Why Don’t the Special Effects in the Summer’s Big Sci-Fi Sequels Look As Good As the Effects in the Originals?

Photo: Maya Robinson and Photos by Universal and Paramount

It's been 22 years since the first Jurassic Park came out, and over that period of time, the visual-effects industry has undergone incredible advances, with once pie-in-the-sky procedures like motion-capture now commonplace. Still, when the trailer for Jurassic World came out a few months ago, something seemed off. The early image of the opening theme-park gate looked like CGI, the crowds of people in the park had clearly been added in postproduction, and that centerpiece sequence, where a dinosaur leaps from the water to eat a dangling shark as a monorail glides past in the distance? It's hard to buy a single element of it, and each image registered as computer-generate artifice. Two decades ago, Jurassic Park made its dinosaurs look real, but somehow, in 2015, Jurassic World couldn't even manage to make its Jurassic Park look real.

The trailer for this summer's Terminator: Genisys posed its own problem. This new entry doesn't just pay homage to James Cameron's first two Terminator movies: It literally re-creates scenes from them, pitting an older Arnold Schwarzenegger against his younger self in manipulated footage from the first film. The conceit has pop pizzazz, but a shot where Schwarzenegger jumps out of one helicopter and dive-bombs toward another was reminiscent of a better-looking Terminator 2 sequence along the same lines. 

Why don't the special effects in these new movies look as seamless as the ones deployed in their decades-old predecessors? There are a host of reasons why my sample may be skewed — the effects work in these trailers could be unfinished, and my fondness for the older films could be clouding my judgment — but deep down, underneath it all, there's something going on here: The more pervasive visual effects have become, the more they've lost their ability to truly convince.

The original Jurassic Park stands as a perfect example of how to use effects smartly and sparingly. That movie contained between 50 and 75 computer-generated shots (compare that to modern-day blockbusters, which usually feature several hundred), and all that cutting-edge CGI work was smartly buttressed by practical, non-digital effects. It's no coincidence that the first time we get to see a dinosaur up close in Jurassic Park, it's a sick, stationary triceratops that the actors can actually touch and lean on. If you buy the reality of that — and it's easy to, since the beast is so tangible — then you're set up to buy the computer-generated dinos to come.

Jurassic World, on the other hand, literally zooms past that notion: Instead of easing us into its theme park in a way that trains us to expect reality, the characters arrive via computer-generated monorail and computer-generated gate, and our eyes know the difference. Actually building a monorail would likely have proved prohibitively expensive, but perhaps the filmmakers should have taken that into account when they conceived the story, letting those limitations produce an even better solution. Now that computers can theoretically create anything, they're being asked to create too much, and that "let's just do it in CGI" credo is sapping the power that these images are meant to pack: the money shot from the trailer for Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak (which still looks great, mind you) featured a computer-generated hand grabbing actress Mia Wasikowska. Why couldn't they use an actual, practical hand? And wouldn't it have been far spookier, and more deeply felt as a shock? 

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the effects disconnect: These days, there's often a literal ocean that separates filmmakers from their final product, as more and more effects work is outsourced to other countries who will do it cheaply. When you compare Terminator 2 to Terminator: Genisys, you're comparing James Cameron — who understands visual effects so well that he founded Digital Domain, a production company devoted to the craft — to director Alan Taylor, who has likely never met many of the overseas effects artists tasked with crafting his images. Terminator 2 holds up so well because Cameron crafted his story knowing exactly what special effects were capable of, and whenever one of his ideas does exceed what the industry is capable of, Cameron simply invents the necessary equipment himself. Only a few directors, like David Fincher and Christopher Nolan, can be comfortably trusted with that level of technical expertise. If a director mounting a visual-effects blockbuster doesn't know how an image is made, the audience might not buy it, either.

Perhaps that's why a return to practical special effects is in order. Furious 7 has its fair share of computer-generated trickery, but the reason that car-drop sequence is so breathtaking is because they literally dropped cars out of a plane — and you can tell! Even the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens promises a back-to-basics approach: Following three prequels that were larded with unnecessary CGI, J.J. Abrams has made it his mantra to build as much of Force Awakens with practical effects as possible. "There would be some blue-screens here and there, but for the most part, I interacted with full sets and everything," Force Awakens actor Oscar Isaac recently told Vulture. "With other movies, there's such an over-reliance on digitally creating things, and you can still tell that it's not real." Computer graphics may make the outer limits of cinematic imagination achievable, but if you really want to startle and amaze these days, there ain't nothin' like the real thing.