The “Whoa…” Moment

February 7, 2012 — 37 Comments

One of the greatest pleasures of moviegoing is the “Whoa…” moment. It’s that point in a movie where something so amazing happens your jaw drops to the floor and your brain momentarily ceases all rational function. Sometimes it comes about because of some incredible plot twist, though that’s quite rare. Usually it’s the product of an incredible image, often aided by special effects, that stretches the definition of awe and cool. But how do these moments come about, and has the proliferation of CGI killed off the “Whoa…” moment?

Let me answer those questions in reverse order. No, CGI has killed nothing. That’s because visual effects alone do not a “Whoa…” moment make. Such moments have always been a rarity. Having your mind blown by what you see on screen usually comes down to a sense of the achievement behind the camera which sells a new idea of reality on screen. One of the best examples in the history of cinema is this scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park:

The CGI doesn’t even look that amazing these days. It holds up well enough, but only well enough. Yet, after all these years, the moment I see those dinosaurs I get goosebumps. The technical feat was impressive for its time, but somehow knowing its an effect only adds to the brilliance of the moment. That’s because it’s not just the effect itself, it’s the idea of the effect. The build-up. The pay-off. The image of dinosaurs in modern times. It all comes together and the illusion is sold in my heart even when my head tells me it’s not real.

But there is some truth to the notion that CGI effects have become too easy. I never get goosebumps watching Transformers. Sure, the big damn robots are cool, and I admire the effects work, but it all ends up feeling like a cheat. Like somebody just drew a cartoon. Of course that building in Transformers 3 falls over, it’s CGI! Practical effects have an advantage in this regard. There hasn’t been a better “Whoa…” moment in the last decade than this scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight:

There’s just no getting around how damn cool that scene is. He flips a fucking truck! A real truck! He flips it!!! Holy shit. The prologue to The Dark Knight Rises that was featured at IMAX presentations of Mission: Impossible 4 had similar epic scale practical effects that are completely mind-blowing. Oh, and that Dubai sequence in Mission: Impossible 4? Same deal. Sure, they digitally removed cables and wires, but at the end of the day, you’ve got a camera looking out over the the tallest building in the world with Tom “Crazy SOB” Cruise hanging off the side. “Whoa…”

Computer effects can still be mind-blowing, though. Take, for example, the shot in The Matrix when the helicopter crashes into the building creating a shockwave of glass. It’s just so damn cool. Even fully animated can do it. The single take chase sequence in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin was absolutely insane. It can’t even be discounted by the fact that it’s animated. The sheer choreography of it is near-impossible to process. It’s phenomenal.

These kinds of scenes are what made me fall in love with movies to begin with. These are the moments where illusion becomes reality and my brain cracks. The only proper response is “Whoa…”

What are your favourite “Whoa…” moments in cinema? Are there older films that still do it for you? Are you completely unimpressed by CGI?


37 responses to The “Whoa…” Moment


    The first moment that comes to mind is the one in Synechdoche, New York where PSH and a co-star watch their doubles reenact a funeral scene, mixing the visually incredible and magical with the emotional. Same goes for Casablanca, where there are two whoa moments.


    Inception for sure, I’m always blown away by the slow motion cafe scene and the stuff with the mirrors… That’s definitely the first thing that comes to mind. Interesting topic for a post!


      Inception has so many moments. Even stuff like the ending when it all comes together and the van finally crashes. Seeing Ellen Page wake up in each dream layer. It’s amazing.


    I tend toward my “whoa” moments being during reveals like Usual Suspects and Memento, but I have to agree with your moments. Love the post!


      Yeah, plot twists are tricky. I’d already been spoiled about The Usual Suspects, so that one didn’t get me. The twins reveal at the end of The Prestige did it for me, though. And actually, whenever I rewatch that movie I just sit there in complete awe of how well constructed it is.


    “your brain momentarily seizes all rational function”

    All your rational function are belong to us. I think you mean ceases.

    Anyway, like Laura, Inception is definitely one for me, but with the rotating hallway/zero-g stuff. I knew when watching it basically how it is done (as confirmed by the special features) but it is still stunning. And the similar dance from Royal Wedding is the same thing. Like you say, knowing the trick doesn’t necessarily make it less effective. A good magician can pull off a trick even if you know how it works because your brain wants to trust your senses over your more logical sections.

    A few more would be the Children of Men car sequence, Irreversible’s “fire extinguisher” scene, the Ink “undo” during the early fight scene, even the Modern Times roller skating scene.


      Haha, I actually started off that sentence meaning to write “your brain seizes up” but then changed my mind without paying attention to spelling. FIXED!

      Children of Men is a great example. And yeah, that Modern Times sequence still blows my mind every time I watch it. HOW THE HELL DID HE DO THAT? It’s pure physical daring (or at least, it looks like it), and sometimes that’s all you need.


    The last big “whoa” moment for me was that entire Creation sequence in The Tree of Life. The effects alone along with the sense of grandeur and Preisner’s music accompanying all of that. It felt completely out of this world for me. The big surprise I learned that most of it weren’t computer effects but old-school work by Douglas Trumbal. How he and Dan Glass got overlooked for the Oscars for that work alone is just fucking insulting.


      That sequence was beautiful to look at, but weirdly I wasn’t that in awe of anything in Tree of Life. Sometimes all it takes is simple images of nature, though. For example, I find a lot of the Planet Earth series pretty mind-blowing. Especially the time-lapse stuff.


    For me the biggest whoa moments usually come from unexpected storytelling or interesting stylistic choices.

    Of course, I’m also a sucker for crazy stunts. My biggest whoa moment, stunt-wise, from the past decade was the Zoe-Bell-strapped-to-the-hood-of-the-Challenger car chase from Death Proof. My jaw definitely dropped on that one.


    The hallway fight scene in Inception comes to mind instantly. Other “whoa” moments for me include:

    -The hallway hammer fight in Oldboy
    -The shootout on the streets of downtown LA in Heat.
    -The crazy tracking shot at the end of Children of Men (car scene is a close second)
    -Zoe Bell hanging on the hood of the car in Death Proof
    -The hospital shootout in Hard Boiled
    -The opening battle scene in Saving Private Ryan


    Great entry!

    I’m gonna be a little old school and say that The Wizard of Oz is a pretty big “woah” moment movie. When Dorothy opens the door and it goes from sepia to Technicolor, I bet that was a huge shock to audiences back then!


      I didn’t think of that at all, I guess because by the time we ever saw it colour was completely normal. But you’re right. That must have caused people to freak out. I can’t even think of a transition between technologies that could ever match it.

      I did gasp whenever the IMAX presentation of The Dark Knight switched from 35mm blow-ups to native full-frame IMAX footage. Going from widescreen letterboxed grainy image to super sharp huge screen. Even those establishing shots flying over Gotham (Chicago) took my breath away in IMAX. By the time I saw Mission: Impossible 4 in IMAX that transition effect wasn’t quite as impressively striking.


    The helicopter crash in The Matrix is cool, but for me, the real “whoa” moment in that film is the first instance of bullet time, when it seems like time freezes and the camera spins around the action and changes point of view with time frozen. That moment, for me, was worth the price of admission.


      It’s funny, I was late in seeing The Matrix. Only saw it about a year later on DVD. Because of that I was already totally exposed to the bullet time stuff. It’s totally thrilling, but it didn’t blow me away. For me it was always the lobby shootout, the helicopter into building and also the badass “dodge this” moment.


    Can’t think of any at the moment, but I think there are still enough “Whoa” moments in modern cinema, but older movies still can do that for me as well.


      I think the shot from Gone With the Wind pulling out to reveal the thousands of casualties is a crazy moment from an older film. It shocks me every time.


        That’s a very good one indeed. I had the same reaction! Also have that feeling with other shots with big crowds in older movies. CGI crowds can’t beat those!


          Oh god, yeah. Any of those epics with huge crowd shots. Lawrence of Arabia is like one scene after another of amazing images that also make your jaw drop in terms of the scale of the production. Also, Ben-Hur. That chariot race is just so incredible, and made even more amazing by the fact that it was all done without visual effects. All practical, on-set stuff.


            I’m currently watching this documentary by Martin Scorcese where he goes through the history of film and there is some very interesting stuff there as well. It’s a long documentary, so it will be a while before my review of it will be up.


    The opening shot of Werkmesiter Harmonies. Magnificent.

    Also, most of Play Time. Amazing how much is going on at any given moment.


    The biggest whoa moment for me in any movie that I ever saw in a theater..was “Obi Wan never told you what happened to your father, Luke I am your father” I mean it is so normal now and almost silly to bring up, but at the time…whoa. That sure made my 9 year old head spin in and jaw drop.


    Paraphrasing the old saying about alcohol–CGI is a wonderful servant, but a terrible master. I love what can be accomplished with computer-generated effects, but plot (and other good elements!) suffer when the effects become all-important. For me, the biggest ‘Whoa… Moments” (which is a really lovely term, btw) in films have had nothing to do with FX.


      What would be your biggest Whoa Moments that don’t include FX?

      Actually, I had a Who Moment yesterday when I went to see Prometheus in AV/X 3D. The opening series of shots flying over the landscape of Iceland caused me to literally gasp, and I wasn’t the only one. Several people in the audience were gasping at how amazing those shots looked in 3D.


    A bit late to the comment party, but anyway. I almost instantly thought of the scene in The Prestige where all the light bulbs turn on without any electricity, everytime I watch that I just stare at the screen, no thought through my head.

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