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Explosions on screen
Photograph: Time Out / Photo 12 / Alamy

The hair-raising stories behind the biggest explosions in movies

Ranking the destructive power of the big screen’s biggest bangs

Written by
David Hughes

CGI-allergic Christopher Nolan may have been unable to detonate an atomic bomb for his upcoming biopic of Robert Oppenheimer – at least, as far as we know. But even though he blew up a real Boeing 747 for Tenet and a hospital in The Dark Knight, those set-pieces wouldn’t even make our ranking of the movies’ all-time biggest explosions. We break down with a little help from the demolition men behind them.

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Blofeld’s ‘Spectre’ base goes up in smoke (2015)
Photograph: Eon

1. Blofeld’s ‘Spectre’ base goes up in smoke (2015)

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest film stunt explosion was the destruction of Blofeld’s base in Spectre. It was staged in Morocco, using 10,000 litres of fuel and 33kg of explosives. The total explosive yield was equivalent to 68 tonnes of TNT. Michael Bay insists that the explosions in Pearl Harbor was bigger (see below). ‘James Bond tried to take the “largest explosion in the world”,’ he told Empire. ‘Bullshit. Ours is.’

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The napalm strike in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)
Photograph: United Artists

2. The napalm strike in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979)

Francis Ford Coppola’s wife Eleanor remembers feeling ‘a strong flash of heat’ when special effects pioneers Joe Lombardi and AD Flowers ignited 5,450 litres of gasoline in a 6,500-metre-long ditch to create the napalm strike Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall) calls in on a beach to ‘bomb it to the stone age’ – and get it ready to surf. ‘At the time it was the biggest explosion ever staged for a film,’ recalled the film’s editor Walter Murch. Coppola recalls the resulting fireball lasted ‘about a minute and a half’. Flowers’s ultra-slow-motion capture of the simulated napalm drop was later used in the opening sequence, and the sound Murch added was borrowed from a real napalm drop recorded by the Swiss Army.

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The missile strike in ‘No Time to Die’ (2021)
Photograph: Eon

3. The missile strike in ‘No Time to Die’ (2021)

The Guinness World Records state that the most high explosives detonated in a single film take – 136.4kg of ‘TNT equivalent’ – went up on Salisbury Plain on March 8, 2019, for Daniel Craig’s swansong as James Bond. Following the blast – which destroys Rami Malek’s villain Safin’s base – stunt action coordinator Chris Corbould was surprised to find the record had been broken. ‘The record was for 65kg of high explosives in one shot,’ he noted. ‘We had 140kg in our one.’

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4. The hangar bang in ‘Stealth’ (2005)

In The Fast and the Furious director Rob Cohen’s otherwise ropey action thriller, in which a self-aware stealth bomber goes rogue, a human pilot (Josh Lucas) blows up an Alaskan airbase, sending Jeeps and personnel flying – literally. ‘We did an explosion in Schofields, just outside of Sydney, Australia, which has got to be top one or two [on-screen explosions],’ says John Frazier, who rigged the explosion. Because the rest of the film is so VFX heavy, the practical nature of this boom went mostly unnoticed. ‘Everybody thinks we comped in the stunt guys, but they were all there,’ notes Frazier. ‘It’s right up there with the biggest ever.’ 

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5. The bug barbecue in ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997)

Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi satire might not jump to mind when you think about big movie explosions, but effects supervisor John Richardson thinks it should. ‘We filmed the futuristic napalm run in the Badlands of South Dakota,’ he tells
Time Out. It’s a wonder there were any Badlands left by the time they’d finished filming. ‘We had 36 different explosion points,’ remembers Richardson, ‘each with 545 litres of fuel – a potential TNT equivalent of 155kg.’ The result was a fireball that covered nearly a kilometre and a half.

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The battleship attack in ‘Pearl Harbor’ (2001)
Photograph: Alamy

6. The battleship attack in ‘Pearl Harbor’ (2001)

Michael Bay, whose legendary appetite for destruction has introduced the term ‘Bayhem’ to the blockbuster lexicon, argues that his recreation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor makes Spectre’s big bang look like a summer barbecue. ‘There was dynamite everywhere,’ he recalls. ‘Stuff was rigged on so many ships. Real boats, 20 real planes. We had 350 events going off.” John Frazier, who rigged it all up, agrees. ‘We blew up 17 ships over two days, each with 3,600 litres of fuel – 61,800 litres in all – plus 6,800 feet of primer cord – equivalent to about 680 sticks of dynamite. It was over the top.’

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The office-pocalypse in ‘Lethal Weapon 3’ (1992)
Photograph: Warner Bros.

7. The office-pocalypse in ‘Lethal Weapon 3’ (1992)

The makers of the third Lethal Weapon movie got lucky when the script called for the destruction of a city block-sized building. The old city hall in Orlando, Florida, was due to be demolished, and director Richard Donner was able to cover the event with multiple cameras, augmented by 400 special effects charges. 1800kg of exploding glass, cork, and paper were added to turn the building’s controlled implosion into a movie-worthy explosion. ‘It was,’ notes Mark Loizeaux of Controlled Demolition, Inc., ‘a demolition ballet’.

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8. Bus meets plane in ‘Speed’ (1994)

Jan de Bont’s ’90s actioner ends with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock narrowly escaping their speeding bus before it smashes into a stationary airliner at Los Angeles International Airport. Special effects coordinator John Frazier, a long-time explosion rigger for Michael Bay, filmed the stunt at Mojave Airport using a decommissioned cargo plane. ‘We probably had 20 to 25 250-litre drums, about 1,000 litres of gas in the plane, the wings and the cockpit,’ he says. ‘All told, it was probably 1,800 litres of fuel.’

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Nuking New Mexico in ‘Transformers’ (2007)
Photograph: Paramount Pictures

9. Nuking New Mexico in ‘Transformers’ (2007)

‘For Transformers we blew up this whole area in New Mexico,’ recalls John Frazier, effects supervisor for the first big screen outing of the robots-in-disguise blockbuster. ‘For Spectre, they did this big explosion that was mostly diesel fuel – you can tell by the black smoke – but the difference between theirs and ours is that ours had the actors in it – our cast is running like hell from the explosions. When we were done we told Shia LaBeouf: “You were just in the biggest explosion ever with actors in shot.”’

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