Is CGI Making Our Special Effects Worse?

This weekend, I was doing a bit of due diligence by trying to catch up on a few sci-fi classics I’ve missed over the years. I’ve got Forbidden Planet, Ghost in the Shell and Metropolis ready to go, but I decided to start with John Carpenter’s The Thing.

The film, which is itself a remake, and has now been prequelized in a new movie out a month ago with the same name, tells a surprisingly harrowing story of an isolated Antarctic research station that encounters…well, a thing.

It’s an alien lifeform with the ability to morph into any living organism’s body ,and Kurt Russell spends the film figuring out which of his teammates are really out to eat his brains. When the alien does reveal itself, it’s often a bizarre collection of pus spewing flesh, flailing limbs and grotesque faces, both human, animal and extraterrestrial.

The Thing itself is a wonder of special effects, and it really made me think about how physical creature effects really are still necessary in today’s day and age, and how CGI would have actually made a film like this far less unsettling. Obviously, if the movie was filmed today, all these slithering, oozing pieces would have been rendered in CG, but it absolutely would not have produced the same effect. I haven’t seen the new version, but I’m guessing this was indeed the case, which is why it tanked both critically and commercially.

It got me thinking about how if CGI really has helped move filmmaking along the way we normally assume it has. I realize I sound like a 70 year old film critic writing a column in like 1995, but bear with me.

It’s especially apparent when you go back and watch classic films, like I did with The Thing. Think about a movie like Alien. If that was made today, everything from the creature itself to the discovery of the android to the famous chestbursting scene would have been done in CGI. Instead, by using creature models and physical effects that were available at the time, we have these memorable moments that will stay with us forever.

Perhaps the greatest example of what I’m talking about would be Star Wars. It’s hard to argue that when watching the original (unaltered) trilogy, that the effects age perfectly well over time. As someone who wasn’t alive when the films were released, I can safely say that I don’t have nostalgia clouding my mind when it comes to making that judgment.

But now you look at where Star Wars is today. There is no better series that should have embraced CGI wholeheartedly, as it allows for the creation of worlds that were simply not possible to render using these old school techniques.

The problem is the addition of CGI made these films far, far worse. We got a sneak preview of that in the re-edits of the films, where CGI Jabba gets his tail stepped on, or we witness the CGI song and dance number of an alien band. But the prequel trilogy is where the real tragedy strikes.