Come closer – I want to tell you something. I love explosions in the movies. There, I’ve said it. And now that I’ve got that off my chest, let me explain why. It’s the level of devastation, pure and simple. The bigger the bang, the better the explosion. And there’s got to be a bit of a wow factor, both in the build up and the final detonation. If it’s just another car with the obligatory four sticks of dynamite wrapped around the fuel tank, then I’m not interested. The pyrotechnics have got to look impressive, so scale is often a deciding factor.
But most important of all – and it’s a consideration that a lot of movies get completely wrong – is the way in which it’s filmed and edited. Cast your mind back to The Specialist (1994), where Sylvester Stallone’s bomb expert has a hideaway that’s rigged to explode should the site be compromised. When it is, Stallone triggers his hideaway’s destruction and thanks to director Luis Llosa’s “smart thinking” the resulting explosions are seen mostly in close up and with little idea of which part of the compound is being destroyed. It’s a letdown, and more so because it should have been the high point of the movie; instead it’s a wasted opportunity that should have had a place in the following list.
The criteria then: the explosion has to be big and loud, and if possible, one of a kind, or in this writer’s opinion, the best of its kind. It should be an explosion that makes the viewer applaud the makers for their ingenuity, and balls-to-the-wall approach to blowing shit up. In short, it should make you want to watch it again – right away.
10 – Independence Day (1996) – The White House
In most lists of this sort, Independence Day would probably be higher up the ladder, but its iconic explosion involving the White House is obviously model work, and while it’s impressive model work, it’s still not real. But as noted, it is impressive, and even nearly twenty years on it’s still able to create a frisson of awe at seeing such a famous building reduced to rubble. With all the disaster movies that have followed since then, and with pretty much every famous landmark having been destroyed in the meantime, it’ll be interesting to see if Roland Emmerich and his special effects team can come up with an equally impressive explosive moment in Independence Day: Resurgence (2016).
9 – Die Hard (1988) – “You just blew up a building!”
With the police making a doomed attempt at retaking the Nakatomi Building, and being soundly thrashed by Hans Gruber’s “terrorists”, it’s down to John McClane to turn the tide. Lashing some high explosives to a chair and sending it down a lift shaft, the resulting explosion rips apart one of the lower floors of the building and sends a fireball back up the lift shaft. The effect of several windows being blown out is hugely impressive, and all the more so because the whole thing is a trick involving powerful camera flashbulbs and a superimposed shot of an actual explosion. So, not real either, but still so memorable that it had to be included in this list.
8 – Tropic Thunder (2008) – There goes the jungle
Things aren’t going too well on the set of Tropic Thunder, a movie based around the experiences of a Vietnam veteran. When one particularly poignant scene goes wrong, the director’s fit of apoplexy leads pyro expert Cody to believe he’s got the go ahead to set off the movie’s most expensive effect: a series of explosions that climb high into the sky and stretch for nearly half a mile. As an homage to a similar series of explosions in Apocalypse Now (1979), this is large scale destruction that is all the better for being real – at last! – and for being filmed from overhead to get the full effect. As an effect it’s terrific, but it is only jungle that’s been devastated, so this is one for the aesthetes.
7 – Stealth (2005) – Escape from the hangar
In this terrible mix of military hysterics and AI nonsense, a mission to stop the “memory wipe” of a plane flown by a rogue computer system, Navy pilot Ben Gannon finds himself trapped in a hangar surrounded by gun-toting bad guys. So what’s a guy to do? Why, blast his way out through the hangar doors, of course. The resulting explosion doesn’t just vaporise the doors, it spreads a fireball that sends the bad guys hurtling through the air along with several vehicles. It’s an over-the-top moment that finally brings a semblance of life to a movie that has struggled to get airborne for most of its running time, and at last involves some real damage.
6 – Lethal Weapon 3 (1992) – “Grab the cat!”
A bomb in a car in an underground car park proves to be a particular challenge for partners Riggs and Murtaugh, as another of Riggs’ bright ideas (to not wait for the bomb squad) literally blows up in their faces – along with the building the car park was underneath. Taking advantage of the city of Orlando, Florida’s need to see the back of their old, ugly City Hall building, the producers took a real building and levelled it to the ground in spectacular fashion. Some might argue that the amount of dust and debris obscures the building’s collapse, but this is an explosion that shows just what happens when a demolition is carried out to purpose.
5 – The Dark Knight (2008) – Gotham Hospital
Having paid Harvey Dent a visit, the Joker starts to leave Gotham Hospital, and as he does so, he presses a remote control device that starts a series of explosions intended to destroy the building entirely. But once outside, the trigger malfunctions and the explosions stop. Bemused and baffled, the Joker tries again and again to restart the explosions, and finally he succeeds, levelling the building as he wanders off in his nurse’s uniform. A series of explosions that grow in size, and that contain a great deal of unexpected comedy, this is brilliant stuff, with Heath Ledger’s performance adding an extra layer of fun to the proceedings, and which is topped off – á la Tropic Thunder – with a gloriously framed overhead shot of the hospital’s demise.
4 – The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) – A bridge, a tanker, a shootout – guess what happens next
Having stopped a tanker full of explosives from reaching its destination, recently amnesiac assassin Charly Baltimore must fend off the murderous intentions of bad guy Timothy as the timer on the explosives counts down to zero. Leaving Timothy wounded on top of the tanker she makes her escape with the aid of private eye Mitch Henessey, and with her young daughter in tow. The resulting detonation obliterates the bridge they’ve just crossed, and releases a fireball that races to incinerate the car they’re in. A mixture of model work and carefully positioned camera work, this is a big dumb loud explosion that fills the screen and feels like it should be lighting up the night sky and all surrounding areas. As it spreads it looks and sounds like an angry beast raging to cause more devastation, and is all the better for the sheer size of it all.
3 – Speed (1994) – Bus meets plane
Having made it to the airport, interrupted the live feed to the bomber, and got most of the passengers off, it’s now Jack Traven and Annie Porter’s turn to save themselves and leave the bus to do what Howard Payne has wanted it to do all along: blow up. As the bus slows down to that all-important fifty-mile per hour mark, it heads towards a taxi-ing plane, and at the magic moment, hits it. The bomb goes off, destroying the bus and with it, the plane. Shot from several angles, this has beauty and style to it, and is a great example of an audience not being let down by something they’ve been waiting a long time for. Satisfying and convincing.
2 – CutThroat Island (1995) – Dawg’s ship
With her villainous uncle Dawg despatched by a cannon ball, pirate Morgan Adams goes in search of William Shaw who’s trapped below decks with the water rising quickly. She frees him and together they make for the bow of the ship, just as a stray line of fire reaches the ship’s powder kegs. The first explosion blows a hole up through the centre of the ship, and as Morgan and Shaw dive to safety, the whole ship explodes at once, sending wooden debris everywhere. An incredible piece of pyrotechnics, expertly shot by extremely well-positioned cameras, and having a heft to it that most explosions don’t carry, this example – and despite the movie’s poor reception – makes for a loud, impressive bang that’s second only to…
1 – Blown Away (1994) – That’s no gambling ship, that’s a bomber’s hideout
Confronting mad Irish bomber Ryan Gaerity in his dilapidated and abandoned ship, the Dolphin, bomb disposal expert Jimmy Dove gets the best of him but not before Gaerity has set in motion the destruction of the ship thanks to a complicated, sinister version of Ker-Plunk! Helped to safety by colleague Anthony Franklin, the two hurry along a short pier as the ship explodes behind them, section by section and with ever increasing force. The ne plus ultra of cinematic explosions, Blown Away‘s superb blast shattered windows up to five miles away, and even with the terrible inserts of Jeff Bridges and Forest Whitaker, remains the single most impressive piece of pyrotechnical destruction ever committed to celluloid. The sheer size and scope of it beggars belief, and the excellent positioning of the cameras means it’s all there to enjoy, every blast and concussive eruption. Over twenty years later, it’s still an awe-inspiring sight, and one that’s unlikely to be beaten.