These are not necessarily the most technically accomplished or spectacular explosions in cinema history, but rather the ones with most emotional impact. Also, they have to be part of the finale of the movie, if not right at the end.
WARNING: This list might spoil some films for you.
20: Armageddon (1998) – No way out
Bruce Willis is the astronaut who steals the short straw and stays behind to blow up an asteroid threatening Earth after a semi-abortive mission by desperate mankind to destroy the rock. The impact of the scene was somewhat diluted by an almost identical scenario being played out with Robert Duvall in Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, which was in competition with Armageddon that summer.
Impact: It’s hard not to like Willis, particularly when he’s playing a bone-headed mule (which is the case in 99% of his action roles), and martyrdom is always worth getting a piece of dust in your eye for.
19: Silent Running (1971) – Destruction of the Valley Forge
In 2001 FX-meister Douglas Trumbull’s 1971 cult sci-fi outing, Bruce Dern plays a renegade astronaut who’s killed all his colleagues in order to save Earth’s last forest (which for some unexplainable reason the Earth’s governments have sent into space for safe-keeping).
Dern fakes the destruction of his ship, the Valley Forge, in the hope that Earth will leave him in peace to tend the forest with his robot crew. When the authorities catch up with him, Dern decides to eject the final forest into space with a robot gardener and blow himself up along with the Valley Forge.
Impact: Though not in evidence in the clip, it’s Dern’s struggle between his better and worse nature that carries the film, and the destruction of the Forge is in part some kind of self-punishment for Dern having murdered his crew-mates, even in a good cause.
The explosion is atonement rather than martyrdom, but it’s moving for all that; by this point we have developed some sympathy for the misanthropic Dern in the scenes where he re-found his humanity in the company of some of Hollywood’s most engaging robots.
18: Zabriskie Point (1970) – Destruction of the house
Michelangelo Antonioni’s follow-up to his cult hit Blow Up (1968) was a fairly unguarded jab at American culture, and the second of three films which represent his non-Italian output (The Passenger was the third in 1975).
MGM chief Louis F. Polk cut a great deal of anti-American material out of the film during post-production; though his successor James Aubrey restored the material, he omitted a closing shot of some sky-writing reading “Fuck You, America”.
Impact: This explosion sequence runs at nearly five minutes, and for anyone who thinks that multiple-coverage shots of expensive explosions are an invention of the 1980s, this is an eye-opener.
The explosion itself has no practical cause and is generally conceded to be an imaginative projection of Daria Halprin (who along with co-star Mark Frechette uses her own name for her character in the film), and a scathing comment on the materialistic creed of the USA.
All the trinkets and symbols of consumer culture are shown flying about in slow-motion later on in the sequence, and Antonioni’s use of music (the film features a score by Pink Floyd and Jerry Garcia) turns something exciting into something very sad. These days such a sequence would have too many ‘terrorist’ implications to retain its whimsical sense of rebellion.
17: Return Of The Living Dead (1985) – Let God sort ’em out
The American military’s 1960s attempt to create a marijuana-defoliating agent turned out instead to cause corpses to come back to life with a taste for brains.
When one of the top-secret barrels containing an unkillable revenant starts to crack, the scene is set for zombie mayhem in Dan O’Bannon’s cult horror outing.
The deadly zombie-barrels have a government telephone number stencilled on the side, for people to call in case there is any problem with the barrel. Unfortunately phoning the number virtually guarantees a small nuclear air-strike on your current location.
Impact: Beverly Randolph and Don Calfa find themselves cornered by a zombie in an attic in the calamitous climax of RotLD, and the fact that the zombie breaks through just as the bomb drops actually injects a note of relief into the fatalistic shock of having a film’s worth of characters bombed out of existence
16: Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970) – Let there be light
Though not generally considered the best ‘apes’ outing, BtPotA is actually the most profitable of any of the series including the remake.
In it, Heston-alike James Franciscus finds a secret underground cult worshipping an active ICBM missile modified to have planet-destroying capability, the radiation from which has mutated them into telepaths.
When Franciscus leads the ape hordes to besiege the cult’s stronghold in (old) New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Chuck finally shows up in order to swear a bit more (‘You bloody bastards!’) and accidentally trigger the doomsday bomb.
Impact: Blowing up an entire planet was still a relatively new idea at the time, and though the explosion is handled with no great resort to special effects, it is a shocking attempt to top the more iconic discovery of lady liberty at the end of Planet Of The Apes (1968).
In an earlier draft the ICBM was not a doomsday weapon, and Heston, Franciscus and Linda Harrison escaped the blast in order to return to Ape City and start a new order of peaceful co-existence between man and ape.
15: Dawn Of The Dead (2004) – The gas bomb
Zack Snyder’s remake of the George Romero zombie classic has as many detractors as fans (I’m in the latter camp), but it’s hard to deny the director’s feeling for his characters.
In Top 50 movie special effects shots I mentioned that Snyder’s extraordinary Ariel sequence at the start of the film creditably re-uses Hitchcock’s dispassionate eye for chaos from The Birds (1963). In this shot, the camera again draws back to show us a birds-eye view of the gas-canister explosion which clears a way for our heroes to escape.
Impact: This is not a ‘cheer moment’ really, but shares the sense of brooding isolation and desperation that threads the film. It’s also the only real impact that our heroes ever have on the milling hordes of undead that have destroyed their lives, and the sole significant moment of ‘payback’.
Apart from anything else, it’s an eerie and fascinating shot that reminds one of observing a culture in a microscope, divorced from its petty concerns and internal disputes.
14: V For Vendetta (2006) – Destruction of the Houses of Parliament
Alan Moore’s UK-set dystopia arguably has even more impact for British fans than the huge following it attained abroad. Its theme of fascism, surveillance and Orwellian culture-control strikes an uncomfortably resonant note in the most-surveilled country in the world.
This is ironic when you consider that Tony Blair’s son Euan is said (by Stephen Fry) to have worked with James McTeigue’s production team to secure unprecedented access for the destructive scene featured here.
MP David Davies criticised Blair for granting access, given the film’s anarchist-terrorist theme, and the film-makers are said to deny that Euan Blair was influential, but rather that the access was granted after more than a year of negotiations with the British government.
Impact: Blowing shit up isn’t quite what it was in the 1990s and earlier. The total destruction of the Houses Of Parliament has a disturbing cultural resonance that mixes uncomfortably with the joy that Hugo Weaving’s ‘V’, himself a very ambiguous character, has achieved his objective.
For once, the political ambiguity of a big movie is a challenge rather than a diplomatic cop-out. The 1/10th scale model explosions are refreshingly low on CGI, and were constructed by VFX company Cinesite over 11 weeks at Shepperton studios. The explosions themselves were enhanced by compositing both CGI and practical pyrotechnic footage.
13: The Thing (1982) – Destruction of the Antarctic base
In Canada, production designer John L. Lloyd spent over 6 months overseeing construction of the Antarctic research base for John Carpenter’s superb re-take on the John W. Campbell short story; only to watch Carpenter & Co. blow the lot up. The ruined set was then used for exteriors of the destroyed Norwegian base seen in the early part of the movie.
Impact: As with Dawn Of The Dead (#15), it’s the drawing back and the ghostly isolation of this war in the middle of nowhere that lends the explosive climax real impact.
The remaining survivors of the research base were already set on self-destruction at this point, as it was the only way to surely destroy the alien presence threatening mankind, but these moments drive home the loss of shelter amidst the harsh and murderous Antarctic conditions.
If Carpenter had zoomed in to capture the explosions in current Hollywood ‘pyro-porno’ style, the emotional impact would have been severely diminished.
12: Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (1984) – Destruct-sequence
Kirk had used the Enterprise’s self-destruct sequence to curtail Frank Gorshin’s tyrannical take-over of the ship in the TOS episode Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, but here he actually went through with it, in order to trap invading Klingons whilst he beamed onto their nearby ship.
The self-destruct codes used are the same as in Battlefield. Harve Bennett had the effects sequence re-worked after reasoning that the original ‘antimatter explosion’ resulting from a warp-core build-up would probably take out the needed Klingon vessel as well, and this amendment gave us the very poetic shot of the partially-destroyed Enterprise burning up in Regula’s atmosphere.
Ken Ralston supervised the VFX for ILM, and his hatred of the difficult original model-design gave him some pleasure in destroying it. The smaller 12″ model is the one seen burning up in the atmosphere, whilst the saucer-section is a larger hero model. The hull damage was simulated with acetone on styrene plastic, an effect any amateur modeller will have tried at least once.
Impact: They blew up the Enterprise. The Enterprise! NCC-1701! If you don’t care, you must have been forced to watch it by your Trek-obsessed partner.
11: Die Hard 2 (1990) Yippie-kay-ay, motherfucker!
Renny Harlin’s wildly over-the-top action sequel finds Bruce Willis watching the villains escape in a 747 at the film’s end. Luckily for him, the plane is leaking fuel, so he insouciantly tosses a lighter and his trademark one-liner at the fuel trail and destroys the aircraft.
Aviation fuel is almost impossible to ignite by such methods, and a burning trail could never catch up to a jet airplane taking off at nearly 200mph, but never mind – compared to the earlier ‘ejector seat’ gag, the science of this sequence is rock-solid.
Impact: The plane’s destruction is such an outrageous and implausible spectacle that you can’t help giving in to the cheer-moment and the sheer audacity of the film-makers.
Earlier implausibilities in the movie will already have sent anyone with a vestigial critical faculty to the refunds booth at the box-office, so there was no-one to spoil the party when McClane blew the plane.
10: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) – Judgement day
Currently the 10th most expensive film ever made, Jonathan Mostow’s $200,000,000 Terminator entry had a mixed critical reception, with many fans of the franchise put off both by the casting of Nick Stahl as John Connor and by the very dour and fatalistic tone of the movie.
ILM comfortably topped the oft-criticised nuclear-blast effects from James Cameron’s T2. The sequence stops short of showing the actual effects on humanity of the blasts, and thus can’t help reminding one of Doctor Strangelove (see #3).
Impact: Two huge cult movies had built up judgement day, but we had only ever had a taste of it before in Sarah Connor’s controversial T2 dream-sequence. Here instead all the VFX stops are pulled out to show a world at nuclear war.
The impact is yet heightened by the fact of John Connor and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes) having been tricked into taking refuge from the bombs when they thought they had a chance to stop it, as at the conclusion of T2.
9: Fight Club (1999) – Fresh start for the world economy
The fruit of Tyler Durden’s surreptitious activities remains arguably one of cinema’s biggest SFX shocks, as Project Mayhem destroys the west’s credit records.
Image Savant’s Richard Baily took over 14 months to produce the visual effects for the destruction of the buildings, which are actually based on buildings owned by 20th Century Fox; the company feared litigation if Fight Club were actually to depict the destruction of genuine credit companies.
Impact: Partly prescient of the mood that would soon overtake the world, and partly nostalgic for a time when terrorism on that gargantuan scale was still science-fictional, Project Mayhem can’t help but get a response out of the viewer.
At the time, it was pretty funny. What it meant two years later was something else, and – along with the likes of Independence Day and Arlington Road (#5), we are forced to view the carnage through more informed eyes.
8: Aliens (1986) – Punch it, Bishop!
Ridley Scott had not only ended the original Alien with a huge explosion, but likewise lied about the film being over at that point, arguably inventing ‘the fourth act’ when Ripley discovers that she has an unwelcome shipmate.
In this much, James Cameron stuck to the template, as Ripley, Hicks, Newt and Bishop fly out of the blast-zone of the reactor on LV-421. Some effects out-takes on the Alien Quadrilogy documentary for the film show the nuclear mushroom cloud to be a semi-transparent model being pushed up with a strong light-source underneath it.
Impact: James Horner’s rousing score caused him so much stress that he injured his back during the composing sessions, and that tension really comes out to deliver the full punch of this last-second escape from terror.
Additionally we have only just found out that Bishop is not going to betray Ripley and Newt, a source of tension that has been hanging over the narrative for two hours. One of the most exciting cinematic escapes of the 1980s,and it all seems to have been done with cotton wool, good editing and great music.
7: The Dambusters (1954) – Destruction of the Ruhr dam.
Michael Anderson’s rousing tale of backroom boffins and chirpy class collaboration amongst the English bombers was a huge hit in Britain. The country still visibly and psychologically scarred by bombing campaigns was happy to relive some of WWII’s scientific glory in the context of a ‘happy ending’.
Revisionism means that we can’t easily view the film the same way without making an effort to adjust to the mind-set of the period, but in that context the cheer moments are clear, such as the moment that the Ruhr dam finally ‘goes’ under the onslaught from Michael Redgrave’s ‘bouncing bombs’.
Water effects were very hard to achieve convincingly before the age of CGI, and the damn breaches were accomplished mostly by using the silhouette of explosions as mattes for fomenting sea-water. The need to keep motion in the shots was an additional challenge in terms of verisimilitude.
Impact: The royal command performance of The Dambusters caused so much interest as to require a repeat the following night. There’s no denying the sheer spectacle and bravery depicted in the film, and many of its shots stood in for unfinished SFX footage in early cuts of Star Wars.
But it’s only by watching the preliminary years of effort and frustration to get the bouncing bombs going that one can see the sheer emotional impact of the Ruhr breach. From a science-experiment in Barnes-Wallace’s garden to the deaf ears of Whitehall and the eventual interest of ‘Bomber’ Harris and a series of disastrous tests, the build-up to the breach only adds to the characters’ elation in that moment.
6: Dark Star (1974) – The bomb learns the concept of solipsism
Dark Star co-writer Dan O’Bannon has claimed a few times that Alien (which he co-wrote with Ron Shusett) was Dark Star V.2.0, played for horror instead of laughs, as he didn’t think the original had turned out funny enough.
But the concept of having to persuade a malfunctioning, planet-killing bomb to not explode by teaching it dialectics is still a hoot, and a memorable spoof on 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Exactly why the bomb explodes with so much less force than the one demonstrated in the earlier part of the movie is not clear – perhaps the detonators blew and not the central charge. The explosion was achieved mainly with lights, filters and editing.
Impact: John Carpenter has built up a nice set of spaced-out and likeable (if rather bored) astronauts by the time he blows them all up, and it’s a shame to see them go.
Obeying the rule that ‘three is good’, this is the bomb’s third attempt to descend from the spaceship and explode, as it’s been programmed to do (and already talked out of twice by the ship’s central computer). Therefore the tension has been considerably built up by this point as to whether it will listen to reason a third time.
Arguably it’s the astronauts’ atheism that ultimately seals their fate – if they had successfully converted the bomb to Christianity, they might have been considerably better off.
5: Arlington Road (1999) – An overdue moment of realisation
College professor Jeff Bridges begins to suspect that his new neighbours (Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack) are terrorists – but is he being paranoid because of the current stress he is under or is there a good reason why the new guys have mysterious-looking blueprints and cordoned-off sections in their new house?
Through the course of the movie Robbins and Cusack manipulate Bridges’ sense of reality until finally they inveigle him into delivering a high-yield bomb to the FBI headquarters where his late wife used to work.
Impact: Though the plotting of Mark Pellington’s ingenious thriller doesn’t withstand any great scrutiny, the discovery that Bridges has been made a mule and scapegoat isn’t easy to see coming, and the sheer audacity of this very unhappy ending combines with post 9/11 sensibility to extend the film’s emotional wallop beyond its time.
4: Bridge On The River Kwai (1957) – Whoops!
We are only one of the legions of sources to note that the bridge over the Khwae Yai river (then known as the Mae Klong) was never actually destroyed, despite the explosive finale to David Lean’s hit film.
Estimates for the cost of the bridge in the movie vary between £125,000 to over a million pounds, and it was destroyed on March 10, 1957 in the presence of the Prime Minister of Ceylon, where the movie was filmed. The bridge had taken eight months, 500 workers and 35 elephants to build.
Producer Sam Spiegel had the multiple reels of footage of the explosion flown out on five different planes to minimise the chance of losing the shot or having to re-stage it. Wise, as one reel went missing, prompting a world-wide search, though it eventually turned up on the tarmac at an airport in Cairo.
Impact: Oddly enough, the impact of the explosion is largely ironic, if not comedic, as Alec Guinness, now practically a collaborator with his captors and determined to stop the sabotage, ends up shot and falling on the detonator. This mirrors the detonation cause in Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (#16), and even for a fictitious gag, it’s a bit anarchic for 1957.
3: Doctor Strangelove (1964) – We’ll meet again…
One of the reasons that Kubrick ultimately decided not to conclude 2001: A Space Odyssey with the ‘star-child’ detonating Earth’s nuclear stockpiles was that it would be too close to the famous conclusion of his cold war satire. It was star Peter Sellers’ ex-Goon partner Spike Milligan who suggested using Vera Lynn’s war-time heartwarmer We’ll Meet Again over the scenes of planetary destruction cobbled together from stock nuclear-test footage.
Impact: A stark reminder of how different WWIII would be from WWII, the montage immediately entered movie history. Slim Pickens’ rodeo ride to destruction on a nuclear warhead was adapted from an episode of the 1950s serial Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and was later mirrored for the final sequence in Dark Star (#6) where an astronaut rides some debris into a planet’s atmosphere like a surf-board.
2: Star Wars (1977) – Destruction of the Death Star
Oddly enough the final TIE fighter that Luke shoots out from the Falcon in the ‘Escape from the Death Star’ sequence seems a far larger-scale explosion than the Death Star’s in the 1977 blockbuster.
The ‘ring’-effect added on to the original – admittedly rather small-scale – ‘sparky’ explosion doesn’t add anything much to it, and seems to have been nicked wholesale from the destruction of Praxis at the beginning of Star Trek VI.
The ring effect was produced in both cases by ILM, and Star Trek VI director Nick Meyer was inspired by the FX in The Poseidon Adventure (1972). The sound of the Death Star explosion uses the famous ‘Castle Thunder’ sound effect originally generated for Frankenstein (1931), which is the explosion sound-mixer’s equivalent of the Wilhelm Scream. Check out this huge list of other movies where Castle Thunder has guest-starred.
Impact: The most critically appreciated Star Wars movie is arguably the one with no explosion at the end. In Irvin Kirshner’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980), our heroes have slunk away to lick their wounds, and even C3PO’s buff-up can’t conceal that they’ve all had a terrible kicking.
Nonetheless the destruction of the original Death Star is one of the crowning cheer-moments of 1970s cinema, and is ingeniously preceded by a smaller cheer-moment as Han Solo finally stops counting his wad and gets with the action.
1: Jaws (1975) – Smile, you son of a bitch
According to an interview with Richard Dreyfus at thesharkisstillworking.com, Steven Spielberg was not actually present for the scene of the shark’s destruction in Jaws, as he had heard the crew were planning to dump him in the water when he called wrap on the movie (apparently the director thereby began a tradition where he is not present during the shooting of the final scene of any of his movies).
Explosives expert Richard S. Edwards had to crawl into the shark maquette in order to place the requisite dynamite that blew it up. The picture taken of him at that point remains with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where Edwards worked after his time in the Navy.Impact: Though it’s unlikely that a tank of compressed oxygen would go up with quite the semi-nuclear force depicted, audiences had been through the mill with this movie and had really earned this reward. Arguably THE cheer moment of the 1970s, explosive or otherwise.
Honourable mentions:Pointless in this huge field.
NOTE: APOCALYPSE NOWSeveral TV prints of Apocalypse Now (1979) retain end-credits featuring pyrotechnic footage and apparently random jungle explosions.
Francis Ford Coppola pulled these prints and changed the end credits after test-screenings in Spring of 1979 established that audience members were interpreting the abstractly-intended footage as an air-strike (Martin Sheen had told Frederic Forrest to return to the boat and order an air-strike towards the end of the film).
A lot of people remain hard to convince of this. Personally I never interpreted the end-credit explosions as part of the narrative, but rather a return to the abstract warfare imagery which opens the movie.
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26th January 2009