In the 7/5/99 issue of Design News, Senior Editor Chuck Murray took a few swipes at some of the worst cinematic special effects of recent years. We invited readers to submit their own nominations for moronic moments in movie history and feature some of the best responses here. Each will receive a box of Orville Redenbacher microwave popcorn, courtesy of Design News magazine.
Coffee, tea, or mayhem?
My nomination for stupid movie special effects has to go to The Concorde-Airport '79. Although this was supposed to be a serious drama, it inspired the Airplane! comedy series that exaggerated outrageous special effects.
The general plot is that someone wants to kill a person flying on a chartered Concorde flying from New York to Europe. The bad guys infiltrate a U.S. Navy base and fire a heat-seeking missile at the Concorde. The pilot detects the missile and institutes evasive action including barrel rolls while lunch is being served! Then, at Mach 1.2 at 30,000 feet, he kills the engines, slides open the window of the cockpit, sticks his arm out the window, and fires a flare. The missile veers to hit the flare and explodes.
Telephone pole has cameo role
One thing you might want to add about "kickers" -- the powder-filled tubes used to blow up things in the movies-- is that these tubes are filled with explosives at the top and a substantial chunk of telephone pole at the bottom. The explosive force alone would not be enough to roll the car; you need to have the momentum of the telephone pole moving downward to get the car moving upward.
Two movies where the hunk of telephone pole is very evident are X-Files: The Movie and Raiders of the Lost Ark. In Raiders, an 8-ft-long section of pole can be seen shooting out of the bottom of the truck that overturns in a marketplace.
But my all-time-favorite dumb special effect involves fires in buildings or parking garages. Ever notice how every sprinkler head in the facility suddenly starts squirting water everywhere?
The worst part of these misleading effects is that they give the uneducated public wrong impressions. Cars don't normally explode when they get hit. Cooling towers don't always signify nuclear plants. Real explosions don't have a lot of color.
In DieHard II, Bruce Willis is hiding in the cockpit of a transport plane. The bad guys ventilate it with at least 4,000 rounds of automatic weapons, fire and toss in 25 hand grenades featuring at least 14-second fuses, giving our hero time to buckle himself into the ejection seat of an aircraft with a hard fuselage (no canopy). Just before the 14-second-delay hand grenades explode, the ejection seat fires him 500 ft straight up, enabling his parachute to deliver him safely back to frozen Terra Firma.
Span-America Medical Systems
Try a water pistol next time
Shoot to Kill with Sidney Poitier and Tom Berenger is right up there with movies having the worst special effects. In the final scene of the movie, Poitier engages in the usual pursuit to the death routine and ends up shooting the bad guy under water. Apparently the water filling the gun's barrel had no effect on its operation.
I have also noticed special effects tend to have fads. This is especially noticeable in car-wreck scenes. Several years ago, cars would simply run into something and blow up. The next innovation was driving through objects such as semi-trailers, fast food joints, etc. Then came the leap into the air trick. Cars would be launched over an obstacle, plowing nose first into the ground before blowing up. Then movie makers discovered they could make the car twist in the air before augering in and blowing up. The next innovation was twisting and augering into multiple cars or other assorted objects and then blowing up. One wonders about Hollywood creativity when most of the movies over a year or two all use the same technique. Perhaps there is only one special-effects expert they all hire?
They must have flunked Explosions 101
I just read your article on movie special effects and agree whole-heartedly. Self-igniting/detonating vehicles can lend a humorous touch to an otherwise serious car chase. One noteworthy event during the filming (in my hometown) of the original Blues Brothers movie occurred when Akroyd's character puts the moves on Twiggy at a gas station. In the background there was a tanker trailer that was supposed to be blown up as the boys roared away from the gas pump with the nozzle still in the tank. The trailer had several gallons (unknown quantity) of gas in it, augmented by "kickers" buried in the ground under the tires and the supports near the fifth wheel. Beforehand, the film crew had taken precautions to board up the windows of a church across the street. The subsequent explosion was so poorly planned that all of the windows shattered anyway, and some oak trees near the trailer caught fire. Not surprisingly, the explosion scene was edited from the final movie.
The squeaky wheel
I enjoyed your article about bad movie special effects. The inaccuracies have ruined many a movie for me. One of my favorite ridiculous effects occurs in one of the Indiana Jones movies. During an eventful car chase scene through the dusty, dirt roads of Morocco (I think), not only was dust and dirt billowing up everywhere, but the car's tires were squealing. Now I've tried, but I've never been able to get my tires to squeal on a dirt road!
Eaton Corporation Innovation Center