6 Movie Special Effects That Have Gotten Worse Over Time
Remakes are a tricky business. If you make a bad one, everyone will hate you, and if you make a good one, the fans of the original film will still hate you. I'm not personally against the good ones, because I was under the impression that movies are not real life and thus aren't going to damage me emotionally with all of their remake sacrilege.
I am against bad filmmaking in general, though. I feel that technological development has given us a lot of chances to improve movies, and when someone squanders it all, we have every right to tell them that they have ruined something. In the case of these six remakes, the filmmakers definitely had the tools to assemble visually inspiring creations. But with great power comes no real responsibility, and these films are examples of what happens when you take years of progress and decide that you'd be better off without them.
King Kong (1976)
The original King Kong is a masterpiece. It manages to be emotionally provoking, as well as full of dinosaurs, and has earned its place in adventure cinema history. The remake, released in 1976, shits on everything in that last sentence.
Let's all take one last hit of competent filmmaking before we inhale the vapors of Hollywood's jenkem.
The easiest way to get something done right is to know how to do it. That sounds like simple advice, but special effects artist Carlo Rambaldi and the people behind the misfire that was the 1976 King Kong remake decided to create a 40-foot-tall mechanical gorilla. That idea immediately hits the special part of a person's brain that senses when something feels like a plan could, and probably will, go awry. It sounds ludicrous, since that robot would have to match up with Kong actor Rick Baker's man-in-a-suit giant ape, but these guys never took knowing how to do anything correctly into consideration with Kong. It would all be fine.
Nah, those look basically the same.
The film, overall, cost about $24 million, and the mechanical ape, which weighed 3.5 tons and was filled with 4,500 feet of wiring, cost $1.7 million to make. That is one-twelfth of the entire budget dedicated to "Fuck it. We're doing this." That's like if George Lucas had spent half the budget of Star Wars hoping that his set designers would complete a full-size, fully operational Death Star in time for the film's release. It seems like a fool's gamble to even consider thinking of something like that, but if you've ever seen this King Kong, which takes the original Kong's excitement away and replaces it with the dad from Beethoven telling Jessica Lange that Kong wanted to rape her, you won't be able to even consider logic when it comes to this movie.
The mechanical Kong comes into play in the third act as he's about to be showcased to a crowd. After the weird, artsy touch of having Kong arrive covered in what looks like a giant gas pump, he does the usual "get fucking pissed" routine and starts to break loose. During the film's most kinetic scene, the filmmakers thought that it would be the perfect time to bust out the most non-kinetic thing related to the movie. You see, earlier in the film, Kong was a man in a suit, and a human being has the ability to move like he's not filled with 4,500 feet of cable. If Rick Baker had suddenly been pumped full of tons of cords, I could see why it looked so terrible and would start wondering why King Kong wasn't dedicated to the memory of Rick Baker. But it isn't. It's just something that works like the universe was delivering karmic debt that day and had knocked on the door labeled "Impossible Dreams."
Sometimes the answer isn't "build the largest robot you possibly can." That might be the most depressing sentence I've ever typed.
It's only used for a few seconds, and you'll notice its insertion when the film suddenly shifts from an angry, walking Kong to a weird action-figure-looking Kong with a blank stare on its face. At 40 feet tall, it is the largest mechanical creature ever designed for a movie, and by far the one that sucks the most. Take that, Guinness Book.
The Lost World (1960)
Willis O'Brien was the creator of the special effects in the original King Kong, and he also worked on 1925's The Lost World. Now, this film takes a few liberties with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original novel. For instance, every part where you might have seen a character moment was replaced with clay dinosaurs hating the shit out of each other. But for every loss of what was on the page, there is a gain with what you see on screen. The Lost World is a special effects landmark, from start to apatosaurus-fucking-up-London finish.
This was the Jurassic Park of the "still dying from polio" generation.
However, stop-motion is a long, expensive process, as you have to slowly adjust the models frame by frame to get the desired movement. In the hands of someone unskilled in it, you might have your fantasy film finished with just enough time left over in your life to remember that you once had a painfully neglected wife and some kids. Willis O'Brien ruled at it, but as time went on, the amount of people good at it decreased, and so did the amount of studios willing to invest the time in it.
Shooting this scene took six and a half years.
So, when you need to remake The Lost World and don't want to hire Ray Harryhausen, what do you do? Well, for starters, you don't spend time attempting to make your dinosaurs look passable. Instead, you hope that your audience is unaware of what baby alligators look like and you just use those. It's the weirdest form of animal cruelty I've ever seen.
Huh. It turns out lizards can feel shame.
A reptile's first instinct when put into limited space with a different reptile is to violently clean out its terrarium. I'm not sure if that's a biological fact, but from The Lost World, you'd assume that reptiles were put on this earth simply to exterminate their own class. The leading cause of death in reptiles is just that.
Glue poisoning is a close #2.
None of the reptiles in The Lost World match up to what they're supposed to represent, so the film becomes an exploitation film where the tyrannosaur is a monitor lizard with very untyrannosaurlike horns and fins. The triceratops is a baby iguana with sort-of-triceratops-like horns and unexplained fins. The only saving grace for paleontology is the giant spider, played by an unassuming tarantula. Otherwise, the modus operandi seems to be guessing wrong about what dinosaurs look like and also hoping that audiences won't notice the ridiculousness of someone cowering in fear from the remnants of a surplus sale at a pet store.
He was crushed by the key grip's foot immediately after this scene.
The Thing (2011)
I hate this trend of pretending that computer-created special effects look realistic. Sometimes there are exceptions to the rule, as there are a huge number of hard-working, talented people in the industry who can create great-looking cityscapes, monsters, etc. However, we're fooling ourselves a lot of the time and selling ourselves short with the excuse "Well, it didn't look THAT bad." Fuck that. Even if your main goal in the movie isn't to mock the Sharknado, you shouldn't settle for mediocre CGI. It's never not distracting when actual people are on screen and suddenly something from Resident Evil 2 is pasted into frame.
Half of you just reached for a controller.
I know I sound like someone's awful hypothetical grandfather who has ditched all responsibility for his family in order to craft arguments against horror films, but I would take animatronics, even bad ones, over CGI any day. At least with a robot or a man in a suit in the same shot as a human, you get the idea that there are two things in there, operating against one another, sharing the same physical space and properties, rather than being edited in later. In the case of this particular film, the 2011 remake of John Carpenter's The Thing, the crew had spent months creating flexible animatronics to give the actors something to work with and react to. Also, I'm very aware that 2011's The Thing is supposed to be a "prequel" to the 1982 film, a claim that would work a lot better if they weren't primarily the same fucking movie.
With only minor differences in the volume of dogsplosions.
Sadly, with only a short time to go before the film's release, most of these animatronics were painted over with CGI. I'm not sure whose decision it was to say "Things seem to be going quite well. No time for that!" but whoever did sabotaged any feeling, whether it be fear or morbid curiosity, that The Thing could've produced. Instead of the awful stretch that a person's skin makes before it reveals his tendril-filled insides (you know that stretch, right? Elementary school was insane), we got body parts that just slid away. Everything became far too fluid to be a part of a natural, tearing human form.
Sweet fluffy Jesus, the Thing can clone-stamp.
If your job was to design Boiled Pudding! (a game I just made up based entirely on what pudding looks like when you boil it) for the original PlayStation, you'd have a better idea of how the human body is supposed to deteriorate into homicidal alien life than the people who flailed at their CGI controls until 2011's The Thing was aborted into existence.
Who thought this could be improved on?
Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1993)
At this point, every film has used a different technique to create all the failure that was missing in its predecessor. For the remake of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, it used the same method: a regular-size woman rampaging through miniatures. Now, the original 50 Foot Woman is by no means a classic film, unless your definition of classic is "hottest thing ever." But, by the law of common sense, one would think that, after 35 years, an effect would be improved upon in some way.
Maybe put her in something lacy, at least.
Never trust your common sense. It only leads to disappointment.
The biggest special effect in the 1993 version of 50 Ft. Woman is the illusion that Daniel Baldwin should ever be around a camera. The second biggest is the total destruction of any and all techniques that would suspend your disbelief of Daryl Hannah walking around this model train shop of a miniature set. You see, a common technique to make things look bigger is to shoot them from low angles. Danny DeVito could fight Mothra if you placed a camera, pointing up, around his shoe level. In the original 50 Foot Woman, most shots of her sexy rampage were filmed in a way to illuminate her immense sexiness. Sure, the miniatures were substandard, but at least we weren't forced to see them in their entire ineptitude all the time.
Behold, the majestic Balsa City.
1993's 50 Ft. Woman rarely does this, instead opting to point the camera at her head-on, meaning that, rather than making her look tall and menacing, she looks like she's here to question your depth perception. This works even worse when she finally, after an agonizing 70 minutes of bantering with Baldwin, decides to stomp through the town. Even without her in it, the town looks awful -- less like something for a movie and more like a hole in a madman's boring putt-putt course. Since you only get to see Hannah from the perspective of a camera operator who's apparently also 50 feet tall, frequently you get both Hannah and the entire shitty-looking town in the same shot. When something looks terrible but is integral to what you need, you usually try to limit its screen time to the bare minimum so as to preserve the effect of it. But if you followed that guideline, there wouldn't need to be a remake of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.
And the world would've been denied all of this.
Roger Corman is famous for being able to produce films on a small budget. If you gave Roger Corman a thousand dollars, he'd give you Avatar, or at least Teenage Space Warriors on a Prehistoric Planet. He has a very "feed everyone with some fish and bread" filmmaking philosophy, which is the exact reason that we should all snap to it and start worshiping him as the reincarnated miracle worker that he has been for so many years.
He came here to save our souls.
Corman produced the original Piranha, a film about some angry mutated piranhas that attack a resort, in 1978. Then, in 1995, sensing that it was the right time to do it all over again, Corman produced the remake. And when I say "do it all over again," I mean that very literally. Piranha 1995 used a nearly identical script and was directed by a guy who would go on to create the worst movie about gangster "Babyface" Nelson. The special effects were also oddly identical because they really were. The 1995 Piranha uses the exact same special effects footage as the first, except, in this case, it doesn't work.
Jurassic Park wrecked the curve for everybody.
The original film had a decent amount of jokes, or at least '70s B-movie dialogue that seemed like jokes, and it made the low-budget animal carnage a little easier to digest. It didn't take itself very seriously. If you sense that the filmmakers are having fun with what they're doing, you're able to forgive the film a bit when something like special effects don't meet Jaws-level expectations. What made the remake's script only "nearly" when it comes to being identical is that they removed a lot of the humor from it, because who has any right to be funny when you're dealing with a serious subject like fantastical experimentation on exotic killer fish? Thus, you have the same special effects that were only decent in the '70s plastered into a '90s movie that everyone is doing in a far too straight-faced fashion.
The special effects aren't anything different, but the way you interpret them becomes different. When a movie with subpar effects isn't fun, it becomes a chore, since it really gets no defense. There's no "But it was silly" loophole that you can use in protecting it. It just sucks. No offense to Roger Corman. I'm sure even Jesus had moments when he thought "This leprosy just isn't getting scrubbed out like I thought it would."
Really, it's incredible he got ANY good footage out of the premise "piranhas exist!"
Every Phantom of the Opera
I can't really blame filmmakers for being unable to improve upon the medical marvel that was Lon Chaney. Chaney played the Phantom in the 1925 film, and he was an actor most famous for changing his appearance extensively to fit into his roles. For instance, to create the Phantom's upturned nose, he pinned it in place with wire. I know it doesn't sound like much now, but back in 1925, the only possible system of pain relief was drinking until you forgot about it. And this was by his own accord, since he had been given the freedom to create his own makeup. If Lon Chaney asked you for permission to create the makeup for a character with one leg, his next question would be to ask where you kept your hacksaws.
"You don't have a hacksaw? It's a good thing I brought my Leatherman."
There have been six adaptations entitled Phantom of the Opera since then, and none of them have been able to top Chaney's look. For starters, most have approached it from the angle that, instead of being deformed from birth like in the original book, the Phantom has been scarred in some fashion. Claude Rains, who portrayed the Phantom in the 1943 remake, is the only one who escapes with any dignity intact, and even still he looks like he traveled through time to copy Tommy Lee Jones' Two-Face. Robert Englund, most famous for starring as Freddy Krueger in the first eight Nightmare on Elm Street films, played the Phantom in the 1989 film. His makeup looks like someone tried to create a new Krueger but got bored a third of the way into it and quit.
It's still two-thirds of a cheek short of half-assed.
Gerard Butler most recently played the Phantom in the 2004 film, but it inspires less terror and more high school theater class pity, as he just comes off as a guy who would be really good at picking up girls if he wasn't so sad and scarred all the time.
Who could ever love one such as he?
Daniel will talk to you about the 1976 King Kong forever, if you let him. For proof of that, check out his Twitter.