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John Scalzi Rates SciFi Movies by Their EXPLOSIONS!

This Saturday, it’s July 4, when America celebrates its independence from Britain by blowing things up real good. Nothing says “We, as a nation, aspire to be a beacon of democracy and equal rights” like a truly boom-tastic explosion. Since such outsize displays are on the minds of Americans everywhere, I thought I would give over this week’s column to a critical review of explosions in science-fiction movies. Because, you know, why not?

Star Wars (1977)
To be sure, there were explosions before Star Wars, from the cheap exploding space craft in Flash Gordon to the more expensive exploding craft in Silent Running. But it was in Star Wars that the Big Damn Explosion really burst onto the scene as a science-fiction staple. What’s more, Star Wars features not one but two really big explosions: The planet Alderaan getting zapped by the Death Star, and then the Death Star itself going blooey after a proton-torpedo enema. Of the two, I always thought the Alderaan explosion was more impressive. But then, the coolest explosion in the whole movie belongs to the last TIE fighter that dies chasing the Millennium Falcon after it escapes the Death Star. Seriously, go look for yourself.
Explosion Rating: A

Superman (1978)
Not content to just blow up a planet, this movie blows up a star and a planet! Not to mention, if you’ll recall, unleashing a thermonuclear device on California — an event that is, curiously, underplayed.
Explosion Rating: B

Alien (1979)
Ripley blows up the Nostromo to kill a single alien, the ultimate example of using an ax to kill a fly, if you ask me. Be that as it may, the explosion is awesome, since the ship blows up not once, not twice, but three times — each explosion more spectacular than the last. A truly underappreciated exploding event in the history of science fiction.
Explosion Rating: B+

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983)
Yes, The Empire Strikes Back was the best-written and directed of the original trilogy, but on the explosion front, it was, shall we say, underwhelming. (TIE fighters? An Imperial walker? A power generator? Weak sauce.) Not so with Jedi, which blows up Jabba’s yacht, a shield installation, Imperial cruisers, dozens upon dozens of fighter ships, yet another Death Star, and — critically — at least one Ewok. Really, this is a high point, if not the high point, in science-fiction exploderation. The explosion-special-effects people should get an Oscar — THAT EXPLODES.
Explosion Rating: A+

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
Remember how the Superman movie detonated a nuclear bomb in California, but never really did anything with it? Well, this one knows how to handle a thermonuclear device over L.A. Not only does it wipe out downtown, it also sets fire to a playground — kids included — which took chutzpa on the part of James Cameron. Also, it transforms Linda Hamilton into a fence-clutching skeleton long enough for you to freak out, but not so long that you ask, “Hey, what’s holding those bones together?” Well done, Cameron.
Explosion Rating: B+

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
The last original cast movie isn’t generally considered an “explosion” flick by the general public, but aficionados know that when the Klingon moon Praxis blows up, in the opening scene, it squirts out a disclike shock wave that’s so visually impressive that George Lucas added one just like it to the Death Star explosion in his 1997 Star Wars reissue. Now everyone thinks that’s where it came from. Not so! George Lucas is a stealer! (Well, in fact, both movies were done by Lucas’s effects house, Industrial Light & Magic. But still.)
Explosion Rating: B

Independence Day (1996)
The White House is blown up. Lots of other stuff blows up, too — and rather impressively — including L.A., New York, Houston, and, well, pretty much every other major metropolitan area on the planet. But no one gives a damn about that: dude, they blew up the White House. There’s symbolism there, man. Note: the symbolism plays slightly differently in the post 9/11 world.
Explosion Rating: A-


Have any other scifi-explosion movies to add? Do so in the comments. And remember: if you’re planning to do your own explosions this weekend, be careful. We want you to have all your fingers, eyeballs, skin, and hair come Monday. OK? OK.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also a creative consultant for the upcoming Stargate Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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