July 4th in the United States usually means awkward parades, far too many tiny flags, and an evening of explosions in the sky.
Due to the ongoing pandemic, most fireworks displays have been canceled this year (except the ones going on late at night in most major cities for two months). But, we wanted to gather up our favorite examples of explosions in films to watch and enjoy this Independence Day. So this week’s Big Question is…
What is your favorite explosion in a movie?
This could be someone blowing apart (SCANNERS, THE FURY), or a whole city block going up (ROBOCOP, DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE), houses (BAD BOYS 2, TRUE LIES), or just some ludicrous excessive stunt (motorcycle into the helicopter in STONE COLD).
It can be from any genre and/or decade, with any tone (comic, serious, schlock, grisly, whatever).
I was considering the answer to this Big Question, pondering everything from SCANNERS‘ famous head-splatter to 21 JUMP STREET‘s play against explosion tropes, when sitting down to our annual July viewing of INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Suddenly the obvious answer unfolded before me as the aliens unleashed their first strike against humanity.
Technically this sequence is more than a single explosion as several cities are simultaneously attacked, but edited in such a way that it’s one continuous orgy of destruction culminating in the annihilation of the White House. This became not only the film’s signature sequence, but a swan song for the age of practical effects on the cusp of digital revolution: INDEPENDENCE DAY represents the last of great tentpole effects film of its kind, including the celebrated White House shot, which was destroyed and filmed in miniature form.
My favorite movie explosion has to be the three-pronged explosion that ends the first act of INDEPENDENCE DAY (the one that wiped out New York, Washington DC, and LA).
I know it’s a hopeless cliché.
It’s not the explosion itself that I love, although the explosion is gorgeous and spectacular. It’s not the details that I love, though seeing the cars and people being the caught in the blast is amazing. It’s not even scope of the blasts, which are just jaw dropping.
It’s something my Dad said shortly after we had both seen the movie. I was asking him what he thought of it, while I was praising just how much fun the movie was.
“It’s ridiculous,” he said. “Whoever heard of an explosion that explodes out, but not up?”
I laughed and brushed it aside. After all this was coming from a man who would watch RED SONJA on TBS anytime it came on. And then it stuck with me. Why weren’t the aliens caught in a massive fireball of their own making? What kind of physics defying nonsense is this?
After 9/11 happened I put the movie away. It wasn’t very much fun. Dad passed away a year and a half later.
A couple years ago, I pulled the movie out again thinking my son might enjoy it. And I got caught up in that stunning, beautifully executed, COMPLETELY RIDICULOUS destruction sequence… and Dad’s voice still echoed in my ears.
Explosions don’t go out without going up. And now it’s my favorite.
Second favorite explosion is John Cassavetes at the end of THE FURY, because that’s just awesome.
My favourite action-movie explosion is in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015).
For the “favorite explosions” question this week, I vote for MAD MAX: FURY ROAD‘s “witness me!” moment with Nicholas Hoult:
One of the best parts of the golden age of practical special effects in movies was asking yourself “How’d they do that?!” The SFX shots of John Landis’ anarchic 1980 musical comedy, THE BLUES BROTHERS are overshadowed by the cast of soul music legends and the wild stunt work and of the most impressive effects of the film lasts all of ten seconds when Carrie Fisher’s mystery woman blows up the humble abode (NOT 1060 West Addison) of one Elwood Blues. Landis was planning on actually blowing up the building but according to the director, thanks to good ol’ Chicago corruption, at the last minute, permission was revoked. Enter visual effects authority Albert Whitlock, who took a single frame from a master shot of the building, blew it up to 15 feet wide and added foam, powder, and plaster to act as debris from the exploding building. After cutting out all of the windows on the mockup, Whitlock rigged flashbulbs to go off and shot it at 120 frames per second with a Mitchell high speed camera. The shot took all of two seconds which left Landis unimpressed at the time, but running it back at the standard 24 frames per second, the explosion is spectacular.
And that’s how they did that.
I knew my favorite movie explosion immediately, with zero hesitation:
The farmhouse that is eviscerated with a magnificent fireball in PAUL. In the Blu-Ray’s special features there’s a making of where they show how they did it, and there’s great footage of Bill Hader watching from the sidelines, then asking “Did you see that?” He makes fun of himself shortly afterwards. Of course they saw it. Could’ve seen that thing from the moon.
It might not be the biggest explosion in cinema, but it’s still one of the most affecting. The dystopian world of Kinji Fukasaku’s BATTLE ROYALE has plenty of shocking moments but the death of Kuninobu at the hands of Beat Takashi’s Kitano, is forever embedded in my memory. With a complex history behind them and an attitude that would drive the most patient teacher wild, it’s not surprising that Kuninobu is one of the first kids to die, but when the bomb collar detonates it’s a truly horrifying moment.
Though it’s a small explosion – and Nic Cage could definitely outrun it, unless he was the one with a bomb collar around his neck – with a bodycount of one, it’s the moment that truly sets off the action of the movie. Not only does it lean into the Cronenbergian body horror of SCANNERS, but it’s also a teachable moment as the rest of the kids realize that the bomb collars around their necks aren’t just for show. The bloody, brutal, and bleak explosion is the catalyst for the heroic journey of our protagonist Shuya, and it’s also a beautifully gory practical effects moment that still stands up to this day!
There have been a lot of explosions in the James Bond franchise. A LOT. The very first in the series is a hearse trying to drum up some business in DR. NO (1962) – after failing to kill James Bond, the car goes off a cliff – and provides the movie series its first pyrotechnics in a golden chain of films running for fifty eight years and counting. The spectacular combustions continue through every movie in the series, culminating in the Guinness World Record for Biggest Movie Explosion in SPECTRE (2015.) Who knows what will get blown up when NO TIME TO DIE finally makes its premiere – currently set for November? But through the entire series my very favorite explosion might be considered a lesser light in the incendiary canon – but it’s just beautiful to me. It comes from MOONRAKER (1979). James Bond is searching for the villain’s lair somewhere in South America (but filmed in the wilds around Jupiter Florida.) He’s using a cool Glastron boat which has of course been “fully stocked” by Q Branch. The villain kind of gives away the hidden lair game by sending three boats full of goons with machine guns and explosive mortars after 007. James Bond – here in the form of the always-cool Sir Roger Moore – calmly starts flipping switches on the boat – and weapons are deployed. First up – floating mines. A pair drop into the water. While the lead boat dodges them, we see a second pair drop. They see these two and swerve again. But while correcting back onto Bond’s trail they miss the third pair – and run over the floating softball-sized globes in the water. WHOOM! The boat – notably a full sized watercraft loaded with dummies – not a miniature – is lifted on an explosive fist of water thirty feet as it disintegrates – with the dummies dropping beautifully back onto the river. There’s no fire until late in the blast – it’s all about the concussive force and water – and it’s one of the loveliest things I’ve ever seen.
Genre films are an absolutely cluttered landscape for big bombs, fierce fires, and splatter-spewing headshots. This is why my current favorite movie explosion comes from the 1982 Canuxploitation cheapie MURDER BY PHONE.
While the plot itself is a middling exercise in murder and corporate espionage that plays like Mannix did a sci-fi-inflected special episode, but an above-average cast (including Oscar winner John Houseman) keeps things briskly moving along. The joy in this flick is in the titular murders by rotary phone, in a rare case of an exploitation film actually being as advertised in the promo materials.
As each victim answers their final call, a flurry of bleeps and high-frequency bloops get hellishly loud on the soundtrack. There’s a cutaway shot of a mysterious control panel that could very well be made of cardboard. Buttons are pushed, levers are pulled. The victims’ heads shake and their eyes bleed like a bargain-basement SCANNERS. At peak vibration, the victim goes flying from the force of the explosion. In a hail of fireworks-adjacent Foley effects, dry-ice fog, and contact paper sparks, the now-properly-murdered victims fly through the air like champagne corks. To add insult to velocity, they crash unceremoniously into everything from a glass set of French doors to a transit-station escalator.
The commitment to the cheerfully-cheap central conceit is delightful, ragdoll physics made flesh in a live action feature. In a year where the real world seems ready to blow at any moment, the silliness of stuntmen sailing through the air in service to the homicidal tendencies of outdated technology is exactly the kind of schlock I need.
For me, there is only one explosion. An explosion so fierce, so mighty, that other explosions pale in comparison. And that explosion is…
Hugo Stiglitz’s exploding TV in NIGHTMARE CITY.
If it wasn’t enough that Italy’s premier synchronised disco dancing show is interrupted by ghouls wielding everything from screwdrivers to semi automatic weapons, the next thing you know you’re barricading yourself in an office with a TV set that’s been stuffed with enough C-4 to kill a family of 6.
TVs aren’t supposed to do that, even if they have just been thrown with the brute force of an enraged Hugo Stiglitz.
The LORD OF THE RINGS films are what made director Peter Jackson a household name. Those films are fine works of cinema and are enjoyed the world over. Not to take anything away from Peter Jackson’s success, but it was not these movies that made me a fan of his work. It was his 1987 debut film BAD TASTE that made me a lifelong fan.
The initial element that caught my eye way on the VHS cover there was a disgusting alien sticking up his middle finger. I had to rent this film. Witnessing Derek (Peter Jackson) and his small town friends fight off an alien race that had been sent to Earth to collect human flash as the new intergalactic fast food treat blew my mind. It was gory, gross, irreverent, and absurd. All aspects of genre film that I adore.
There are so many memorable scenes in BAD TASTE, but the one that stuck with me was the sheep exploding scene. There is a battle between the humans and the aliens going on. Knives, chainsaws, hammer, all manner of weaponry are being used. Ozzy (Terry Potter) gets shot in both legs by Lord Crumb (Doug Wren), and Frank (Mike Minett) shoots a rocket launcher at the alien leader. The rocket narrowly misses Derek, flies through the house and hits a random sheep in the backyard.The sheep explodes in a glorious manner, and the battle continues.
It’s all so random. It instantly reminded me of MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS. Such a momentous moment in cinema history. I told the video store that I rented the BAD TASTE VHS from that I lost the tape. They made me pay $5, but it was now mine. I lost this VHS copy a long time ago, but I will never forget how the absurdity of the exploding sheep made me so happy!
You can say a lot of things about JASON GOES TO HELL: THE FINAL FRIDAY: it’s a weird, maybe even sacrilegious entry in the franchise, so much so that it’s kind of a terrible FRIDAY THE 13th movie, especially as a series “finale.” While I don’t necessarily share that position, I can at least see where it’s coming from: fundamentally altering the basic formula on the way out the door is a little jarring. But I think everyone would agree that JASON GOES TO HELL isn’t just the same old shit, something that’s abundantly clear before its title appears on-screen. The opening sequence sure feels familiar: we have a young woman arriving at camp, stripping for a shower scene within the first five minutes. Jason, who must have the equivalent of Spider-sense for snuffing ill-advised behavior at Crystal Lake, dutifully arrives to take her out. A chase ensues, one that feels destined to end like most of the others in this franchise: with the girl’s guts and limbs scattered all over the campground.
However, in a remarkably jolting turn of events, we learn the entire thing is a sting operation. Suddenly, Jason is surrounded by dozens of federal agents, all of them pumping rounds into the maggoty husk of his carcass. A bomb drops, splattering Jason’s remains all over the place and leaving a dazed audience to wonder just what this movie is going to be about. No matter how you feel about the answer to that question (a weird possession subplot involving newly introduced mythology that feels totally alien to FRIDAY THE 13th), you have to admit this opening scene is one of the most daring, surprising moments in the entire franchise. What’s more, its gruesome display of charred and crimson-soaked viscera foreshadow the incredible splatter effects that make JASON GOES TO HELL the grossest, goriest entry in the series. Blowing up Jason within ten minutes is both a mission statement and a starting gun that kicks off the weirdest, wildest FRIDAY THE 13th.
Alfred Hitchcock isn’t known for his explosive action sequences. But in his 1953 horror classic THE BIRDS, he delivered one of my all-time favorite explosions that marks a massive tonal shift for the film and careens it straight into bleak horror territory. The beginning of THE BIRDS is not necessarily scary, but there is a persistent unease that permeates its first half. Birds are acting strangely and something feels wrong. This building tension culminates in the tone-changing explosion brought about by birds attacking a gas station, or what I’d like to call my worst nightmare. See, I hate birds. Everything about them. Their beady eyes, puffy body, and devil-may-care attitude make them one of my most feared creatures. So when they are able to make an entire gas station blow up with their beaks and their malice, you’re damn right that explosion is going to be cemented in my mind. That one sequence changes THE BIRDS from atmospheric horror to full-on creature feature as birds begin to pull out eyes and eviscerate human flesh.
I was nine years old the first time I saw BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA, a movie with no shortage of memorable explosions. Nobody thinks of it this way in the context of John Carpenter’s formidable body of work, a filmography which includes HALLOWEEN and THE THING, for Cthulu’s sake, but when you’re nine, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA isn’t just funny and exciting and invigorating, it’s also scary. By the time I was in high school, the look of the Three Storms had been repurposed for arcade games and obviously they’re the coolest characters in a movie with no shortage of cool characters, but when you’re nine, they’re scary.
And this part is arguable, but it’s possible Thunder, played by actual veteran of Hong Kong martial arts films Carter Wong, is the scariest one. He’s the most legit. Peter Kwong, who plays Rain, is graceful and striking, but in real life he’s an American-born actor (he played the comedy sidekick in 1985’s NEVER TOO YOUNG TO DIE). James Pax, who plays Lightning, the most electric but least vocal of the Three Storms, has the raddest power and the most cinematic final showdown, but in real life he was a model before acting (and not that it necessarily matters, but he’s not Chinese). In real life, Carter Wong will actually split your face in half. He’s the real deal. He trained the Hong Kong police force! He’s got skills, no FX needed. Thunder is the first of the Three Storms you see in the movie. I don’t think that’s an accident. Carpenter, a master filmmaker, knows how to wield film presence and knows Carter Wong has got it. In that first close-up he gets in the alleyway, you, the audience, like the Chang Sings, like Wang Chi, like Jack Burton, you all go, “Oh, shit…”
The point is, with all the build-up throughout BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA concerning the fearsomeness of Thunder, all the chest-puffing and the menace, it’s all the more disarming and hilarious to see him go out the way he does. Seeing his master, his liege, his reason for being, Lo Pan (James Hong) lying dead on the floor with Jack Burton’s trusty knife in his forehead, Thunder freaks. He looks close to tears. The man he loves most in this world and the next is gone. How deep does this love really go? It’s almost Shakespearean, this moment, like Romeo finding Juliet motionless after she drinks the poison. Thunder huffs and puffs with grief, so much that his chest begins to swell. Again, Carpenter is a master filmmaker who was sure to foreshadow this moment, earlier in the film, when Jack Burton tries to bushwhack Thunder from behind and gets thrown backwards by Thunder’s torso and shoulders appearing to fill with air and grow too large for Jack’s arms to hold. This time, as Wang (Dennis Dun) observes, “I don’t think he’s gonna stop…” Thunder grows and grows. His grimace appears to distend. He cries out in agony. Is it from the pain of loss or from the discomfort of doing an impression of a humanoid balloon? Steam jets out from his nose and ears. It’s like work is done for the day in a Looney Tunes cartoon. Thunder goes to his belt and unsheaths a dagger, pointing its blade towards his ever-expanding belly.
It’s a hilarious end. Something like seventy viewings of the film later, it still delights me, but I’m trying to remember seeing it with nine-year-old eyes, that feeling of literally seeing my fears going up in a puff of smoke. I’m not sure I’d laugh if I saw a villain exploding in real life, and I certainly wouldn’t have at nine, but on film, there’s such sweet release to be had in seeing the bad guys pop. It’s even funnier when you think about the fact that he did it to himself, and really for no good reason. It’s such a pompous, goofy way to go out. Totally believable, by the way. I do believe we may yet see certain news-makers meet their demise in much this manner. Keep your eyes open!
A Looney Tunes explosion, of course. Whether it’s a cannon going off in Yosemite Sam’s face or explosive flying darts igniting near Wile E. Coyote, I don’t discriminate. But if I had to choose one, it would be the massive moon explosion caused by Marvin Martian’s “Uranium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator in HAREDEVIL HARE (1948). That’s all, folks!
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