Top 10 Movie Opening Sequences

Openings in movies are important. A great opening sequence can generate atmosphere and mood, and gets the audience excited for what’s to come. Essentially, a film’s first scene or title sequence goes a long way towards confirming, and keeping, the audience’s attention, and there have been countless movies which have personally hooked me within the opening minutes. These are the kinds of movies which start perfectly, where immediately, you realise that you are going to love the next two hours. A great amount of credit can be built within five minutes and as such, directors and movie-makers should always look to make their opening sequences as strong as possible.The Lion King opening sceneThere are many different kinds of movie opening sequences, and sometimes these sequences are deceptively simple – little more than music and credits – yet they have a powerful impact. Some are more complicated scenes, some shock the audience, some blow the audience away – either way, the opening is the most direct way to set the tone of what’s to come, and as such, I thought I’d put together my own list of Top 10 Movie Opening Sequences, illustrating what I believe are the strongest cinematic opening sections. These films (there’s actually 11, with a couple of honourable mentions – I cheated) all stand as perfect openers, though all are different and set out to achieve different things. Some of these are literal opening scenes, some opening credits, and some a combination of the two.a clockwork orange opening sceneThis isn’t a definitive list and picking so few was difficult. If there’s anything you feel should be here, feel free to let me know in the comments. Also, as I’m currently (slowly) working through all the Bond movies in my James Bond Retrospective, I’ve decided to leave 007 movies off this list.beauty and the beast opening sceneHonourable Mentions. These didn’t quite make the cut, but I didn’t feel that I could leave them out:

A Clockwork Orange – Kubrick’s dreamy, disorientating and menacing opener – featuring credits on bright, block colour backgrounds and an eerie synthesised score – it instantly sets the style of the movie.

The Lion King – Disney are good with openers, and The Lion King is perhaps the most iconic. The opening seconds in particular – the sunrise, those vocals – are extremely iconic, leading nicely into the Circle of Life and some beautiful animation. It’s a big, bold and regal sequence, and Disney at their most epic.

Beauty and the Beast – Disney on a different scale – we’ve got the haunting opening monologue to iconic stained glass images, scored by the creepy and magical ‘Carnival of Animals’ which perfectly captures the mood. This is followed by a big, classic song number which instantly cements Beauty and the Beast’s status as one of the greatest musicals.

Halloween – A ‘How To’ in horror openings – the orange glow of the pumpkin generates an unsettling and autumnal atmosphere. Then we get the brutal, Touch of Evil inspired POV opening – the scariest moment in the movie with a killer final reveal. It’s the music which makes this work so well however – John Carpenter’s scary, utterly memorable piano score really sells the scene.

Alien – A different kind of opening here – Alien’s first few minutes, where the titles slowly fade into view, is an exercise in building brooding atmosphere and tension. The howling score and restrained movement hints that this is going to be a measured but powerful horror film.

The Terminator, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day – As a child, there was nothing more impressive than these openings. The first movie’s blue and terrifying glimpse into the future, with iconic opening text and fantastic 80s score really sets the dark and mechanical tone. Judgement Day’s opener is basically a bigger and more polished version of the same scene, which says a lot about the movie as a whole, though that’s not criticism. Together, these two openers are brilliant.the terminator opening sceneAnd the list…..

11. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright, 2010)scott pilgrim vs the world opening titlesAltering the studio logo is a great way to make to a movie memorable, and the second I saw Scott Pilgrim’s Universal logo roll out in 8-Bit, I knew that I was going to love the movie. It’s a novel twist on an infamous sequence, one which ties into the movie’s pop culture and 90s gaming references, and instantly appeals to the movie’s cult audience demographic. It’s rare for a film to generate so much good-will from its studio introduction. This is followed by a witty, dialogue focused scene before an impossibly long tracking shot drops into Beck’s kinetic, super-high energy version of The Sex Bob-Ombs signature tune, complete with flashing, epileptic and crazy credits – which were actually suggested to Wright by Tarantino. Also, in a nice touch, each actor’s title card is personalised to their character. We’re thrown in with Knives Chau (mirroring her ‘wow’) and feel like we’re being completely, wonderfully and mentally assaulted by punk music, bright colours, and jittering text. It’s an opening which confirms that the movie is going to be pure fun, Edgar Wright selling Scott Pilgrim within moments with a brilliant, explosive opening sequence. Turn the volume up and check it out:

10. Funny Games (Michael Haneke, 1997)funny games Michael Haneke’s Funny Games is one of the most dividing movies of recent times. Personally, I love it, though it’s difficult to watch – a bold, metathreatical comment on the nature of the thriller genre, cinematic violence, and viewer voyeurism – Funny Games is an art-house version of Scream essentially, replacing knowing wit with academic discussion and setting out to make the audience extremely uncomfortable. Haneke manages to set tone from the start; we begin with a tranquil and pleasant sequence – a young family driving whilst listening to classical music – it’s a peaceful, if ominous scene; the overhead camera is striking visually, making the viewer aware of their own presence, and then suddenly, the classical switches to loud, violent metal, and the titles are literally slapped onto the screen whilst the family grin on unaware. We’re instantly given a sense of the family’s frailty, their vulnerability in the middle of nowhere, and primarily, the fact that they are really just players in a genre piece, players who don’t know their role. That’s where Funny Games differs to Scream. In Scream, everyone is in on the joke. In Funny Games, only the killers, audience and director are – which is partly what makes it so hard to watch. We get all of this within the first few moments.

9. Scream (Wes Craven, 1996)scream opening sceneThe opening of Scream is a classic – instantly memorable, and iconic, it’s one of the best in horror, and probably the defining moment of Wes Craven’s career. There’s a lot going on in this scene, and though only 12 minutes long, it leaves a huge impact. Scream is actually one of the smartest movies of recent times, a post-modern breakdown of the slasher genre which works on audience expectations and metatheatricality – the opening sums this up, with a discussion of horror films, including a life-or-death quiz on movie trivia, and of course, the calling out of the tropes – ‘You should never say “who’s there?” Don’t you watch scary movies?’ which basically sets the self-aware tone for the rest of the film – as do references to things like ‘the Mckenzies,’ a Halloween nod. The opening subverts audience expectations by killing off Drew Barrymore, Scream’s biggest name, a clever twist which is actually a reference to Janet Leigh’s death in Psycho – it says a lot for the scene’s memorability that this is probably the defining moment of Drew Barrymore’s long career. Whilst being clever, tongue in cheek and rife with black humour, the opening manages to be scary too. This is an extremely powerful scene – one which for the first time, introduced audience’s to the threat of the cell-phone (the killer could be anywhere) a modern twist on the ‘calls are coming from inside the house!’ tale, which combines with the knowing ‘middle of nowhere’ setting and the house’s big, black windows to create a terrifying feeling of danger and insecurity. Barrymore’s breakdown is brutal and the scene becomes increasingly intense as it progresses.

8. Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)raider of the lost ark opening sceneSpielberg’s thrill-ride throwback to 30s TV serials opens exactly as it should – we come in mid-adventure with Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones deep in the Peruvian jungle – the set up is designed to recall the old TV shows which inspired the movie, the idea being we’re tuning in mid-episode. It’s a clever twist which allows Spielberg to pull out all the stops at the start, crafting a mini-movie with wonderful atmosphere and of course, hugely impressive action scenes and stunts. There’s an element of the James Bond opening sequence here, though Raiders’ beginning is perhaps more iconic, with almost every section of it – the idol, the rolling boulder – later being parodied a thousand times in popular culture. Indy’s intro is hugely iconic too, and we’re introduced to everything we need to know about both the character and the series within the first ten minutes or so. This is Spielberg at his most fun, and the sheer passion and enthusiasm the director has for the material sets up an escalating sequence of events, the highlight coming towards the end when John William’s climatic and soaring theme tune kicks in. Indiana Jones movies are known for their strong, Bond-like openings – and this is by far the best.

7. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)the shining opening sceneHorror movies generally do well with opening sequences. The combination of music and image can set the mood. I’ve talked about The Shining a fair few times on Some Films and Stuff. It’s one of my favourite movies and one with a lot to offer. The opening however stands as as perhaps the best in all of horror, and a fantastic example of a relatively simple scene generating a tremendous atmosphere; it’s essentially following Jack Torrence’s car through the winding, ominous and imposing Rocky Mountains, with a terrifying an iconic score – Wendy Carlos’s version of Berlioz’ ‘Dies Irae’ – on top. The swooping, helicopter mounted wide-angle lens-camera gives a distorted and sublime view of the mountains, and highlights the frailty of the small car in comparison. The credits roll up in reverse too, which subverts what the audience would expect and creates an unnerving, uncanny tone. The beautiful, haunting shots of the mountains combine with the music, which becomes an increasingly intense cacophony of wails, moans and chants – easily one of the most atmospheric combinations of sound and image ever put on screen. I can’t think of any other movie which suggests so greatly that terrible things are going to happen, or which manages to generate such a sense of dread from the outset. When we finally reach the Overlook, it’s almost a relief.

6. Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone, 1968)once upon a time in the west opening sceneIt was a tie between this and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Ugly’s opening is fantastic, fun, and bright, with the benefit of Ennio Morricone’s incredibly rousing score, which really gets the audience involved. As I thought about it more, it seemed that Once Upon a Time in the West was the movie which deserved sixth place. Leone’s sad, epic and brilliant love-letter to the genre he solidified opens with an extremely lengthy (around eleven minutes) dialogue free scene which is scored by natural noises – trains running, flies buzzing, boots walking – and ends in a sudden burst of brutal violence. Leone was always more interested in the rituals which precede violence than the violence itself, and this is perhaps best summarised in this scene, which perhaps, along with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s graveyard duel, best summarizes Leone’s entire filmography. The opening here is technically a huge achievement and very bold, which reflects the measured and mature tone of the film. This is the last great epic of the spaghetti genre and a masterpiece of style – the audience get that impression from the start.

5. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)pulp fiction opening sceneTarantino is a director with old school influences – hence the focus, in all of his movies, on the opening titles. Borrowing from the likes of Leone, Tarantino crafts lengthy, music driven title sequences which set the mood for what’s to follow. Almost all of them are incredible – the slow-mo walk to ‘Little Green Bag’ in Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown’s slow and soulful ‘Across 110th Street’ airport crawl, Kill Bill’s brutal Nancy Sinatra/bullet to the Bride combo, and of course, Inglorious Basterds 20 minutes of Leone homage. Each opening succeeds in introducing the movie’s style and getting the audience worked up. It’s perhaps Pulp Fiction’s beginning that best sums up Tarantino’s style however. An undisputed post-modern classic, Pulp Fiction begins with a tight and natural dialogue scene between Tim Roth and Amanda Plummer which moves slowly from romantic discussion to armed robbery. In true Tarantino style, the dialogue is spot on, and the gradual switch of gears brilliant. We’re then given the frantic, surf-heavy titles to Misirlou – the opening pull back on ‘Pulp Fiction’ iconic in its own right, this is a brilliant, epic opener with a lot of confidence and energy. It’s a great example of a classic opening scene combining with great opening credits; the kind of credits you don’t want to end, they’re that enjoyable. Five minutes into Pulp Fiction and you’re hooked on Tarantino for life.

4. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975)jaws opening scene Jaws was my favourite film as a child, and I watched it on a weekly basis. As such, it’s a movie I know almost off by heart – every line of dialogue, every musical note and sting. Yet even though it’s something I’ve seen hundreds of times before, the opening remains a highly effective piece of suspense cinema. We begin with darkness, and eerie, echoing sounds – we’re given a sense of the sea’s great expanse, and then in comes John William’s deceptively simple and iconic score. It goes without saying that the Jaws theme is one of the best movie themes of all time, and its first introduction here is initially haunting, though the tone gives way to panic as we zoom along the sea floor and the beat steps up. The opening, featuring young female swimmer Chrissie, isn’t so much scary as it is suspenseful and disturbing; the scene begins with a dreamy, tranquil tone underpinned by an air of upcoming menace; shots looking up at the girl from below the water are unnerving, and a great deal of tension is built before the attack actually comes. For a PG rated movie, the opening attack is surprisingly intense, and you’re given a great sense of something unseen, huge, and terrifying lurking beneath the waves. It’s an iconic opening and very memorable, one of the highpoints in thriller cinema.

3. Star Wars IV (George Lucas, 1977)a long time ago in a galaxy far far awayThe Star Wars opening is the most iconic cinematic opening of all time;’ instantly recognisable, everything about the opening has become integrated into popular culture. ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’ stands as one of the most quoted cinematic lines, and serves to introduce the film’s fantasy feel. Star Wars has more in common with fantasy than sci-fi and we get that impression through a simple line. The musical explosion which follows, and the drawback on ‘Star Wars’ itself – is a powerful combination of text and sound which has an outstanding effect. John William’s Star Wars theme (the composer’s third appearance on this list) is possibly his best; grand and operatic, it sets an epic, adventurous tone for what’s to come. The crawl itself, and the fact that we begin mid-adventure (at a time when the prequels didn’t exist) reflects the TV serial influence, similar to Indiana Jones above. Few other movie opening sequences are this instantly recognisable within popular culture.

2. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)apocalypse now opening scene Apocalypse Now has a perfect opening. A slow, dreamy fade into Vietnamese palm trees, which explode in a curtain of fiery napalm as The Doors’ ‘This is the End’ plays over the top. It’s the perfect combination of image and sound, Jim Morrison’s voice playing into the movie’s trippy, psychedelic nature, whilst his lyrics, when paired with exploding trees, captures the real sense of war’s futility, finality, and destructive elements. Coppola’s epic war tale can be seen as a comment on the end of days, or at least, the break down of all civilised society on the backdrop of one of the world’s worst and most useless wars. It’s a huge movie, impossible to comprehend, one which blows the audience away and leaves them dazed and broken, and the opening sequence – shots of trees burning inter-cut with Michael Sheen’s lost face and chopping helicopter blades – sums up not just the entire Vietnam war, but the nature of war in general. It’s a powerful scene which draws the audience in for a long ride. The first time I saw this during a cinema re-release I was utterly taken back – probably the single strongest moment I’ve had in a cinema screen. Sadly, there’s no clips on Youtube. So here’s The Doors on their own:

1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)2001 a space odyssey opening sceneThis basically sums up all openings in the history of cinema. Kubrick’s 2001 is a powerhouse of a movie, an absolutely stunning piece of cinema dealing with huge themes – human evolution, the nature of man and the world, space and the next level – and we’re given all of this within the opening section. Crucially, the movie opens with darkness and silence. This lasts a long time – to the point where if watching on DVD, you’d be forgiven for thinking the film is broken. Then comes in a hum, a building dreadful noise, one of the scariest in all of cinema. It’s an overture on the birth of man, and stunning to listen to. This is followed by the infamous planets and of course, ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ – easily the most oft-imitated and parodied piece of film in all of popular culture. Even people who have never seen 2001 associate that music with it. It’s a blinding, bold opening – Kubrick’s measured pace, epic visuals and powerful use of music combining to set the philosophical and huge tone of what’s to follow. It doesn’t get better than this:

And there’s my Top 10 Movie Opening Sequences. Feel free to let me know in the comments what you agree with, and what you feel I missed out.

6 thoughts on “Top 10 Movie Opening Sequences

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