There is no doubt that battle scenes can make or break a movie. Whether it is an intense skirmish in a building, or an epic battle waged between thousands, these scenes are where the directors and perhaps the actors earn their crust and stamp their authority on a film, perhaps even a genre. Often delivered at the peak of tension build up, it is the time for heroes to rise, spirits to be broken and history to be made. It is also about the time for the inevitable body count to start climbing.
My idea to start a series of top 5 movie battles began with a list I had made of my favourites from across the years. As the list grew longer, I realized that splitting them into genre would be much more suitable. I will begin with Science-Fiction battles, which has to be one of best genres for violent encounters and futuristic weapons that leaves your jaw rooted to the floor. But don’t expect my Top 5 to always follow the path of the bigger the better, and I have chosen one or two that squeeze the action into tight spaces. Choosing my Top 5 was really difficult and you will find my honourable mentions at the bottom. I hope you enjoy my list, and yes, there will be Star Wars!
5: The Terminator (1984)
Arnie in sunglasses VS the entire contents of the West Highland police station
Less a battle and more a massacre, the person known to the police only as “The Phone Book Killer”, bursts into the police station looking for Sarah Connor, and immediately opens fire with a personal arsenal of weapons “purchased” from the local store. Not only is this the moment when Reece’s gentle warning regarding the cyborg’s persistence comes to life, but it is that moment in the science-fiction movie when the viewer realises just how unstoppable the dark assassin really is.
Opening with the most famous words to ever leave Arnie’s mouth, the scene is a brutal demonstration of the futility with which the police fight, getting torn apart in the process. Even Winfield and Henricksen who had only been in the movie a short while, are simply cannon fodder in the big man’s pursuit. Treading the line so beautifully between science-fiction and horror, Cameron’s use of dark spaces and technology laden first-person views has gone down in film history.
4: War of the Worlds (1953)
Earth’s brave soldiers VS the invincible Martian invaders
Try to picture yourself sitting in 1953, witnessing the on screen horror of seeing your country’s bravest men with their most advanced weapons, melt uselessly against the Martian attack. Just like the remake, the pointlessness of fighting is so stark, especially in the context of the cold war 1950s.
The battle in particular I have chosen is the initial attack from the aliens. The tension, mystery and religious significance that builds up is some of the best in cinema, ending in an epic confrontation with some of the most revered special effects. The eventual full retreat, must have been so unnerving in a cold war era. An era that had already proved itself paranoid after Orson Welles’ infamous radio broadcast before the movie’s release.
3: Starship Troopers (1997)
Rasczak’s Roughnecks VS a minor bug problem
Otherwise known as The Ambush at Whiskey Outpost, this battle scene was the moment that Earth realised they were up against more than just mindless bug drones. The trap laid for the Mobile Infantry by the Arachnids on Planet P was for me that best moment in the movie, and the clichés and cheese keep flowing throughout, squeezing itself in-between the carnage.
It is scenes like this that make Verhoeven’s explosive sci-fi imaging so engrossing and entertaining. The enemy bodies pile up so quickly that other Warrior bugs start to use them to scale the walls. You have to love the shot over the wall as the viewer takes in the sheer number of bugs approaching, as well as the huge Tanker bugs coating soldiers in flames. Because, as with all brilliant and heartless sci-fi enemies, overkill is everything,
2: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Kirk and the USS Enterprise VS the USS Reliant and Khhhaaannn!!!
The Battle of Mutara Nebula is one of the defining moments in the Star Trek movie franchise. Never before or since has any Star Trek movie been able to replicate the emotive tension between two adversaries. Add to this the unparalleled backdrop of the Nebula itself, and you have one of the best looking battles in sci-fi.
What I love most about this scene, is that it epitomises the Naval connection that the whole film had. The way the ships pull up alongside each other to unload their weapons and tear holes into their foes, reminds me so much of all the great naval battles in film. The way Kirk outsmarts Khan and his more powerful Reliant, also helped create the legendary status of the famous Enterprise captain.
1: Star Wars Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Rebel Scum VS the Empire’s version of overkill
Although perhaps not portrayed as such in the movie, The Battle of Hoth is seen throughout the EU as a pivotal moment in the Empire and Vader’s desire to squash the rebel alliance. In the film, the battle is more a precursor to a predominantly character based plot, rather than a result of built-up tensions. Visually however, it is without doubt one of the defining moments in the genre’s history, and even now is simply mind-blowing in both its effects and cinematography.
There can be no doubt that the AT-ATs make the whole scene. The expert direction turns these surreal tanks from seemingly impenetrable, to crippled by some rope. Truly breathtaking, the action moves between the battle and those involved so inventively it hurts. In the end, it is only Admiral Ozzel’s incompetence that turns a possible massacre into the escape of many, with Skywalker leading the charge and helping to make those pesky Robot Camels fall over.
Honourable Mentions: Independence Day final battle (1996), Aliens Nest Ambush (1986), Return of the Jedi final battle (1983), Tron light cycle battle (1982), First Contact defence of Earth 1996)