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They say that you only get one chance to make a first impression, and it’s no different for films. The opening scene can make or break a movie; have a great one and the rest of the movie almost doesn’t matter, have a really great one and you are well on your way to an all-time classic.
It doesn’t have to be a scene that is filled with intense action, though some of the best are. It can be funny or sad, or even ask a lot of questions, but it has to be memorable. It has to be the kind of scene that grabs you immediately and sucks you into the movie.
In today’s media-filled world with a million distractions, if a film has a forgettable opening scene, or if it doesn’t immediately grab viewers, it might as well give up, it could lose them for good. For better or for worse, opening scenes are more important today that at any other time in cinema history.
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
So, technically the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is the one with an old Matt Damon walking through the American cemetery in Normandy, but we all know what I'm talking about here. The opening battle, the storming of the beaches at Normandy on D-Day is one of the most famous scenes in cinema history.
This scene is intense. While it is impossible to convey the true horror of the battlefield on film, the opening sequence might be as close as anyone has come. Steven Spielberg’s vision for the whole movie depends on the intensity of this first scene and it delivers in every single way.
Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981)
Another Steven Spielberg entry on the list is Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The scene introduces moviegoers to one of the most iconic characters in cinema history, Indiana Jones, played, of course, by Harrison Ford. It sets the template really for the whole series, even before anyone knew it would be a series or how important it would become in movie history.
The opening scene shows Indiana and his sidekick, played by a young Alfred Molina, searching for an ancient relic deep in cave in the jungle of Peru filled with booby traps. We see the iconic hat and whip for the first time, and the climax of the cave scene, with the huge boulder chasing the relic-carrying Indiana out of the cave, is one of the most famous moments in movie history.
James Bond movies are famous for their intros going all the way back, almost to the beginning of the franchise, but they really raised the bar with the opening scene in SPECTRE. The movie opens with an incredible four-minute tracking shot in Mexico City at a Dia de los Muertos celebration. The tracking shot begins with a skeleton float and follows down into the crowded streets with Bond dressed for the occasion as a skeleton.
The camera follows Bond into a hotel, past a ballroom filled with revelers, up an elevator, into a hotel room, where Bond changes cloths and walks out on the ledge of the building, with the party in the streets raging below. It ends with Bond looking into a window of a nearby building, just before it explodes. It’s an amazing scene, which is really the best part of the whole movie.
The Lion King (1994)
Without a doubt, The Lion King’s intro is one of the most triumphant moments in film history. “The Circle Of Life,” the first song of the movie, sets the glorious mood wonderfully as all the animals of the African plains make their way to see, Simba, the newborn lion prince.
The scene ends as triumphantly as it begins as Rafiki holds up the cub up to the sky as the sun shines brightly through the clouds and all the animals, from the birds to the elephants to the zebras and all the rest of them, bow in reverence. There are not many scenes in film that feel as good as this one does, and it’s all done before you even get to know the characters. It's absolutely brilliant. Will they be able to capture the same mood in the live-action remake?
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
The tension that director Quentin Tarantino creates in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds is unparalleled in opening scenes. In the scene, SS Colonel Hans Landa, played brilliantly by the great Christoph Waltz, is hunting for a hidden Jewish family on a farm in France. As he speaks with the farmer, the family is hiding just underneath him in a secret basement.
What really sets the scene apart is Waltz’s performance. It is pitch-perfect, a blend of gentlemanly grace and sadistic killer that Waltz pulls out masterfully. In an instant, viewers both hate him and are completely intoxicated by him. It’s really quite astounding.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
It’s only fitting that maybe the most popular movie of all time be on this list. Books have been written on why the first Star Wars movie is so good, and it shows right at the beginning, as the Imperial Star Destroyer battles with a Rebel ship, eventually capturing the Rebel ship and boarding it. Of course, that’s after the now-trademark “scroll” introducing the epic.
It’s easy to look at the opening scene today and just appreciate how it sets up the whole story, but what is sometimes lost on modern viewers is just what a HUGE deal the special effects were in the film when it was released in 1977. Star Wars was a science fiction movie with effects so far beyond what had been done before on film that it changed the way movies were made completely. Oh – and one of the greatest movie villains of all time, Darth Vader, also makes his dramatic entrance, no biggie.
The Godfather (1972)
If Star Wars is all flash bang and laser beams, The Godfather is the precise opposite. But like Star Wars, it introduces so much in such a short time that it is remarkable. It opens with a single voice in a dark room and by the time it is over, the viewer already knows exactly how important Don Corleone is.
The opening monologue comes from Amerigo Bonasera, explaining a favor he needs from the Don. In one monologue, he extolls the virtues of America the power of the Don and how the two work together. The Don's response immediately shows just how powerful he is and what he can do, all without hitting the audience over the head with any of it. If Stars Wars is big and bold, The Godfather is subtle and powerful.
Yep, Spielberg again! It’s no wonder his movies are so beloved, when he cranks out opening scenes like the three on this list. The magic of the opening scene from Jaws is everything you DON’T see. It’s scary and immediately puts the audience on the edge of their seats, a spot they remain for the rest of the movie.
Jaws opens at night with a semi-inebriated woman going for a late swim in the ocean. She never makes it back to shore as she is attacked by the monster lurking in the murky darkness below. Of course, John Williams’ brilliant and sinister score plays a part in the powerful scene as does the ringing of the bell on buoy, which cranks the suspense and tension up tremendously. Like any great opening scene, it grabs the audience immediately and Jaws never lets go after that.
Goodfellas is a different kind of opening scene. It’s not over the top in its tension like Jaws or the subtle slow burn of The Godfather, but what it does do is grab the viewer with a question – namely, what in the heck is going on? And “I can’t wait to watch more!”
The movie opens with the three main characters, Ray Liotta's Henry, Joe Pesci's Tommy and Robert De Niro's Jimmy, in a car when a noise comes from the trunk, so they pull over to see what the problem is. Of course, this scene is replayed in full later in the movie, with full context, but as the opening scene, it sets up Ray Liotta’s character’s life in an instant. He always wanted to be a gangster and this is a slice of life as one, for better or for worse.
The Dark Knight (2008)
Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight is a masterclass in how to play a modern villain. He is smart, crazy and just unpredictable enough to keep audiences completely guessing as to what might happen next with him. His performance is the highlight of a great movie and his character has become legendary. It has been, and will likely be for a long time, how Joker performances are judged.
The opening scene is The Joker and his crew as they rob a bank. The first shot of Ledger is from behind, holding a mask and hunched over, waiting for a pickup. His identity isn’t known immediately, but his brutality is crystal clear as he takes out the whole crew before the end of the job. It is the best introduction to a villain in any superhero movie.
There are lots of other epic opening scenes that are just as deserving to be on this list, like the opening scene of Dazed & Confused with Aerosmith playing, or the chase scene at the top of Trainspotting. Scenes like these set the tone in an instant, but we can’t fit them all in our top ten, but you can let us know some other great ones in the comments!