6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy

It's been over two decades since CGI came careening through the silver screen to murder cops, lawyers, and other civil servants in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. Since then, both films have been praised for their inexplicably realistic effects, even though both movies have birthed a handful of sequels with much more powerful special effects technology at their disposal. Despite the fact that Terminator Genisys and Jurassic World are brimming with CGI that is objectively more realistic than the original films from the early '90s, so many people (myself included) seem to agree that the effects in the originals look better than the slick computer graphics of the modern sequels.

Why do a bunch of us find the photorealistic carnage of the Genisys and Jurassic World trailers so woefully unappealing? The answer isn't dumb nostalgia (well, not just dumb nostalgia) but rather that the best CGI in the world might as well be The Scorpion King if the filmmakers fail to realize a handful of fundamental things about special effects, such as ...

#6. Lack Of Visual Restraint Makes Gravity Act Like A Cartoon

New Line Cinema

There might be a time when CGI finally traverses the uncanny valley and becomes indistinguishable from the real world. Only none of that will matter as long as filmmakers continue to apply physics with a spongy fist. Even Viggo Mortensen said that as Lord Of The Rings progressed, Peter Jackson lost more and more restraint, like a fat kid at a rehab clinic because he's addicted to heroin, you insensitive monster. And speaking of insensitive monsters -- here's Orlando Bloom somehow piercing the hide of a titan elephant before sliding down its trunk like Fred Flintstone clocking out for the day:

New Line Cinema
Yabba dabba don't.

He just indifferently jumps from the final breath of a dying war beast like he's stepping out of a Geo Prizm. Even if the CGI was spotless, the audience has no frame of reference for what a grown man gleaming the cube off of a six-tusked safari animal looks like. So, in the end, this physics-defying stunt just turns Legolas into an immortal Looney Tunes character. The inexplicable Hobbit trilogy ramps this up even more when they have him pull an actual Wile E. Coyote moment in the final film:

New Line Cinema
No, I don't care how light he is; this looks stupid.

It's hard to blame someone for wanting to make something look as awesome as they imagine, but sometimes having that "sky's the limit" freedom means knowing when to keep it grounded. It's advice they needed to heed in Terminator Genisys, when the T-1000 slices off its own arm to then use as a javelin:

Paramount Pictures
Wait 'til you see the scene where it disguises itself as a mohel.

What seems like a fun little CGI flourish ends up opening a world of impossible character motivation and baffling physics. Why would a thoughtless killing machine waste precious murder-seconds dramatically lopping off his own spike and flipping it into the air like a futuristic baton twirler? How did it even manage to perfectly spin its amputated dagger arm like that? Is it wise for a liquid-metal robot to willingly javelin his body parts? What if he loses the piece? Won't he keep getting smaller with every new one he loses? The director probably didn't ask any of these questions, because he just wanted this shot to look cool. It's the exact same problem later in the trailer, when the T-800 goes tumbling into traffic:

Paramount Pictures
Just like Arnold's post-political career.

It took me forever to figure out why this shot looked so wrong, until realizing that the one-ton robot flying down the highway somehow manages to lightly flip and bounce like a two-pound puppy. The obvious explanation is that the director needed Arnold to end with his face through the windshield for the hilarious little gag that happens next, and accomplished this by throwing out everything we know about gravity and inertia in the process. It's yet another case of an object or person going where the director needed it to go, instead of where it naturally would. And while many movies these days actually hire physicists to tell them if they're punching Isaac Newton in the taint, that advice is meaningless if you're using CGI to pull off an entire stunt instead of trying to perform it in the real world.

It's like they're challenging us to think of the movie as anything but a cartoon. Especially now that every film is colored like one ...

#5. Color Grading Makes Everything Look Like A Fantasy

Universal Studios

Movies like Transformers and The Hunger Games are so aggressively teal and orange that they look like big-budget adaptations of a Spencer Gifts blacklight poster. As we've explained before, the reason for this is that those two colors are on opposite sides of the color wheel, and as such are immediately pleasing to human eyes. Since human skin best resembles orange more than anything else on that wheel, color graders had an easy starting point to completely ruin every film they work on.

If you're wondering what I mean by "color grading," take a look at this comparison between two similar scenes in Jurassic World and Jurassic Park:

Universal Studios
Top: Jurassic World; Bottom: Jurassic Park

Notice how everything in Jurassic World has a foggy layer of desaturated blue over it? It's subtle, and we've gotten used to it because every movie does it now, so just for shits, I swapped the two styles for comparison ...

Universal Studios
Left: Before; Right: After

Then, because compulsion is a disease, I started removing the color grading from every shot in the trailer:

Universal Studios
Left: Before; Right: After

For the life of my family, I can't fucking figure out why anyone would want to watch a movie that's filtered to look like someone refusing to remove their Ray-Bans. The reason you don't see this in Jurassic Park or other '90s movies is because it hadn't been invented yet. Color grading was made popular by the Coen brothers after CGI became the go-to special effect, when they decided to use color grading to make O Brother, Where Art Thou? look like an old sepia-toned photograph. But their point was to detract realism from the finished product, whereas Jurassic Park was (originally) about creating larger-than-life creatures in a real-world setting.

This is why the effects in The Avengers and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes look so darn good in comparison. Along with dumping shit-tons of money into the CGI, those movies didn't wash everything over with color grading to make it look like Middle-goddamn-earth. It's the actual world, with actual earth tones. Compare that to Godzilla, which looks beautiful but appears to take place in a gritty Pleasantville covered in volcano ash:

Warner Bros.
Basically it's Sin City, but with a less aggressive version of Mickey Rourke.

#4. CGI Was Originally Used As A Last Resort

TriStar Pictures

Except for four minutes of screen time, every special effect you see in Jurassic Park was either an animatronic or Jeff Goldblum's enchanting chest hair. And while it might have just been a budget issue or the technological limitations of CGI at the time, the system worked, goddammit. Look at the scene in The Lost World where the T-rex romps about San Diego like a drunk horse:

Universal Studios
Those gas prices are the most unrealistic-looking thing here.

The moment we need to see a close-up is when they switch to a robot, even though it in no way interacts with the surrounding environment. This is something the filmmakers went out of their way to do even though both the T-rex animatronics were such fatties that they actually built the sets around them instead of trucking them from place to place.

And that's the thing about animatronics: Even though they're cheaper to make, they're really hard to use. It's basically a foam condom stuck over a Truckasaurus skeleton trying to emote, and the process eats into the workday faster than a modular wall and Internet pornography. But the result is an in-camera lighting reference for the digital artists and close-up shots that don't look like the movie Spawn. The only animatronic we've seen so far in Jurassic World has been obscured by leaves like they are embarrassed that it's even in the film. Meanwhile, it appears that Terminator Genisys has completely forgotten that, despite ushering in the age of CGI, Terminator 2 was like 80 percent surprised-face Robert Patrick puppets.

Stan Winston
"You call that an earlobe? Make it again!"

Shit, sons -- even Jurassic Park III knew to rely on head-to-toe animatronic raptors, even though that meant having one talk to Sam Neill like the goddamn Sinclair family.

Universal Studios


Meanwhile, in the Jurassic World trailer, every single dinosaur is CGI, no matter how close we are to them. When Chris Pratt is interacting with three Velociraptors that are right in front of his face, they might as well be cartoons, because they're right next to a living, breathing person constantly reminding us all what a living, breathing being actually looks like:

Universal Studios
"#SelfieSaturday #NoFilter"

Compare that to the "clever girl" scene from the original Jurassic Park, which was basically just Stan Winston throwing a robot at a dude.

Universal Studios
"Ten bucks if you hit him in the nuts."

That's always going to look more convincing, because we know that robot is physically there, biting Muldoon's head. But let's say Jurassic World does have amazing animatronics to match the CGI. They also better know how to film them, because ...

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