Five Movies with Special Effects Ahead of Their Time

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“Replay value” is a term usually applied to gaming, but it has its place in the world of film as well. The best films are timeless, though ones that rely on special effects can usually end up dated by them.

That’s not always the case however, as some films were so far ahead of their time when they debuted from a visual perspective, they still don’t feel dated despite being 10, 20 or 30 years old.

Here are five films that I would say were visual effects trendsetters, and far ahead of their time when they debuted.

Star Wars (1977)

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Despite what George Lucas may think with his “special edition” fiddling, the effects in Star Wars are really, really good, and still hold up to this day. It’s incredible to think that in the original cut of the film, computer effects weren’t used because they simply didn’t exist. Rather, most of the action was all done with scale models.

Interestingly, in a lot of ways, this has the effect of making the action sequences feel real, because you are in fact staring a physical object instead of mere bits of code. Sometimes all-CGI worlds like say, Avatar, feel less real than Star Wars which used a mix of practical effects, on-set locations and scale models to achieve their desired results.

It’s sad that the new Star Wars films ended up being some of the WORST offenders when it came to an all-green screen feature. Lucas tried to be on the cutting edge of a new wave of special effects by first re-editing his old films with CGI and the making it the cornerstone of his new movies. But you’ll be hard pressed to find fans that don’t like the original, unedited trilogy better than what came after.

Tron (1982)


Tron was indeed the first film to employ computer generated effects on a widespread scale. Yes, out of all the films listed here, it definitely looks the most dated, but it’s pretty damn good for being the FIRST mostly CGI movie released. And we should also keep in mind that this is 1982 we’re talking about, and the personal computer was just barely starting to exist.

Taking all this into account, the effects are pretty damn incredible given the technology, and it’s not a half bad film either. It was interesting to see how much the technology has evolved with Tron Legacy a full 30 year later. It makes you wonder what another Tron film would look like in 2042.

The most funny thing about Tron’s effects was that they were disqualified from consideration for the Oscars on the grounds that using computers was “cheating.” My, how far we’ve come.

Terminator 2 (1991)

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Terminator didn’t need much special effects, but it’s sequel certainly did. You had Arnold, who needed to have a hole host of Stan Winston-practical effects utilized on him and his other T-100 skeletons (as seen above).

Then you went even further with the T-1000. This was about the upward limit of what CGI was capable of at the time, yet somehow they managed to convincingly render a liquid metal robocop that still looks badass to this day.

Terminator 2 is of course directed by James Cameron, who is currently doing more to pioneer special effects more than anyone these days. You won’t find Avatar at the end of this list, as it’ll take at least a decade to know if it truly was ahead of its time, but I have a hunch it will be considered as such one day.

Jurassic Park (1993)

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As our own Laura Aguirre recently pointed out, Jurassic Park is literally the greatest thing ever. And she’s right. Despite being two decades old at this point, you can watch Jurassic Park today and the special effects are just as convincing today.

Again, we have another masterful blend of practical effects, anamatronic robots and such, and CGI, raptors stalking through the kitchen and what not. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which is which.

I don’t know enough about the technology to tell you exactly why these effects were so much  more convincing than many, many movies that came after it, but Steven Spielberg assembled a visual effects team without equal, and even the sequels didn’t even come close to capturing the authenticity of the first film. You truly believed that dinosaurs were real, and at that point, we had never seen anything like it.

The Matrix (1999)

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Of course there was slow-motion in action films before The Matrix came along, but the film was simply on another level when it arrived. The Wachowskis delivered far and away some of the most jaw-dropping action sequences in history through their unique use of CGI and innovative filming techniques.

The shot of Neo dodging bullets for example used the rig you see above which employed countless cameras to capture every angle of the shot, which could be then combined smoothly for the final product of the film.

It’s obvious to see the influence The Matrix has had since its release. It spawned legions of clones immediately afterward, but even after that died down, it’s fingerprint is all over most of our modern action films. It’s a shame the sequels actually went in reverse, (the 100 Agent fight in Reloaded is an embarrassment of CGI), but the original is still just as fantastic today as it was twelve years ago.

What else would you add to this list?

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  1. Well, the other big special effects picture of 1999 was The Phantom Menace. While some of the effects have since been surpassed (in particular, the land battle at the end doesn’t wow anymore), it used full CGI characters in performance-based roles to a degree that wasn’t replicated for… well, until Gollum. But that was a couple years later. Jar Jar and Watto were dramatic leaps forward for that tech, which had (to my knowledge) mostly been used for stuff like Terminator 2, Mimic, and other monster-based movies.

    Lord of the Rings, though beaten to the punch by The Phantom Menace in a few major areas, really brought that crowd simulation stuff to a new level. Its large-scale battles haven’t really been topped yet either.

    I can’t even articulate how brilliant Speed Racer is, but its use of compositing, and compositing-as-editing alone would put it high on this list for me. It’s so far ahead of its time we still haven’t seen any more movies in its company.

    Also, I have to say I take exception to the notion that the VFX in Jurassic Park are truly seamless, especially today. Not that they’re in any way inadequate, and the T-Rex stuff is rightly heralded as a high water mark, but things like that [ostrich?] stampede don’t blend nearly as well as some of the other iconic scenes. This isn’t a slight on the movie (or the brilliance of its practical/digital blend), but just a reminder to mind the rose-colored glasses people sometimes wear with it.

  2. Don’t know enough about the history of mixing animation with live action to know if the effects done by Who Framed Roger Rabbit are “ahead of their time,” but I gotta give some love to one of my childhood favorites.

  3. 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey 2001: a space odyssey also 2001: a space odyssey

    David R.: The Phantom Menace looked crappy back in 1999.

  4. As far as the whole “spinning the camera around a stopped figure” that you show for the Matrix, that was actually used in the Lost In Space movie the year before.

  5. The 1950s version of war of the worlds. Still looks great. And also benefits from not having those whiny little sh*theads that were tom cruise’s kids in the new one. Also, Spawn. Not bad for being the first of the heavily CGId super hero movies.

  6. Aliens.
    It was the first time you got a really good look at the xenomorphs, and when the alien queen arrived it was simply jaw-dropping.
    Infinitely superior to the following two films, and although I actually really liked the first AvP, the second one had some of the worst special effects I’ve seen in a long time.

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