Movie Special Effects That Still Look Amazing, Years Later

Some will say it's crazy to get my hopes so high for the new Godzilla next month, but I will gladly shoot them down. Part of the reason why I'm thrilled about this mega-super-blockbuster is that the story is so compelling to me, and though it has been told many times before, it stands to gain a lot from the amazing advances made in special effects in recent years. I happened to catch the original 1954 Japanese version recently, and while it certainly has its moments, as a 2014 viewer whose brain has been completely washed by high-tech effects, deafening soundscapes, and 3-D glasses, it's hard to take a sci-fi movie from such a different era entirely seriously. Like most of the audience, I couldn't help but laugh.
But, it did get me thinking. Is it always the fate of the genre to become obsolete after a few years, when new technology makes the old look impossible hokey? It certainly happens a lot, but after a few minutes' reflection, we can all agree that it's not the rule. In fact, there are a ton of older sci-fi movies that still look incredible today — better than a lot of the stuff Hollywood is churning out even now. First off on our list: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
No discussion of FX can be complete without mention of Kubrick's gem, which is still terrifying and humbling to even the most cynical modern viewer. In this film, Kubrick demanded a higher standard of realism than was common in most movies of the time, and the result is totally fantastic. A lot of the more memorable FX moments come towards the end of the film, but there are plenty of interesting, if subtle, examples of technical brilliance interspersed throughout. Take the "Dawn of Man" scene, for example. Kubrick and the MGM special effects team's use of the front projection technique actually started a trend that stuck, until being ousted by green screens.
Jurassic Park (1993)
Honestly, this movie would have been beautiful and amazing without any fancy effects, because Jeff Goldblum is just that wonderful and special. However, the unparalleled realism of the dinosaurs definitely helps. A lot of the science in the movie, as experts will enthusiastically point out, is pretty questionable. But, the pioneering mix of animatronics, cutting-edge CGI, and — less obvious but still incredibly important — great sound design made this movie a timeless classic. Though, to be fair, the outfits will always be stuck in the '90s.
Star Wars (1977)
From the very first moment of production on Episode IV: A New Hope, it was clear that in order to succeed, this movie needed not only good but game-changing technology and creativity on its side. George Lucas worked with a then-fledgling Industrial Light & Magic through a very difficult post-production process, and a first final cut had to be sent back to the drawing board for many scenes, at great cost. Eventually, though, A New Hope went from sampling old war footage to totally blowing your mind.
THX 1138 (1971)
Oh, and speaking of Mr. Lucas, we want to give his first-ever feature film a shout-out. The glory of this movie is its ability to take what is actually a pretty standard movie set and make it feel like it's chock-full of high tech effects. The result is a movie that, while its aesthetic is certainly a '70s vision of the future, still feels modern and impressive in its delivery.
Dune (1984)
The question of whether or not Dune is actually a good movie is a heady one and won't be debated here, but facts are facts: he David Lynch psychedelic odyssey still looks rad. From the costumes to the sweeping, painted landscapes, the world building is bigger in scope than anything Lynch has ever done, evoking the magic of a '70s sci-fi novel cover. Except with more voiceovers. So many voiceovers.
The Birds (1963)
The trickiest scenes for this movie were done with something called the sodium vapor process, essentially a very early version of the green screen. Considering that this all had to be done sans digital, this was a pretty massive effort, and it was nominated for an Oscar for best special effects.
The Matrix (1999)
The film's visual effects designer, John Gaeta, credits both Katsuhiro Otomo's animated Akira and French director Michel Gondry for the inimitable visual stylings of Neo and friends. The movie's signature trick, those super-slow-motion bullet shots, is way more than just a post-production effect. Gaeta and his team took an old technique and updated it for the modern age, situating multiple cameras — in positions determined by a 3-D simulation — around the action, firing them off a few fractions of a second apart. That's how you end up with that intensely hi-def look.
Alien (1979)
Special effects created with miniatures can go very wrong — but also very right. This is an example of the latter. Pretty much everything with any unearthly implications was done on the small-scale for this movie, partly because the film's budget wasn't quite big enough to accommodate some of the more cutting-edge technology that was just then becoming available. (In retrospect, that probably worked to the film's benefit). As for the creatures themselves, the alien was one Bolaji Badejo in an elaborate costume, and the other smaller guys were puppets.
Blade Runner (1982)
Though he took issue with many aspects of the adaptation before he died, Philip K. Dick (author of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the book on which Blade Runner is based) actually approved of the film's rendering of a 2019 dystopian Los Angeles. Today, it's one of the most impressive parts of the movie. Part of why Blade Runner still works today is the all-out commitment to a fully realized, deeply developed virtual world. The effects live within that aesthetic, and therefore, they'll always look good. Ridley Scott does it again!
Brazil (1985)
Like Blade Runner, Brazil takes the idea of a futuristic world and runs with it, far. It's much more tongue-in-cheek than any Ridley Scott movie, and Terry Gilliam takes a much more mechanical, dirty, almost steampunk approach to the future of urban life. Again, it's evocative of its time, but that doesn't make it any less believable.
The Fifth Element (1997)
At the time of its production, Fifth Element was the most expensive movie to have ever been made in continental Europe, and it is easy to see why. The blue screen doesn't look choppy and the extravagant settings, from Zorg's office to "FLOOOOOSTON PAAAARADISE!" have a decadent, futuristic feel that mixes camp and imagination. Also: costumes by Gaultier. Let us repeat, costumes by Gaultier.

More from Movies