Science fiction and fantasy movies are full of amazing visuals — but the coolest thing about any SF film is usually that there's a real live human being in the middle of all that overwhelming strangeness. We want to see ourselves, in all our human frailty, juxtaposed with the danger and mystery of fantasy — and oftentimes, it's up to hard-working stunt performers to make that happen. Sometimes the only way to get a really cool moment of danger and excitement on screen is to risk smashing one of those stunt guys to bits.
Here are 10 stunts from science fiction and fantasy movies that really could have killed someone.
1) The Dark Knight: Truck Flip
The special effects supervisor, Chris Corbould, really didn't want to do this stunt as it was originally envisioned by Christoper Nolan. He kept pushing Nolan to compromise on the size and type of vehicle. Corbould wasn't even sure he could pull off the truck flip much less do it on the confines of a street in the Chicago banking district. Just a little bit to one side meant a semi through a bank window, and just a little bit off the mark meant gouging the utilities out of the street. All real concerns about property — and oh yeah, a guy was going to be driving the truck. Eventually, Nolan pulled rank and just said do it. So like any good minion, Corbould and stunt coordinator Paul Jennings strapped a big-ass piston to a semi-truck, built a heavily enforced roll cage for the cab and handed the stunt driver, Jim Wilkey, a launch button. Amazingly everything went perfect in the test run and Nolan got his shot, thanks to a stunt man that doesn't mind being a guinea pig in an insane experiment.
2) The Dark Knight Rises: The Pit Climb
The less spectacular shots ( a relative term when you are talking about life threatening stunts) are often the hardest on the stuntman's body and nerves. Bobby Holland Hanton was the stunt-double for Daniel Craig in Quantum of Solace and has also worked in Skyfall, Inception, a couple of Harry Potter movies as well as doing Batman's physical stunts in The Dark Knight Rises. The guy is no stranger to physically demanding stunts. When asked in an interview if there has ever been a stunt that made him question "What have I gotten myself into?" he answered:
In The Dark Knight Rises, when I was climbing out of the prison in India [as Bruce Wayne], there are a couple of times that he tries to jump out and doesn't quite make it. It was a 100-foot freefall on a cable that was a slack line, which smacked me into a wall. That was pretty alarming.
Alarming seems to be about as much of a rise as you can get out of these guys.
3) Catwoman: 26-Storey Jump
Zoe Bell is a tough lady. She got her break through as Lucy Lawless' stunt double in Xena: Warrior Princess, and Quentin Tarantino was so impressed by her he wrote her in as herself in the Death Proof portion of Grindhouse. (She's the lady riding around on the hood of a car, doing all her own stunts naturally.) In an interview, she names her most intense stunt as being the long 26-storey drop from the roof in Catwoman. She was nominated for a Taurus, the world stunt award, for her work in that movie. The flips she did during the fall and the incredible 200 ft height made the stunt dangerous, and the fact she had never done a building jump before. It was an ambitious start. A stuntman in the Avengers tripped up during a 30ft fall and tore off a nice chunk of scalp — and that is a more benign injury that can occur in that kind of stunt work.
Staring down the side of a building sounds intimating but her work in Xena sounds like it might have been more dangerous in day-to-day practice. Big budget movies have all kinds of safety rigs. When Bell was doing backflips off a castle walls in Xena she had a rope, a pulley, and a few guys heaving her up.
4) Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers: The Battle of Helm's Deep
Stunt coordinator, George Ruge, called the filming of the Helm's Deep "agonizing" as he dealt with the massive logistics of people and animals crashing into each other. He calls the shots of the orcs climbing ladders spectacular. Stuntman Sala Baker, who also plays Sauron when he isn't kitted up as an anonymous orc, has other descriptive words for the scenes like "harrowing". Baker describes the stunt:
There was a sequence of high falls that we had. There were 28 of us stunt men and women falling within two seconds of each other. You had to hit these mats and then move. It was just the timing of it because you had no [peripheral vision]. It was like, "What the hell! How am I supposed to do this?" (Laughing) As soon as you turn over, you can't see anything. It was like, "Please land right. I don't want to land on someone. I better get up quickly before someone lands on me." It was crazy. It was probably the most [harrowing stunt] because I never knew what was going to happen. That was probably one of the craziest things.
The rapid pace and large group of people working made what looks like a rather innocent stunt dangerous. Though honestly it sounds like the most dangerous part of filming the LotR trilogy was being randomly headbutted by Viggo Mortensen.
5) The Matrix Reloaded: The Ducati motorcycle scene
The entire scene of Trinity speeding through traffic and weaving between vehicles is thrilling. Stuntwoman Debbie Evans says the most intense and dangerous moment of filming occurs as a large semi-truck tries to smash her against the wall and she has to back out. The problem with real drivers performing real stunts is things are constantly changing and unpredictable. Unpredictable means unsafe in the stunt world. In one take the trailer swung wildly and smacked the wall right as she backed out. Evans the ever cool stunt pro said "that got my attention, I did not care for that one" and was happy when the filming was done. Woman stunt workers often face more danger than their male counterparts due to their tight or skimpy costumes. There is just nowhere to hide padding and protective gear. Trinity's skintight costume didn't really allow for safety gear, other than some thin shin guards and hip plates from motocross pants. They wanted Evans to cut her hair for the Trinity part, but she refused and insisted on a wig. Why a wig? Because it gave her a little extra padding and protection. Think on that.
6) Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Truck Drag
This stunt is on many lists of the best movie stunts. The stunt was so dangerous, stuntman Terry Leonard only agreed to do it if his friend and fellow stuntman Glenn H. Randall Jr. was driving the truck. In the scene Indy lowers himself from the hood of the truck to crawl along the bottom, and then drag behind on his whip. The scene is based upon a famous stunt by Yakima Canutt in the 1939 movie Stagecoach. Leonard had extremely good reason to be wary of this particular stunt. When he was attempting to do the same stunt earlier that year in in Legend of the Lone Ranger it went wrong and his legs were run over by the stagecoach. He was still in recovery from that accident at the time. Attempting a similar stunt so soon is pretty ballsy.
7) Hellboy: Subway Escape
Sometimes you got a fancy rig and carefully calibrated effects — and sometimes you got two guys holding your feet and your own sense of timing. Some of the most dangerous stunts seem to come from the place of "fuck it, let's just try it." That seems to be the school of thought in Hellboy when the titular character is escaping from an oncoming subway train. The stuntman, Todd Bryant, laid across the tracks as a replica subway train was launched at him. He waited for the train to get as close to his head as he could before doing a power sit up to escape. This all relied on two guys holding his legs down so he could sit up quick enough to avoid decapitation. The producer, who as against the stunt, had to cover his eyes and look away during the filming, and the crew burst out into spontaneous applause when it was successfully completed.
8) Transformers: Dark of the Moon: Winged Base Jumpers
Base jumping is already one of those things that is dangerous and reckless. It was like Michael Bay asked himself "How can I make this even more over the top and unrestrained?" The answer was of course to add horizontal flight and a choreographed group. That is where JT Holmes and his "Birdmen" enter into the scene. What makes flying in the city especially perilous is each street has its own weather pattern, in terms of wind and uplift. They had to have people spread across the flight paths. giving minute by minute updates about conditions. Holmes and company nicknamed one particular spot "Suicide Corner." In an interview, JT Holmes,a veteran of thousands of jumps, said the rushing buildings brought that original adrenaline feeling of being a newbie back.
9) Evil Dead: Everything
Sam Raimi really didn't have any idea what he was doing when he made The Evil Dead and apparently believed that his actors needed to really be suffering to turn in a great performance. That, coupled with the fact that safety equipment and effects cost money and this zero-budget production didn't have any, meant that every day on the set was a risk to life and limb to the actors. Case in point: The obvious way to film a scene where a camera smashes through a glass window toward an actress was to actually have a camera smash through a window and have the actress dodge real shards of glass flying at her head. To get those great opaque eyes on the possessed actress, they used opaque contact lenses so she couldn't actually see. This wouldn't have been so bad — except for the fact she was attacking Bruce Campbell with a knife, a real knife, and he was really dodging for his life.
10) Moon: Just Climbing Around the Set
The lower the budget, the lower the safety standards. The super low budget for this indie science fiction movie required all the creators to wear multiple hats. Somehow this translated into the VFX supervisor, concept artist, and graphic designer also having to be the stuntman. The poor guy basically had to bumble around in a homegrown spacesuit that lacked airflow, peripheral vision and any tactile feedback. You might be wondering why this was so dangerous. The entire set was suspended ten feet in the air and covered in slippery "moon" dust, and the guy's stunts consisted on climbing up to higher areas and maneuvering in and out of tight spaces while shackled in a suit that didn't allow him to turn his head, fogged up glass, and wouldn't let him bend his feet. The movie doesn't give the impression of any serious danger — but any fall would have meant a serious risk of injury to the makeshift fall guy. (Update: He tweeted this article!)