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Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Consider this cinema's very first visual-effects sci-fi extravaganza. In this 12-minute silent short film written and directed by Georges Méliès, a group of doofy astronomers literally shoot themselves to the moon (into the poor chap's eye, no less) and discover a lush landscape populated by hostile aliens who explode on contact.
Watch the entire film, with narration by a man who sounds suspiciously like director Michel Gondry (but probably isn't).
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Gertie the Dinosaur (1914)
To promote this pioneering (if not oft-repeated) mix of animation, live-action cinema, and theater, filmmaker Windsor McKay traveled the country showing audiences his titular Apatosaurus, who would behave as if she were responding to McKay's every spoken command. In the film's climax, McKay appeared to enter the film and ride off on Gertie's back.
Watch the film, with title cards standing in for McKay's narration.
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The Lost World (1925)
Eight years before King Kong terrorized Manhattan, dinosaurs tore through London in this adaptation of the 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle novel, using groundbreaking stop-motion effects by Willis O'Brien.
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Here's some irony for you: Director Fritz Lang's sprawling sci-fi epic — one of the most expensive films ever made up until that point — has been a visual touchstone for generations of filmmakers, thanks to its elaborately futuristic art-deco cityscapes and dystopian story that hinges on a mechanical man crafted to resemble a beautiful woman. And yet until a long-forgotten print was discovered in 2008, nearly a third of the original film was believed lost forever — audiences have had to settle for interstitial title cards filling in the missing scenes. The newly restored version has been playing in theaters across the country this summer; click here for a listing of dates and locations.
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KING KONG (1933) and MIGHTY JOE YOUNG (1949)
Building upon his experience crafting the stop-motion dinosaurs of The Lost World, Willis O'Brien brought the supersized ape of King Kong to terrifying life, creating one of the most iconic and enduring visual experiences in the history of filmmaking. At the time, the Oscars had no official category for special effects (and the Academy reportedly declined to present the film with a special award), but when O'Brien further refined his techniques for the similarly simian Mighty Joe Young 16 years later, he and his team finally took home a long-deserved Oscar for their achievements.
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The War of the Worlds (1953)
Martians invade, recognizable landmarks go boom, humanity pulls together, and the modern model for destructo-pop blockbuster cinema is born from the fertile pages of H. G. Wells' 1898 sci-fi novel.
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Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
Proving that visual effects needn't be cutting-edge to be effective, a guy in a Godzilla suit lays waste to a giant miniature version of Tokyo, and though our eyes scream, ''Dude, that's just a guy in a Godzilla suit laying waste to a giant miniature version of Tokyo,'' our hearts simply reply, ''I don't care. Pass the popcorn.'' (Much like the visual effects in this film, try not to scrutinize that last sentence too much, or, like me, you'll start thinking about eyeballs handing popcorn to a beating heart. Whoops, too late.)
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The Ten Commandments (1956)
Director Cecil B. DeMille had already made a silent black-and-white film retelling the story of Moses in 1923 — he reputedly used, no joke, a slab of Jell-O cut in half for the parting of the Red Sea — but DeMille still had one showstopping visual-effects gambit up its sleeve for his destined-to-be-a-television-holiday-programming-staple remake. (No, not Charlton Heston as Moses.) The director used practically every visual effects trick Hollywood had to offer (other than Jell-O, anyway) to re-create the illusion that Heston could force the Red Sea to separate. It may look kinda dated today, but it's still no less impressive.
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Jason and the Argonauts (1963)
Ray Harryhausen — who worked with his mentor Willis O'Brien on Mighty Joe Young — oversaw the stop-motion creatures of a number of fantasy extravaganzas, including The 7th Yoyage of Sinbad (1958), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the original Clash of the Titans (1981). But it was Harryhausen's work on Jason and the Argonauts that was arguably his greatest achievement. Why? Have you seen the skeleton battle?
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Fantastic Voyage (1966)
Sure, this eye-popping journey inside the human body is full of gaping plot holes, with cardboard heroes and an obvious villain, and Raquel Welch only appears to be around for the scene in which her male costars claw at the seaweed-like cells clinging to her body. Which makes it no different from any other modern-day movie designed to deliver cutting-edge visual effects and not much else. Of course, then there's a film like...
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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
You could argue — okay, I could argue, and I will — that every film in this gallery so far has featured special effects that were groundbreaking or memorable at the time of its release, but don't exactly hold up to today's so-photo-realistic-they-make-you-question-reality standards. You can't quite say that about 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most of its effects were achieved in camera, on the set, some with techniques that are still in use today. More to the point: Whereas most filmmakers saw the populist and commercial possibilities of visual effects, director Stanley Kubrick embraced them as a tool to make high art. (Watch the trailer.)
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The Andromeda Strain (1971)
Based on the novel by a young hotshot writer named Michael Crichton (foreshadowing!), this thriller about an alien virus features perhaps cinema's first 3-D computerized image, a map of the high-tech underground lab used by the film's protagonists.
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The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The first of the 1970s disaster movies, it won an Oscar for its re-creation of an ocean liner flipped upside down by a tsunami and became, for a brief moment, one of the most successful films of all time. The idea that a cheesy, effects-driven B movie could pull up next to the likes of Gone With the Wind, The Ten Commandments, and The Graduate proved, for good or ill, a harbinger of the next 40 years of Hollywood studio moviemaking, from The Towering Inferno to Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.
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A sequel to the 1973 thriller Westworld (which had been written and directed by...wait for it...Michael Crichton), this corporate-theme-park-stooges-are-out-to-take-over-the-world-with-human-replicant-robots yarn is likely the first time a 3-D computer-generated image of a human face — i.e., that of the intrepid journalist played by Peter Fonda — ever appeared in a feature film. To put this in perspective, the Apple II computer was released one year later.
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Star Wars (1977)
If I have to explain to you why this movie is on this list, there's no helping you. But I guess we could start here.
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An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Even though the film's lauded werewolf transformation sequence won designer Rick Baker the first ever Oscar for makeup design, in a way it signaled the end of an era. Just a few years later, instead of a heady mix of latex, fake fur, and animatronics, computer servers started handling the heavy lifting of metamorphosing a human into any number of horrifying creatures. But Baker and writer-director John Landis should at least take comfort in knowing that their film, and that sequence in particular, inspired Michael Jackson to collaborate with them on the best music video ever put to celluloid.
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Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
William Shatner bellowing ''KHAAAAAAAAN!'' is by rights its own larger-than-life special effect. But it was the ''Genesis'' planet sequence, in which Shatner's Adm. James T. Kirk watches a simulation of a specialized device terraforming a dead moon into a lush Earth-like landscape, that made cinema history: It was the first entirely computer-generated sequence in a feature film.
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Blade Runner (1982)
A visual and spiritual descendant of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Ridley Scott's follow-up to Alien was a box office disappointment but a cultural titan, influencing everything from videogames to the Sci Fi Channel reboot of Battlestar Galactica. Watching the opening sequences on Blu-ray, taking in the countless minute details of the massive future Los Angeles skyline, is an awe-inspiring experience for cinephiles.
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Although it was one of the first films to rely almost exclusively on computerized effects for its visual punch — especially in the often-parodied light-cycle sequence — the dirty little secret of this cult film is how low-tech so many of its effects actually were: The film was shot on large-format black-and-white film stock, and then painstakingly colorized by hand.
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Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)
It lasts barely 30 seconds, but when a stained-glass knight came to life (to terrorize an elderly vicar, naturally), it was moviedom's first photo-realistic CG character. Fun fact: One of the knight's designers was John Lasseter, who would later spin off the Industrial Light & Magic department that handled the CG effects into a new company called Pixar.
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Howard the Duck (1986)
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THE ABYSS (1989) and TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
While computers hadn't yet cracked the trick of re-creating realistic organic material — i.e., making stuff look like skin — they were gangbusters at making things look shiny, smooth, and fluid. Enter James Cameron, one of the first A-list filmmakers to take advantage of CG effects as an integral engine for his storytelling. Exhibit A: The alien water-tentacle ''pseudopod'' of The Abyss. Exhibit B: The T-1000 (Robert Patrick) in Terminator 2, which also brought the concept of CG ''morphing'' into the mainstream.
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Jurassic Park (1993)
While in preproduction on this adaptation of the Michael Crichton (there he is again!) mega-best-seller, Steven Spielberg agreed to replace Phil Tippett's advanced stop-motion dinosaurs — which had originally been designed to complement Stan Winston's life-size animatronic dinos — with CGI. The director did this without any extensive proof that the technology was even ready to handle the task of rendering realistic skin and musculature, let alone multiple times in a single shot. Audiences took one look at that rampaging T-Rex, however, and stop-motion cinema was officially extinct.
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Forrest Gump (1994)
It wasn't until director Robert Zemeckis plopped Tom Hanks next to President John F. Kennedy that the idea of complex CG effects playing a useful role in what is otherwise an adult drama really entered Hollywood's thinking. Indeed, what was most impressive were all the effects shots audiences didn't realize were effects shots, like Hanks' titular hero playing Ping-Pong with a CG ball.
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The Matrix (1999)
The whole ''bullet-time'' effect may have had a shorter cultural half-life than the Wachowski Brothers intended — no film has really ever used it unironically since — but at the time, audiences knew exactly how Neo felt: Whoa.
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Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999)
Curse you, Jar Jar Binks.
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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001)
Billed as the first fully photo-real, completely CG film, this loose movie version of the beloved videogame franchise ultimately proved two important maxims: One, if your story and characters are duller than dry paste, no measure of visual splendiferousness will save you. And two, beware the uncanny valley.
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THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS (2002) and KING KONG (2005)
Thanks to Jar Jar Binks — curse you, Jar Jar! — audiences were rightly dubious that a CG character could ever carry the emotional heft of an in-the-flesh human being, let alone credibly hold our attention. But then director Peter Jackson cast actor Andy Serkis to play the pivotal role of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, placing him in a motion-capture suit and instructing the CG animation team to re-create every nuance of Serkis' performance. The result was cinema alchemy, and just in case anyone wasn't convinced a new era of screen acting was upon us, Serkis did it again in the title role of Jackson's remake of King Kong.
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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Confirming the exponential increase in the sophistication of computerized effects in just a few short years, the Oscar-winning effects team managed not only to make Brad Pitt look convincingly like a very old man (in a body the size of a young boy, no less) but also to somehow transport the actor back into his body circa Thelma & Louise.
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In a way, James Cameron marshaled every last entry in the visual-effects playbook of the last 30 years — photo-real CGI, motion-capture acting, even miniatures to a degree — and placed them [cue impressively echoing baratone] in the third dimension. Several of the performance capture techniques Cameron and his team essentially invented have already been applied on a handful of other movie productions. But thanks to a few dismayingly flat 2-D-to-3-D conversions (coughcoughClashoftheAirbendercough), we're left to speculate whether Avatar's visual impact can ever be matched — and what the next Big Thing in optic astonishment will be.