Top 20 Nuclear Bomb Scenes in Movies
VOICE OVER: Tom Aglio
WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
These scenes are a blast! Was that too on the nose? For this list, we'll be looking at the scariest, most intense, and maybe even the funniest movie scenes involving nuclear bombs. Our countdown includes “The Avengers”, “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines”, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, “Independence Day”, “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”, and more!
Top 20 Nuclear Bomb Scenes in Movies
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 20 Nuclear Bomb Scenes in Movies.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the scariest, most intense, and maybe even the funniest movie scenes involving nuclear bombs. The bomb doesn’t have to go off, so long as it’s an integral part to the scene.
Which of these is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below!
#20: “The Avengers” (2012)
This team really has their hands full. If they’re not saving New York from an invasion of Chitauri, they’re attempting to defuse a potential nuclear attack! Fearing the Chitauri invasion, the World Security Council launches a nuke at Manhattan. What results is pure action cinema. Iron Man intercepts the nuke and uses it to destroy the Chitauri mothership. The spectacle is fantastic, but what works best here is the emotion. Tony is fully aware of the danger and calls Pepper to say goodbye, but to no avail. Robert Downey Jr. is superb, conveying fear, anxiety, and eventual heartbreak with nothing but his facial expressions.
#19: “American Assassin” (2017)
We’ve seen a ton of nuclear detonations on screen, but few that have occurred underwater. “American Assassin” tried doing something a little different, and it worked out wonderfully. After killing Ghost, Rapp drops the nuclear bomb into the water, and it goes off in a spectacular display. The nuke creates a massive hole in the ocean, causes nearby ships to break apart, and even generates an enormous tidal wave that engulfs everything in its path. This is great entertainment, and the idea of doing it in the water was fresh and ingenious.
#18: “The Divide” (2011)
Most movies work their way up to a devastating nuclear attack. “The Divide” opens with one. As the film begins, New York City is slammed by numerous nuclear explosions. The image is a startling one. A large mushroom cloud rises from the impact zone, dust billows through the streets, and the apocalyptic yellow sky sparkles with lightning. As this is a low-budget movie, we don’t see much of the attack itself. Rather, the movie switches focus to the immediate aftermath and panic. However, this is a welcome shift, as it horrifyingly depicts the fright and hysteria that accompanies a disaster. It’s a haunting opening to a haunting movie.
#17: “When the Wind Blows” (1986)
A heartbreaking piece of animation, “When the Wind Blows” follows a loving elderly couple who attempt to survive in a nuclear-ravaged England. The story takes place during the Soviet–Afghan War and presents an alternate reality in which England was hit by a nuclear bomb. Jim and Hilda hide in their makeshift shelter while the world-ending destruction occurs outside. Said destruction is both gorgeously animated and tragically evocative, depicting images straight out of a Cold War nightmare. The movie portrays a real-life fear through the magic of animation, and it does so in strikingly vivid fashion.
#16: “Testament” (1983)
Nuclear movies were very popular back in the ‘80s, as Cold War fears plagued the collective mind of America. “Testament” is one of those movies, depicting a small suburb in the midst of a nuclear event. The bombing scene is ingeniously filmed, favoring realism over cinematics. The Wetherly family experiences the bombing through the likes of distressed news anchors, the Emergency Broadcast System, cut electricity, and air raid sirens. This is a petrifying scene that scares the viewers through authenticity. This is how a good number of Americans would experience a nuclear strike - not through a massive mushroom cloud, but through sheer panic and a frightening disruption of everyday routine.
#15: “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” (2003)
We thought that “Terminator 2” gave the story a happy ending. We were wrong. One of the most surprising aspects of “Terminator 3” is the incredibly gutsy and dour ending. John and Kate are sent to Crystal Peak, which is believed to be connected to Skynet. However, they quickly realize that it’s a military fallout shelter and that they were sent there for protection. As they make this realization, the world is bombarded with Skynet’s nuclear strikes and Judgment Day officially begins. It’s a stellar twist that contains some shocking visuals and nicely places John on his predetermined path as a military leader.
#14: “By Dawn's Early Light” (1990)
This movie was released in May of 1990, and as such, is one of the last of the aforementioned Cold War movies. It’s based on William Prochnau’s novel “Trinity's Child,” which accurately depicts the consequences of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The movie features a number of nuclear blasts, including one that hits the White House and blows out its windows. Another forces down the President’s helicopter, which causes many to presume that he is dead. The limited TV budget does what it can with the visuals, but our imaginations are more than capable of filling in the nauseating details.
#13: “Independence Day” (1996)
This over-the-top classic is fondly remembered for the alien attack sequence, in which the UFO beams decimate numerous American landmarks. But it also contains some killer nuclear bomb sequences. In the first, a nuke is dropped on an alien spaceship above Houston. The explosion is magnificent, but it fails to destroy the ship. In the second, a nuke is deployed in the aliens’ mothership, and the entire thing erupts in a brilliant flash of blue light. This is pure summer blockbuster escapism, featuring a nuclear bomb, some hilarious banter, and a masterfully filmed escape sequence that leaves viewers white-knuckled and smiling. It’s a legendary ending to a legendary movie.
#12: “Armageddon” (1998)
This is perhaps the Michael Bay-est of all the Michael Bay movies. A humongous asteroid is headed straight for Earth, so NASA trains a group of oil drillers to become astronauts, sends them into space, and has them drill a nuclear weapon into the core of the asteroid. It’s ridiculous, and it’s tons of fun. Harry stays behind to activate the nuke, saving the world just in the nick of time. The resulting explosion is awe-inspiring, and it elicits loud cheers from both the audience and the characters in the movie. But we are also wiping away tears, as Harry’s goodbye to his daughter Grace is enough to make even the toughest amongst us weep. It all combines to create a majestic and unforgettable climax.
#11: “The Sum of All Fears” (2002)
For this Jack Ryan reboot, Ben Affleck took over the role from Harrison Ford and is tasked with stopping a fascist from starting a nuclear war. He has a bomb built in secrecy and drops it on Baltimore in an attempt to frame the Russians. The entire sequence is filled with great tension, and the resulting destruction is nothing short of harrowing. Thanks to the movie’s high budget, we are given various spine-chilling sights. A hospital blows up and sends all the employees flying, cars are violently knocked off roads, and Jack’s helicopter is thrown out of the air. It’s a very impressive sequence, and it’s arguably one of the best moments in the Jack Ryan franchise.
#10: “Broken Arrow” (1996)
John Woo certainly knows how to direct an action sequence. Christian Slater plays Riley Hale, an Air Force pilot who must contend with John Travolta’s Vic Deakins. Deakins is extorting the American government with two nuclear weapons. Hale recovers one of the bombs and stows it down an abandoned copper mine, where it proceeds to detonate. The plan mostly works, as the explosion causes the ground to shake and ripple, and a vast sinkhole is created near the mine shaft. An approaching helicopter is also disabled, and it explodes in a gigantic fireball. The scene contains some accomplished filmmaking and stunt work, and Travolta chews the scenery as the bad guy. What’s not to love?
#9: “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008)
Whatever your thoughts on the scene are, this could very well be one of the defining moments of 2000s cinema. Indiana Jones is kidnapped by KGB agents but eventually escapes and makes his way to a model town. This town is being used for atomic testing, and Indy is right on time. Fearing the imminent blast, Indy hides inside a lead-lined fridge and is sent hurtling through the air as the nuclear bomb strikes. The scene is filled with some terrific visual effects, as the shock wave obliterates houses and sets nearby mannequins on fire. It looks suitably apocalyptic - especially when Indy climbs out of the fridge and gazes upon the towering mushroom cloud. Steven Spielberg knows how to bring the spectacle.
#8: “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012)
There’s nothing like a good heroic sacrifice to make us tear up. Realizing that there is no stopping Bane’s bomb, Batman decides to sacrifice himself for the good of Gotham. He attaches the bomb to The Batplane, touchingly reveals his identity to Gordon, and flies over the water to his presumed doom. Of course, the Bat isn’t really gone, but that doesn’t quell the power of the scene. Like all of Christopher Nolan’s best work, this sequence combines breathtaking filmmaking with an undercurrent of rich emotion, and it makes for an amazing conclusion to his historic “Dark Knight” trilogy.
#7: “The Wolverine” (2013)
This movie begins with a bang. Quite literally. It opens in August of 1945, shortly before Nagasaki is decimated by the atom bomb. Logan is being held as a prisoner of war when Fat Man is dropped on the city. The event is shown in explicit detail. We see Fat Man quickly falling towards the ground, and we see the colossal explosion and mushroom cloud that results from it. The scene also contains some pulse-pounding tension, as the dust cloud quickly travels towards Logan and Ichirō and forces Logan to take some drastic measures that leave him literally scarred. The visuals are sensational, as is the cacophonous sound design. Now this is how you open a movie.
#6: “Barefoot Gen” (1983)
While we’re on the subject of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, let’s discuss “Barefoot Gen!” This is an anime from 1983 that follows Gen Nakaoka during the bombing of Hiroshima. The city is destroyed while Gen is at school, and what results is one of the most imaginative sequences ever seen in an anime. Animation can do wondrous and lushly imaginative things, and this sequence gets incredibly stylish. The visuals are boundless in their creativity, and they also pack a devastating emotional punch. The scene is unbelievably graphic and disturbing, conveying a sense of nightmarish surrealism that live action simply can’t capture. You’re going to need some eye bleach after seeing this one.
#5: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019)
“Godzilla” has a long history with nuclear weapons and radiation, but we’ve never seen anything quite like this. “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” ramps up the action to enjoyably absurd heights and features a highly memorable sequence involving a nuclear warhead. To bring Godzilla back to full HP, Serizawa sacrifices himself and quite literally detonates a nuke right next to the resting behemoth. The scene features some amazing sights and is suitably epic in scale, with Godzilla’s city and the underwater explosion being genuinely stunning. It looks cool, it sounds cool, and it’s a definite high point of the “Godzilla” franchise.
#4: “The Day After” (1983)
This apocalyptic television film from Nicholas Meyer is historic, capturing a 62% share and over 100 million viewers. Its subject matter was topical, and it touched on collective fears that hundreds of millions were experiencing. The attack segment is especially brutal, depicting a realistic sense of pandemonium and destruction that would occur with a nuclear strike. It is impeccably acted and shot, featuring high production values and plenty of unforgettable imagery. The visceral impact of the sequence lingers long after the credits have rolled, and it serves as a perfect representation of that distinctive Cold War paranoia.
#3: “Threads” (1984)
This movie aired on the BBC in September of 1984 and earned instant acclaim for its production values and harrowing realism. “Threads” accurately examines nuclear war and the resulting fallout, and the initial bombing scene is particularly distressing. Watching this can make viewers feel genuinely stressed, so perturbing are its visuals, chaotic editing, and sound design. Movies like this aren’t designed for entertainment - this was a warning, and a superbly effective warning at that. Luckily, the horrors of this scene never came to fruition during the Cold War. But it was a very real, and very unnerving, possibility.
#2: “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (1991)
James Cameron is a masterful filmmaker, and this is arguably one of his greatest sequences. And that’s saying a lot! Sarah suffers a nightmare in which she envisions Judgment Day. She is watching an innocent day at the park when a nuke strikes Los Angeles. The visual effects and cinematography throughout the scene are astonishing. The events are lit with an eerie and apocalyptic orange glow, and we watch in horror as buildings and vehicles are ripped apart like paper. And that’s nothing compared to the unimaginable horrors back at the park. We can’t imagine the terror of nuclear devastation, and hopefully this is the closest that we’ll get. It’s plenty close for us, thank you very much.
#1: “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)
Okay, enough of the disturbing stuff. How about some comedy? Well, black comedy involving nuclear weapons and the end of the world, but comedy nonetheless! Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece ends in memorable fashion, with Kong riding the hydrogen bomb down to its target. It’s an iconic image, and also a gloriously bizarre one. Following some further hilarity in the War Room, the movie ends with a montage of real nuclear bombs destroying the world while Vera Lynn's “We'll Meet Again” plays over the footage. It’s one of the most startlingly impactful endings in movie history, and its sardonic qualities could only come from the genius mind of Kubrick.