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The best special effects in movies

60 years of special effects wizardry, from Dynamation to Bullet Time.

The best special effects in movies
Jon Mundy
25 July 2023

Anyone who snootily turns their nose up at special effects in movies is missing a fundamental point: every movie ever made employs special effects.

All movies are elaborate illusions. Film makers set out to sell you on the reality of a scene using (sometimes literal) smoke and mirrors. That’s as true of Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies as it is of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies.

While it’s true that the over-emphasis on special effects can hide a fundamental lack of artistic worth, a single well-applied special effect can enhance and even define a movie. That seems to be the case with Christopher Nolan’s latest film Oppenheimer, which recreates the historical testing of the original atom bomb using practical effects.

It’s certainly the case with the following 18 movies. Their defining special effects haven’t all aged perfectly, but each one pushed the medium on in some way, or else lifted the source movie to a new level.

Which of these movie special effects impressed you the most? Vote for your favourite below.

The best special effects in movies

The best special effects in movies

1. Terminator 2 - The T–1000

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The early ’90s saw CGI starting to make its mark in movies in a big way, and the film that arguably kicked it all off was 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. James Cameron’s action extravaganza was packed full of stunning set pieces, but it was the film’s big bad that really stole the show.

Robert Patrick’s implacable T–1000 was a molten metal upgrade on Arnie’s crude mechanical robot, and one that could morph and shape-shift at will. Modern blockbuster movie making was arguably mapped out right here in the T–1000’s gloopy form.

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2. The Matrix - Bullet time

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The Matrix was remarkable for a number of reasons, but its signature ‘bullet time’ special effect proved especially influential. This pioneering technique appeared to allow the camera to swoop and rotate quickly and smoothly around an extremely slow-moving subject.

In reality, the subject was simply captured by 120 separate still cameras, tightly packed into a smooth loop. The resulting rapid consecutive shots were then stitched together in such a way to give the illusion of a moving film camera. The effect in the final film is breathtaking, and beautifully highlights the reality-hacking speed of Neo and his cohorts.

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3. Jurassic Park – Brachiosaurus introduction

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Jurassic Park’s whole story centres on a fictional scientific breakthrough that sees dinosaurs recreated and deployed in a theme park. There’s a real life parallel to this in the CGI breakthrough that truly sold the concept of dinosaurs walking among us.

The money shot here has to be the one that captures the reaction of our core group of heroes to their first glimpse of a dino, followed by the stunning reveal of what they were ogling – a majestic brachiosaurus, plodding contentedly among the trees.

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4. Inception - Warped Paris

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Christopher Nolan is a modern director who very much values practical effects, but that simply wasn’t going to help with his need to create a literal dream world in Inception. Instead, he applied next-level CGI wizardry to literally fold a bustling Paris in on itself.

While it’s a showy piece of film making, the effect is profound, at one vertiginous and awe-inspiring. More importantly the audience is left in no doubt that they aren’t in Kansas anymore, and that this dream world works to its own set of rules.

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5. The Thing - alien effects

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The Thing may have come along a decade before the CGI revolution heralded by Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park, but its monsters are just as impressively realised. They might even be more nightmare-inducing.

John Carpenter’s loose reboot of a schlocky 1950s hit called for an altogether ickier form of alien to reflect more cynical times. Freed by its R-rated nature (and the director’s out-there sensibilities), the practical effects go full-on body horror, with spidery limbs bursting hideously from severed and deformed ‘human’ body parts.

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6. Star Wars: A New Hope - Opening spaceship tracking shot

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Star Wars was iconic from its very opening moments. No sooner had those pulpy scrolling words finished informing us of the war between an evil empire and those plucky rebels that the view panned down and a spaceship swooped overhead. But wait, that space cruiser is being chased down by… an even bigger spaceship, and this one seems to stretch on forever.

The effect is suitably huge. This one shot paints a picture of the unbalanced struggle that has just been described, leaving us in no doubt as to the empire’s scale, power, and malevolent intent.

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7. Jason and the Argonauts - Skeleton animation

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Special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen pretty much wrote the book on golden era Hollywood special effects. His stop motion creations might look faintly comical by today’s standards, but the artistry involved in their herky-jerky animation, and how they were spliced into live action, formed a crucial stepping stone to today’s blockbusters.

Harryhausen’s ‘Dynamation’ work is at its most iconic in Jason and the Argonauts. The scene with the merciless skittering skeleton warriors, in particular, is still capable of raising chills today.

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8. The Lord of the Rings - Gollum

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By the time The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring landed in cinemas in 2001, Terminator 2’s T–1000 was a decade in the rearview mirror, and CGI characters had become part of the Hollywood furniture.

What they still lacked, though, was weight and soul. Cue Weta Workshop, an antipodean special effects company that pioneered a new kind of motion capture. The fruit of their labour was the character of Gollum, an entirely computer generated creation with an underpinning of live performance, courtesy of Andy Serkis. A new type of CGI, one anchored in reality, was born.

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9. 2001: A Space Odyssey - Zero gravity

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2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t just widely regarded as the best sci-fi movie ever made – it frequently tops lists as the best movie ever made. Beyond its timelessly profound themes, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece remains fresh thanks to its ingenious special effects.

Take the iconic early zero-G sequence, in which you’ll swear that some form of prototypical ‘vomit comet’ aircraft was employed. In actual fact, the floating pen detail that sells the con was achieved with double-sided tape and a rotating piece of glass.

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10. Independence Day - City-sized spaceships

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Independence Day’s influence on the Hollywood machine wasn’t wholly a healthy one. Thanks to the success of this monolithic alien invasion blockbuster, we had to sit to through a whole heap of bloated, vacuous disaster event movies over the ensuing decade and beyond.

The original 90s alien invasion movie retains its potency, however, thanks largely to its immense sense of scale. We all remember those scenes of city-sized spacecraft taking out various national monuments, the result of a canny combination of cutting edge CGI and classic model work.

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11. An American Werewolf in London - Transformation scenes

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Cinema in the early-to-mid ’80s went through something of a werewolf phase, culminating in Michael J Fox’s family friendly depiction in 1985’s Teen Wolf. The defining werewolf film of the era, however, came four years prior – and it was anything but family friendly.

In an American Werewolf in London, effects artist Rick Baker employed impressive animatronics and classic makeup techniques to depict the gruesome transformation of a man into a lupine beast. A whole generation of Gen-Xers were duly wowed/traumatised.

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12. Children of Men - Driving action scene

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Alfonso Cuarón had already hinted at his long-take wizardry with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but he really proved to be a master of the art two years later with Children of Men.

There are several instances of the director leaving the camera rolling in the film, and each could have featured on this list. We’ve gone with one particularly impactful scene half way through the film, in which a joyous road trip turns into a vicious rolling battle, the camera magically rotating to take in our besieged passengers and their surrounding assailants.

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13. Minority Report – Floating UI

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You can measure Minority Report’s legacy by the way it has become a common pop culture reference point. Any new surveillance or police state outrage, for example, will inevitably be described as ‘like Minority Report’ in reference to its pre-crime law enforcement concept.

Just as strong, however, is the film’s influence on futuristic UI design. The indelible image of Tom Cruise swiping and gesturing at an air-projected computer screen pretty much defined how such things were subsequently rendered in sci-fi movies. It might just have helped kickstart the current AR/VR revival, too.

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14. Gravity - Digital space

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The convincing portrayal of zero gravity in space films was hardly new ahead of Gravity’s 2013 release – see 2001: A Space Odyssey elsewhere on this list. However, no film had managed to simulate the effect so extensively or viscerally, let alone in full 3D.

Pretty much the entire movie takes place in zero-G, with Sandra Bullock’s embattled astronaut fighting fires both literal and metaphorical in a fully weightless environment. Somewhat ironically, the resulting effects (which are predominantly digital) have a real sense of weight and heft to them.

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15. Forrest Gump – Tom Hanks embedded in history

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It’s fair to say not everything about Forrest Gump has aged quite as gracefully as its special effects, but that’s what we’re here to discuss. Those effects memorably see Tom Hanks’s slow-witted narrator spliced into historical footage so that he can interact with various famous figures.

Besides shaking hands and sharing dialogue with long-dead American presidents, ILM’s CGI wizardry is famous for enabling the depiction of able-bodied actor Gary Sinise as a double amputee Vietnam war vet.

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16. Rise of the Planet Of The Apes - Intelligent monkeys

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If the performance of Andy Serkis as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings heralded a new kind of motion capture performance, then Rise of the Planet Of The Apes (and its sequels) demonstrated the extent of what could be achieved a decade on.

Serkis returns to slip on the digital costume of Bright Eyes/Caesar, a super-intelligent chimpanzee who learns first-hand the cruelty of humanity. There’s genuine life in Caesar’s mannerisms and his uncannily alert eyes, prompting genuine sympathy from the audience.

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17. Life of Pi - Richard the tiger

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It’s not uncommon for a novel to be termed ‘unfilmable’, often due to some central narrative device that’s incompatible with a visual medium. With Life of Pi, it was the simple fact that a vast chunk of its story placed a young boy, a wounded zebra, and a full-grown male tiger together in a life boat.

Director Ang Lee got around the issue thanks to rapid advances in CGI. The movie’s Richard Parker (the name of the tiger) was an almost entirely computer-generated creation, with a real tiger used only in the rare scenes where he was alone.

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18. Avatar - Making 3D a thing again

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Prior to Avatar’s arrival in 2009, 3D cinema was largely viewed as a gimmick; an anachronistic technique rooted in headache-inducing novelty and silly glasses. It certainly wasn’t something a sophisticated post-millenial audience would want.

James Cameron’s sci-fi extravaganza heralded a drastic technological leap forward for the technique, making the effect much more pronounced and natural. Beyond that, its massive success at the box office prompted a fresh wave of 3D-enhanced blockbusters, encouraged TV manufacturers to give their sets another dimension, and even made those glasses a little less silly.

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