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The 20 Best Movie Opening Scenes Of All Time

CBR 1/26/2023 Ajay Aravind
© Provided by CBR

The relationship between a story's beginning and its end is rarely linear – contrastingly, films often take circuitous paths towards their respective conclusions. As such, it's not surprising that the first scene often plays an essential role in establishing the narrative's foundation.

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A solid opener doesn't necessarily lead to a satisfying conclusion, but it helps anchor the various themes and elements in the overarching plot. Several movies have managed to achieve greatness despite starting with mediocre opening scenes, but certain films owe the bulk of their popularity and critical acclaim to their beginning moments.

Updated on January 22nd, 2023 by Ashley Land: Every good movie needs a great opening sequence to set up events and keep viewers interested in the story. These scenes work best when they establish what's to come, either through dramatic scenes, montage sequences or callbacks to events before the main story. For some movies, their opening sequence is the best thing about them, while for others it's just the start to a great tale.

The Last Unicorn Opens With An Incredible Song Perfect For An 80s Fantasy Movie

The Last Unicorn is an often overlooked cartoon movie from the '80s that focuses on a fantasy world and the last surviving unicorn. Accompanied by friends she meets along the way, the last unicorn travels the lands in search of others of her kind.

The Last Unicorn starts with a brief mention of its character, which then transitions into an incredible opening song of the same name. It takes viewers on a journey throughout the world in which the unicorn lives, and shows them glimpses of the places she must travel.

Revenge Of The Sith Takes Viewers Deep Into The Battle Of Coruscant

While Revenge of the Sith may not be every fan's favorite Star Wars movie, few can deny it has the most explosive opening. Where most Star Wars opening scenes start slow, the third prequel movie takes viewers straight to the heart of the Battle of Coruscant.

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The start of Revenge of the Sith follows Obi Wan and Anakin in their Jedi star fighter ships as they lead a squadron through the battle to rescue Palpatine. It's full of galactic space battles and true to the Star Wars name, giving Obi and Anakin some good banter too.

Dune Perfectly Explains The Story's Premise To Newcomers

Denis Villeneuve's remake of Dune proved to be a hit for Warner Bros. as well as an excellent follow-up to David Lynch's own version. The first of the two-part remake, Dune did a great job of both adapting the original novel and being a great place for new fans to enter the world created by Frank Herbert.

Dune begins with Chani (Zendaya) explaining the history of Arrakis to viewers, while the on-screen events match her narration. Fans watch the brutal rule of the Harkonnens, their fight with the local Fremen and the nature of politics in the galaxy.

Once Upon A Time In The West – Aerial Views Of A Desolate Landscape Are Punctuated By A Microscopic Focus On Facial Features And Machinery

Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is a masterful revision of the spaghetti Western genre that was popularized by the Dollars Trilogy. The opening sequence is composed of close and far shots, blending aerial views of the arid landscape with a near-microscopic focus on both facial features and machinery.

Once Upon a Time in the West highlights the desolate lives of its characters at a languid pace, but with razor-sharp vigor. The film was initially criticized as being little more than an attempt at "good fun," although its wide-reaching legacy later inspired filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Once Upon a Time in the West is nothing less than a cinematic landmark, and it's opening scene deserves some credit.

Watchmen Brilliantly Showcases Its Alternate History

Watchmen adapts the Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons original graphic novel of an alternate history within DC Comics. It follows the eponymous Watchmen superhero team, comprised of Rorschach, Silk Specter, Nite Owl and Doctor Manhattan as they solve the murder of their teammate, the Comedian.

The film begins with its main set-up, the attack and murder of Comedian in a great short fight scene. It then transitions to its title sequence, which shows audiences the alternate history of the Watchmen universe, set to the tune of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."

Kingsman: The Secret Service Has An Explosive Blockbuster Opening

Kingsman: The Secret Service is one of several action movies based on Mark Millar's comics. It follows Eggsy, a young British man who joins the Kingsmen, a secretive agency of spies who safeguard the world against threats of villainy and terrorism.

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Kingsman begins with an action-packed attack on a terrorist compound to the sound of rock music as the exploding debris rolls towards the viewer to form the title credits. It then sets up Eggsy's story and his link to the Kingsmen when his father, himself an agent, is killed in battle.

National Treasure Gives Fans An Adventurous Look At History

Disney's National Treasure follows the adventurer Ben Gates (Nicolas Cage) as he hunts for a lost treasure of the Freemasons. Along with his friend, Riley, he is forced to steal the Declaration of Independence before his old partner, Ian, gets ahold of it.

The film begins with Ben and his grandfather in the family attic as the latter recounts the legend of the Freemasons and their treasure. It leads into an epic montage of battles, conquests and discoveries from throughout the ages of history, which leads Gates into the present day.

Inglourious Basterds – Standartenführer Landa's Placid Exterior Fails To Mask His Serpentine Malevolence

Inglourious Basterds is a reexamination of the Holocaust through a quasi-surreal lens. Some critics complained that director Quentin Tarantino "gets lost in a fictional World War II." Others, however, called Inglourious Basterds "an enjoyable ride." Despite the backlash, Inglourious Basterds deserves recognition for its thoroughly invigorating plot, exquisite set design, and the stunning performances from its star-studded cast.

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Viewers are introduced to Standartenführer Hans Landa in the film's opening scene where he quickly proves himself to be a ruthless killer. Although Landa gently nudges farmer Perrier LaPadite into revealing the hiding place of the Dreyfuss family, the serpentine malevolence beneath Landa's placid exterior is crystal clear.

Naked Gun Starts Off With A Hilarious Action Scene

Based on the TV series Police Squad, The Naked Gun franchise is centered around Lieutenant Frank Dreben (Leslie Nielsen) and his patriotic heroics. The first film – which reintroduced Dreben to a larger audience – was a spoof of the cop genre and used great slapstick humor.

The Naked Gun starts off with a meeting of a number of real world villains from various nations, such as Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat. As they discuss their plans for the destruction of the United States, Dreben reveals himself to inspirational music and attacks the scheming leaders.

Vertigo – Audiences Are Introduced To The Iconic Vertigo Visual Effect In A Terrifying Scene

Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo is now considered one of the greatest films in Hollywood history. However, contemporary critics grumbled about the movie's extended runtime and referred to it as "only a psychological murder mystery," a reductive description for the masterpiece.

Vertigo eventually managed to displace Citizen Kane from its top spot in the Sight & Sound international critics poll. Vertigo's opening scene is a rooftop chase: armed police officers run after an unidentified man, framed against the moonlit skyline. One of the officers loses his footing and nearly falls to his death, introducing audiences to the iconic Vertigo visual technique for the first time.

Baby Driver – The Titular Protagonist Demonstrates The Sheer Ingenuity Of His Getaway Driving Style

Edgar Wright's Baby Driver can easily be misinterpreted as a superficial love story between its titular protagonist and his girlfriend. However, it seems that Baby's rose-tinted fantasies of the 1950s are artifacts of his active imagination, and that they are very unlikely to come true.

Baby Driver is a riveting "car-chase opera, densely packed with sheer brio and good nature" that gives rise to an endearingly warm viewing experience. The film opens with a breakneck action sequence, demonstrating the sheer ingenuity of Baby's getaway driving style.

Bumblebee Finally Gave Fans Some Classic Transformers Action

One of the bigger criticisms of the Michael Bay Transformers movies was the off-putting design of the robots. They were stripped of their color and turned into generic looking monstrous versions of themselves. However, Bumblebee signaled an end to that.

The opening three minutes of Bumblebee was made by fans for fans and took viewers back to the Fall of Cybertron. It gave fans a look at the classic '80s designs of their favorite Autobots and Decepticons alike, with especially great looks on Soundwave and Optimus Prime.

Apocalypse Now – A Napalm Inferno Engulfs A Pastoral Grove Of Palm Trees

Apocalypse Now, directed by the iconic Francis Ford Coppola, seemingly glorifies the excesses of war, but its underlying message is anti-violence. While hand grenades and LSD make for a terrifying combination, the real horror of the film lies deep within the tropical jungles of Cambodia.

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Apocalypse Now is generally regarded among the finest works of cinema, with The Guardian calling it "the best action and war film of all time." The movie starts with a pastoral scene: a grove of palm trees sway in the gentle breeze, a cloud of dust rises, and the landing slide of a helicopter flits across the frame. The entire field of view is engulfed in a napalm inferno.

The Lord Of The Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring Begins With An Epic Prologue

The Lord of the Rings trilogy adapts the classic fantasy world created by J.R.R. Tolkien to film. While every film is excellent in its own way, The Fellowship of the Ring has the strongest opening by far. Its first few minutes perfectly set up the War of the Ring and events to come.

Fellowship of the Ring begins with Elrond recounting the old alliance of Elves and men as they marched on Mordor to push back Sauron. It gives viewers a good look at the battle, replete with Sauron's only physical appearance in the trilogy and Isildur's corruption by the ring.

The Dark Knight – The Joker Reveals His Utterly Capricious Nature

The Dark Knight is possibly the strongest Batman movie ever made and a critical triumph for director Christopher Nolan. The movie "succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but also as a richly thrilling crime saga." Critic Roger Ebert claimed that The Dark Knight is "a haunted film that leaps beyond its origins and becomes an engrossing tragedy."

The Dark Knight essentially installed the framework for comic book cinema. It starts with a group of joker-masked robbers carrying out a successful bank heist before being eliminated by the main villain himself. The Joker proceeds to torment the innocent bank manager with a smoke grenade.

The Lion King – The Animals Of The Savanna Make Their Way To Pride Rock

The Lion King stands atop the pinnacle of the Disney Renaissance, along with era-defining benchmarks like The Little Mermaid, Mulan, Beauty and the Beast, and Hercules. The Lion King received universal acclaim.

Reviewers asserted that "the saga of Simba [...] owes something to Greek tragedy," making it a true "learning experience" for audiences of all ages. The Zulu version of "Circle of Life" melds into English as the savanna awakens to a new morning. The animals slowly make their way to Pride Rock where they are greeted by the newborn Simba.

Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) – Indiana Jones Barely Survives His Mission To The Peruvian Temple

Raiders of the Lost Ark is the first and arguably most influential installment in the Indiana Jones franchise. Its legacy expanded far beyond the scope of Hollywood. Actor John Rhys-Davies stated that he "must have met at least 150 or 160 professors, lecturers, or practicing archeologists" whose "first interest in archeology began when they saw Raiders of the Lost Ark."

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Raiders of the Lost Ark's opening scene shows Indy navigating the numerous booby traps strewn around an ancient Peruvian Temple, until he is double-crossed and left to die in the collapsing ruins. Indy survives, albeit barely.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – A Mysterious Space Monolith "Teaches" Hominids How To Use Tools

2001: A Space Odyssey is the product of a collaboration between director Stanley Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke, and is a mind-bending masterpiece. The opening sequence shows two rival tribes of hominids fighting for territory, with the losers forced to leave their watering hole. The defeated tribe eventually learns how to use tools with the help of a mysterious monolith and embarks on an evolutionary journey that inevitably leads to humankind.

Early critics were exceptionally hostile in their reviews, prompting Kubrick to call them "dogmatically atheistic and materialistic and earthbound." 2001: A Space Odyssey has since received sweeping acclaim for its scientific accuracy, sparse dialogue, and kaleidoscopic visual effects.

Children Of Men (2006) – The Protagonist Leaves A Café Right Before A Bomb Destroys Everything Inside

Adapted from P.D. James' novel of the same name, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men takes its audience on a perturbing ride through a dangerously prophetic vision of the future. The opening scene reveals a shocked audience watching a report detailing "the death of Diego Ricardo, the youngest person on the planet." The protagonist views the news without expression and leaves the café, only for the place to blow up in a terrorist attack.

Children of Men "works on every level: as a violent chase thriller, a fantastical cautionary tale, and a sophisticated human drama about societies struggling to live." Children of Men "fulfills the promise of futuristic fiction" in that its world and characters appear "just like today, except tired and shabby."

The Rock Perfectly Explains Its Villain's Motives In A Single Scene

Michael Bay's The Rock is one of the director's greatest movies as well as one of the better action movies of all time. It follows a group of disillusioned marines as they seize control of Alcatraz with chemical weapons, which they hope to use to hold the government to ransom.

The Rock starts out by focusing on its main antagonist, General Frank Hummel. Using a combination of the marine taking flowers to his wife's grave with the sounds of a failed mission that saw his men abandoned and killed, it perfectly establishes a compelling motivation.

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