Hollywood has been working with digital effects for over three decades. While some movies use them in moderation, others have relied on digital wizardry to conjure entire worlds. The results can be breathtaking, yes, but they can also be downright cheesy. Then there’s the inevitable truth that special effects can age horribly — what looked cutting-edge years ago is liable to make us giggle today. With Tron: Legacy coming out in theaters, there’s no better time than now to revisit Tron and nine other cheesy digital worlds.
10. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
George Lucas invested a lot of time and money on his Star Wars prequels, and it shows. Still, state-of-the-art technology is not always tantamount to perfection. Some fans complain that the CG effects in The Phantom Menace, in particular, lack soul, and the dull dialogue certainly doesn’t help. Of course there’s an entirely opposite camp that would argue that the digital magic was one of the best reasons to watch the movie, and for this reason The Phantom Menace is at the bottom of the list.
9. The Mask
Jim Carrey is perfectly capable of looking bonkers without the aid of digital effects, but aid he did receive in The Mask — and it looks goofy in a not-so-complimentary way. As the hyperactive green-faced superhero, Carrey makes his body bounce against walls and spin like a human tornado. His eyeballs bug out of his head, and his jaw literally drops a foot. Cartoon effects are fine when handled correctly, like in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Here, though, it’s all a bit hokey.
Hulk will forever be a blight on Ang Lee’s filmography, and you can see why: the Hulk looks ridiculous in this film. (No offense to Eric Bana, who makes a perfectly fine Bruce Banner.) The story itself may have held its own if the main character hadn’t been such a corny presence onscreen: those stubby legs, the teeny-weeny cutoffs, all that green skin. Digital effects were just not Lee’s friend this time around.
7. The Lovely Bones
There’s no question that the special effects used to create the in-between world of Susie Salmon (Saoirse Ronan) are expensive and sophisticated. Still, there’s something so cornball about the surreal look that Peter Jackson picked for this world: full moons shining over oceans? Roses blooming in the reflection of glassy water? It all looks like something you’d find on a poster in a New Age gift shop — which is fine if you’re into New Age, but, in The Lovely Bones, it’s over-the-top.
6. Van Helsing
Van Helsing left a lot to be desired in the digital-effects department. There’s certainly no shortage of digital tricks in this overblown Hugh Jackman and Kate Beckinsale vampire flick. The trouble is that most of the effects, pricey as they were, are so obviously synthetic that they come across as more tacky than stunning. Whether it’s fanged beasties or Gothic buildings, the digital work in this seedy underworld is a major turnoff.
5. Mortal Kombat: Annihilation
When an evil emperor reopens a portal between his world and the Earth, it’s up to Liu Kang (Robin Shou) and his gang to ward off a whole menagerie of killer mutants. The four-armed Sheeva (Marjean Holden) might have seemed more menacing if her extra limbs looked more believable, and that portal in the doomsday skies might have inspired more fear if it didn’t look like something off the Syfy channel. What can you expect from the sequel to a video game turned movie?
4. The Last Starfighter
From the minute Centauri’s spaceship, with the kidnapped Alex (Lance Guest) onboard, is seen careering through space, you know you’re in for some spectacular retro graphics. The Last Starfighter was one of the first films to use CG in lieu of models to depict planets and starships. Some of the spacecraft shots hold up fairly well, but for the most part this intergalactic universe looks flat and barely more advanced than the 2-D models that preceded it. In this case, the cheesiness makes your viewing experience all the better.
When it first came out, in 1982, Tron‘s then-state-of-the-art computer graphics wowed audiences and critics alike. “Its visual effects are wonderfully new,” praised the New York Times. Today, of course, those very same graphics look like something a 10-year-old could whip up on an iMac. The Light Cycles are downright primordial, and the Grid looks like graph paper transposed onto the screen. Still, we love Tron because of, not in spite of, its dated digital effects. They are a testament to the ever-evolving sophistication of digital effects.
2. The Lawnmower Man
When the dim-witted Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey) is recruited as a test subject for the intelligence-enhancing experiments of Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan), he gets hooked up to a machine that transports him into a virtual reality decked out in lots of roiling colors. His virtual world looks more like a bad psychedelic trip than a rarefied state of existence. The nadir of cheesiness arrives when Jobe has virtual sex with his girlfriend and their nude CG figures (she’s purple, and he’s blue) writhe together in the void.
1. Ghost in the Machine
After a murderer is accidentally killed during an MRI scan — a power surge at the hospital is to blame — his soul somehow gets trapped in a computer network, and he continues his killing spree via electrical grid and phone lines. This alt world is conveyed as a hodgepodge of hokey digital imagery, from goofy fractals to wire-frame figures. When the killer materializes in a crude hologram form, you can’t help but laugh out loud at the primitivity of it all.