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. thulsadoom

    Hmm… so many… Star Wars is an obvious one, but I also think that’s why not many have mentioned it. We all want to pick the film openings we love but aren’t necessarily everyone’s pick.

    For me, it’s Alien 3. Despite Fincher hating the film, I think it’s his best work by a mile (or equal beside Seven). The opening sequence just gets me every time. I can watch it again and again.

    Also, The Thing (’82 of course), and Escape from New York.

  2. Bill

    Lion King and Up when it comes to animation. The opening of the former takes me back to the African savannah (I’ve been there). The artists clearly did their homework. Cinematically the animators created a scene worthy of real movie, not a cartoon. The score is also unforgettable. Up is one of the most touching mini-stories ever told in a motion picture. Pixar has never topped it.

    But for best opening ever I have to go with Raiders of The Lost Ark. I went into the theatre not really knowing much about the movie. The names Lucas and Spielberg had attracted me. After watching that opening chase I was hooked on the concept forever.

  3. Don

    The opening shot (and sequence) of The Godfather. So simple graphically. So absorbing. And, somewhat paradoxically, so revealing of the central point of the film: The character of people as revealed by what they do and do not do.

  4. blah

    Hands down opening is Star Wars everyone forget that one. Raiders of the lost ark & Apocalypse now are up there aswell

  5. Danny

    I think the opening to Leon the professional is the best thing Luc Besson every did. It turns Leon into a mythic level badass. He’s Batman with silencers. I remember almost feeling bad for the mobsters he Was taking out. It was a perfect juxtaposition to the almost childlike character he was when not on the job. Perfection.

  6. John Burton

    I don’t know if it is the geek in me, or the kid in me? Star Wars gets me everytime. I remember sitting in the Astro Theater in Greenville, SC watching that open and not being able to speak. Jaw on sticky floor!

  7. I have many in both classic and up to date films one that sticks out that had me hooked amongst many is cliffhanger. The intensity out on that rope and the choice to make in such a situation is great.

  8. William Henley

    Let me give thumbs up to the movies already mentioned that I loved – Contact, Muppet Movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Lion King, Matrix, Terminator 2, Back To The Future 1.

    Let me also toss out Back To The Futures 2 and 3 for their recaps of the previous movies – and Star Trek 3 for that matter.

    What about Star Trek 2 – Wrath of Khan? I know I am not a big fan of this movie, but what an opening – before you even see the Enterprise, you have already established your villian and what his issue is.

    Star Trek 6 – The Undiscovered Country – Let’s start a movie with a moon exploding! Awesome!

    Star Trek 7 – Generations The launching of the Enterprise B, the Nexus ribbon, and the death of Kirk? Sweet!

    Flight of the Navigator – Two fake-outs in the first 5 minutes of the film – you had an idea what the film was about from the trailers, so you start off the movie with an intentionally grainy shot of a flying disc – to resolve it to being a frisbee. Leaving the dog show, you have another fake-out shot of the shadow of the blimp passing over everyone.

    The Harry Potter movies. I love the opening to all of them, but the first one is just classic!

    Beauty and the Best – great musical number, beautiful animation, and establishes the characters really well

    Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – the making of the chocolate, the Candy Man song, establishment of Charlie’s character – WOW!

    Demolition Man – I just love this movie, and everything about it. The high-action opening really sets the tone for this movie.

    Any James Bond movie

    Dune – both the Theatrical and Extended Editions – two very different openings, both setting the stage of the universe the movie takes place in.

    Elf – Oh, come on, you know you liked it too!

    Fiddler on the Roof – not only is it catchy, but it establishes the culture in which these people live.

    Ghostbusters – although it may just be nostalgia, but I have been completely fascinated by this every since I first saw it in the theater as a kid

    Jurassic Park – This was the first movie made in DTS, had awesome sound design, and the theater I first saw this movie in played it LOUD. The opening to this movie really pushed sound design, and I must say the opening of this movie probably sticks in my mind more from an audio perspective than anything else.

    Life Is Beautiful – The breaks are gone, the breaks are gone!

    The Fellowship of the Ring – HOW IN THE WORLD has no one mentioned this yet?

    Team America – Don’t worry everyone, everything is BON!

    Poltergeist – Love the opening to The Star Spangled Banner with the extreme closeup of the scan-lines, followed by statiic, followed by the introduction of the family in the middle of the night.

    Shrek – It seems that Dreamworks wanted to make sure you knew that they were NOT trying to copy or imitate Disney in any way!

    Sound of Music – I still get misty-eyed watching this.

    Superman I LOVE Krypton, and just that entire opening sequence – the B&W with the comic books, the Daily Planet, the crash in Kansas

    Romeo + Julliet Blairing rock music, explosions, police helicopters – they certainly wanted to establish right away that this was a complete retailing of this story!

    Moulin Rouge – The opening of the curtains, the 20th Century Fox fanfare, the title cards, a David Bowie song, and “the girl I loved is dead….” Excellent way to start a movie off!

  9. Can’t believe there was no mention of The Terminator. Back in the day the opening sequence was Mind Blowing for such a low budget movie from out of left field, and in fact I think It’s only outdone by the T2’s even more epic open. Those movies just amaze me how with just a few seconds here and there you could bring a reality like that across so utterly.

  10. Tom

    For years one of my demo (laserdisc!) favorites was the opening to “For Your Eyes Only”, which of course ends with Sheena Easton. Hmmm gotta go now and rack-up the Blu-ray…!

  11. silentbob

    Torn between the awesome opening of TOY STORY 2 with Buzz just flying through space with the great sound with it. It was like something out of a kids imagination flying his toy in room.

    DRIVE would also get my vote for the simple and effective getaway scene.

  12. Most of my favorite openings have been mentioned above but I’d like to add Drive. That opening song with helicopter cuts of LA at night cutting to the Bank Robbery.

  13. Bill McClain

    Samuel Fuller’s “The Steel Helmet” (1951), is a small film, but has one of the best openings I’ve seen in a war film: a steel helmet with a bullet hole, resting on the ground. Then we see a man is wearing the helmet. He moves very cautiously and we find that his hands are bound behind him. As he crawls forward we discover the rest of his unit has been executed and he is the sole survivor.


  14. Scott Harbert

    BLADE RUNNER? Anyone?!!
    UP was a glorious opening. Shoulda got a special Oscar JUST for that opening…