November 20th, 2013
A friend and I were talking over beers the other night, and discussing the handful of movies that had transformed the experience of going to the cinema. They contain unique elements not seen before, and influence everything that comes after. Some of the transformation is simply in the realm of special effects, but some of the differences are more profound. Let me explain by providing a list with some words of explanation for each. In reverse order…
Gravity (2013). I have never seen a movie like this before (a refrain that will hold for other entries, too). Watching the movie in 3-D IMAX felt like the closest I could imagine coming to a space experience. This will be the standard for films set in space for years to come, and many of the techniques used to shoot this will become standard (a refrain that will hold for other entries, too).
Avatar (2009). This was the first movie I saw in the modern 3-D, and the most amazing realization of science fictional world-building I’ve ever seen. The work that went into this film was amazing.
The Matrix (1999). The “bullet time” special effect alone raised the bar for all other movies to follow.
Jurassic Park (1993). This was the first movie I saw in which I thought dinosaurs looked authentic and believable. The integration between the CGI and the human actors defined state of the art. Go watch any other movie from the late 1980s/early 1990s and compare.
Blade Runner (1982). This is the realization of the dark, gritty cyberpunk dystopia hitting the big screen in a big way for perhaps the first time. This marks a turning point in many respects for broadening the spectrum of visions of the future.
Alien (1979). While alien monster movies were not new in 1979, this film forged new ground. Ripley is not an obvious hero, just a working stiff on a dirty space barge, and notable for being female but not a damsel in distress or a Barbarella style sex kitten. The “John Hurt moment” redefined how shocking a movie could be.
Star Wars (1977). The special effects were amazing for its day, and the impact of the franchise was perhaps unique in the history of movies.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). The science and special effects were fantastic, and the way its slow pace and big shots reflects the size and isolation of space is unmatched. The amount of respect for the intelligence of the audience would be unheard of today, even if many original viewers were stoned while watching it.
King Kong (1933). A big step back in time, surely skipping a lot of worth entries, but King Kong surely was a milestone in the special effects business, and defined how many big monster movies would be done for decades to come.
Honorable mentions: Blair Witch Project/Cloverfield (2008), for pioneering the found footage format.
This list is far from comprehensive, especially going back to before I was born when it is harder for me to recognize the transformational films. What have I missed?
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