Saturday, July 4, 2009

Cinematic Pyrotechnics: Explosions That Matter - A Video Montage

I got the idea for this post shortly after seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with its excessive displays of explosions followed by more explosions that elicit yawns more than exclamations from this viewer. When I started thinking of some of my favorite uses of pyrotechnics in film history and decided to make the video montage below, I realized that my favorites are not about size, quantity, or duration. Each example included in my montage is about dramatic effect and aesthetic appeal; it’s about meaning; it’s about what this explosion adds to the story.

The basic idea for this video is not original. You can go to YouTube and view numerous montages of movie explosions as well as clips of “The Best Movie Explosion.” Looking at these I noted that posters seem to prefer more recent films with huge explosions rendered by CGI. If a clip shows a single explosion, it is a lot of flash and fire, with redundant shots from various angles – all of this signifying nothing. One “Best Explosion” is from Stealth, which the poster admits is one of the worst movies ever made. I’ve seen the movie and the explosion. But how much does that explosion matter beyond eliciting an “Awesome!” in response to its flash, size, and duration? For most of these explosions, there is no dramatic build-up.

Here I have chosen single explosions or multiple explosions that achieve a dramatic effect because they provide a meaningful conclusion or they say something significant about a character. All of my selections also achieve an aesthetically pleasing effect because they incorporate thoughtfully composed cinematography, judicious use of musical score, imaginative sound mixing, and wise editing. At the end of the montage, you will find a list of titles, directors, and studios in order of appearance.

I offer this post while at the same time acknowledging the irony of deriving pleasure from a powerful force capable of ghastly destruction. But that irony has existed ever since Chinese monks discovered gunpowder and used it for religious purposes and later for entertainment while the military employed it as a revolutionary weapon. In addition, throughout history, humans have continued to use explosives for destructive purposes while at the same time deriving aesthetic pleasure from them, usually under peaceful circumstances.

In 1814, after the 25-hour bombardment of Fort McHenry, the stronghold that guarded Baltimore from British invasion, the people of that city celebrated with a fireworks display. You’d think they would have been tired of hearing explosions! Strange! There must be something aesthetically fascinating about what explosions do.

From a filmmaking point of view, blowing stuff up is an art form. I love the extras on DVDs that show how demolition experts devote their expertise to making an explosion happen and look the way the director wants it to happen and look. In The Dark Knight a derelict building, posing as the hospital, was demolished by timed charges to achieve an artistic effect. For the World War I battle scene from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button the charges were planted in holes filled with peat moss, so that the lightweight and relatively harmless peat moss looked like clods of dark earth springing up from the explosions. Explosions are a special effect as old as the earliest silent films, and it’s nice to see that CGI hasn’t totally displaced the use of real explosions.

Enjoy my montage of ten explosions that matter. (For better viewing, allow the video to buffer completely before playing.) I may have left out your favorite – my choices were dictated by my DVD collection, and I left out a favorite due to technical difficulty – but I encourage you to respond by including mention of your favorite cinematic pyrotechnics. Also, you may try to guess which display of pyrotechnics included here is my top favorite of all time.


Jason Bellamy said...

Ah, yes. Explosions that matter. Which could instead be titled: Movies that are about more than their explosions. Love seeing the shots from The Train.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment. I love The Train - and there is a lot of build up to the bombing that I didn't include - how they sidetrack the armored train to trap it - and then the camera zooms in on the German officer's watch as the appointed time for the bombing arrives.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for the video selection. They make for a pleasantly surreal juxtaposition. I was a little annoyed with myself for enjoying the scene from War of the Worlds as much as I did. Spielberg is good a guiding the audience's reactions, and Dakota Fanning freaks out well.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr, thanks; you know, I wanted to have a nice variety of clips from different time periods - and different sorts of explosions (such as explosion by oxygen tank) and I wanted to have at least one CGI blow up -so I picked the one from War of the Worlds because I love the movie and I love the huge tractor trailers flying through the air and smashing into the row houses - and, you're right, Dakota is very good at the teary-eyed consternation.

And now that no one's asked me what my favorite is - I'll tell you. It's the one from Lawrence. It's so austere and minimalist and beautiful: the yellow flame and black smoke against the bright desert sand. It's just desert, train, explosion - nothing else.

Ben Haven said...

Those selections were really interesting. Film makers that can create respectable explosions like these deserve tremendous credit what with modern films feeling the need to persistently force action upon veiwers. Explosions have become somthing that almost embarrasses me to watch, unless done correctly of course. Cloverfield 's ending explosion was interesting because it wasn't directly filmed. That was one of my favorites.

Hokahey said...

Thanks very much for visiting my blog and leaving a comment. Glad you enjoyed the montage. Coincidentally, I almost included an explosion from Cloverfield - the one when they hit the monster and they think it's injured but then it flies up at the helicopter. Yes, I liked the ending, too - very intense. I'm a big fan of the movie.