The Walk makes full use of CGI, but what are the best special effects-driven dramas ever made? Dominic Corry investigates.

Released in New Zealand theatres this week, Robert Zemeckis' The Walk is a rare special effects-laden blockbuster in that it projects the kind of storytelling ambition which prevents the involvement of space ships, monsters, robots, explosions or any other classic popcorn blockbuster affectations.

In telling the true tale of Frenchman Phillipe Petit's attempt to traverse between the World Trade Center buildings in 1974 (previously explored in the 2008 documentary Man on Wire), Zemeckis makes full and impressive use of cutting-edge movie-making technology to tell a relatively intimate, personal drama.

Based on a true story, 'The Walk' follows the ambition of a Frenchman planning to walk a tightrope between the Trade Centre buildings in New York.

While there is undeniable broad appeal in the visuals promised by the film, it stands in notable contrast to its multiplex brethren.

* Read the Herald's full review of The Walk here.


Excepting his ill-advised sojourn into full-CGI movies (which resulted in the sterile likes of The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol), Zemeckis is arguably the biggest modern proponent of special effects-dependent blockbusters that resist conforming to the 'popcorn' story model traditionally used to justify such expenditure.

His Cast Away featured extensive imperceptible CGI enhancements, but I suppose it also featured a plane crash and had a genre trope ('lost at sea') at its core.

Forrest Gump used cutting-edge techniques to insert Tom Hanks into notable historical moments. Although less dependent on genre tropes than Cast Away, it did contain plenty of novelty visual appeal. And an explosion.

Zemeckis' underrated Hitchcock riff What Lies Beneath was creatively subtle in using CGI to enhance the cinematography, but thrillers don't really count here. Zemeckis' most recent film Flight was probably the most special-laden film ever made about alcoholism.

Working back through the last two decades of Zemeckis' filmography got me thinking about other examples of big, giant special effects-driven films that don't conform to the prevailing notions of what constitutes a 'popcorn' blockbuster.

Considering the sums involved, it generally takes a director of major standing to get films like these made, so there aren't a huge amount of them out there, especially in today's brand-driven market.

It's tempting to see Ang Lee's visually sumptuous The Life of Pi as such a film. Although it has very lofty dramatic ambitions and considerable emotional resonsance, it's also kind of Jumanji at Sea.

Ang Lee's adaptation of the book, The Life of Pi. Photo / Supplied
Ang Lee's adaptation of the book, The Life of Pi. Photo / Supplied

The recent Everest movie qualifies - it told a tragic true story enhanced by seamless special effects that were able to represent something on screen that had never really been shown before.


While 2012's Cloud Atlas (directed by Tom Tykwer and The Wachowskis) featured some nice sleek futuristic scenes involving flying motorbikes, the film's powerful dramatic elements easily superceded its assortment of genre pleasures.

The filmmakers went to a lot of special effects-assisted effort to have their actors take on a variety of roles throughout the film, mixing up genders and ethnicities to the point where you're never quite sure who's playing who. It's an effective technique. Along with the epic scope of the timezone-spanning film, it helps make Cloud Atlas a great argument for using modern special effects to tell a story that tries to do more than simply thrill the audience.

Peter Jackson used the Hollywood power he accumulated from King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy to mount a large scale adaptation of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, a sombre drama about loss told from the perspective of a pre-pubescent murder victim observing her family from the afterlife.

Jackson stages big showy fantasy sequences which can't help but tonally recall similar techniques employed in Heavenly Creatures.

There's plenty of clear dramatic ambition and some sensitive performances in The Lovely Bones, but it doesn't quite all come together as well as it could've.

Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones. Photo / Supplied
Saoirse Ronan in The Lovely Bones. Photo / Supplied

Watching The Lovely Bones, I couldn't stop thinking about a film from another notable Kiwi director - Vincent Ward's adaptation of Richard Matheson's afterlife tale What Dreams May Come, which starred Robin Williams and Annabella Sciorra.

Somewhat dismissed upon its 1998 release, time has shown What Dreams May Come to be one of the more narratively ambitious big-budget films to ever come out of the studio system. Also a sombre drama about loss (Williams travels to Hell to retrieve wife Sciorra after she commits suicide), the bold visual aesthetics on display complement the plot with a little more fluidity than in The Lovely Bones. That said, Matheson's source material is a more genre-leaning story than Sebold's.

No discussion of big budget dramas can be had without invoking James Cameron's Titanic, which despite sorta qualifying as a disaster movie, must be commended for how well the blockbuster spectacle enhances the characters' emotional journeys.

But it's no Cloud Atlas.

What are your favourite special effects-driven dramas? Comment below!