July 2, 2018
It’s that magical time of year again. Hot dogs and hamburgers. Baseball and apple pie. Fireworks and noise ordinance violations.
That’s right...it must be July! Which means that it’s time for our yearly obligation to celebrate all things America — including explosions! After all, what’s more American than seeing a big ball of fire destroy everything in its path?
We at Applied Art & Technology are getting in on the fun with a countdown of our 10 favorite explosions in film history. However, as digital storytellers, we thought we’d do things a little differently and limit our list to examples of explosions that actually served their film’s narrative impact. In other words, we’re only spotlighting great movies with great stories...that so happen to feature equally great explosions.
That means we’ll be leaving off a few iconic film explosions from some decent but admittedly flawed movies (we’re looking at you, Independence Day), as well other films that are, well, just plain bad (*cough* Michael Bay *cough*).
So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get to blowing stuff up! Er, in the name of America, that is.
10. The Birds (1963)
Starting off our countdown is one of the most beloved horror films made by the legendary Master of Suspense.
This 1963 thriller, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is often seen as Hitch’s last truly iconic film. And it’s easy to see why — from the unnervingly idyllic setting of Bodega Bay to Tippi Hedren’s memorable screen debut. However, it’s Hitchcock’s expert use of practical effects and suspense building that gives The Birds its rightful status as a classic.
Now, our explosion occurs a little more than halfway through the film, after the mysterious birds start to exhibit their first signs of malice against the townspeople of Bodega Bay. It all starts with a single bird flying low and striking a man pumping gas, which then sets off an incendiary chain of events that culminates in a rather frightening inferno.
It’s a pivotal moment in the film that showcases the birds’ malevolence, underscored by the first death at the hands (or, more accurately, claws) of the fiendish fowl.
9. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
This 1957 Best Picture winner is widely regarded as one of the greatest World War II epics ever made, as well as one of the most emotionally affecting.
Benefitting from David Lean’s masterful direction and a talented cast featuring the likes of William Holden and Alec Guinness (the future Obi-Wan Kenobi), The Bridge on the River Kwai also boasts one of the most memorable — and explosive — finales in cinema history.
The film’s climax is, of course, highlighted by a jaw-dropping explosion that sends the titular bridge plummeting to the ground. Add Guinness’ Academy Award-winning performance to the mix, and it's easy to see why this film explosion has resonated with viewers for decades.
Essentially, the destruction of the bridge serves as an echo for Guinness’ own demise, which is punctuated by the pitch-perfect delivery of the line “What have I done?” moments before the bridge goes tumbling down.
Earned yourself an Oscar, that’s what you did, Alec!
8. Star Wars (1977)
Yes, there have been bigger and, perhaps, flashier explosions in other Star Wars films (the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi and the cataclysmic ending of Rogue One come to mind). But nothing will ever top the original Death Star explosion for its blending of sci-fi spectacle with grounded moments of personal growth.
In 1977’s Star Wars (since re-released with the subtitle Episode IV — A New Hope because, well, George Lucas was never quite good with numbers), our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) embarks on a proverbial quest to not only save the galaxy but to undergo a life-altering transformation.
By embracing the mystical powers of the Force, Luke learns to trust in himself and in his connections with others — an idea that is beautifully conveyed immediately following our explosion when Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, that one guy who won that Oscar that one time) speaks to Luke from beyond the grave, telling him, “The Force will be with you. Always.”
In a way, the destruction of the Death Star mirrors the eradication of Luke’s fears and his willingness to trust in himself through the power of the Force (that is, until the introduction of midi-chlorians in The Phantom Menace, which — yeah, let’s not go there).
7. The Hurt Locker (2009)
Kathryn Bigelow’s magnum opus and 2009 Best Picture winner may go down as one of the most harrowing and uncompromising depictions of wartime trauma in film history.
Bigelow does not waste any time diving headfirst into her distressing subject matter, choosing to open her film with Staff Sergeant Matthew Thompson’s (Guy Pearce) tragic death at the hands of an improvised explosive device in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
Now, what makes this explosion so effective is Bigelow’s decision to capture the action in slow motion, resulting in a powerful death scene that forces the viewer to remain in the moment and more completely absorb the full extent of the horror on display.
The fact that Bigelow chose to begin her film with such a gut-wrenching scene — a risky move, to be sure — is also a testament to her unflinching vision as a filmmaker.
Fortunately, the rest of The Hurt Locker is just as powerful as this opening scene, which, in a way, foreshadows the film’s tragic narrative trajectory.
6. Apocalypse Now (1979)
With Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam War-era epic, we could have easily spotlighted the fabled “Ride of the Valkyries” helicopter sequence for featuring some of the film’s most unforgettable explosions. But we decided that the opening sequence is a touch more effective, primarily for the disturbingly hypnotic atmosphere Coppola achieves amidst the haunting backdrop of airborne explosives.
Of course, much of this scene’s psychedelic power comes by way of The Doors’ evocative ode to finality, “The End,” which Coppola ironically uses to signal the beginning of his film.
Could this be a way for Coppola to subtly announce the beginning of the end for Captain Benjamin Willard (Martin Sheen), whose face is superimposed with images of the burning jungles of Vietnam?
Regardless, the multiple explosions on display here make for an immediately arresting opening scene. You can’t help but want to continue watching — and if you do, you won’t regret it, as Apocalypse Now remains just as captivating in all its hallucinatory horror nearly 40 years later.
Did we mention the horror? The horror?
5. White Heat (1949)
Ever wanted to go out in a blaze of glory? James Cagney did just that in the iconic ending of this classic film noir from 1949.
Widely considered to be one of the greatest gangster movies ever made, White Heat follows psychotic gang leader Cody Jarrett (Cagney) as he commits a large assortment of crimes — from robbery to prison break to even murder.
Naturally, the law eventually catches up to Cody, who sees himself surrounded by the coppers by the end of the film. In the big finale to what is a career-best performance, Cagney scales a large, globe-shaped gas storage tank, where he announces these famous last words for all to hear: “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”
The tank then explodes, producing a massive inferno that presumably takes Jarrett’s life to end the film.
All these decades later, this ending is still as potent as ever — thanks to a scary good James Cagney and an all-time great movie quote.
4. The Dark Knight (2008)
Christopher Nolan’s 2008 sequel to Batman Begins is often praised as not only one of the greatest superhero films of all time but also one of the few sequels to outshine its predecessor.
Without a doubt, much of what makes The Dark Knight so great is the late Heath Ledger’s mesmerizing portrayal of the Joker. As it happens, one of the late actor’s most memorable moments in the film occurs in the infamous hospital explosion sequence.
In the scene, the Joker visits Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) in his hospital room and convinces the future Two-Face to seek revenge for Rachel’s death. Minutes later, the Joker then activates an explosion intended to destroy the hospital.
What makes this scene so brilliant is Ledger’s character work as he pauses to childishly fidget with his detonator once the initial blasts come to an abrupt halt — only to be startled when the larger explosions rock the hospital.
It’s a moment that is impressive for Nolan’s insistence to demolish a real building without the aid of visual effects, as well as for the characterization of Ledger’s Joker as a complex villain who is both oddly endearing and insanely terrifying.
3. Touch of Evil (1958)
This landmark film noir directed by the mythical Orson Welles is commonly revered as one of the darkest and grimiest entries in the classic noir canon. However, that’s not the reason why Touch of Evil makes our list.
The reason? That shot.
Of course, we’re referring to the film’s famous opening sequence, which consists of a single tracking shot that clocks in at over three minutes in length and has been described as one of the greatest long takes in cinema history. You know, that shot.
Oh, and there’s a pretty wicked explosion in there, too.
The shot in question begins with a close-up on a time bomb being planted in a car, after which point a couple unwittingly enters the vehicle and slowly drives through a small town on the U.S.—Mexico border. All the while, we can hear the ominous ticking of the bomb hidden in the trunk of the car.
As the camera weaves into street corners and around buildings to follow the doomed couple, we get introduced to our protagonists Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his wife Susie (Janet Leigh), who both enter the frame towards the end of the sequence and momentarily avert our attention away from the car.
Only once we start to lose sight of our initial point of focus does Welles pull us back in with a wild car explosion that is entirely shocking and yet, somehow, completely expected.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
When it was announced that Mad Max mastermind George Miller would be rebooting his beloved franchise after nearly three decades, expectations were reasonably high, if not somewhat tempered. After all, how could this newest Max possibly live up to the high-octane charm of the original three films?
As it turned out, 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road not only exceeded fan expectations but became the most critically acclaimed film of the franchise, an unlikely Academy Award winner and the greatest fourthquel in movie history (yes, that is now a word).
Really, the entirety of Miller’s post-apocalyptic fever dream of a film could qualify for this spot on our countdown. But we decided to focus in on the tanker explosion at the film’s climax for its seamless blending of practical effects with CGI enhancement.
With real stunt drivers, real explosives and multiple days required to set up the effect, this highly intricate explosion perfectly encapsulates Miller’s skill as a veteran filmmaker.
Plus, let’s face it: there is literally nothing cooler than seeing Tom Hardy balance gingerly on a pole amidst a high-speed chase in the desert, surrounded by exploding vehicles. Nothing.
1. Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Come on. How could this not be number one?
More than 50 years later, and Stanley Kubrick’s biting political satire remains just as sharply funny as it did when it first premiered in 1964.
It’s certainly fitting that Dr. Strangelove (sometimes appearing with the subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb) takes the top spot on our list because it actually features two all-time great film explosions.
First, there’s the instantly recognizable image of Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) riding an H-bomb down to earth like a bucking bronco before being consumed in a massive mushroom cloud. The scene is just as absurd as it is darkly funny, which is precisely why it works so well. In effect, the absurdity serves as both an exaggeration and a reflection of America’s Cold War paranoia.
And then there’s the ending, in which the titular Dr. Strangelove (played by Peter Sellers with an unmatched comic intensity) outlines his plan to repopulate the earth from underground mines where nuclear radiation can’t penetrate.
This bizarre speech is then followed with a perplexing moment of euphoric terror when the wheelchair-bound Strangelove rises to his feet to proclaim that he can walk again — only for Kubrick to cut to a montage of nuclear explosions set to the haunting lyrics of Vera Lynn’s World War II-era song “We’ll Meet Again.”
An explosive ending, indeed.