Great Movie Opening Scenes, And Why They Work
Angus Stain breaks down the elements of a movie's most important scene.
When you are discussing film, one of the most important aspects to consider is the first scene. It’s what reels you into the film, the story, characters and settings. Sometimes it can be protracted, so as to firmly understand the premise, and other times it can be so swift, so as to be utterly iconic. After all, it’s your first impression of just about everything; mood, atmosphere, tone, genre, narrative, even quality.
The very best, though, act almost as prologues, thematically speaking, to the rest of the narrative. The ending, for example, is often defined by how it relates back to, infers or implies something about the establishing scene itself.
The Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz opens, naturally, with a musical scene. Better still is the fact that every character who appears as a part of Dorothy’s life would later be mirrored in the Land of Oz, which coincidentally is seeped in colour, unlike the opening. It’s technically a set of scenes (if I’m honest) but they serve to set up everything, including Dorothy’s hatred of the witch (which is actually her crotchety neighbour, sort of) and the sheer magic of Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow.
It’s also canny how well, particularly for 1939, these shots establish Dorothy’s relationship with her aunt and those she cares about. It’s what makes her run away (after ToTo is almost taken away!!) but also what makes her want to return. In fact, the ruby slippers would end up being the embodiment of everything Dorothy loves, all of which is conveyed in the first few shots.
I was tempted to put WALL-E and/or The Lion King here, but seriously? The opening of Up, as we see the life of Carl Fredricksen and his wife flash before our eyes in a ten minute montage, is utterly heartbreaking. So much is said with so little time. For instance, it is implied that his wife had a miscarriage, and yet it is never definitely answered, which makes it much more depressing. That in itself, the implication of pain and the explicit truth of subsequent consequences is ultimately what drives the film and makes its denouement so emotionally satisfying, which all comes back to the set-up in those first scenes.
But more importantly, in so small a time we have history and backstory filled with love and pain and anguish and tears. This means that Carl is already such a rich, interesting character. It also sets up Carl’s arc wonderfully, from downtrodden senior citizen with a downtrodden dream to someone who is so completely renewed in their own experiences.
Frankly, I can’t talk about it for too long, else my eyes begin to weep…
The Truman Show
The beginning of The Truman Show is in many ways similar to Up. The key difference is that, contrary to that film’s emotional rattling, here the shots are more detached. Every shot in this opening is observing Truman from a distance; the world watches him being born, grow, go to school, go to college, and get married. Among those watching is Christof, the Big Brother-type, who views Truman as an experiment for a person, not a person in an experiment.
We view the emotions of everybody watching, as they become the emotional defacto in attaching to Truman’s own emotional journey. So when truman begins to discover the lies, to break free, the audience and the world are cheering him, as they relate to his arc without actively trying to free him themselves. Of course, those who are part of the experiment, namely Christof, contrast this; they are interested in the exact opposite. Naturally, that theme is also echoed throughout the film, most notably by the detachment of everybody in Truman’s life, from his wife to his mother to his best friend. Like Christof, they view him as an experiment before a person. All this is both foreshadowed and explored in those opening moments.
Christof’ narration in particular demonstrates both the immense respect we place on growth, life and our own existence as well our innate nature to view people from a distance, to revel in constricting them by our own selfishness in spite of maintaining an air of emotional protection. It’s complex, brilliant, and all echoed in the first scene.
James Bond: Casino Royale
A bathroom fight, shot in black and white, opens Casino Royale. It is interspersed with visually similar shots of Bond confronting another spy. It’s atmospheric, and a perfect way to reintroduce the world’s most suave assassin. But more crucially it its setup of James Bond’s character, telling us how he thinks, reacts, understands.
The idea that he is reckless, for example (one that is explored through the remainder of the film), is introduced here as a character trait, Bond willing to do anything as a means to an end.
His first scenes with M (also in black and white) are gorgeous, too, illuminating the relationship between the two, including their mutual trust, while still highlighting the fraught nature of their interactions. Consider this scene in contrast to one shown later, where Bond willingly disobeys M, or when M sheds little more than a tear (so to speak) when she presumes he is dead. It’s an excellent use of foreshadowing.
Perhaps why this is the best opening (sans credits) of any 007 film lies in it’s ability to be an action set-piece, an genuine artistic success and, most importantly, a character study, all simultaneously adhering to and subverting the established formula. Shaken or stirred?
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
A star destroyer sends a scout down to Hoth. Luke sees the scout and contacts Han. Luke gets captured. The ensuring battle begins. The opening to the best film in the Star Wars franchise is electric, setting up various storylines and character arcs to be explored through the film and eventually the franchise. But the first few minutes or so are the scenes that feel most vital to that opening (the ensuing scene ends in Luke’s capture).
What is so great about all of this? Well, for one the Empire sending a scout is the embodiment of the entire saga’s confrontation between the dark and light side. What’s more, Luke’s sighting of said scout, contacted with his eventual capture could subtly be hinting at his internal conflict that makes up so much of the film’s third act.
It is a small amount of time to analyse, but in just a few scenes, the film manages to hint at both the conflict of its protagonist and the antogonistic nature of all the big bands of Star Wars.