Greatest slow motion moments in cinematic history

Since it was first invented by Austrian priest August Musger in 1904, slow motion has been a key filmmaking technique. Sure, it can get silly when overused or applied inappropriately. But a canny director will know exactly how to apply it to accentuate a dramatic scene or slow down the action long enough for the viewer to figure out exactly what's going on. We're skipping some of the more obvious or well-known examples of the technique, such as the famous "bullet time" of The Matrix that was copied in films like 300 and Sherlock Holmes, and digging a little deeper to explore the ways slow motion can accentuate more than just fight scenes.

Carrie

Brian De Palma's classic 1976 adaptation of the Stephen King novel remains unequaled despite the occasional unnecessary attempt to remake a movie that was perfectly good the first time around. He utilized slow motion in the opening locker room sequence, to lull the audience into a false sense of security via sexualized voyeurism—which takes a sudden turn into the horrific when Carrie discovers she's having her first period and thinks she's sick or dying, having never been educated about menstruation by her overbearing mother. Her cries for help are mocked cruelly by her peers, and as she lies humiliated on the shower floor, we see the first glimpse of her telekinetic power in an exploding bulb.

In many ways, this scene is a parallel to the climax, when Carrie is crowned the prom queen. Slow motion gives the scene its emotional resonance, appropriate for the heightened feelings and sense of significance in the world of high school. In what would have been only a few seconds of real time, we dwell on Carrie's long moment of pride and happiness, the leering anticipation of those who scheme against her, the mounting suspicion of her friend Sue, the fall of the bucket of pigs' blood, and finally Carrie's confusion and humiliation as she looks over the sea of mocking, laughing faces. For Carrie, this is the moment of true horror—a moment De Palma executes perfectly.

Then, of course, time catches up with us as Carrie unleashes her telekinetic revenge upon those who tormented her, portrayed by De Palma with the now little-used split-screen technique and sharp, almost reptilian reaction shots of actress Sissy Spacek. This wonderful contrast gives us the visceral feeling the game has changed, and so it has. What would have been a completely discombobulating scene overall if shot in real time is instead allowed to linger, for the audience to truly understand Carrie and her desire to kill them all. We get it.

Watchmen

Zack Snyder is as notorious for his slow motion shots as J.J. Abrams is for his lens flare, and it does get a bit gratuitous as times. Snyder was aware enough of his overuse of the technique that he eschewed it almost entirely in Man of Steel, but was back to his old tricks soon enough with Batman v Superman. He's long been enamored with the technique known as speed ramping, in which the camera speed goes slow, then fast, then slow again. Undoubtedly cool when he first started using it, its also extremely recognizable and now inevitably prompts eye-rolling from those who've seen enough of it. Snyder uses slow motion to great effect occasionally, but it uses it so often and for so many different types of scenes there's precious little sense of consistency; you're left with the impression the man just likes slow motion because it makes things look cool.

Still, there's one use of slow motion by Snyder we think was incredibly appropriate, and it may not be what you think. While slow motion showed up plenty in Watchmen, it was to be expected from Synder in the action sequences—and used with aplomb for world-building in the intro. But it's the slow motion used in the scene of the Comedian's murder that's most significant. While the film scene was much more elaborate and superhero-y than in the original comic, the lingering death shot as the Comedian is tossed out of the window is an appropriate reflection of the significance the scene had as a large panel illustration in the graphic novel. This murder was the catalyst for everything that was to come in the graphic novel's universe; the central moment around which the narrative was spun. Heck, the event was so important it even leaked out into other comic book universes. All of which is to say in the movie, it had narrative weight and wasn't merely a stylistic flourish. It was well done, and deserves a nod.

But if you think we're going to talk about Sucker Punch, forget it. The less said, the better.

Bonnie and Clyde

One of the most influential slow motion scenes in film history comes during Arthur Penn's 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, in which the eponymous antiheroes are cut down in an ambush by law enforcement. Penn opted to film the bloody end to the protagonists in slow motion to instill a balletic quality to their deaths, something little seen to that point but frequently imitated afterwards. Penn and his crew captured the scene on four different cameras running at different speeds, and used rapid cutting in the editing room to create a dreamlike but realistic sequence in which time becomes elastic. This was perhaps the first use of a combination of slow motion, multi-camera filming, and montage editing by an American director.

The results speak for themselves, creating a shocking montage of emotions: suspicion, confusion, obliviousness, realization and horror, followed by violent death and a slow lingering over the aftermath. Some reviewers have noted the romantic or even erotic undertones in the violence, an aspect which managed to fly under the radar of the day's moral police. Penn would go on to say the scene was influenced by media reports and images of the Vietnam War, and a desire to create "this kind of spastic motion of genuine violence, and at the same time, the attenuation of time that one experiences when you see something, like a terrible automobile accident."

Sure, there's a lot more going on in the scene than just slow motion. The direction, acting, editing and (for the time) advanced special effects all played a role. All these elements flowed together to create a scene that would influence American cinema for decades to come.

The Boondock Saints

To say Boondock Saints is divisive is an understatement. There are those who consider the movie a life-changing cult classic they display proudly next to their Tarantinos and Kubricks. Others see it as a demented mess created by an egomaniac director who got lucky. Some proudly admit it's both—a terrible film they manage to enjoy anyway. Despite being a miserable failure at the box office and almost universally reviled by critics, it made millions in video and DVD sales as a cult classic. How can we explain this?

Perhaps the single biggest point in favor for the film is the frenetic, bewildering performance of William Dafoe as the flamboyant FBI agent who has a pretenatural ability to reconstruct crimes to the tune of classical music. Sure, he relentlessly chews every scene he's in. Sure, he plays a character so bizarrely stereotypical he manages to come out the other side as completely idiosyncratic. But it works. And this can be best seen in the scene oft referred to by the line "There was a firefight!"

The slow motion is completely gratuitous and dumb. And yet paired with Dafoe's narrative cadence and deranged dancing, and the orchestral score, the scene takes on an almost beautiful, folklorish quality. Is it dumb, and is the slow motion unnecessary? Yes, and probably. But it'll live through the ages.

Killing Them Softly

Assassinations are best shown slow. In reality, death is often sudden, shocking and almost anticlimactic, but in the world of film we can dwell upon the event in slow time. In Killing Them Softly, Brad Pitt's character stages a drive-by shooting against hapless and oft ill-fated Ray Liotta. The film takes a few seconds of chaos and death and stretches them out into an artful and oddly beautiful death scene, with a musical score chosen for appropriate pathos and irony. To top it all off, it ends with a car accident.

It pays to contrast this scene with another slow motion assassination example, the far goofier and stylized slaying of Morgan Freeman in Wanted. The scene raises a few questions. Namely, who eats a donut so awkwardly? Why does Chris Pratt already look horrified at the can of Power Horse energy drink in his hand before the bullet even passes through it? Be that as it may, it just goes to show that if you're going to have a sudden death onscreen, sometimes it pays to put it in slow motion.

Inception

While slow motion is often used to build tension or create beauty in action films, Inception is one of the few examples where it actually has an in-universe justification to go along with the meta explanation of "It just looks cool." One of the key plot points in the film is the aspect of time dilation between levels of the dream world, with each layer down operating 20 times faster than the one above. This is most obvious in the scene which flashes between the unconscious dream operatives in a van crashing into the water while Joseph Gordon-Levitt fights assassins in a hallway and the rest of the team escapes a snow fortress. The use of slow motion, and extreme slow motion, is justified not only by the style but also the substance of the story, a rare treat. It was no easy feat, either: the van's slow descent took months of filming which involved the actors breathing underwater through SCUBA gear and maintaining composure while sinking into the water, as well as shooting the van off the bridge with a cannon.

Inception came out in a period when slow motion was almost overused in the post-Matrix, early Snyder world. It's a testament to Nolan's mastery that he was able to use such a faddish technique and elevate it by having the effect serve the narrative rather than the other way around. In an interview with KCRW (at the 12:40 mark), Nolan admitted to having never really used slow motion before, as it seemed a purely aesthetic choice and he couldn't figure out what it really meant. With Inception, he found a way of taking editing techniques he enjoyed and incorporating them as a literal part of the story universe.

Panic Room

David Fincher isn't a director who likes to over-indulge in slow motion, but he used it with panache in Panic Room. In this scene, Meg Altman leaves the safety of her panic room to make a dash to grab her cellphone while her would-be abductors are bickering downstairs. The scene is shot in slow motion with a minimalist musical score, both of which flow together to paradoxically enhance the feeling of urgency and danger. In a situation like that, it would seem so hard to move fast enough, and seeing Meg's desperation in slow motion like she's fighting through danger as it lurks nearby ratchets up the tension and suspense..

Shot in real time, you would expect this scene to feature a lot of quick cuts and a frenetic score. Fincher's choice to go slow helps the audience absorb the nuance and detail of the scene and feel ever more keenly her panicked fear. Which is exactly what you want in a thriller, really.

Zombieland

Setting the rules for a zombie universe or a horror comedy is important, so you may as well do it with some style. Ruben Fleischer, a first time film director when he directed Zombieland, was thrilled by this scene as a montage in the script and hoped to visually develop it further. Luckily, the production had access to a Phantom digital camera able to capture 1000 frames per second. The slow motion allowed the production to give the death and gore a kind of beauty along with the world-building, making it one of the more entertaining opening credit sequences. The use of Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" works so well it's uncanny.

It's easy to be skeptical of a director like Fleischer with his history in music videos, and the sequence could be seen as overly stylized. But it packs a punch and helps to set the tone for the rest of the movie, which can never be accused of taking itself too seriously.

Baby carriage scenes

There's nothing quite like a baby carriage falling down a flight of stairs to create the feeling of "oh God, no!" that slow motion is best applied to. So when our old friend Brian De Palma employed it in his 1986 film The Untouchables, it made perfect sense. Mobsters shooting each other up in the middle of Union Station while a baby pram teeters toward doom is a no-brainer for the slo-mo treatment, and when combined with De Palma's unerring eye for tension and precise camerawork and editing, it becomes an instant classic.

There's more to the story, though. The inspiration for the scene was undoubtedly the 1927 Soviet film The Battleship Potemkin. There, director Sergei Eisenstein didn't actually use slow motion but rather a series of rapid cuts away from the wheel of the baby carriage teetering over the edge of the step, fooling the viewer into thinking the scene is happening at half-speed. The scene would be played for laughs in Naked Gun 33 1/3, when Leslie Nielsen fails to save four baby carriages toppling down the stairs.

It just goes to show you: whether you're making Soviet propaganda, a gritty crime drama, or an absurd satire, if you push a baby down the stairs you have to show it slowly.

So many Wes Anderson films

Wes Anderson has a highly distinctive style notable for quirky themes, recurring cast members, symmetrical and POV shots, retro soundtracks, and fearless exploration of the color palette. Slow motion is a technique Anderson's returned to repeatedly, particularly in scenes where his characters are walking. This gives Anderson as director great control and precision over the scene, and imparts emotional depth and pathos. In the hands of a lesser director, it would be corny, but Anderson makes it his thing.

Anderson often uses slow motion to indicate a change in a character's mindset or perspective, as in the funeral scene in The Darjeeling Limited or the meeting of siblings Richie and Margot in The Royal Tenenbaums. The use of slow motion to deepen poignancy is deliberate and controlled, and in Anderson's hands it's memorably successful. His understanding of the rhythm of scenes helps him make use of slow motion with great care, so as not to eject the viewer out of the film. In fact, he often uses it at the beginning or end of his films, to allow the audience to release emotional tension and signify a closure or character development.

As a fun added bonus, you can take Anderson's slow motion scenes, set them to a soundtrack of Ja Rule, and it works. That's an achievement.