hallway Fight
Just as there’s great CGI in Inception, there’s also some very impressive practical work — including in this memorable fight sequence, largely done with a rotating room and actors in harnesses.
Green Knight (2021) — Giants
Part of one of the most beautifully shot films of recent memory, this bit from The Green Knight isn’t necessarily an innovative technological triumph, but it is stunning, proving that CGI can still wow us when used well.
Contact (1997) — The Mirror
It’s a seemingly small thing in a movie full of big effects, but this sequence, in which we realise that everything we’ve just seen has been (impossibly) reflected in a bathroom mirror, was much discussed by FX fans at the time. It somehow only gets more mind-bending with repeated viewings.
X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) — Time in a Bottle
Quicksilver’s mutant powers offer up a stylish update to bullet time tech, this time set to Jim Croce.
Independence Day (1996) — White House Down
Perhaps not wildly innovative, Independence Day did almost singlehandedly revitalize the disaster movie genre, putting every technique available at the time, including impressive use of miniatures, on full display.
Alien (1979) — Chestburster
Stage blood, organs from the local butcher, and a variety of seafood — those were the main ingredients of another iconic scene. It’s no wonder that Veronica Cartwright passed out during filming.
Interstellar — The Wormhole
Christopher Nolan and company brought an unprecedented level of realism to this particular element of the story, consulting with theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (and others) in order to create a wormhole that’s far more scientifically plausible than any previously on film.
Matrix Reloaded (2003) — Burly Brawl
Using then-new Universal Capture technology, the filmmakers were able to duplicate Hugo Weaving endlessly without the need for special motion capture suits or markers. The effect is a little dodgy in certain shots, sure, but this innovative use of digital stuntmen is now the norm for many films with impossible action sequences.
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) — Melting Nazi
Harsh, perhaps… but kinda what you get for being a Nazi.
An American Werewolf in London (1981) — Transformation
The werewolf transformation effects here were by the great Rick Baker, working with director John Landis.
The Howling (1981) — Another Transformation
1981 was a good year for werewolf comedies. Rob Bottin, who also did the creature effects for The Thing, helped director Joe Dante transform a young Robert Picardo into a genuinely frightening beast.
The Thing (1982) — Defibrillator
A relentlessly gory tour de force from director John Carpenter and wizard Rob Bottin — this may well be the pinnacle of practical creature effects in film.
The Hollow Man (2000) — Transformation
Though it’s an uncharacteristically forgettable film from director Paul Paul Verhoeven, Hollow Man still boasts some impressive special effects. Sony Pictures Imageworks created this sequence that tracks Kevin Bacon’s invisibility layer by goopy layer.
Metropolis (1927) — City of the Future
Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou, alongside effects pioneer Eugen Schüfftan, created a stunning view of the future that has influenced any number of films since (Star Wars among them).
King Kong (1933) — T-Rex Fight
An early triumph of stop-motion animation, King Kong’s lead ape retains a tremendous amount of personality, and even a little bit of soul, despite being largely made of metal and fur.
The Ten Commandments (1956) — Parting the Red Sea
Taking six months and requiring multiple filming locations as well as matte paintings, this was, in all likelihood, the most complex special effects shot filmed up to that time. It’s still impressive.
Royal Wedding (1951) — You’re All the World to Me
Just Fred Astaire and a full-sized room on a gimble. Simple, but certainly not easy.
Jason and the Argonauts — Skeleton Fight
One of the most impressive and memorable creations from stop-motion genius and legend Ray Harryhausen.
Tron (1982) — Light Bike
A rough but stylish use of computer animation, the film uses (largely) geometric shapes and has its human character interact with them in interesting ways.
Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) — The Stained Glass Knight
It might not look like much now, but this was the first photorealistic (-ish) computer-generated character in film, created by ILM.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) — Genesis
Likewise, ILM and (Pixar co-founder) Loren Carpenter created the Genesis sequence from Wrath of Khan, one of the first fully computer-generated animated sequence in a feature-length film.
Labyrinth (1986) — Owl
Once again we’re talking about an effects sequence created by ILM and company, and, once again, it’s an effect that’s less impressive today but was groundbreaking back in the 1980s: that’s a computer-generated animal, something that had never before been achieved in a feature film.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) — Gollum
There’s some debate over the extent to which Gollum’s personality is a product of Andy Serkis’ performance versus that of the efforts of the artists at Weta Digital, but wherever that line is, he’s an extraordinary creation — a CGI character who gives a true performance.
The Avengers (2012) — Hulk vs. Thor
As with Gollum, Hulk was a major character requiring significant digital enhancement (the analogue, skin-painted bodybuilder, route having fallen out of fashion by 2012). Hulk had been attempted a couple of times before with mixed results, but here they got it right in creating a believably Mark Ruffalo-esque man-monster.
Baahubali: The Conclusion (2017)
The two Tollywood Baahubali movies have an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink energy that’s hard not to love. They’re full of wild action sequences, but perhaps none more so than this, from the climactic siege in the second film.
Cloverfield (2008) — Beheaded
A then-recent restoration of the Statue of Liberty provided high-definition scans of Lady Liberty’s face used by the filmmakers to create this memorable (and entirely accurate) sequence.
The Abyss (1989) — Tentacle
It took three special effects companies to come up with the first instance of computer-animated water in a feature film, complicated by the need for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character to interact with it.
The Perfect Storm (2000) — Giant Wave
ILM had to create brand-new, custom algorithms to generate the complex fluid dynamics necessary to envision the title storm, which the marketers promptly (though probably wisely) gave away in the trailer.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004) — Tsunami
Just a few years after The Perfect Storm, small effects house Tweak Films refined fluid dynamics tech even further, this time pairing an even bigger storm with the city that it’s about to devastate.
Titanic (1997) — Sinking
James Cameron and company spend so much time establishing the size and space of the Titanic that, by the time she goes down, we feel like we know every inch of her. That gives the film’s inevitable set-piece real weight.
Gravity (2013) — Detached
Practical and digital effects come together with a dual purpose: to put Sandra Bullock through the wringer, and to make anyone with the proclivity toward motion sickness queasy.
Avengers: Endgame (2019) — Portals
It really is enough to bring tears to the eyes of comic book fans, or anyone who’s ever enjoyed a Marvel movie.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) — Sand Storm
There’s a lot to appreciate here special effects-wise (both practical and digital), but this long drive into the biggest sand storm you’ve ever seen is particularly stunning.