Opening a film in a great way isn’t always the toughest thing to do in filmmaking, you can even argue that it’s not even the most important thing, many directors like their story to unfold slowly.
It’s not always necessary to grab audiences’ throats from the very beginning, what an opening scene should do is giving the viewer a sense of the film, both aesthetics-wise and story-wise. The 20 openings we selected are not the most intense or breathtaking openings of all time, but they definitely succeeded in setting the tone for the rest of the film in a cinematic way. We will try to explain why these 20 openings are the greatest in terms of filmmaking.
Our criteria for an “opening scene” are as follows:
1. We did not include pure opening credits scenes, like all the fancy James Bond openings, but opening scenes with credits pop up on the screen are allowed here.
2. We did not include scenes that take place very early but do not open the film, like the Omaha beach scene in Saving Private Ryan or the opening chase scene in Raiders of the Ark.
3. Sometimes the opening is so long, they are not necessarily “scenes” anymore, you can also call them “opening sequences”. These are two different terms, but they are interchangeable here.
Without further ado, let’s have a look at our selections of the 20 greatest opening scenes of all time.
Probably one of the most underrated opening long takes in cinema history. This amazing scene opens from the killer’s point-of-view, we know it from the very beginning that someone in the house will be killed very soon. We follow the killer into the house, upstairs, to the girl’s bedroom, then it’s the killing. What will surprise us is when the killer walks out of the house and is unmasked by his father, it’s just a kid!
Halloween remains one of the greatest horror films of all time. The brilliant direction by John Carpenter is what sets this apart from most of the other horror movies. This opening scene is both imaginative and well-crafted in terms of filmmaking, it sends the chills to our spines without even showing the killer. It’s not a showy opening of long take technique, it sets the narrative foundation for the rest of the film very well.
Three years after, another great horror director Tobe Hoopper paid direct homage to this classic opening in his carnival horror movie The Funhouse, seek that out and you will not be regretted.
19. Star Wars IV: A New Hope
Remember the first time you (especially for those who watched it on the big screen) ever watched this sci-fi classic? A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Then bang, cues the wonderful and exciting space music composed by John Williams, the yellow texts starts to crawl backwards.
But this is not the opening scene yet, what follows to that opening scrawl is a spacecraft chased by a looong spaceship, it’s so long that our jaws nearly drop. Then the camera cuts to the inside of the spaceship, it’s a laser gun fight, then comes the iconic entrance of Darth Vader, one of the greatest villains in movie history.
Star Wars was the big thing that year. It became the most grossing movie in the box office and won several Oscars, it’s even nominated for the Best Picture. As a sci-fi film, that is a big achievement. Sci-fi films before this are quite profound, like Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but Star Wars is a different thing. It excites us from the get-go, and whenever we watch this classic again, the opening crawl with John Williams’ score, or the chase still makes us jump up from the seat.
18. Aguirre: Wrath of God
There is no plot in the opening scene of this Werner Herzog’s masterpiece. First it’s a bird’s eye view shot of mysterious mountains, then we see a long line of ant-sized people climbing steep steps. The camera pulls closer, we see there are soldiers, princesses, a priest and the animals they carry for food. They shot this from different angles, sometime it makes you wonder how they took these shots since there’s not enough room even for the actors.
The spectacular opening scene just shows the beginning of this crazy expedition into the Peruvian rainforest. It drew a big question mark in the audiences’ heads, what are those people? Why are they in the middle of this vast and dangerous place? What are they searching for? If the sole purpose of a movie opening is to pave the way for the narrative story and evoke people’s curiosity to find out what will happen next, then this opening scene of Aguirre clearly did exactly that.
17. A Clockwork Orange
The music comes in first, it’s quite unsettling. Then it’s the close-up of a twenty-something staring at the camera with evil looks. The camera zooms back, we see Alex and his other three droogs drinking milk with their feet on naked women models. The camera keeps zooming back, enabling us to see the whole look of the Korova Milk Bar.
This opening scene perfectly sets the tone for the film, it’s a typical metaphor of innocents being consumed by evil. The music is an electronic version of the Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary by Wendy Carlos. It’s brilliantly used here as it brings a kind of spooky feeling that foreshadows the evil crimes Alex and his droogs are going to commit in the rest of the film.
Malcolm McDowell caught our attention at the very beginning of this film, the image becomes the most iconic name card of the 1970s cinema. The set design is amazing, all the nude women models with wigs, the light bulbs, and the wicked words on the walls give us a sense of decadent future scope. This is how a master of cinema opens one of his most famous films.
Christopher Nolan is the master of non-linear storytelling. In his career breakout film, Nolan shot this opening scene in reverse order, but we didn’t realize this in the first shots of the photo. We couldn’t identify what is on the photo, it starts to fade, making the plotline more obscure. It only makes sense when we realize the photo is taken by the man and all shots before are taken backwards.
But then there is the shooting, now we have the second clue of the photo, what’s on it is the scene of crime. More questions come, why does the man shoot the guy? Why taking photos? The opening of Memento is a game of revealing the truth and asking more questions about truth, Nolan knows exactly how to manipulate the audiences with his well-designed narratives. It’s only the beginning, the story follows is only more puzzling than this.
15. Reservoir Dogs
We see a bunch of guys sitting around a dinner table talking about the actual meaning of Madonna’s hit song “Like a Virgin”, and the obligations of tipping a restaurant waitress. They are dressed in white shirt and black ties, unlike the silent gangsters in the Jean Pierre Melville films, they talk, and talk a lot. The topics are totally irrelevant to their business or heist plans, but we enjoy them and expect more.
Welcome to the cinematic world of Quentin Tarantino. From this very beginning of his early career, we can spot his talent in screenplay writings and filmmaking. The dialogues are interesting, the pop culture reference is cool, the characterization is built by how they talk and behave. The camera rotates 360 degrees around the table, putting us right in the middle of the conversation. We already feel kind of liking these guys and can’t wait to see what will happen next.