Weekend Roundtable: Best Movie Opening Scenes

We went negative with last week’s Roundtable topic about worst movie endings. This week, let’s turn that around to talk about movies that had truly great opening scenes that really grabbed us right from the start.

Shannon Nutt

This week’s topic was an easy one for me. Nothing, and I mean nothing, tops the opening to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Not only does it define the character of Indiana Jones in a short period of time, but the scene is pretty much a mini-movie itself – with a beginning, middle and an end, as Indiana makes his way into a hidden temple to retrieve an idol, gets double-crossed by his companion, overcomes booby traps, barely gets out alive, confronts his arch nemesis, and makes his escape while dozens of tribesmen chase him through the jungle. Oh, and I hear that the rest of the film isn’t that bad, either.

Mike Attebery

I’m sure I won’t be the only person to pick this one. Has there ever been a better opening than ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark‘? Suspense, action, thrills… So many layers of the character of Indiana Jones are introduced by the time he’s in that plane proclaiming his disdain for snakes that it still makes aspiring screenwriters green with envy. It’s great, great stuff.

Daniel Hirshleifer

There’s exactly one movie I can think of where the opening convinced me to stay for the rest of the picture: ‘Way of the Gun‘. Sarah Silverman cameos as a loudmouth biker who gets what’s coming to her from the two leads, who then proceed to have the living daylights kicked out of them for it. If you thought ‘Jack Reacher’ was too soft, ‘Way of the Gun’ proves that Christopher McQuarrie can make a movie with real teeth.

Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)

No matter how far Dario Argento goes out of his way to soil his cinematic legacy with dreck like ‘Dracula 3D’, no one can ever take ‘Suspiria‘ away from him. The double murder that opens his 1977 masterpiece astonishes me no matter how many times I see it. The dazzling, otherworldly Technicolor hues, the masterful lighting, the sense of hopeless isolation, a freshly-murdered corpse slowly beginning to sink through the stained glass ceiling and the snap of her neck as her lifeless body violently crashes through it, the iconic dangling that follows… To steal from Eli Roth, that unforgettable opening puts the “gore” in “gorgeous.”

Brian Hoss

While I was briefly tempted to pick the character-defining opening sequence from ’28 Weeks Later’, I elected instead to highlight the film series that has opening sequences envied by all others. That of course would be the James Bond franchise. With so many great choices from decades of films, the beginning of ‘GoldenEye‘ remains the post-’80s, post Cold War, post Timothy Dalton salvation of the iconic series. In stark contrast to both Dalton movies, ‘GoldenEye’ begins with a jaw-dropping bungee jump off of the Contra Dam. The ensuing introduction and dispatch of 006, as well as an instant classic titles sequence, set the tone for the best Bond film of that decade.

Michael Spike Steinbacher

The opening scene of Woody Allen’s ‘Manhattan‘ has to rank among the best. I was just a tiny little boy when this movie came out, and I didn’t see it until it was ten-years-old, but it’s absolute perfection. Gershwin’s elegant “Rhapsody in Blue” sets the mood. The kinetic energy and vibrancy jump from the screen as Allen’s narration transports us to a time and place. Shot in black and white, it’s evocative of the past while grounded in the present. The jump cuts are like a mosaic. The scenes teem with life, the melting pot of New York set among the iconographic architecture, the by-turns gritty and elegant streets, and the constant throb of life in the greatest city in the world.

M. Enois Duarte

There are several openings I can think of as some of the best I’ve ever seen, but two in particular immediately come to mind, and both are mostly due to the music. First is the intro theme to the seminal horror classic ‘Halloween‘. According to legend, John Carpenter originally planned for the film to be watched without music, or at least let it have a minimal, very subtle presence throughout. But after being urged by producers and others, Carpenter finally gave in and quickly whipped up that now-iconic, somewhat overplayed theme we love and recognize. Those simply synthesized sounds playing against a plain black background and a jack-o-lantern on the left side of the screen is incredibly effective at setting the film’s proper tone, establishing an atmosphere of horror and shock without showing anything yet. It’s an awesome way to open a low-budget, independent feature!

The only opening I love more is one that continues to give me goosebumps and make me feel uneasy to this day. Of course, leave it to the genius of Stanley Kubrick to have that sort of effect on me. His 1980 psycho-horror classic ‘The Shinning‘ kicks off with one of the most unnerving and unsettling musical pieces ever for a movie. I have yet to find anything that comes remotely close the feeling I get from this fantastic score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind. The entire film is a wonderful study on how the subtle use of classical music can seriously alter the tone of a scene. As for the opening, the avant-garde music is an uber-dark and freakishly twisted version of Hector Berlioz’s “Symphony Fantastique” with very light undertones of a traditional Catholic funeral march and hints of Chopin’s “Piano Sonata No. 2” in B-flat minor, otherwise known as the iconic “Funeral March.” No other opening I’m aware of so effectively generates a sense of dread and terror right at the start, setting a haunting tone that remains a permanent presence throughout. I absolutely love the opening to ‘The Shining’!

Tom Landy

The one movie that has always stuck with me for having such a terrific opening sequence is ‘X2: X-Men United‘. I just loved the way Bryan Singer introduced a fan-favorite character like Nightcrawler. It could have flopped miserably, but instead the scene is done absolutely perfectly – with Kurt teleporting himself all around the place in a balls-to-the-wall assault on the White House. I still think that’s one of the best fight scenes in any comic book movie to date, and it completely had me after the first BAMF!

Bryan Kluger

If you don’t count the several minutes of complete darkness on screen, Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘ gives us one of the greatest opening scenes in cinema history. We literally see the evolution of man unfold on-screen. It starts with a couple of packs of apes in the wild, going about their normal routine of eating, killing, grooming and sleeping, until one of the apes figures out how to use a bone from a dead carcass as a tool and a weapon. The next scene is set in space, where we humans have built space stations and rocket ships. It’s truly one of the biggest time jumps ever in cinema. Everything about this opening scene is perfect.

Luke Hickman

I was pretty amazed by the opening sequence of ‘Mission: Impossible III‘. I first saw the film at the massive Odeon theater in Leicester Square, London. The screen was huge (as was the ticket price) and the sound was cranked up. It felt like the theater raised the volume up to heights that would cause permanent ear drum damage, then backed it down just a hair to avoid physical injury. The overwhelming screen size and the immersive audio made this brilliant opening sequence an unforgettable experience.

We’ve all seen movie intros that are actually early clips from the climax, but the presentation and on-screen action made this one unlike any other. J.J. Abrams brought a great deal of intensity to the franchise, and this climax-tease almost threw me into a panic attack. I love a good countdown in a film. (Technically, it’s a count-up here.) Phillip Seymour Hoffman counting the moments before blasting the brains out of Michelle Monaghan’s head caught me off-guard. From the tears in his eyes, it’s obvious that Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) doesn’t have the answer that Hoffman is looking for. Just when Hoffman gets to the last number, to start the iconic match spark and fuse lighting set to the iconic theme song was brilliant.

Gordon Miller

After the title appears in enormous white letters on a black background, the shot fades in on a weathered “No Trespassing” sign attached to a chain link fence. The camera rises and the image dissolves into another fence, coming to a stop at the top of a gate. Off in the distance is what looks like a black castle with a lone light in a window. Through a series of dissolves, the camera moves towards the window, and in a brilliant bit of planning and work by cinematographer Gregg Toland, co-writer/director Orson Welles, and editor Robert Wise, the light in the window stays in the same spot in the frame, even when reflected off water.

Passing through the estate, we see a zoo, a lake and a golf course, all looking like they haven’t been cared for in quite a while. Once outside the window, the light goes off and through another well-planned dissolve, the viewer moves inside. A man lies in bed, in the dark, alone. The scene dissolves to a cabin in a snowstorm, but a quick zoom back reveals it to be a snow globe. The man utters the word “rosebud” and then dies.

The movie, of course, is ‘Citizen Kane‘. Before the clever use of a newsreel revealing whom this man is, I’m already hooked to see what happens next. In just over three minutes, the filmmakers have earned my trust that they will make great use of the medium to tell this story.

Honorable mentions: ‘8 ½’, ‘Manhattan’, ‘Full Metal Jacket’, ‘Goodfellas’.

Jack Lilburn

My favorite opener is from the not terribly well known, but fantastic 1943 Billy Wilder WWII thriller ‘Five Graves to Cairo‘. It opens on a British tank lurching over Saharan dunes, only to reveal that everyone inside is dead – minus our hero, Corporal John Bramble. He staggers out of the desert to his former headquarters at the Empress of Britain Hotel, to discover that the British have left and that German Soldiers are seconds away. Left with few options, he assumes the identity of a cook killed the night before. From there, the film only gets more harrowing with a storyline that continually reverses expectations.

Josh Zyber

Back in 1997, I was deeply skeptical walking into the theater to see ‘Contact‘. Although I’d been a fan of earlier Robert Zemeckis movies such as the ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy and ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’, the director was just coming off ‘Forrest Gump’, his most successful and acclaimed film, but also, in my estimation, one of the absolute worst pieces of garbage in the history of everything. I cannot overstate how much I despised that movie, and how much I was prepared to hate this one as well.

The opening shot changed my mind. In three and a half uninterrupted minutes, with no actors or dialogue, solely through visual and aural sensation (or lack thereof), that astounding, beautiful, mesmerizing opening shot managed to place the entirety of mankind’s existence on this planet into context against the unimaginable vastness of the universe. The packed theater house I was in collectively drew its breath in awe. That’s how you start a movie!

What are some of your favorite movie opening scenes? Tell us in the Comments.


  1. Jon

    The opening of “Touch of Evil”. Awesome camerawork, choreography, and a spectacular way to set the scene. If you haven’t seen it before, do it for the technical achievement alone.

  2. Scott

    Here Is a list of my personal faves:

    jaws, raiders of the lost arc, mission impossible 3, the dark night, snake eyes, the lion king, scream, magnolia, Brazil, goodfellas, the social network, children of men, cabin In the woods, apocalypse now, up, trainspotting, the searchers, citizen Kane, the player, vertigo, there will be blood, inglorious basterds, touch of evil and once upon a time in the wes.

  3. Ryan

    Terrible movie, but I LOVED the intro to Sucker Punch. I thought….how quickly that movie fell apart.
    Fellowship of the Ring blew me away the first time I saw it.
    And Gladiator’s intro was epic as well.

  4. First thing that popped into my head? The Goonies. The Fratellis escape coupled with Chunk’s squashing his shake all over the arcade’s window cracks me up every time.

  5. Alex

    No love for “Star Wars”? Is there anything more iconic than the brass fanfare and then the sight of Star Destroyer blasting away at the Blockade Runner. That one shot changed film forever!!!

    • David Mueller

      Omg you’re right! And talk about a great opening: not only did that single shot just place this film in an entirely different league than what we’d seen before, but in that same shot Lucas managed to convey the overwhelming odds against our heroes. Lucas hasn’t shown that kind of mastery of the medium of film since.

      I think audiences who’ve only seen that on video don’t get it, but if you can watch it on a projector do so. Because when the Star Destroyer fills your field of vision like its supposed to, it just seems to go on and on and on. Its like 1977 all over again.

  6. Scott

    It’s not exactly the opening scene, however I’m surprised there was no mention of Saving Private Ryan. Pretty intense stuff!

  7. Kevin

    I know it’s more recent and less ‘classic’ than many that have been mentioned, but I love the intro + opening credits sequence for “The Watchmen”. I still find new things hidden in the slo-mo character page-flips during the credits that I hadn’t seen the previous 100 viewings…

    • Kevin

      I also wanted to toss a nod out there for a couple of movies that just *start* with no fanfare at all to great effect: “Se7en” and “Colors” They both begin with a mundane scene that feels more like you started the movie a few chapters in instead of at the beginning. Very engaging when done well.

  8. Is this the busiest roundtable in terms of High Def Digest staff members? Look at those contributions! Looks like everyone contributed (save for Michael Palmer).

    I always loved the intro to ‘Back to the Future’, especially the subtle foreshadowings (the hanging figure from the clocktower, the plutonium case …). And the dog food. Hilarious.

  9. Sound plus style make a good intro for me, and two that stand out as some of the most enjoyable for me to watch are Drive and Layer Cake. Walter Murch’s Touch of Evil opening is amazing too, and Gravity has a really exceptional opening.

  10. Kevin

    “Star Trek” (2009). That whole sequence with the starship Kelvin coming under attack from the Romulan ship, and George Kirk having to sacrifice his life to save as many people as he could, including his wife and newborn son.

    Brought tears to my eyes the first time I saw the film. Continues to do so now, lord knows how many viewings later.

  11. Cenobyte3034

    While it may not be the best opening scene, I personally enjoy the opening to Re-Animator. The opening music is just amazing.

  12. Casey

    I’m surprised there haven’t been more mentions of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, or Inception. Of those three, The Dark Knight opening with The Joker’s bank heist is my favorite. Near perfection, I think. Love him or hate him, in my opinion Chris Nolan sure as hell knows how to open a movie!

    Fight Club also comes to mind. Fincher is another one who knows how to grab your attention from the very beginning.

  13. Dimwit

    One of the best openings to a poor movie that I know is Swordfish. They blew all their creativity on the opening and Travolta was brilliant as the intelligent, ruthless, amoral and aware Gideon. A great villain! All wasted. Sigh.

  14. Eric

    Very good choices so far, but I’d like to highlight two more Bond flicks that have great openings. Casino Royale is my personal favorite, because the expectation of an opening scene in a Bond film was completely reinvisioned and the B&W sequence is both beautiful and extremely powerful. I also really love the ski sequence in The Spy Who Loved Me, because it was amazing and intense.

  15. Mark Luhdorff

    Love the choices so far, but for my two picks I’ll go with Lion King and Up! – the two most moving openings in animation.