Movie Article

The 'E.T.' Effect

What are some movies whose special effects have withstood the test of time? Check out today's Ask the Critic question and post your own

'E.T.'
Image credit: ET The Extra Terrestrial: Kobal Collection
'E.T.'

What great movie F/X have withstood the test of time?

What are some movies whose special effects have withstood the test of time? —SJ

When Steven Spielberg's E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial was re-released in 2003, I was curious as to how it would hold up for audiences (I thought it held up marvelously), so I kept asking people for their reactions. Virtually everyone I talked to said the same thing: the special effects hadn't aged well; the film they remembered falling in love with now looked dated. On some level, I could understand: E.T., one of the most mythical and adored fantasy creatures in all of movies, was never more than a little person in an ugly-cute alien costume. How low-tech is that? Surely, today, he would have been a CGI marvel.

Yet would that have made him more marvelous? What surprised — and dismayed — me about this general reaction is that E.T. was, and is, a tender, wistful, funny, and beautifully told fairy tale; its special effects, while modest and uncomplicated by contemporary standards, have an almost poetic simplicity. The fact that those viewers I spoke to seemed obsessed with how well the effects had ''aged'' suggested that they were taking in the entire experience through a lens of technology. A movie that was heralded in its era as a classic — and rightfully so — had been reduced, in re-release, to the sum (or absence) of its logistical dazzle.

What this misses, I think, is that all special effects age; they always have, and always will. As our eyes and ears adjust to new technologies, yesterday's wonder almost inevitably becomes today's dated magic trick. So I guess I'd say that the movies whose special effects have stood the test of time aren’t those with effects that still look ''up-to-the-minute.'' I'm not sure that's possible. Rather, it's those movies whose effects still tap directly into your inner child.

The most spectacular example I can think is the original King Kong. Made in 1933, it features stop-motion animation that still looks miraculous, not because the primitive, herky-jerky movements of Kong or the dinosaurs of Skull Island come off as particuarly ''real,'' but because you can still sense, in almost every frame, the consuming desire of the filmmakers to bring the otherworldly to life. Believe it or not, I would say the same thing about the corny-surreal transformation sequences in all those Wolfman movies from the '40s and '50s, in which the quivering face of an actor like Lon Chaney Jr. would appear in a series of melting dissolves, looking a little hairier and fangier in each one. Pure gimmickry! Pure F/X magic! And, in its way, ageless.

Finally, consider a little movie called Star Wars. The lightsabers are cheesy, the leap to hyperspace is like an animation done with crayons, and the first thing to say about the spaceships is that they look like the plastic scale models they are. Yet that's part of what makes them so tactile, so there. Remember the first time you experienced that opening shot of the endless ship passing ''over'' your head? I doubt it would have been as thrilling, as dramatic, as physical had it been done with CGI. To me, nothing in the last three Star Wars films, with all of their wizardly digital bric-a-brac, can touch the primal magic of the original Star Wars. The ultimate special effect is, and always will be, not technological bravura but the purity of the imagination.

Originally posted Apr 10, 2006