Making movies costs a lot of money, especially when you have to blow stuff up and pay people to do dangerous things. This is a look at ten of the most expensive action scenes ever produced.
The famous saying says you have to spend money to make money. For big budget films, this especially rings true. To achieve the level of sophistication, creativity, and believability required to bring memorable blockbusters to life, movie studios have to spend an obscene amount of money. In some cases, significant portions of a films’ budget could be blown on one sequence or scene. This is a look at 10 of the most expensive action scenes/sequences produced in mainstream cinema so far.
Often these scenes are paramount to the entire production. It may be the biggest opportunity for the film to leave a lasting impression on the audience. They are make-or-break scenes. For many of the films on this list, their most expensive scenes are the ones which have made them classics. For others, they have faded off into obscurity because their big moment was not quite big enough.
Not only are these expensive scenes important in the context of plot or entertainment, but their difficulty is compounded by the fact that they often have to be done right on the first try. Due to the complicated or detrimental nature of the scene, the cast and crew often have to spend months in training in order to pull it off just right. At other times, the scene requires the development of new technology in order to adequately express the filmmaker’s vision.
This list is by no means complete. Studios are understandably guarded about how much money they have to spend on a particular part of a movie. Therefore, this list is complete only as far as the information available to me on the internet. I can think of many sequences which certainly cost a pretty penny, but without the details we can’t rightfully include them. Scene budgets are estimates only based on available information, and adjusted for inflation.
10. Pearl Harbor (2002) – Japanese Surprise Attack ($7.5 million)
Michael Bay has a reputation for going big. Therefore, it is only natural for some of his films to be included on this list. We’ll start with his take on a historical drama. Pearl Harbor was supposed to be a gripping war drama about the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor and the US response. And so of course the actual attack would have to be the big centerpiece of the film.
Despite all of the explosions, model work, and CGI recreations, this sequence’s excitement doesn’t manage to carry over to the rest of the film. There’s also a morality question surrounding whether or not one of the greatest loss-of-life-disasters in US history should be exploited for entertainment purposes in the first place…but that discussion is for another day.
Worth It? No.
9. Saving Private Ryan (1998) – D-Day Landing ($12 million)
In concept, this scene is a combination of the previous scene on this list and #7. On one hand it is the opening scene of a movie, and is designed to catch the audience’s attention. On the other hand, it is a large-scale recreation of a moment from history. In both regards, this scene is a spectacular success. Not only does it catch the realism and the feel of the moment, but it is shocking and impactful.
This isn’t about relishing in the spectacle of war, it’s about cowering in fear from the power of it. It also works as an introduction to the men who bravely fought on the beach at Normandy. Giving us a glimpse of what the soldiers had to endure and how the characters of the film are reflective of that experience.
Worth it? Yes
8. Matrix: Reloaded (2003) – Highway Chase ($10-15 million)
The second Matrix film is the only film which appears on this list twice, which, if nothing else, is impressive. Impressive because the studio went along with not one, but two pricey sequences in the same film. Impressive because it shows how far The Wachowskis were willing to go to try and outdo the original film.
‘How far they were willing to go’ includes building a section of highway from scratch for the sole purpose of filming this sequence. Construction cost $2.5 million alone. Factor in the cost of all of the cars they destroyed, the special effects, a semi truck, rigging, pyrotechnics, and of course all of the training for the cast and crew – and this sequence could easily push north of $10 million. What results is one of the best car chase sequences ever made. (Unfortunately, we don’t have an exact number on this one, so our estimate may not be very accurate)
Worth It? Yes
7. The Matrix (1999) – Opening Scene ($15 million)
When the Wachowskis first pitched The Matrix to Warner Brothers, the studio was understandably hesitant. This was an action film unlike anything that had been seen before. Warner Brothers was at least a little bit intrigued, and so they agreed to give The Wachowskis’ $10 million to make their film. The Wachowskis knew this would not be nearly enough, but they took what they had and ran with it.
More importantly, it worked. When they screened the film clip for the studio, jaws hit the floor and The Wachowskis got more money to actually finish the film how they wanted. This $10 million ($15 million in today’s money) went towards buying equipment, training the cast, and of course developing the “bullet time” camera rig. All of these things would be used for the duration of the film’s entire production, and so the cost is a bit inflated when you take into consideration the entire film’s budget. But that doesn’t change the fact that $10/15 million was required to make this scene exist in the first place.
Worth it? Yes
6. Swordfish (2001) – Flying Bus ($15 million)
In Swordfish, a group of terrorists escape a police chase thanks to a helicopter picking up the bus they are driving. While some CGI is utilized for the sequence, the filmmakers wanted the sequence to be as realistic as possible, and so much of the sequence is completed with stunt work. For interior scenes, the bus was hoisted up on a crane and moved around in front of a green screen. For exterior flying scenes, the bus was actually air-lifted by a helicopter through the city. It was a very dangerous stunt because the bus was more than 80% of the capacity of the helicopter, and any wind could make it uncontrollable.
There was even a sequence where the bus crashed into a building and then the helicopter pulled it through. Unfortunately, the film was released close to 9/11 and so the actual sequence which made it to film was scaled back. However, much of the scene’s budget was spent making this later-deleted sequence, in which an actual building was essentially destroyed for the sake of entertainment.
Worth it? No
5. Transformers: The Last Knight (2017) – Junkyard Scene ($15 million)
The second scene from a Michael Bay movie on this list is one you may not expect. While the Transformers films have all so far been very expensive, very action-heavy affairs, their excitement has mostly been derived from CGI. CGI can be expensive, but spread out over the cost of an entire film, a high cost for a particular scene just doesn’t happen. What makes this scene different is the combination of CGI with practical effects.
In addition to the cost associated with building and customizing the cars for this scene, we also have the quintessential Michael Bay stylistic flair provided by a multitude of explosions. But the high cost of the scene was also associated with the logistics of supporting an entire film crew in the middle of the Arizona desert. Since this scene was filmed on location, a lot of local support was required. But compared to some of the other groundbreaking scenes on this list, I can’t help but be disappointed by this one.
Worth it? No
4. Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997) – Ship Crash ($25 million)
The sequel to Speed takes the premise of the original film (a bus that can’t stop or else it will explode), and applies it to a ship. This time, the ship is unable to slow down by itself. To eventually slow the ship down, it ends up crashing into a dock. While much of the film’s action scenes were created using (laughable) CGI, the film’s director wanted the finale of his big film to be as realistic as possible. This meant no miniatures and limited CGI.
To accomplish this fete, the crew built an entire seaside village to be destroyed. This cost $5 million on its own. Next, they created a rail system to move a full-size mock up of the front of the ship through the water and into the dock. The cost of this action sequence exceeded the entire cost of the first film. It may be the only redeeming quality of this otherwise laughable sequel, but that’s still not a good enough reason for so much money to have been spent this way in the first place.
Worth it? No
3. Ben-Hur (1959) – Chariot Race ($34 million)
Finally, it makes sense. One of the most iconic scenes in film is also one of the most expensive ever made. This is a spellbinding and action-packed scene, made even more impressive by the fact that it was made in 1959! The chariot chase in Ben-Hur is a moment in film history that was ahead of its time. It’s a moment in film that sticks with you thanks to the stakes and the scale. For this reason, it probably had a significant impact on the film’s Best Picture win at the Oscars.
This sequence is also one which could not be made today, for better or for worse (no studio would allow the use of horses in the same manner as the original scene). The Ben-Hur remake of a few years utilized CGI and modern effects in order to make this scene again. But even with all of the modern technological advancements available to the filmmakers, it couldn’t hold a candle to the original masterpiece.
Worth it? Yes
2. Matrix: Reloaded – Burly Brawl ($40 million)
The most expensive modern action movie scene is one where the filmmakers literally pushed the envelope. This sequence features the protagonist Neo fighting a seemingly endless mob of Agent Smith duplicates. While much of the first two Matrix films is actually completed without the use of significant CGI, this scene is an exception. To pull off the look of an entire army comprised of the same person, CGI was necessary.
Initially they were planning to use the same bullet-time camera set-up as the original film, but deemed it would be impossible to stitch together the movements of hundreds of extras. Instead, it would have to be done “virtually”, with the aid of CGI. Warner Brothers opened ESC Entertainment to develop the technology necessary to pull this off, and eventually they did.
Their work made it possible to have photo-realistic CGI characters in film and laid the foundations for motion capture. Technically the development of this technology was not for exclusive use on this scene, but nonetheless this scene created a need for it in the first place.
Worth it? Yes
1. War and Peace (Part III – 1967) – Battle of Borodino ($100 million)
The most expensive action scene in movie history (so far) is from a movie most people have not seen or even heard of in the first place. During the beginning of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was looking for opportunities to increase the country’s prestige. As part of this effort, the Ministry of Culture approved and helped to fund a four-part adaptation of Tolstoy’s seminal novel, War and Peace.
The third part of the film was released in 1967 and covered Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. In this segment, there is a significant portion of the story which takes place during the Battle of Borodino. The sequence depicting this battle consumes more than an hour of run time on its own. At the time, War and Peace was agreed to be the most expensive movie ever made.
However, estimates of the total cost of the film vary widely, mainly because the government’s own investments were difficult to confirm. However, in 1979, the Guinness Book of World Records named War and Peace the most expensive movie ever made, with a budget of $96 million in 1979 dollars. Converting $96 million to today’s dollars yields $336 million. There were 4 parts to the film which shared this budget, but the Battle of Borodino was the most expensive and cost-intensive part of the entire production. This observation has lead to many contemporary sources claiming the “scene” could have cost more than $100 million on its own.
Personally, I can’t condone spending this quantity of money on a scene for a film, even if the scene is most of a film and even if the end result is really quite good. Seriously, the battle sequences are excellent, even by 2019 standards. The film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. It remains an impressive example of not only bringing an important work of fiction to life, but doing it in a way that is culturally significant.
Worth it? No
Watch a clip of the battle here to decide for yourself: