Much like the first lines of a book, the opening scenes of a film can make or break what comes next. A compelling hook or narrative twist can help establish tone, mood and genre. Through the years, there’s been a whole litany of films that have managed to craft great opening scenes but among them, some are more memorable than others and stand the test of time.
As a celebratory look at film through the years, we’ve come together to pick out our top 20 of all time! Of course, feel free to comment below with your favourites if they didn’t make the list!
20) X-Men 2
When it comes to action-packed openers, the Marvel and DC Universe are now chock full of memorable fight sequences and moments that work harder every year to one-up the previous film. Back in 2003, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was still five years away and the only big super-hero films in movie theaters were Spider-Man and X-Men.
To be fair, the first X-Men film could have made the list too with its incredibly moving and powerful opener with Magneto but it’s the fight in the White House that’s instantly more recognisable and memorable thanks to its frenetically charged and dazzling visual spectacle.
Seeing Nightcrawler single-handedly dispatch numerous guards while the epic classical score plays over the top heightens the tension and epic scale of this scene, making it one of the stand-out moments from the troubled X-Men series.
19) Casino Royale
4 minutes. That’s the length of time needed to establish this new, moody Bond and solidify Daniel Craig as one of the better iterations of this iconic male hero. While the other Bond films have had their own fair share of memorable openers, given the criticism toward Daniel Craig before the film (including those infamous “How dare Bond have blonde hair!”) comments, the deliberately noir backdrop, painting this scene in black and white, captures this new style of Bond brilliantly.
Ending with the iconic and chilling “Considerably”, the hard cuts between the bathroom brawl and Bond’s quiet and calculating character assassination acts as the perfect juxtaposition and as Bond turns to face the camera, that blood spatter paves way for a beautiful and psychedelically charged title sequence that sets the film up for what’s to come
Between the memorable “It’s all a joke,” line and the brilliant symbology of the blood spatter on The Comedian’s smiley-face badge, the brawl in the apartment building that begins Watchmen is a wonderfully intriguing and beautifully choreographed way to set the tone and mood for the film to follow. There’s a real irony to the song choice too, as Unforgettable plays out dreamily in the background while The Comedian finds himself thrown around the room. You really feel the crunch of every blow and even better, the opening credits of the film are equally as stunning.
A great example of “show, don’t tell”, Wall-E crafts its dystopian world brilliantly and with the opening cheery vibes showing Wall-E at work, you instantly feel a warmth for this robot. When the music shuts off, the string segments begin and with it, this cheery facade fades away to show a wasteland of bleakness in this post-human Earth. Beyond an introduction to Wall-E himself, we also see the world and what’s happened to humanity thanks to projected recorded video clips. It’s a really wonderful way to begin one of Pixar’s best films and certainly a worth inclusion on this list.
Between the stunning direction and cinematography, the excellent acting from Drew Barrymore carries this unsettling opener, making Scream one of the best slashers and a genre-defining addition to horror. While there were slashers that came before this, with the infamous Psycho possibly the first, Scream’s iconic opener is one of the reasons the film works as well as it does.
The unsettling opening 5 minutes then pave way for a gruesome and tense couple of minutes that beautifully set the tone to come.
15) 2001: A Space Odyssey
There will be two groups of people reading this with polarizing opinions. “How is 2001 so far down this list?” and the others asking “How did 2001 even make the list?” There’s no question that 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of those films highly regarded by some fans and critics while others fail to see the hype. Even here, among the ReviewGeek critics we’re completely split over this one.
Despite all this, the film itself does have an iconic and well written introduction, one that spends 9 minutes establishing its scene but doing so with an iconic segment of man’s first foray into violence. It’s something that instantly establishes the mood and pace of the film without a single line of dialogue. This evolution of man is a constant theme throughout 2001 and right the way up to its bizarre and psychedelic ending, this theme remains consistent.
14) Fellowship Of The Ring
As good as the Lord Of The Rings films are (and they are the quintessential fantasy epic on the big screen), it’s the opening mood setter of The Fellowship Of The Ring that seals the deal. Between the battle of Mordor, the incredible music from Howard Shore and an overview of the world we find ourselves in, in the space of 10 minutes, Fellowship manages to bring the believable world of Middle Earth to life and does so in the best possible way without boring its audience, despite an abundance of exposition.
Given the wealth of information dumped on the audience this early, the film completely knocks it out the park with some dazzling visual effects and great editing as the history of the One Ring is told.
13) Jurassic Park
“Shoot her!” Two words that will forever become synonymous with our park ranger (along with “clever girl” of course!) and all of this driven through a tense, mysterious and well written opening to Jurassic Park. Between all the different workers standing around chewing gum nervously as they await the arrival of a dangerous predator, through to the foreshadowed moments the creature fights back and outsmarts the over-confident humans who believe they can control them, every part of this opening scene is perfectly delivered.
12) 28 Weeks Later
Say what you will about 2007’s follow-up to the excellent 28 Days Later, the opening scene in the isolated barn with numerous zombies picking off the family one by one remains an incredibly tense and action-packed way to set the foundations for the film to follow. After so many failed attempts at making scary and horrifying zombies, the 28-Day variety are incredibly unnerving and a lot of this comes from the sheer speed and frightening blood-curdling screaming.
It also marks a more action-orientated direction for the series and although the case is still out for a third follow-up to this story, the opening to 28 Weeks Later remains one of the best zombie-centric opening scenes in any film to date.
11) Children Of Men
Children Of Men’s opening scene is almost the perfect way to start the film. In 3 minutes, and with one solitary long-take, we learn about the world, our main character, the sci-fi elements, what year it is and exactly what the conflict will be for the film. It’s a masterful example of plot and character working in-sync and the shocking bomb blast at the end is a perfect way to encapsulate all of this.
Two musical notes back in 1975 changed the face of horror forever. Bringing with it a whole wave of shark films to follow, the original Jaws is a perfect example of how to craft a mixture of point of view shots and a simple but effective two-note score to make for a brilliantly terrifying deep dive into the ocean. Given this film also brought with it a new fear of sharks, Jaws’ success is unrivaled and given the sheer number of shark films that have come and gone over the years, Jaws continues to be one of the pioneers and a film that’s unlikely to be usurped from its watery throne anytime soon.
9) The Matrix
Back in 1999, The Wachowski Brothers changed the face of cinema forever. Say what you will about the underwhelming sequels, this quintessential dive into the world of The Matrix brought with it an awe-inspiring, reality-bending sequence of scenes that completely transformed the way we experience film. The now-infamous Trinity fight sequence and later segment involving Neo’s bullet-time have been parodied and replicated so many times now that the technique feels well-worn but back in 99, The Matrix ushered in a new wave of visual effects, much like Star Wars did back in the 70’s.
It’s also a great example of how movie trailers can make or break a film, with the early ones for The Matrix (much like The Exorcist and Alien) giving little away about what the film would be, making this opening sequence all the more shocking.
8) The Godfather
The Godfather is not just a fantastic achievement in cinema, it’s also a film that masterfully executes a zoom shot to perfection. Beginning with a single character’s face, the way Director Francis Ford Coppola manages to zoom out slowly from that to reveal natural exposition is a masterful example of how to drip feed information but do so in such a natural and interesting manner that few films have managed to match nowadays.
This also sets the scene for many of the themes of the film to play out, with the fascinating juxtaposition of Don Corleone affectionately stroking his cat while dissecting Bonasera as he clumsily navigates this verbal minefield. An extraordinary scene for sure and a must-watch film too.
7) Apocalypse Now
Cleverly written and incredibly stylish, Francis Ford Coppola knocks it out the park with his Vietnam War drama but the opening scene is a masterpiece unto itself in mood and tone setting. From the solitary dolly movement that grips the opening 2 minutes, as dangerous levels of napalm choke the scene before igniting, into a brutal and nasty execution of beauty, this is only further enhanced by the faded edits of our main character.
The song choice, “This Is The End” is perfect and while this aggressive fire rages, the faded edits of this on our protagonist is a subtle but wonderful bit of characterisation too.
6) The Dark Knight
Batman Begins reinvigorated the Batman series and brought with it a fresh, gritty tone that took a lot of people by surprise. The idea of seeing Bruce Wayne’s origin story has been played out more times than Spider-Man’s with Uncle Ben but somehow Christopher Nolan managed to add a modern, dangerous spin to proceedings that brought this world to life.
It was always going to be a tricky job following that up with a successful sequel but successful would be an understatement to what The Dark Knight manages to achieve. Introducing both The Joker and the main themes of chaos and anarchy, the opening bank heist is unpredictable, well written and action-packed, grabbing you by the scruff of the neck and starting this epic film off in the best possible way.
5) The Lion King
Possibly one of the most iconic opening scenes of any animation to date, Disney’s The Lion King is the perfect musical start to this classic story and it not only showcases a great style of animation rarely seen nowadays – combining watercolour backgrounds with hand-drawn animations – it does so with a very catchy and goosebump-inducing track that’s instantly synonymous with this wonderful film.
Not only does this musical montage establish the settling, hierarchy of the animals and who the main characters are, it does so without a single line of dialogue (unless you count Simba’s sneeze of course!)
4) Raiders Of The Lost Arc
Out of all the Indy adventures, Raiders Of The Last Arc is the one that not only sets the foundations for the story to follow, it also encapsulates the perfect amount of action and adventure into its opening 10 minute temple run. The now-iconic boulder chase has not only inspired a whole host of filmmakers to try and match this adrenaline soaked opener, it’s also a fine example of how you don’t need CGI or a smattering of explosions to build tension.
Between the traps and the nail-biting finale with the boulder chase itself, every part of Indy’s daring temple escape at the end is plotted and paced to perfection, with the right amount of charisma and wise-cracking humour thrown in for good measure. It’s also a film that set the foundation for adventure games like Tomb Raider and Uncharted to flesh this idea out into a more interactive environment.
After an amusing and charming 8 minute introduction to our two young characters, the montage scene between Ellie and Carl remains one of the more poignant and well written segments in any animation. The musical score, and familiar piano motif, increasing and decreasing in tempo depending on what’s happening on-screen is one of the best examples of how symbiotic audio and visual is together in this medium.
This scene is something you could easily write an essay about in itself – it’s that good. There’s foreshadowing (the balloon cart flying off in the sky), heartbreak, sadness, regret, joy, happiness, the mundanity of everyday life and the pursuit of dreams and life’s stumbling blocks along the way.
All of this is conveyed in the space of 4 minutes without a single line of dialogue and a repeated audio motif for company. While the rest of the film doesn’t quite reach the same level of excellence, the opening montage of Up! is one of the finest and well-crafted in any film to date and even as a stand-alone piece, holds up as a true masterpiece in telling a story through music.
2) Star Wars: A New Hope
Back in 1977, the world of sci-fi changed forever. After the yellow scroll of text, the camera pans down to show the outline of a distant planet. That now iconic shot of a small ship trying in vain to outrun the star destroyer, as it swallows up the screen, is something that offers up an equal dose of shock and awe. Given the special effects hold up now, it seems almost unheard of that there was a time before Star Wars where these sort of visuals weren’t seen on the big-screen.
Given the amount of hell George Lucas and co. went through behind the scenes in the making of A New Hope, the worldwide success of Star Wars would not have been possible without this one moment. Of course, the fight on-board the ship itself at the hands of Darth Vader and the Storm Troopers is equally as exciting but this single shot is one that’s unmatched in many sci-fi films today, going on to influence and inspire a whole generation of film-makers.
1)Saving Private Ryan
Essentially combined as two scenes, Saving Private Ryan begins with a 3 minute walk into the mass graveyard of fallen soldiers in World War II before taking us back to the Normandy Beach landings in 1944. In terms of opening acts, Saving Private Ryan delivers an absolute tour-de-force in gritty war visuals, with the entire massacre on Normandy shown in all its ugly glory. Few films since have managed to capture the same shock, violence and visceral horror this film managed to achieve so well and some of the images remain as harrowing today as they were back then.
From the blood stained shores and mass bodies lining the beaches, across to a solitary soldier casually picking up his severed hand to take with him up the beach, all of this plays out through the shocked eyes of Captain Miller to perfection. It makes for one of the best movie openings of all time, with that earlier aforementioned segment in the graveyard incredibly important to show the significance of war and on repeat watches, certainly holds up.
It’s a perfect example of how to powerfully juxtapose two completely contrasting scenes together to create the perfect film opening.
So there we have it! Our Top 20 Film Opening Scenes has seen us dig through the archives and watch hundreds of film openings to craft this article. Special mention goes to Gladiator, The Two Towers, Alien, The Social Network and Trainspotting, which all narrowly missed the top 20 spots here.
Do you agree or disagree with our list? Drop a comment below and let us know your favourite movie opening scene!