The Top 25 Movie Explosions of All Time (Part 1)
Ever since the Byzantine Empire invented "Greek Fire," incendiary devices have been feared, respected, and totally badass. The sound, the fury and the pretty flames made explosions one of the perfect cinematic devices, awesome in their destructive power and spectacular to watch. There have been more movie explosions than we could ever care to count, but we've seen so many of them that it's easy to spot the very, very best. Here's CraveOnline's picks for The Top 25 Movie Explosions of All Time, from the 1950s to the present day. Find out if your picks for the biggest and best bangs made the list right now.
Bride of the Monster (dir. Edward D. Wood, Jr., 1955)
In one of several examples on our list of “Bad Movie, Good Explosion,” our #25 pick is the final scene from Bride of the Monster, directed by Ed Wood Jr., the so-called “Worst Director of All Time.” The film is a plodding mish-mash of mad scientist clichés and non sequitur stock footage, but nothing is as bizarre as the film’s last moments, in which the evil Dr. Eric Vornoff (Bela Lugosi) fights off a giant octopus that’s hit by lightning and explodes into a nuclear mushroom cloud for some reason. As co-star Harvey B. Dunn pointed out, merely yards away from the apocalyptic kaboom, “He tampered in God’s domain.” As “Mystery Science Theater 3000” pointed out, “That was one unstable octopus.”
The Sum of All Fears (dir. Phil Alden Robinson, 2002)
The trailer for The Sum of All Fears, Paramount’s first attempt to reboot Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” franchise with a younger star (they’re trying another one with Star Trek’s Chris Pine), seemed to give the whole movie away. Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) was obviously going to end up saving the day at the last minute when a nuclear bomb is hidden at the Super Bowl. Surprise! It goes off in the middle of the film, and right in the middle of Baltimore, Maryland. The mid-film twist, combined with the apocalyptic imagery and the film’s release shortly after 9/11, made the explosion unforgettable, even though the rest of the film, which really wasn’t bad, seems to have slipped the public’s mind entirely.
The Rocketeer (dir. Joe Johnston, 1991)
Before he rejuvenated his career with Captain America: The First Avenger, director Joe Johnston took a stab at another World War II-era comic book hero, Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer. Future “The Killing” star Billy Campbell plays an “Aw, shucks” flyboy who stumbles onto a personal jet propulsion engine and takes to the skies to fight Nazis planning to use the technology to invade America. The film culminates with a thrilling fight atop a zeppelin, in which the villain crashes the jetpack into the “Hollywoodland” sign, exploding spectacularly, taking both the bad guy and the “land” part with it. Fanciful historical revisionism and one hell of a climax.
Broken Arrow (dir. John Woo, 1996)
The list has barely started and we’re already on our third nuclear explosion, but this one, courtesy of famed Hong Kong director John Woo, has novelty going for it. Broken Arrow, Woo’s first successful film in the United States, stars John Travolta as an Air Force pilot who steals two nuclear bombs, and Christian Slater as his former co-pilot who’s determined to stop him. Midway through the film, Travolta takes one of the nukes underground, where it explodes and sends shockwaves across the desert, in a memorable image in which the ground ripples and cracks around the blast. It’s a clever way to set off a nuclear bomb near the heroes without simply stopping the film cold, and a really cool action sequence to boot.
Tremors 2: Aftershocks (dir. S.S. Wilson, 1996)
Tremors 2: Aftershocks ends with… Yes, Tremors 2 is on the list, shut up… Tremors 2 ends with a hilarious sequence in which the heroes are forced to blow up the latest permutation of the Paleolithic “Graboids” from the first film. But returning star Fred Ward doesn’t have time to do the job properly, instead dropping the bomb without checking to see how many minutes, or even seconds, are on the timer. What follows is a hilarious sequence in which paramilitary enthusiast Burt Gummer (Michael Gross) keeps telling all the survivors to get further and further away, because “It’s going to be big.” Eventually they yell, “Is it going to be today?!”
Yes. Yes, it is. Kaboom.
Iron Man (dir. Jon Favreau, 2008)
Sometimes explosions are just cool for their own sake, and few are cooler than the throwaway explosion in Jon Favreau’s excellent Iron Man, in which billionaire weapons designer Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) demonstrates his latest missiles to onlooking government officials. His speech is priceless: “The say the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once. That’s how Dad did it, that’s how America does it, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.” After the desert explodes around Tony Stark, making him look like the world’s biggest badass, he proposes a toast: “To peace.” It’s okay to slow-clap, if only for the showmanship.
Batman: The Movie (dir. Leslie H. Martinson, 1966)
Not so much for the explosion itself but for the brilliant build up, Batman, the 1966 film spin-off of the popular camp television series starring Adam West and Burt Ward, finds the caped crusader stuck with one of those classic spherical bombs with a fuse on top, and nowhere to put it. Out the window? No, there’s a brass band. Down the street? No, there’s a woman with a baby carriage. Up this ramp? No, there’s the brass band again. Young lovers, nuns, more baby carriages and that same brass band again keep getting in Batman’s way until finally he’s about to throw it in the ocean… and sees that there’s a family of ducks.
“Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb.” Kaboom.
The Terminator (dir. James Cameron, 1984)
Not so much for the explosion or the build up, but rather the aftermath, both Terminator movies feature the iconic image of the title character walking out of the flames of fiery wreckage. Naturally they’re both robots, but the image creates a feeling of both hopelessness and pure awesome, since the failure of an enormous fireball to stop the villain makes the heroes seem completely screwed, and to audiences that’s just badass. We’re giving the official credit to the original film, but Cameron revisited the image so effectively in Terminator 2: Judgment Day that it deserves a mention as well.
Inglourious Basterds (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
You remember how World War II ended, with Adolf Hitler and his fellow Nazi leaders dying in an exploding movie theater thanks to a vengeful women who lost her family to the Third Reich and a spunky team of American thugs who infiltrated the event as Italian filmmakers? Of course not. It didn’t happen. But if it did, that would have been the coolest thing ever, and that’s just the story Quentin Tarantino told in his historically-inaccurate-but-who-cares World War II drama Inglourious Basterds. We suspect this is the kind of movie that infuriates history professors everywhere, but with this mighty explosion the iconic director finally gave the world’s biggest conflict the cathartic conclusion it really deserved… from a storytelling perspective, at least.
Robocop (dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987)
Cars, planes and yes, even people explode all the time in the movies, but rarely does a character seem to respond with the appropriate amount of fear. Enter Miguel Ferrer in Paul Verhoeven’s classic Robocop. Ferrer was responsible for the successful “Robocop” project that gives the film its name, plot and reason for existing, and is enjoying some well-deserved “me” time with a pair of amorous ladies and a metric ton of cocaine when his business rival sends Kurtwood Smith over to his apartment to blow him up. Smith could have just shot a rocket through the window, but instead he shoots Ferrer in the legs and leaves a timed explosive ticking just out of reach, so the poor bastard can desperately struggle to get a hold of it in time to turn the thing off. He fails. Yuppie or no yuppie, it’s impossible not to feel bad for the guy. Sam Raimi pulled off a similar scene in 1990’s Darkman, which gets an honorable mention for using that annoying “drinking bird” toy to set the rhythm for the suspense.
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Peter Jackson, 2002)
Explosions are old hat in movies by now, but the odds are good that you’ve never really seen one in real life. It would probably be a terrifying experience. Can you imagine it? Now imagine that you’ve just seen the first explosion in the history of the world. That’s exactly what happens in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, when the evil wizard Sarumon (Christopher Lee) develops gun powder to breach the formerly-impenetrable walls of Helm’s Deep, the site of the film’s action-packed climax. It seemed that the heroes were managing to fend off the army of orcs besieging the battlements, until the loudest kaboom in the history of the world turns heads across the battlefield, signaling the beginning of a new era, and the potential end to the heroes’ lives.
Alien (dir. Ridley Scott, 2009)
In Ridley Scott’s original Alien, the crew of the Nostromo were really, deeply screwed. A deadly monstrosity was unleashed on their ship and, as blue-collar schmoes, they lacked any real means to defend themselves. To save their own lives they set the ship to self-destruct, leading to one of the most nerve-wracking countdowns in film history as Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) struggles to get off the ship with any survivor she can, even if it’s just the cat, before it’s too late. Kaboom. Once again James Cameron revisited this sequence in his classic sequel, Aliens, upping the stakes by blowing up a damned planet, forcing Ripley to fight the alien queen to save her surrogate daughter, and taking away her only means of escape at the last minute. Thanks to James Horner’s iconic score, the version in Aliens might be the more popular explosion, but we’re giving credit where credit is due.
Scanners (dir. David Cronenberg, 1981)
Scanners isn’t one of David Cronenberg’s best movies, but apart from The Fly, it may be his most famous, if only for the “exploding head” scene. You’ve probably seen it already. The film, about a group of psychics rebelling against a corporation that wants their abilities for its own nefarious purposes, opens with a mind-reading demonstration. The psychic asks for a volunteer from the audience, and selects Michael Ironside (also from Robocop) as his guinea pig. As the psychic struggles to pierce the veil behind Ironside’s calm façade, something goes horribly wrong, and the psychic’s head explodes in graphic, unforgettable detail. Dramatically speaking it’s a throwaway explosion, intended mostly to shock, but shock it most certainly does. There's a similar scene in Brian De Palma's The Fury, which actually pre-dates Scanners by three years, but what can we say? We just like this one better.
The Wages of Fear (dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1953)
Not all “classic” movies are about rich debutantes falling in love or newspaper tycoons depressed about their childhood. Sometimes they’re about explosions. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic film The Wages of Fear is one of those movies. The film is about a group of characters desperate to leave an oppressive small town in South America, who jump at the chance to make enough money to leave when an oil company hires them to drive trucks of nitroglycerin across dangerous terrain. The second half of the film is all about their perilous journey, in which driving over a single pothole could kill them. The Wages of Fear is mostly about “not” exploding, but at one point, yes, tragedy strikes. It’s unexpected, tragic and utterly jarring. One of the most suspenseful films ever made.
Double Team (dir. Tsui Hark, 1997)
The pinnacle of “Bad Movie, Good Explosion” comes in the form of Tsui Hark’s awful, awful, awful Jean-Claude Van Damme/Dennis Rodman team-up from 1997. The film Stars Van Damme as a special agent who blah-blah-blah and teams up with Dennis Rodman to take down the villainous Mickey Rourke, who in the finale fights Jean-Claude Van Damme and a tiger in the Coliseum, which has been laced with mines. By the end of the fight, Mickey Rourke has stepped on one of the mines, knowing that as soon as he removes his foot he will explode. Then the tiger lunges at him, and he knows what must be done. Rodman and Van Damme manage to save themselves by hiding behind an indestructible Coca Cola machine (unlike the other Coca Cola machines in the Coliseum, which are blown to smithereens). It just doesn’t get any dumber – or any more amazing – than that.
Come back tomorrow for Part 2 of The Top 25 Movie Explosions!