Crashing Into the Uncanny Valley

CGI as the Evolving ‘Fountain of Youth

Welcome back to our in-depth look at the evolution of graphics in media. Today we’ll be examining the computer graphics from such films as The Mummy Returns, Wolverine Origins, and X3: The Last Stand, and how they stack up to other films of the same era.


There was a period in cinema where the technology behind computer-generated graphics was starting to push previous boundaries regarding animating full characters. Often, techniques like this were avoided in favor of makeup and other practical effects, and for good reason. Practical effects had been in films since the beginning of cinema, and with that much time to refine the craft, these effects looked quite astounding in the early 2000s, but even going as far back as 1993 with the landmark movie Jurassic Park [ 1 ], we see a combination of practical effects and CGI becoming the norm. When you look at a movie with effects that well blended and executed, you’d probably be taken aback by later films that did it worse. And I don’t mean B-quality movies that go straight to home video, I’m talking about the big, blockbuster-style films that get top billing, having massive media campaigns and rather big budgets.

Well, that did indeed happen. For all the advances of technology related to CGI, many prominent films managed to bungle their effects spectacularly. Whether it was trying to do something new when it was too new to be good, or just flagrantly ignoring established effects work for something different, the films we’re going to look at here display just how easily special effects can stumble. The films we are discussing have already been panned by critics in the past, so this may seem like beating a dead horse, but I’m going to do my best to give a newer perspective on these films, namely in their use of CGI. Each of these films is following up on something that is already established, so critical reception of the day is going to be largely based on that established standard. Mine will as well, with a caveat of comparing them to other contemporary films, such as the aforementioned Jurassic Park, among other stand-out examples of “doing it right.”

The Mummy Returns, and the Most Awful,
Very Bad, No Good Scorpion King Render

In 1999, the world got a wonderful horror trope revival movie in The Mummy [ 2 ]. This film wasn’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of its CGI, but the effects were well done and brought life and terror to the powers of its namesake mummy using a combination of practical effects and CGI to achieve compelling visuals [ 3 ]. The mummy itself was all CGI (until later in the film, as he was able to regain his flesh slowly over time), and it looked believable as a one-off, horrific nightmare creature. The additional CGI effects of the scarab swarms that often appear to attack the heroes are also done very well and invoke that sort of crawling horror feeling masterfully. Granted, scarabs are small, don’t require too much detail, and can easily have copy-pasted animations without looking tacky. The giant mummy face that appears in the conjured sandstorm is, well, it’s fine. I wouldn’t say that particular effect is the best one, but it works. There’s also a fight inside the tomb with weaker, zombie-like mummies and an army of the same mummies that appears. These lesser mummies resemble sickly, thin, or skeletal men, certainly modeled after the archetype of rotting zombie armies. The attention to detail when it comes to lighting and shadows, plus some good performances from the actors, sells the idea that these CGI monsters are quite real and frightful. All these factors coming together make it quite easy to become immersed in the events of the film, watching with increased tension as the Mummy slowly kills off the supporting cast, regaining his power and becoming an ever more dangerous threat, and seeing how much the surviving heroes struggle to overcome such a terrifying entity. So, overall, this first outing into a new generation of “mummy” movies uses CGI in the right places and the right amounts. No one in my immediate circle of friends expected that this movie would get a sequel or become a franchise, it was just a fun one-off that did cool things that we liked. Of course, the Hollywood movie machine hardly works that way anymore. So, we did indeed get a sequel in The Mummy Returns [ 4 ]. And its effects disappointed in as many ways as a sequel could.

Despite Nicest Man in the World Brendan Fraser going to bat for the film, the jury is in on Scorpion King‘s special effects: they’re considered universally abysmal.

While there are scenes where the CGI seems on par with the first movie, such as Imhotep’s water attack, there are still some glaring problems with the setup of that shot, such as the very obvious green-screen backgrounds, which does no favors for the intended suspense of the scene [ 5 ]. In the exposition of the story of the Scorpion King, we observe the army of Anubis as it attacks an ancient Egyptian city [ 6 ]. This is both offensive to the actual historical significance of Anubis in Egyptian mythology and offensive to the eyes of moviegoers. The army is just CGI copies of the visage of Anubis, and poor ones at that. Their comical movements take away much of what little fear they might inspire on screen. If we contrast this army with the mass of undead mummies from the first movie, it almost appears as though the CGI quality went down with time, rather than up. That wouldn’t technically be true, but the sequel tries to push the detail of big CGI armies too hard. Trying to increase the detail to that extent actually makes them look worse, because the hardware can’t support it yet. With the first movie’s budget being $80 million USD, and the sequel having slightly more at $98 million USD, it doesn’t appear to be a budget issue, just a technology, and scope issue.

For the movie buffs among you, you know what’s coming next; You know the underlying reason this is being written about at all. At the climax of the movie, the villain and hero are facing off in the tomb of the Scorpion King, and lo and behold, the king himself shows up to join the fray. This scene, this horrible display of CGI, was quite the topic of comedy in its time [ 7 ]. The digitally painted face of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson on top of this monster scorpion body… it’s painful to look at. Obviously, when you hire an actor as popular and in demand as The Rock, you want to get your money’s worth of his face on screen, but this? This is just a sad attempt to make a final, scary boss monster that falls flat. The Rock is, in my opinion, a good actor and action star, and could have easily been part of a final showdown without being this juxtaposed monstrosity. Paying for his star power and only taking advantage of a very small part of it, and then making one of the goofiest CGI villains in movie history, seems to be a huge mistake for this sequel.

To be clear, none of this is the failure of the team who worked on the CGI. Often the folks who do this sort of work have no control over what the visual directives are, and they are expected to put forth a good product within a certain time frame. One might think that with the amount of money spent on this film, the technological aspect of the CGI would be top notch, and it is quite possible that the CGI team had the best technology available for the time. Even so, you can only make a product look so good within a time constraint, and given that they would have been working with bleeding edge technology, it was a far greater task than just “make a scene.” Take the Anubis monster attack, for example. I’ve already said it was poorly done, and that remains true, but it was likely poorly done for a reason, such as the available processing power of the imaging hardware and software being used to create that animation. Even if all you are doing is copying and pasting animation a few dozen times, you are still adding an exponentially bigger load to the machine in question. Regardless of budget, you can only work with the tools available to you at the time, and if the tools couldn’t handle a higher-fidelity rendering for that scene, then there had to be a compromise made somewhere. I can’t really say the same for the final battle scene, however.

Obviously, I am not privy to the inner workings of the film, and what pressures the CGI team was under, so I still do not place any blame on them. I just sit and ponder as to why that final imaging was approved by people who, presumably, knew what they were doing when going over the final cut of this movie. Of course, considering this sort of thing is more commonplace than not, maybe they really don’t know what they are doing?

Despite this embarrassing moment, the Mummy franchise would go on to have a third movie, a spinoff based on the Scorpion King (and named the same), and eventually a reboot over a decade later. We can see that someone had the good sense to put Dwayne Johnson in his own feature film (though how good that film is that’s very subjective, Dwayne’s acting chops are well recognized), and that, despite some early mistakes, this is a product that was popular enough to keep on going.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine: The Movie No One Wanted

In the time of quite popular live action X-Men movies, there were a few spinoff films featuring everyone’s favorite Canadian anti-hero, Wolverine, as portrayed by Hugh Jackman. The good one, simply titled The Wolverine, is a fan favorite despite some strange plot holes because it was faithful to the spirit of the character and the universe [ 8 ]. It also had CGI that was well done, and done sparingly, with the longest CGI enhanced shot being the climactic final battle. The bad one, the one everyone has grown to hate (for good reason), is not only a departure from the character and the universe continuity but also contains terrible use of CGI. This monstrosity is X-Men Origins Wolverine [ 9 ]

There’s not much to like about X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Included in that is the way the film handles not just its special and practical effects but an early appearance of something only tangentially resembling Deadpool.

At first announcement of this film, my interest was piqued. It was, presumably, the first in many origin stories that would bring us closer to the individual X-Men as portrayed by their live-action actors and give us a fuller sense of the film universe that was being created. What it ended up being was a badly directed, badly written, and poorly acted mediocre film, which also featured some quite unforgivable CGI mishaps. The CGI is only one of the reasons why this movie was terrible. Both critics and audiences hated this film for its treatment of the source material and its lack of a coherent story or vision since this was supposed to be related to the main three X-Men films but it wasn’t actually consistent with them. We’re not doing a full movie review, however, so we’re just going to stick to the very dated effects.

Our first big and awful CGI display comes after Logan’s operation to have adamantium grafted to his skeleton. In previous movies, namely X-Men 1 and 2, Wolverine’s claws look fine. They don’t take up too much space on his hands and give off the appearance of real metal, having a metallic sheen and edged sharpness. When we see the claws in this movie, however, they are comically bad [ 10 ]. Large, cartoonish, and no apparent effort to make them look real. This really shouldn’t have happened, since the appearance of the claws was already solidly made in the first two movies. Why it happened, who can say, but for some reason the CGI animators ignored the established claw look, resulting in this mess. This effect is less visible in the action scenes, which is a small blessing, but not enough to make it forgivable. It doesn’t just look bad; this reveal completely ruins any dramatic tension that had been built up. It’s incredibly hard to take the character of Wolverine seriously when one of his key defining features is handled this badly.

Arriving at this film’s climax, the final scene in the movie has some of the worst CGI ever put to screen. As the freed mutant children look to escape the facility where they were held captive, they are intercepted by Professor X, who gets them out on board his helicopter. This scene is about 50 percent CGI, and it shows. The visage of Professor X is not the actor Patrick Stewart, but a rendered facsimile of him, done up to look slightly younger than the real-life man. This decision was bad. Very bad. The “younger” Charles Xavier, who can still walk, does not look anything close to real. He hits the “uncanny valley,” the place where a fake humanoid looks nearly human, but something is still off, dead on. If you’ve ever watched any show or been to an exhibit involving animations that tried to emulate human faces, you have experienced the uncanny valley in real life. It’s an uncomfortable experience for the majority of people to see something that so desperately tries to imitate being human, and having just a little bit off, enough to make us aware that it isn’t really human, and naturally that’s not an experience that you want a movie-going audience to go through. On top of this fake Xavier, the helicopter and the background on which it sits are also green-screened, so when the real actors run towards it, it’s very clear that it’s a fake background. No attempts to blend it better or smooth out the outlines. It’s terrible.

We didn’t end up getting any more X-Men origin movies, and if you watch this movie, you will understand why, though I can’t say I recommend that approach. It’s pretty sad, honestly, because we could have had a whole slew of origin stories that would flesh out the various X-Men mutants, either borrowing lore from comic book canon or creating new lore, or some combination of the two, while also giving us a deeper understanding of individual characters, and what experiences shaped them into the people they are now. And of course, plenty of mutant superpower action, which is usually (not always, as this movie demonstrates) fun. One could say that the promise of the origin movies was eventually fulfilled by Marvel with the Avengers films and their related origin movies, so it would see they at least learned from the mistakes of this film.

X3: The Last Stand—When your CGI
Looks Worse Than Your Practical Effects 

Another entry from the X-Men franchise, X-Men: The Last Stand brought the series to a satisfying close [ 11 ]. Naturally, it wouldn’t be the last we saw of X-Men on the big screen, the IP is too profitable to be permanently tabled, but this was the final arc of the first story. It had a lot of expectations to live up to, and plot wise it basically met those expectations, exceeding a few and falling short in other spots. While it does a lot of its CGI right, there are some glaring discrepancies in its quality.

In theory, using de-aging CGI to make Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look younger in X3: X-Men United was a bold choice. Unfortunately the technology was lacking, leading to a strong case of Uncanny Valley.

Right out of the gate, we are treated to a flashback scene showing a young Charles Xavier and Magneto, which are both CGI stand-ins for the actual actors that are done up to be “young” versions of those actors [ 12 ]. While these CGI actors are a step above what we saw in Origins, they still aren’t quite right. You can still tell they are CGI from the first view of them, and they don’t blend any better the more screen time they get, which is roughly three minutes. The lips and eyes don’t move quite right, and the body motions tend to be a little jerky in some frames. Thankfully after this scene, we are back to the real actors with no CGI replacements. Also, Wolverine’s better claw design is back! Yay!

We do get a few wonderful scenes of practical effects regarding Beast, portrayed by Kelsey Grammer. The makeup for Beast is spot-on, and the movie makes good use of clothing elsewhere to cover the rest of Grammer where full-body makeup would be impractical (mostly because Grammer is not a bodybuilder and Beast is supposed to be huge) [ 13 ]. We also get Mystique’s full body suit practical effects as we did in the previous films, and the action shots that feature CGI, such as Magneto casually destroying a caravan, are pretty awesome. In fact, when you take in the rest of the effects in the movie, it’s kind of startling how poorly that first scene was executed. While the technology used to replace actors with lifelike CGI doubles has come a long way since that time, it does cause one to wonder why they didn’t use more practical effects for that scene specifically. As mentioned earlier, practical effects have had much more time to develop than CGI and can often do things that CGI has yet to perfect. Also considering how well this same movie used traditional practical effects, it puzzles the mind a bit as to why they didn’t go that route for the opening scene. Audiences could have easily accepted different actors playing the roles of younger Charles and Erik, a fact proven true by the X-Men: First Class movie and sequels, though I would have to grant that the casting for those roles was not yet imagined, but still, it probably would have been fine.

Obviously, despite the issues in this film and the Origins film, the X-Men franchise is durable enough to continue, as evinced by films like Logan and Patrick Stewart’s cameo as Professor X in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness. Any longtime fan of the comic books knows that there have been many outlandish things printed in those pages, so a few bad movies would hardly be enough to damage the brand name that badly. Hopefully, we will see more of the X-Men in the future, continuing the great standards set by films like First Class and Apocalypse.

Climbing Out of the Valley:
How They Stack Up Against Movies of the Same Era

Those of you who were avid moviegoers in the late ’90s and early 2000s would naturally be aware of how many great films with outstanding CGI were released in that time. I could lay out the amazing films of DreamWorks animation studios, with films like Shrek [ 14 ] debuting in 2001, or Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. [ 15 ], also from 2001, but these films being entirely CGI rather than a blend of real effects with CGI enhancement makes them a bit of an unfair comparison, though they do display the possibilities of the technology of the day. More apt comparisons would be the groundbreaking fantasy films of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone [ 16 ], and The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring [ 17 ]. Both films are the start of massively successful film franchises, both adapted from popular fantasy book series, and both use a combination of practical effects and CGI to achieve a visual style that is hard to forget.

Naturally, when one thinks of the Harry Potter films, the effects of various magic spells come to mind, but there are many other wonderful CGI enhanced shots in the film, such as the feast in the Great Hall, which is lit by dozens of magic, floating candles, and of course the ghosts that also appear during that scene, which are digitally manipulated visages of real actors that float around the hall and through various objects. This sort of technique has been used in earlier films to showcase ghosts, but the enhanced technology of the day made them far more visually pleasing. This is a classic showcase of combining traditional effects work and makeup with CGI to create a more dynamic scene, while not leaning so hard on CGI that you end up making the scene look worse. In a way this is comparable to the first Mummy film, where a nearly complete Imhotep was portrayed by the regular actor, but with the occasional “hole” in his visage that showed his old, rotted body. And that portrayal can come back again to the first Harry Potter film, wherein the confrontation with Professor Quirrell, it is revealed that the dark lord Voldemort lives as a parasite on the back of his head. This scene manages to bring its own level of unsettling terror, as, despite the strange melding of CGI to a living body, it is believable within the setup mythos of the world and comes across as a dark and incomplete fusion of two beings that should not have been.

In Fellowship, the use of CGI is quite sparing, reserved for only the scenes that would be too difficult to create without it. Early on, we have the opening shots of the army of the Last Alliance, facing off against the army of Sauron in Mordor. While the close-up shots show real actors, the wide shots are a copy-pasted sort of CGI images of soldiers that give the impression of a massive battle. The close-up shots of Sauron in battle are also CGI enhanced, but there was a real actor in that suit of armor, so we see once again the combination of practical effects with CGI that make for a great scene. Still, in the early portion of the movie, we come to the Shire and the celebration of Bilbo Baggins’ 111th birthday, which features Gandalf’s magic fireworks, which form moving shapes of light in the sky that even modern-day fireworks couldn’t possibly match. While we know these aren’t real fireworks, they are rendered so seamlessly that they become believable. There are many other fantastic scenes that feature CGI enhancement, but the standout is perhaps the confrontation with the Balrog at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm. After a difficult fight and a chase sequence, the heroes come to the bridge, deep in the earth, lit by an unearthly and sourceless flame. The stairway down begins to collapse as the Balrog pursues the group, shaking the earth with its might. When they finally reach the bridge, massive flames rise up behind them, and the Balrog appears in its full, terrifying form. The juxtaposition of the Balrog’s CGI does not break the immersion of the scene, the demon itself cloaked in deep, smoky shadows, lit only temporarily by its own flames. 

Some Good, Some Bad, CGI in the 2000s Was a Mixed Bag

There are more films we could pick apart for their poor implementations of CGI in the 1990s and early 2000s, but we should keep in mind that the technology at the time was practically new, and the artists were doing their best to meet with corporate film studio expectations while also trying to finish on time and under budget. The results are usually not great and showcase why artists should be given proper time to implement the vision that they have for the film. This is also why traditional makeup and practical effects should never be taken for granted. As we have seen, when CGI artists and practical effects teams are given the time and are well-coordinated, there can be fantastic results on the big screen, and that regardless of a large budget, without these factors, the final product will be subpar. A lot has been learned from these films and their contemporaries about how to implement good CGI into film alongside practical effects, and where those lines should be drawn, and we see that in the more modern films and even television series that are combinations of live-action and CGI. Hopefully, those lessons won’t be taken for granted in the future.

Images

  1. “Despite Nicest Man in the World Brendan Fraser going to bat for the film, the jury is in on Scorpion King’s special effects: they’re considered universally abysmal.” Source: Underhill, Fiona. “Brendan Fraser Defends the Worst Part of the Mummy 2.” The Digital Fix, 18 Nov. 2022, www.thedigitalfix.com/brendan-fraser/defends-worst-part-of-the-mummy-2
  2. “There’s not much to like about X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Included in that is the way the film handles not just its special and practical effects but an early appearance of something only tangentially resembling Deadpool.” Andrews, Simon. “Retro Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009).” ScreenGeek, 23 May 2018, www.screengeek.net/2018/05/23/retro-review-x-men-origins-wolverine-2009
  3. “In theory, using de-aging CGI to make Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look younger in X3: X-Men United was a bold choice. Unfortunately, the technology was lacking, leading to a strong case of Uncanny Valley.” “Was Tron: Legacy the First Time We Saw a CGI Face to Make a Current Actor Look Younger?” Quora, www.quora.com/Was-Tron-Legacy-the-first-time-we-saw-a-CGI-face-to-make-a-current-actor-look-younger

A man of many talents, Clayton has worn several hats. His work focuses on visual mediums like film and gaming. A practiced martial artist and a graduate of Johnson and Wales University with a Bachelor’s in Graphic Design & New Media, he brings both tactile experience and academic credentials as measures of his considerable expertise. Clayton is both Manager of Steam-Funk’s core writing staff and part of the firm’s senior creative team, helping craft both The Living Multiverse and firm policy.

Resources

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  4. Sommers, Stephen, director. The Mummy Returns. Universal Pictures, 2001.
  5. Movieclips. “The Mummy Returns (9/11) Movie CLIP – Blimp Attack (2001) HD.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 June, 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=6XyUIXqIoAM.
  6. Fear: The Home of Horror. “The Scorpion King’s Deal With Anubis | The Mummy Returns.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 February, 2018. youtube.com/watch?v=vHlJwLc5dno&list=PLN5sfBOjXmYhscVTwgeOoWkrogXOAE33U&index=5.
  7. Movieclips. “The Mummy Returns (10/11) Movie CLIP – The Scorpion King Returns (2001) HD.” YouTube, YouTube, 16 June, 2011. youtube.com/watch?v=RYHaarxQTFk.
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  12. YouBettaWerqBitch. “X3 Jean Grae as a child.” YouTube, YouTube, 12 May 2006. youtube.com/watch?v=J9_o3htdK_M.
  13. Dreaming Spider. “X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) – Logan Meets Hank.” YouTube, YouTube, 22 March, 2019. youtube.com/watch?v=Qttgju8du_c&list=PLDs6Txl1GILwI5UGkkNl3l2gsWbE6Ob8_&index=7.
  14. “Shrek.” IMDb, IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt0126029/. Accessed 11 Nov. 2022.
  15. “Monsters, Inc.” IMDb, IMDb.com. imdb.com/title/tt0198781/. Accessed 11 Nov. 2022.
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