19 of the Best Movies With the Worst ‘Uncanny Valley’ Effects

19 of the Best Movies With the Worst ‘Uncanny Valley’ Effects
Screenshot: Alita: Battle Angel/20th Century Studios

A movie doesn’t have to be a special effects extravaganza to be worth watching, but it seems like we’re increasingly uninterested in going to the theatre to see one if they’re not. And if we’re going to pay good money, we want to those special effects to look special. The move away from practical effects over the past few decades has opened up previously unimagined vistas of the imagination, and also opened the door for some deeply ugly and unconvincing computer-generated imagery — moments that don’t expand our imaginations so much as leave us scratching our heads (or laughing at the screen).

From digital doubles that move like video game characters to CGI overkill that puts people, places, and objects in situations that are only possible inside a computer, bad effects can mess with our sense of disbelief, whacking us in the head with a reminder that what we’re watching isn’t real. And then there’s the problem of the “uncanny valley,” when attempts to recreate living beings get close, but not quite close enough — to real, creating an effect that can be unintentionally (or intentionally) disturbing. Consider the new Clifford the Big Red Dog movie, which reminds us that the uncanny valley effect still applies even when what we’re seeing isn’t meant to be realistic.

(Though this Clifford looks significantly less disturbing than the unrelated 1994 Martin Short movie.)

Bad effects aren’t always a deal killer. Movies can still be good despite a clunky moment or two; decades later, crappy CGI can even be endearing! The 19 movies on this list are all good-to-great — despite some dodgy special effects that take you right out of the action.

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther is top-tier Marvel, one of the best movies from a studio that rarely skimps on the special effects budget (say what you like, these things never look cheap). There’s a lot that works here, but the war rhinos — while making an impressive entrance — never quite move like real, living animals. (For the record, I’m thrilled that we’re using fewer real animals in movie productions, so I’d much rather have a slightly hinky CGI rhino than a real one.) And then there’s that final fight sequence in the futuristic train station, which might as well be an animated film.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Mist (2007)

It’s a bit overwrought, and stands as one of the darkest and most nihilistic of all Stephen King adaptations (which is saying a lot), but it’s also one of the best, exploring the ways in which people respond to calamity, both horrifically and heroically. Though the Lovecraftian creatures that live in the titular mist are only glimpsed fleetingly, they’re often rendered as a video game-style animation more likely to elicit giggles than gasps (a recurring theme with these films). There are plenty of great practical monsters in the film that stand in contrast to the various CGI tentacles, making them even more of a distraction.

Where to stream: Stan

I Am Legend (2007)

Blending the pathos and sense of isolation of the original novel with some great action-movie set pieces, I Am Legend manages to be, for most of its runtime, a solid adaptation of the classic Richard Matheson novel (but, definitely still read the book). The film’s Infected, though, clearly popped over from a video game being developed nearby — looking rubbery and floppy, with only Will Smith’s acting to convince us to be intimidated. As special effects, they’re not awful, but they don’t always blend with their environment, especially in daytime scenes. What’s worse, they were originally plans to create the zombies with makeup effects, and subbed in with CGI at the last minute. Bummer.

Where to stream: Stan

The Call of the Wild (2020)

Once again: CGI animals > real animals in films, even if we’re not quite there yet in terms of technology. It was a great choice to use CGI for the dog in the slightly underrated Jack London adaptation. Nevertheless, the poor dog often feels like he’s in a different movie from the real-life human co-stars.

Where to stream: Disney+

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of latter-day Tim Burton, but despite mixed reviews, his take on Alice in Wonderland was a billion-dollar+ box office sensation (even if everyone hates it now). For me, it’s one giant ugly trip into the uncanny valley, with each and every character, by design, being off in ways both obvious and subtle, mostly through the use of computer effects to create characters impossible in the real world. I’ve no doubt that this is exactly what Burton intended, and the utter weirdness of the whole thing is no doubt part of its appeal, if it has any — but it’s definitely a matter of taste.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

I’m tempted to give credit to Matrix Reloaded for the technical accomplishment of its action sequences, particularly the notorious “Burly Brawl” bit; in 2003, this was a pioneering bit of special effects wizardry. Nevertheless, the scene lacks any real sense of gravity — like much bad CGI, it’s cool to watch but never creates the illusion that we’re looking at real people with real weight. Contrasted with the original film’s appropriately lauded wire-fu work, it’s a distancing disappointment.

Where to stream: Netflix

The Polar Express (2004)

Robert Zemeckis is no fool, and I’ve no doubt that he got exactly what he wanted from the animators who assembled his latter-day holiday classic. Whether the movie plays as a storybook come to life or as a slightly terrifying journey into the uncanniest of uncanny valleys is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m personally in the second camp. (You probably are too.)

Where to stream: Netflix

Beowulf (2007)

Though it didn’t make much of a splash at the box office, Robert Zemeckis’ other motion capture epic, Beowulf, is better than its reputation might suggest. It also represents a particularly weird use of the animation style, using similar techniques as were used to create The Polar Express. With a similar storybook-style look and feel to the movie’s characters, it’s rather deeply disturbing when the movie’s PG-13 action sequences see them battered and bloodied or, in a couple of instances, engaging in some slightly risqué activity. I’m not sure if that disconnect is a pro or a con, but the passage of time makes it feel stranger than ever.

Where to stream: Apple TV

Star Wars (1977)

If you were alive prior to 1997, you might have seen Star Wars as a pioneering film with groundbreaking special (largely practical) effects that continue to hold up. Or, you might have seen the post-”Special Edition” version, which unnecessarily adds in some relatively early and definitely dated CGI. I realise that complaining about the Special Editions has been a fan obsession for decades, and some of the tweaks work, but bits like the added Jabba/Han sequence are inexcusable.

Where to stream: Disney+

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Admittedly, it’s fun together a return visit from the great Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, and his presence makes sense here, in one of the better latter-day Star Wars movies. Still (and perhaps for the best), we haven’t developed the technology to completely resurrect the dead, and Tarkin’s co-starring role definitely places him deep in the uncanny valley, especially when he’s acting alongside actors without CGI faces. A particularly poignant cameo at the end of the film falls into the same category, though, in that case, it’s brief enough that it’s forgivable.

Where to stream: Disney+

Mulan (2020)

It’ll never hold candle to the animated original, but the live-action Mulan remake has charms of its own, and it’s often quite lovely. The computer effects, though, while not cheap-looking, exactly, pale when considered alongside the practical battle sequences. As in the avalanche sequence, there’s a cost to the ability to visualise anything with CGI — an unnecessary emotional distance from the action.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Mummy Returns (2001)

I’m not sure that the Mummy films represent great cinema, but they are a tremendous lot of fun and, just as importantly, captured the peak Brenden Fraser Era. The second film in the series in particular goes all-in on early 2000s computer effects — with often laughable results (see: CGI scorpion Dwayne Johnson). It’s all part of film’s dorky charm, and it’s tempting to go easy on it for that reason. Still, this is a movie whose reach clearly exceeded its grasp in terms of special effects.

Where to stream: Stan

World War Z (2013)

For all its charms, the zombies of World War Z never really make much of an impression. They’re always presented as strangely weightless masses, the neglect of physics robbing them of any sense of verisimilitude. The screen just looks kinda… dusty.

Where to stream: Stan

Air Force One (1997)

(Spoiler for the 25-year-old movie coming.)

Again: great cinema? I don’t know. It is, however, one of the most popular action movies of the ‘90s, and a giant dose of Harrison Ford in his middle-aged prime. The film’s climactic place crash, though, is everything wrong with the overuse of computer-generated effects: while the plane itself is well-rendered, it winds up looking like a toy by the time it’s done flipping and spinning around in the water. It might seem churlish to go after a movie of this vintage for its computer effects — but there’ve been plenty of convincing plane crashes in movie history, and even from the same era; maybe CGI just wasn’t the way to go here.

Where to stream: Disney+

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

The Incredible Hulk is, in many ways, the forgotten Marvel film.Though elements are occasionally referenced, it sits just a bit outside the Marvel Cinematic Universe, in large part because Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner doesn’t feel of a piece with Mark Ruffalo’s. Regardless, it’s a perfectly decent superhero movie in its own right, and the kind of thing that would probably sit higher in our estimation if it hadn’t been swamped by a decade’s worth of flashier movies. The rendering of the Hulk is, unsurprisingly, an improvement on the version from the 2003 Ang Lee movie, but the villain, the Abomination, is deeply unconvincing. As a result, the battles look very much like video game cutscenes.

Where to stream: Stan

Justice League (2017)

It’s tempting to go after Henry Cavill’s computer-generated upper lip (required when reshoots were required after the actor had grown a mustache), but it’s the villain, Steppenwolf, who really suffers from unconvincing effects. We’ve reached the point where a film’s main character can be almost entirely CGI, and it worked for Josh Brolin’s Thanos in the most recent Avengers movies, but here it’s both too much and not enough, and the character never comes to life, nor is his look particularly interesting. The Zack Snyder cut’s tweaks are a considerable improvement, though they’re not quite enough to transform Steppenwolf into a character anyone’s clamoring to see more of. Which is fine, because, well, spoiler alert.

Where to stream: Foxtel Go

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

There’s a lot of de-ageing going on at the movies these days and, for the most part, Marvel’s done a pretty good job of that sort of thing (young Samuel L. Jackson and young Clark Gregg in Captain Marvel are perfectly fine). Not always, though. The bit here, in which we see a much younger Robert Downey, Jr. (played by the actor with quite a bit of assistance from post-production effects) is quite well done, but is off just enough that the eye and brain can tell that something isn’t right. Just smoothing out wrinkles isn’t enough. This one’s an example in which the resulting face is rather too smooth, even for young RDJ.

Where to stream: Disney+

Tron: Legacy (2010)

I enjoyed the heck out of Tron: Legacy, and I’ll happily defend it on that level. It’s also, like the first film, technically groundbreaking in several significant ways, not the least of which is in the digital de-ageing of the Jeff Bridges character, a then-new effect. Given that, it’s commendable — but the tech just wasn’t quite there (if it is now), and Jeff Bridges often looks less like a de-aged version of himself than a full-on digital rendering.

Where to stream: Disney+

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

This is one that I actually think works surprisingly well, and certainly better than it has any right to — amidst all the film’s other special effects, director Robert Rodriquez and company elected to give the title character, played by Rosa Salazar, oversized, anime-inspired eyes. For all that I respect the vision, though, it’s practically the very definition of the uncanny valley, and, given that so much of the film’s early discussion and reviews focused on the effect, probably unnecessarily distracting.

Where to stream: Disney+

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