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What Makes an Action Scene Suck or Not?

Throwing a ton of money at a big action film doesn’t guarantee anyone will enjoy it (we know you’re listening Fantastic Four), no matter how massive the explosions or how grand the spectacle. But why is that exactly? We know what we’re signing up for when we sit down to watch a big-budged action film, so why do some fall so flat even when they blow everything up?

That’s exactly the question YouTubers Sam and Niko have tried to answer with their video “Why Do Actions Scenes Suck?” Although a better title would be “What Makes an Action Scene Succeed or Fail?” because this is really about why some work and some don’t. Using both great and lame sequences, the two walk us through the traits that define both.

First off, good action scenes are hard. They require a lot of teamwork and the funding to do them (“patience, practice, persistence”). Sam and Niko also argue that the best scenes tend to show everything, from the action to the reaction, in a manner that allows us to actually see what is happening. For example, think of how easy it is to follow the action in an Indiana Jones film. Other films try to hide the action using techniques such as quick cuts or shaky cameras.

As great as a sequence might look, it still needs to accomplish something (the “scene” part in “action scene”), and it must have an emotional anchor. If you don’t care about the characters involved, and the sequence accomplishes nothing, you won’t care, and the action becomes meaningless, and ultimately it becomes boring.

For a great action sequence you need to combine the technical element with a “whole layer of story-telling and kinetic movement.” As they say, “You need to see what’s happening, but just as importantly care who it is happening to.”

Make sure you check the video out to see specific examples to support their arguments, because they used some of the best action sequences in movie history (like Luke and Vader’s fight in The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars scene ever), and some of the lamest (oh, look, massive destruction in San Andreas — yawn).

What do you think is the best action scene in movie history? How about the worst? Blow up our comments section with your best nominees.

Image: Lucasfilm

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