It's summer movie season, which means lots of effects-heavy, big budget romps. And it's easy to feel numbed by all this digital overkill. But when visual effects are used well, they can tell the story instead of distracting from it. Just check out our list of 12 movies that use VFX purely as a storytelling tool.
It's no coincidence that many of the films on this list are also ones which moved the field of visual effects forward, or created innovative new technologies that everybody else copied. These films didn't just copy VFX achievements that others had already created, to stuff the screen with more eye candy: they approached storytelling challenges and found solutions. But these are also movies where VFX sequences evoke an emotional response rather than just making you go "kewl...."
This list is by no means exhaustive — please chime in with your own suggestions!
1) Metropolis (1927)
The grandeur and scope of this film is absolutely essential to its storytelling. And this film broke new ground in the world of VFX by introducing the Schüfftan Process — which is still being used today. Cinematographer Eugen Schüfftan came up with a way to use mirrors to make a small object appear incredibly large by "bending its image" using mirrors. And that's how you get many of the most impressive shots in Fritz Lang's masterpiece.
2) Forbidden Planet (1956)
This retelling of Shakespeare's The Tempest absolutely would not work without its fantastic visions of an alien world, its beautiful spaceship models, Robby the Robot, and the "monsters from the id." This film achieves an amazing sense of scale and strangeness by using tons of matte paintings and miniatures, but also by using a groundbreaking mix of animation and live-action to superimpose the monsters onto the frame. Every piece of technical wizardry is essential to the story.
3) 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
This is another film that broke huge amounts of ground in terms of creating fantastic VFX sequences — including some space scenes that still set the standard for realism and boldness. But more than that, this is an intensely personal film for director Stanley Kubrick — ILM's Roger Guyett sums it up perfectly when he says, "Kubrick's personality really shines through in the effects. He was an auteur in the true sense." This film's use of slit-scan effects to create trippy visuals, in the final "time travel" sequence, remains stirring and baffling.
4) Star Wars (1977)
OK, so we probably would have been lynched if we hadn't included Star Wars on this list — this film is such a milestone in terms of VFX, it's impossible to ignore. The aliens, the robots, and most of all the spaceships and the space battles are just insane. The dogfights and the Death Star trench run remain wonderful. This movie arguably did more than any other to create the "VFX-heavy tentpole" — but it was made in desperation by people who were trying to create something new, and weren't sure it was going to work. What's striking about Star Wars now is that the far-off, long-ago galaxy feels like a character in the film, because so many of the story beats involve that universe. This is Luke Skywalker's journey, but also his romance with an entire galaxy. Which feels alive.
5) E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Honestly, we had to include at least one Steven Spielberg film on this list — the only question was which one. There are a handful of film-makers whose use of VFX is intertwined with a sense of emotional resonance and story beats, and Spielberg is definitely one of them. From the mothership climax of Close Encounters to the incredible matte shots of Raiders to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park to the weird futures of Minority Report and A.I., Spielberg has always had a knack for VFX as storytelling language. In E.T., there are a number of elements that work amazingly — but chief among them is E.T. himself, who could so easily feel creepy or revolting or just silly. The fact that everybody in the world fell in love with this weird-looking alien is a testament to VFX used properly.
6) Ghostbusters (1984)
It's kind of amazing that this film uses no digital effects. It contains tons of creatures floating around, and a climax in which the whole city of New York is menaced. The ghosts and Gozer not only have to feel like real antagonists for the heroic story of the Ghostbusters to work — they also have to be funny, which is harder in a lot of ways. Ghostbusters uses an amazing collection of matte effects, mirror effects, miniatures, stop-motion, animation and light effects to make you believe that four puny guys, armed with proton accelerators, can stand against the worst that the supernatural has to offer.
7) Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Hey, and here's another film-maker who has an amazing track record of using VFX in ways that enhance the story, as well as breaking new ground. From the original Terminator to Aliens to The Abyss to Avatar, James Cameron has been ruthless with his use of effects to sell the story elements he wants you to invest in. Terminator 2 convinces you that a boy can bond with a killer robot, and that the artificial assassin that's chasing them is vastly more advanced and deadly — all of the brilliant stunts and "liquid metal" trickery go towards making the T-1000 feel even more unstoppable than the T-800 was.
8) Babe (1995)
Yep, we're skipping over Jurassic Park, because we already celebrated Spielberg with the "E.T." entry. Babe is an example of a film that doesn't overwhelm you with spectacle, but uses VFX to make you feel something intense — if you didn't cry towards the end of this film, when James Cromwell sings to his pig and says "That'll do," then I don't know what's going on. Babe broke new ground in the field of putting CG heads onto real animals, something that's been a mixed blessing ever since. But it also made us fall in love with a supersmart pig.
9) The Matrix (1999)
And now, another film that gets mentioned on everybody's lists of groundbreaking VFX films. The "Bullet Time," the weird green digitized POV... but part of what makes this movie so iconic is how it captures the dislocation of being inside a virtual space. So many other movies tried to sell "virtual" by using strangeness or making things look conspicuously computer-generated. Like Virtuosity, Lawnmower Man or eXistenZ. The Matrix, meanwhile, uses some clever visual tricks purely in the service of making us realize how immersive (and yet how mutable) a virtual universe actually could be.
10) Iron Man (2008)
I wanted to include one superhero film on this list — it was between Superman, one of the Nolan Bat-films, Captain America, Avengers, and this. The great thing about Iron Man is, it manages to include some intense moments of cyborg body horror, as Tony Stark's chest gets blasted and his heart is powered by a car battery. And then it has some virtuoso "flying around with rocket boots" scenes that show how Tony's ingenuity turn his near-life-ending tragedy into something wonderful. This is the least showy of the Marvel Studios films at this point — but every beautiful flying scene is there to sell us on Tony Stark's rebirth.
11) Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Motion-capture effects have been used amazingly well in a ton of films, from the Lord of the Rings movies to Avatar. But this Apes prequel (or reboot, maybe) manages to use mo-cap to tell a really personal story of a man who's trying to save his dementia-ridden father, and the supersmart ape that befriends them both. This ought to be the gold standard for big VFX blockbusters with heart and brains.
12) Gravity (2013)
And finally... there were a few other recent films that we toyed with including. Including District 9, which makes you believe there's an alien mothership hovering over Johannesburg. Or Chronicle, which makes mutant superpowers feel matter-of-fact and an extension of people's personalities. Or Black Swan. But I want to stand up for Gravity, which really is a film about one person's odyssey. Despite the trite backstory she's given, Sandra Bullock's character feels real and relatable — and all the tilt-a-whirl space effects aren't just impressive and brand new. They're also all about putting us inside her experience of survival and renewal. This film is intense as hell — but it's also small and personal.