There’s definitely no shortage of explosions in movies. We could easily make this a “Top 1,000 List” based on that criteria alone. But sometimes an explosion is so singularly epic that is stays with you long after the movie is over, lingering in the back of your mind like a goldfish that refuses to flush. These movie explosions brought something more than a flaming fireball to our screens – they took that flaming fireball and dropkicked it right into our hearts.
Probably the most memorable part of 2001’s Swordfish is Halle Berry sunbathing topless. Not probably; definitely. Coming in at a close second, though, is the hostage scene. This movie came out right on the heels of the Matrix, when slo-mo action sequences were the hottest thing around. In the scene, a bomb explodes on a hostage, sending a barrage of ball bearings and shrapnel ripping through everything within radius. The camera pans in a circle around the destruction, showing everything in the exact moment of it happening—windows shattering, vehicles exploding, people flying through the air.
In addition to being totally awesome, the explosion was important because it showed the audience that Gabriel Shear, played by John Travolta, wasn’t a man to bluff. When he said he would do something, no matter how despicable, it got done, and this effectively raised the stakes of the entire movie.
9. Die Hard: With a Vengeance
The opening scene in Die Hard: With a Vengeance is memorable because it provides such a stark contrast. The movie begins with shots of New York City bustling about its daily life. Joe Cocker’s upbeat Summer in the City is dubbed over the scenes, and it’s just freaking jovial all around. Just as you’re getting in the toe-tapping mood, half a city block explodes.
There’s no suspenseful lead up, no warning at all, just a single violent explosion in an otherwise perfectly normal day. Like the scene in Swordfish, this sets the mood for the rest of the movie. It will be in your face, and many scenes will catch you wholly unprepared.
We couldn’t find the film clip, so here’s a (somewhat less exciting) reenactment of the scene in Grand Theft Auto IV.
8. Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War era satire dared to do what no other movie at the time would: Detonate a nuclear bomb. Kubrick managed to take the greatest public fear of the time, flip it on its head, and turn it into a comedy. The explosion itself isn’t incredibly realistic compared to today’s CGI shots, except that—oh yeah, it was real footage of a real nuclear explosion (several, in fact).
7. Independence Day
If you were anywhere between the ages of 12 and 22 in 1996, you probably went crazy about Independence Day. Will Smith, aliens, Will Smith punching aliens: This movie had it all. In addition to inspiring millions of kids to mimic putting a cigar between their teeth and go around saying “Welcome to Earf” to anyone who crossed their paths, Independence Day had one of the most memorable explosions in cinematic history to date: The destruction of the White House via flying saucer laser beam.
You probably already know what I’m talking about, so let’s just cut to the clip:
6. Terminator 2
Choosing just one explosion out of the explosive bouquet offered by the Terminator franchise is like riding an eight-legged horse into the sun: It’s exciting, but impossible.
However, at Top Tenz we’re all about the impossible, so we did it anyway. Here’s the setup:
Terminator and gang are trying to destroy the microchip from the first T-101 (from the first Terminator film) which is being used for research by Cyberdyne. They’re in the lab, they have what they need to stop Cyberdyne from developing Terminators in the first place, and everything is going well. Then the cops arrive, and all hell breaks loose.
With a SWAT team fast closing in, mortally wounded Miles Dyson decides to sacrifice himself to give John and Sarah Connor enough time to get away. The SWAT team discovers him lying on the floor with a weight held over the detonator button, seconds away from death, with the entire lab wired to blow. The SWAT team backs off, giving the good guys enough time to escape.
5. Children of Men
The 2006 dystopian film Children of Men gave us a great storyline, amazing acting, and some of the most impressive cinematography ever filmed. In the beginning of the movie, we’re introduced to the violence of present day (2027) London with a bombing in a coffee shop. On the surface it’s just a regular ol’ explosion, but pay attention to the camera cuts—there are none. In one unbroken scene, we see Clive Owen order a cup of coffee in a crowded coffee shop and walk out, only to have the entire cafe explode behind him.
It’s shocking in its realism, mostly because there don’t appear to be any special effects at work in the scene. For all intents and purposes, those are real people in the coffee shop, and that’s a real explosion. It shows the audience that in this world, violence can happen at any time.
4. The Two Towers
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers was the second part of the epic LOTR trilogy, and culminated in the massive battle at Helm’s Deep. Who could forget the waves of orcs smashing against the walls of this impenetrable fortress, elven archers lining the buttress, sending arrow after arrow into the seething masses below, the fate of humanity resting in the balance. If Helm’s Deep holds, the armies of Saruman suffer a massive blow; if it falls, all of Rohan falls with it.
As the battle rages, we begin to grasp at hope. Maybe they can do it. Maybe they can hold back the tens of thousands of orcs. And then the crowd parts as a single Uruk-hai runs forward with a flaming torch, and the wall is breached with the first explosion ever seen in Middle Earth.
Visually this explosion isn’t much, but the significance of what just happened lends credence to its epicness: The tide of battle has shifted into the hands of the orcs, and the humans are left with no choice but to retreat deeper into the stronghold. The suspense isn’t bad either.
3. The Dark Knight
This almost shouldn’t be included on this list, simply because everybody already knows exactly what happens, but while most movies use explosions because they look cool, the Dark Knight used it to add to the characterization of the Joker: He’s utterly, completely insane. The visual of him strolling out of a hospital, nurse’s skirt flapping in the wind, and setting off the hospital bomb is comical, sure, but chilling. This is even more apparent as he furiously slaps at the detonator until the second bomb goes off.
Someone once said that Zack Snyder kind of sucks at making his own stuff, but is a genius with other people’s material, and that point is perfectly exemplified by Watchmen. As a movie that was simulataneously loved and hated, you have to admit that it was a very decent adaptation of an “unfilmable” graphic novel. The most memorable scenes were pulled directly out of Alan Moore’s epic graphic novel, and that’s okay, because they were freaking awesome scenes to begin with.
One of the most perfect examples of beauty married to destruction is in the dream sequence when Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II share a kiss on Mars as a nuclear blast detonates behind them, eventually disintegrating their bodies, still locked in the embrace of love.
The 1988 Japanese movie Akira is a cult classic – but more than that, it was almost signlehandedly responsible for bringing anime to the West. It climaxes with one of the most disturbingly beautiful scenes ever animated: Consumed by his own power, Tetsuo begins to transform into a monstrous mutation the size of a stadium, absorbing all the matter around him.
The entire scene plays out like a David Cronenberg wet dream—The hauntingly visceral imagery of Tetsuo’s transformation, the atmospheric chanting in the background, the heartwrenching moment as Kaneda shoves his way into the writhing mass of flesh in a feeble attempt to save his friend, with no thought for his own life.
And that’s just leading up to the explosion. The psychic energy of the reawakened Akira causes a nuclear-level blast that wipes out Tokyo.
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