Opening scenes have the power to grab an audience’s attention and drag them deep into an unknown cinematic world. They can be so strange and unexpected that you are left begging for an explanation and a desire to find out more, or they can be big, showy set pieces which tease that the best is yet to come. From iconic monologues to world-building montages, the following are some of the best opening scenes in cinema.
Zack Snyder’s adaptation of Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen received a mixed reception from comic book fans and critics upon its release, but it’s hard to fault the movie’s first five minutes. The savage murder of former superhero the Comedian by a masked assailant in his apartment is an intense opening (and a fairly reverential recreation of the comic’s first few pages) which sets the rest of the story in motion. However, the following title credits serve as an even more intriguing introduction to this dark superhero tale. The opening credits roll over a condensed, slow motion montage of the rise and fall of the masked superhero group ‘The Minutemen’ and takes us all the way from the 1940s up to the assassination of JFK. Set to Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin”, Snyder condenses the rich, alternate-history setting of the comic book and perfectly provides enough backstory to understand the different world of the Watchmen.
9. The Matrix
The opening scene from the Matrix lets you know that you’re about to watch a true game-changer. From the moment the camera whirls around leather-clad hacker Trinity as she leaps in the air and delivers a slick, ‘bullet time’ kung-fu kick to a policeman, the Matrix has already established itself as a movie which is unlike anything that you’ve ever seen before.
8. Enter the Void
Quite simply, there are no other title credits which are as visually-arresting and completely captivating as those to Gasper Noe’s trippy Enter the Void. The movie cycles through names and titles in a mad flurry of arresting techno colours, fonts and symbols until the tempo increases so much that the credits begin pulsating and dancing around the screen with epileptic intensity and manic energy. It’s the perfect way to set the tone for the weird, psychedelic movie which follows.
7. The Dark knight
The opening bank robbery in the Dark Knight is a masterful piece of filmmaking. There are no supervillain theatrics on display (well, maybe a little) as a group of armed men wearing clown masks rob a mob-owned bank in Gotham. The scene feels more like a crime thriller than a superhero movie as the crooks turn on each other one by one under the strict orders of the Joker. It’s an intense opening which builds up anticipation so that the audience doesn’t know what to think – are we expecting Batman to swoop in and save the day? Or is the Joker himself about to burst into the bank? The heist is an intense, clever opening scene which reinforces Christopher Nolan’s gritty world of the Dark Knight while also firmly establishing the myth of his legendary arch nemesis the Joker.
Is there a more ominous opening scene than Jaws? John William’s iconic, foreboding score builds as the camera pans through the depths of the ocean floor and helps create an uneasy feeling that something very bad is lurking in the water. The movie then quickly cuts away to a scene of carefree teens sitting around a campfire at the beach before a man and a woman breakaway from the group and run off to go swimming. As the drunk man struggles to get undressed on the shore, the woman dives straight into the water naked and starts swimming out near a buoy. Shots from below focus on the woman’s kicking legs as she floats in the water but the calm serenity of the scene is quickly broken when she is pulled underwater and then yanked around in a circle by something unseen grabbing her from the depths below. The brutal attack instantly establishes the shark as a deadly, horrific threat and sets the dangerous tone for the rest of the movie.
The opening montage of Up is like a mini-movie in itself. Condensing the touching love story of Carl and Ellie as they meet as young children and grow old together, it is a touching 4 minute tribute to love and marriage. The introduction perfectly captures the joy of their relationship and the intimate routine of their life – a brief montage of Ellie fixing Carl’s tie before work every day says more about love than most romantic movies manage to do in their entire run-time – but it also offers a devastatingly heart-breaking look at the sorrows of love. It’s a masterful opening and a true rollercoaster of emotion, and it lets the audience know that there’s more to the crotchety, geriatric protagonist than first meets the eye.
4. Children of Men
Almost all sci-fi movies have to tackle the problem of ‘world-building’. Establishing a futuristic setting – whether it’s 10 or 1000 years in the future – without relying on exposition or an opening scroll of text can make it difficult to thrust the audience headfirst into a strange new world (although Star Wars deserves a special mention for the bombastic intrigue its opening scrawl creates). The opening scene of Children of Men perfectly introduces the grim, hopeless dystopia of its near future setting. Set in 2027 in a world where nobody can conceive, the movie opens in a cafe as a stunned crowd watches a news channel on television as it announces that the youngest person on the planet has died at the age of 18. Clive Owen’s character enters and leaves with a drink, seemingly not paying much attention to the headline, when a bomb suddenly explodes and destroys the cafe. The title credits appear as a woman staggers out of the blown-out building clutching her own severed arm, and the intense, unforgettable scene feels like a shocking punch to the gut.
3. Touch of Evil
Tracking shots are always a bold creative choice for any filmmaker, but few match the technical skill and masterful suspense of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. A swooping crane camera is used for the opening scene which begins by showing a man planting a bomb in the boot of a car. The undetected stranger rushes off when a driver and passenger get into the vehicle and then the camera tracks over a building and down a busy street to keep up with the car. It again changes perspective and centres on a man and a woman walking together down a busy side street, weaving in and out of busy pedestrian traffic. The car passes both of them as they all stop at the same time at a checkpoint on the U.S/Mexico border, but seconds after the couple walk away the bomb explodes, destroying the car and killing the driver and passenger. The three minute and twenty second shot is an amazing technical achievement but it’s also one that creates unbearable rising tension. The audience eagerly waits for the ticking bomb to completely disrupt the seemingly normal scene, but they just don’t know when it will happen.
The opening ‘Choose life’ speech at the beginning of Trainspotting is one of cinema’s all-time great monologues. Trainspotting opens with Ewan McGregor’s character Renton waxing lyrical about his junkie, non-conformist lifestyle while running down the high street dropping stolen goods as he is chased by security guards. We are then quickly introduced to his band of comrades – Spud, Begbie, Tommy and Sickboy – before we see Renton collapsing on the floor of his dingy flat in a drug-fuelled daze as the voiceover concludes with “who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”. Iggy Pop’s ‘Lust for Life’ blares in the background and in the space of 90 brief seconds the audience feels like they already know these characters and their lifestyles inside out.
1. Once Upon a Time in the West
Few opening scenes are as undeniably cool as Once Upon a Time in the West. There’s a slow, deliberate pace as the movie stylishly introduces three very dangerous looking gunslingers entering a railway station. Without saying a word, the armed men intimidate the guard and lock him in a room before settling down on the platform as they wait for the train to come in. When it comes and departs the station, a steely eyed Charles Bronson stands opposite the men playing a harmonica. He surveys the scene and realises the intentions of his former associates (“Did you bring a horse for me?” “Well looks like we’re shy one horse” “You brought two too many”) before mowing them down with his pistol. It may be 12 minutes long, but this amazingly tense opening scene is a perfect distillation of the skills and craft of Sergio Leone and it displays the raw power of cinema.