If you've been a fan of fantasy, horror and/or sci-fi films for the last few years, then it's inevitable that you've heard complaints over Hollywood choosing to rely on computer-generated (CG) special effects instead of practical special effects. The most frequent complaints I've heard are that the CG effects make the movies look like video games and that it feels like the actors aren't really reacting to the CG effects that are supposed to be directly in front of them. These are legitimate complaints (I've seen plenty of films that match both of the aforementioned descriptions), but those who frequently make them appear to forget that special effects in movies have never been completely perfect. For every one special effects master (e.g., Ray Harryhausen, John Dykstra, Stan Winston), there have been hundreds of special effects professionals who have produced work that varies from just above average to downright abysmal. That's been an unbreakable rule in cinematic entertainment from the very beginning, and CG effects aren't going to change that.
With that in mind, here are five examples I have chosen that show CG effects at their best. The creatures and machines depicted in these movies could have been done purely as practical effects, but CG effects technology brought them into completely new levels of excitement.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)
To be sure, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow follows in the tradition of Star Wars and the Indiana Jones movies of using pulp science fiction and action-adventure serials from the '20, '30s, '40s and '50s as sources of inspiration. Yet while the Indiana Jones films focused on practical effects and stunt work and Star Wars utilized the grungy "used universe" to give itself a distinct style, Sky Captain used CG effects to faithfully emulate the artwork that adorned countless pulp sci-fi magazines, bringing them to life in ways that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas never attempted.
Cloverfield is essentially a mashup of a found footage movie with a Japanese kaiju film--think Blair Witch Project meets Godzilla. Yet what still amazes me about Cloverfield is how high-tech CG effects were brilliantly used to create something that looks so low-tech. No matter where the characters were or what was attacking them, it always looked like it was being caught in the moment as it happens on shaky, blurry consumer-grade video. I've seen other found footage films that tried to incorporate CG effects, but they usually call attention to themselves and become distractions; not so with Cloverfield. Furthermore, this film is one the few kaiju movies I've seen that maintains a human-scale perspective throughout the entire film--that's something that even the best blue screen shots and most highly detailed miniatures could never do in older kaiju movies.
Tron: Legacy (2010)
It stands to reason that a movie that takes place within a computer would benefit greatly from special effects provided by a computer. Regardless, the improvement of effects between the original Tron and Tron: Legacy are breathtaking, and I honestly cannot imagine how the Grid world--its expansive vistas, sleek architecture, dizzying Light Cycle races and program-shattering disc battles--could have been realized any other way.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
I had some doubts when I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because the original franchise featured remarkable makeup effects and I didn't want to see that replaced by CG effects. (Even Tim Burton's misguided re-imagining back in 2001 featured astonishing ape makeup work by Rick Baker.) Nevertheless, the CG chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas injected this retelling with a verisimilitude that even the best makeup and costume effects couldn't match. I expect to see the same (and more) in the upcoming sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Giant monsters have been fighting other monsters and robots on the big screen for decades, and the range of practical effect techniques used to depict such clashes have included stop-motion animation, rod puppets, and actors in costumes. Like Cloverfield, [Pacific Rim](movie:204401) got a significant boost from CG effects in the areas of motion and scale. Not only did the monsters and machines move realistically for objects of such size and weight, but the action could shift back and forth from human- to kaiju-scale and various points in between without missing a beat.