100 Essential Action Scenes: Attacks!

Sound on Sight undertook a massive project, compiling ranked lists of the most influential, unforgettable, and exciting action scenes in all of cinema. There were hundreds of nominees spread across ten different categories and a multi-week voting process from 11 of our writers. The results: 100 essential set pieces, sequences, and scenes from blockbusters to cult classics to arthouse obscurities.

 

If you’ve seen a film montage in the last 10 years, then you’ve been witness to at least one of the scenes mentioned on this list: the vibrating water glass from Jurassic Park signaling the T-Rex prowling nearby. It’s the perfect type of image to tell the audience: something is coming. These flashes of exhilaration are fan-favorites, and it’s no surprise to see them featured prominently as the centerpieces for some of the greatest films ever. It’s the invasion when the aliens come out of the sky, the devastation when Mother Nature gets really pissed off, or the terror when a giant animal runs amok. Who will survive is still a question left unanswered in these hair-raising moments. You’ll have to watch to find out.

*****

10. Predator (1987) – “Contact!!”

John McTiernan’s Predator is, when you consider the time in which it was made, one of the best bait-and-switches in the history of film. In the era of the muscle-bound meathead action film protagonists, Arnold Schwarzenegger was the man to beat, a walking action figure equally as adept at dishing out one-liners as he was swinging around an M60. Joining a cast of similar action hero types, the future Governator spends the first 40 minutes or so of Predator serving the audience a fine banquet of ‘80s action cheese. And then it all goes South. Practically out of nowhere, the tables are turned and the swaggering alpha males of the cast are beset upon by a mysterious foe that proceeds to systematically take them apart, both figuratively and literally. The once proud kings of the 1980’s are suddenly outmatched by a smarter, more elusive killing machine. And nowhere is the newfound impotence of the protagonists felt more than in the iconic scene when the Predator attacks the group, leading them to a time-honored ‘80s action tradition: firing wildly in all directions, expending more ammunition than one would think possible, and all but leveling the jungle around them. In any other movie at the time, this liberal application of bullets would have surely ended the exchange. Just two years earlier, Arnie used the same strategy to marvelous success in the climax of Commando. But in Predator, it accomplishes precisely bupkiss, and what would once have been a triumphant display of machismo takes on an air of very loud futility. It was and remains a memorable sequence. And when considered in its proper context, it highlights just how subversive Predator actually was. (Thomas O’Connor)

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9. Independence Day (1996) – “Time’s up.”

Science fiction has shown dozens of alien invasions, but few are as massive as that in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (1996). When 15-mile-wide spaceships appear over Earth’s major cities, few below have any idea of the awesome power about to be unleashed on them. As a director, Emmerich is well-known for his big budget set pieces, and Independence Day cements that reputation. The film’s sit-up-and-watch scene, where the invaders obliterate entire cities with death rays, has become iconic; the destruction of the White House still has the power to thrill audiences nearly two decades later. The attack isn’t exactly a surprise—computer genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) has already spotted the invader’s coordination signal hidden amongst mankind’s satellite system, but no-one knows exactly what will happen. The War of the Worlds (1953) had wannabe alien overlords inch across the globe in walking machines while Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) had a more subtle plan. Independence Day shows destruction on a scale never seen before with the White House, the Empire State Building, and the US Capitol all being blown to pieces. In the modern age of CGI, it’s easy to under appreciate how much model-making and technical expertise went on behind the scenes—effort possibly never to be repeated in today’s Hollywood. Since Independence Day effectively ramped up the alien invasion concept, the genre itself changed to accommodate increased audience expectation. The War of the Worlds remake (2005), Skyline (2010) and Battle: Los Angeles (2011) did away with the subtle, creeping invasion in favor of effects-driven spectacles with humanity in desperate battles for survival, all with varying degrees of commercial and critical success. The film’s real success lies in how well it has aged—a credit mostly to the special effects team, whose blending of miniatures and live action never detracts from enjoyment of the film. The attack scene is still as amazing today as it was back in 1996, a testament to the advantages of practical effects over CGI. (Katie Wong)

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8. The Thing (1982) – Bad blood

The Thing works on a visceral level, and not just because of the blood and gore, but because Carpenter’s knack for creating suspense is honed to perfection. Throughout the entire story, the monster remains an amorphous blob, able to adapt and take the shape of anything it comes across, including seamlessly assimilating any human form. We are never sure where it is at any given time, and in the end, its true appearance is never revealed. The elaborate special effects (designed by then 22-year-old Rob Bottin) set a high standard for films that followed. These ground-breaking special effects feature some of the most spectacular scenes of body horror ever put on screen, best exemplified in a pivotal moment when the group’s reluctant leader, R.J. Macready (Kurt Russell), commands his team at gunpoint to tie themselves to chairs and participate in a makeshift blood test in order to ensure no one in the crew has been replaced by an alien doppelganger. What elevates the scene from the bread and butter of your typical horror film is the special effects, which see a man’s head split open with razor sharp claws—to then crawl along the ceiling, swallow another man’s head and be set on fire courtesy of Russell wielding a flamethrower. (Ricky D)

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7. The Dark Knight (2008) – Bat vision

Action is as much about premise as it is execution. Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy may have received heaps of praise for its ingenuity, cleverness, and respect for its source material, but its action never truly got its due. While the Batpod chase is the literal centerpiece of the film, the final set piece where the Batman takes out an entire SWAT team might just be the true showstopper. With the Joker held up at the top of an unfinished tenement building, protected by his thugs, who have taken hostages, there’s only one option for the Caped Crusader: go in before the police. That’s when our hero discovers the old switcheroo: the clown thugs are actually the hostages and the “hostages” are the real threats. Batman has his work cut out for him, not only having to neutralize Joker’s minions, but prevent the SWAT team from killing the poor captives. It’s an action scene with multiple moving parts, something Nolan has always excelled at. Here, equipped with an IMAX camera, he and cinematographer Wally Pfister orchestrate a busy but clean set piece. Notice the low angles that give Batman a mythic quality, or the swirling camera that keeps the violence wide. The execution is there, but so is the premise, as seeing Batman adapt and own the situation on screen as the wraith of justice his iconography has always flaunted is a beautiful moment for the cinema. Just look at those white sonar lenses of his! This is Batman as a force, attacking his enemies but also the moment—fighting for the soul of Gotham as the soul of Gotham. (Shane Ramirez)

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6. X2: X-Men United (2003) – Mutant Freedom Now

Kurt Wagner, aka Nightcrawler, is an acrobat by training and thus can move ridiculously well. The opening scene in X2 is a smart piece of filmmaking in many ways but is best in how it utilizes both character movement and movement of the camera. Nightcrawler is running and teleporting his way through the White House, trying to get to the president, presumably to either kill or kidnap him. The secret service is doing their damnedest to stop him, but Nightcrawler is just too agile. Director Bryan Singer stages the siege in essentially two ways. The first is with the camera relatively static on a wide shot of a hallway to display the full range of space Nightcrawler is occupying, like when he is barreling down on a secret service agent or teleporting from side-to-side to dodge bullets. The second is by moving the camera in fluid paths throughout rooms, like when we zoom out of the Oval Office through a peephole into another room, which is also a sly visual nod to how doors can’t stop Kurt from gaining access. Watching the quick, graceful actions of both Nightcrawler and the camera provide the scene with the perfect amount of polished visual storytelling. Nothing you do is going to stop Nightcrawler from reaching his destination, because no one can move in quite the way he does. (JJ Perkins)

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5. The Birds – “Run, children!”

In what is Alfred Hitchcock’s last masterpiece, The Birds gave Hitch a genuine opportunity to shine not just as a master of suspense but of action as well. He sets the stage brilliantly. We’ve only just been given a taste of what these birds are capable of, and as the children innocently sing in the schoolhouse and Tippi Hedren casually smokes a cigarette outside, we see the birds slowly amassing one by one on the playground, until a wisp of smoke and a quick change of perspective suddenly reveal a full murder of crows. There’s no score as the children run in panic, just the sound of screams and squawking. Hitch’s style is strictly methodical and economical, showing the full crowd of children and then cutting behind them when the birds finally reach their target. The camera tightens in a series of cuts as the birds finally attack, and he cuts to a set of legs running before a little girl falls to heighten the danger once more. The special effects here have not aged well, but Hitchcock’s style and sense of suspense are timeless. (Brian Welk)

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4. Jurassic Park (1993) – We’re gonna need a bigger island.

Roughly the first half of Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is all about increasing tension. From the opening minutes, the dinosaurs are kept off-screen, the full purpose and scale of the titular park shrouded in mystery. Some of the tension is released when the main characters arrive on the island and see actual, living dinosaurs for the first time. But there is still a sense of waiting for the other shoe to drop throughout the film: the somewhat ominous lunch conversation about life finding a way to cast off human-enforced limitations, the tropical storm that cuts off the island from the outside world, the power grid shutting down as Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight) puts his plan to steal dinosaur embryos in action. All that mounting suspense culminates in the central action scene of the movie: the Tyrannosaurus Rex attack. Containing not one but two moments that have permeated pop culture iconography (the ripples in the glass and the dilating eye), the attack is an exciting explosion of tension as the massive beast descends on the two vehicles stranded in front of her and the people trapped inside. It’s a turning point in the film, as the pre-attack atmosphere is left as shredded and mangled as the car the T-Rex flings into a nearby tree; the implicit promise of disaster realized. (Austin Gorton)

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3. Children of Men (2006) – Attack on car

It was 3 in the morning the first time I watched Alfonso Cuaron’s masterpiece Children of Men, and the whole film was gripping enough that I didn’t realize how sleep deprived I was. One of the peak moments of captivation came in the infamous car scene, all done in one take—well, edited to look like one take. It starts out calm enough with two activist former flames, Theo (Clive Owen) and Julian (Julianne Moore), casually giving in to their shared history after being divorced for years. Suddenly though, it all breaks into chaos when they are ambushed by a mob throwing Molotov cocktails and wielding makeshift bats. The fact that there are no cuts as the camera inside the car rotates from front seat to back seat—all while capturing the horror consuming all sides—really lets the immediate danger and terror of the scene sink in. With the viewer essentially trapped in the vehicle with our characters, the sheer technical achievements of the scene shine on full display. Cauron and his effects mavens constructed their own rig specifically for this scene, and the end result is innovative and mindblowing. The seamlessness of the take is such that it’s not until you’re well into the scene that you even realize, “Wait a minute, they haven’t even cut yet!” This is what masterpiece filmmaking looks and feels like. (Dylan Griffin)

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2. Jaws (1975) – Brody kills Bruce 

Combat doesn’t have to be between people all the time. Films like Frank Marshall’s Arachnophobia and Luis Llosa’s Anaconda prove that mankind shouldn’t mess with the animal kingdom. Steven Spielberg’s Hitchcock-ian take on the monster genre holds no exceptions and is truly the first of its kind to break audiences out of their anthropocentric shells. The use of John William’s memorable two note theme song, along with the influence of Hitchcock’s rule of “don’t show the monster until the very end,” gives Bruce (the infamous name Spielberg gave his animatronic shark) the upper hand above Roy Scheider’s Brody throughout the whole length of the film. Yet at the end, when Brody is the sole survivor amidst a capsizing ship, he has to quickly find a way to kill his enemy. Many would think bopping Bruce square in the nose would do the trick. Others would simply give up. Not Brody. By choosing brains over brawn—shoving a loaded oxygen tank in the mouth of the beast—Brody manages to take out his enemy in the most suspenseful of ways. In the scene’s final moments, in what feels like a game of chicken, each rifle shot causes a new gasp out of the audience’s mouth. Finally as Brody hits his target, the sigh of relief erupts metaphorically and literally. Bruce is dead, and we know it’s safe to go back into the water. At least for now… (Christopher Clemente)

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1. Aliens (1986) – Xeno-swarm

In Alien, the xenomorph slinks behind shadows, picking off the Nostromo’s crew one-by-one. James Cameron’s sequel replaces the suspense with blunt terror: the aliens become an unstoppable horde, attacking in the dozens. A motion sensor detector provides the soundtrack for the impending doom, a beep not unlike the one that spelled the end for Dallas (Tom Skerrit) in the previous franchise close encounter. But this alarm keeps sounding, pulsing like a quickening electronic heartbeat, signaling a relentless enemy our heroes can’t hope to stop. Then the reveal—Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn) lifts the vent grate above, shines his flash light, and gets a glimpse of the ants marching in. You would think a coterie of Space Marines armed with heavy weapons and, unlike the original’s protagonists, some knowledge of the xenomorph’s make-up would do the trick. Yet Cameron has the “bugs” attack in hideous numbers, penetrating into the bowels of the Marines’ colony stronghold. They’re no match even with their firepower, except for Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)—but she’s in an action movie class all her own. (Chris Saunders)

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Top Choices from our Writers

Colin Biggs – Aliens

Christopher Clemente – Jaws

Ricky D – Aliens

Austin Gorton – Jaws

Dylan Griffin – Children of Men

Thomas O’Connor – Children of Men

JJ Perkins – The Dark Knight

Shane Ramirez – Jurassic Park

Christopher Saunders – Aliens

Brian Welk – Jaws

Katie Wong – Battle Royale

 (check out the rest of the list by clicking below)

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