Tuesday, April 08, 2008

CGI: the Good, Bad, & the Ugly

One thing that is pretty much inescapable in today's sci-fi and fantasy and that is CGI or computer generated imagery. George Lucas has probably been the single most influential movie-maker when it comes to CGI, most notably using it to spectacular effect in his first Star Wars movie. But over the years CGI has become something of a blessing and a curse for sci-fi lovers. When used with live action CGI can be tough to integrate naturally into a story, though it can add some dazzling visuals. CGI is great when it is used in animated films such as Toy Story or Monsters Inc. but it can be jarring when fused with human interaction.

Here's my look at CGI and who I think did it well, and who didn't.

The Abyss

I loved this movie when it first came out. When I think of films set in or on the ocean I usually think of submarines or sharks. "The Abyss" took a totally different angle and took us inside an underwater oil platform. After a submarine sinks deep in the ocean a SEAL team is sent to the underwater oil platform as a base to investigate the wreck. The SEAL and the crew from the oil platform both head to investigate the sub and first encounter the mysterious life forms that are living under the sea. At first we don't know what they are, but soon we realize they can manipulate water when they send a tentacle formed from seawater to investigate the humans on the rig. (Best line in the film: "Raise your hand if you think that was a Russian water tentacle...") I liked the use of CGI in this film. It was effective without being overused.

Verdict: Good CGI

The Hulk

I had high hopes for this when it first came out. Many of us remember growing up with the TV series The Incredible Hulk starring Bill Bixby and a green painted Lou Ferrigno. I always liked the show as a kid and couldn't wait for David Banner to utter his famous Don't make me angry, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry... line. Back in the day the most realistic thing they could do was use two actors, one for David and one for The Hulk, to demonstrate the transformation from man to monster. But the movie seemed to promise something more; a bigger badder Hulk. The problem with the movie version though was that The Hulk wasn't just big, he was massive on a scale that was so far beyond realism that I couldn't take my mind away from the fact that he was fake. Add to that the fact that his face looked a bit like a petulant child and I was lost for good.

Verdict: Bad CGI

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Jar Jar Binks.

Verdict: Ugly CGI

Jurassic Park

"Jurassic Park" was one of the first movies to effectively blend live action and CGI on a huge scale. I can't imagine how much work must have gone into this film. The dinosaurs are big, scary, foreign and IMO pretty darned realistic (though having never seen a live dinosaur, what do I know?) Some people like to debate whether or not this movie stayed close enough to the book to be considered good, but if you like your CGI, it's hard to deny the special effects in this were impressive. I was especially taken by how well the Velociraptors were done. In most movies the big Tyrannosaurus rex would have taken center stage, but the raptors were given a very convincing menace.

Verdict: Good CGI

Van Helsing

I really wanted to like this movie. It's no secret I have a massive crush on Hugh Jackman and I usually manage to love him in everything, but this movie was just too busy and had too much CGI in my opinion to really work. As a monster hunter, Van Helsing faces vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein monster. If the movie had only focused on one or two monsters I could probably have gone along and enjoyed the show. But overall I felt there was just too much and not enough of it was well done. By the time the Frankenstein monster showed up, I had already checked out.

Verdict: Bad CGI

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

Mr. Hyde.

Verdict: Ugly CGI

Pan's Labyrinth

This movie is a stunner on so many levels. It's imaginative, well written and acted and beautifully conceived. This movie, in the hands of a less skilled director could have been a disaster but Guillermo del Toro delivers an adult fairy tale that is unforgettable. Blending dark images of a fairy tale world inhabited by fairies and fauns with post-Civil War Spain, "Pan's Labyrinth" fuses live action and CGI with absolute conviction.

Verdict: Good DGI

Wild Wild West

This movie was a fiasco from its inception. It is a strange attempt to fuse westerns with science fiction in sort of a steampunk adaptation. Starring Will Smith as Jim West and a severely overacting Kenneth Branagh as the villain Arliss Loveless, the movie has all kinds of bizarre inventions including nitroglycerin-powered penny-farthing bicycles, spring-loaded notebooks, bulletproof chainmail, flying machines, steam tanks, and Loveless's giant mechanical spider. (source~ Wikipedia) This is another example of waaaay too much CGI. It's bad enough the movie was poorly written and directed, but the CGI did nothing to add to it either.

Verdict: Bad CGI

The Mummy Returns

The hideous scorpion-fused-with-The Rock.

Verdict: Ugly CGI

Boy, I could go on and on. In fact, I bet this post will have a sequel since there is so much CGI out there. So get the sequel started-- what would you add?


Melinda Seckington said...

What I've noticed with CGI is that some of it gets "bad and old" quite quickly. There are a lot of films I saw in the cinema, from which I thought "hey cool effects!", only to see it 2 years later and find it completely horrible.

Take Harry Potter 1 for instance. At the time I thought it was pretty amazing what the were doing. If you try to watch the film now, it's pretty unbearable.

weenie said...

Spot on with the good and bad CGI - at its best, you can be totally amazed. At its worst, even I could do better with basic animation package! ;-)

weenie said...
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Charles Gramlich said...

Your opinions are very similar to mine. The only CGI I liked from Van Helsing was the female vampire stuff. The rest was weak, partially because the story was weak.

As for the Phantom Menace, Lana and I watched it the other day and it still was weak. Oh how bad Jar Jar was.

Franki said...

I just loved the Transformers movie. Really wished I'd seen it at the theatres.

Di Francis said...

Sometimes it's really hard to separate the bad CGI from the bad *movie*.

I like The Mummy, but the Mummy returns . . . ick on a lot of the CGI. I like Alien and Aliens.


DesLily said...

totally agree with you on the Abyss! That's a movie that actually used only what was needed and it worked oh so well!!!

Stewart Sternberg said...

Beowulf, astonishing CGI. Chronicles of Narnia...mediocre CGI.

Recently I watched X Men Last Stand..and the fight scene at the end had some of the most mindboggling CGI I ever saw. Come to think of it, so did all the Pirates of the Caribean (sp?) movies.