As screenwriters, we’re constantly told it’s imperative to capture the imagination of the reader in the first 10 pages of our screenplay. If we don’t, the script is often tossed into the “pass” pile and the reader moves on to the next screenplay in the stack.
But beyond hooking the reader, the beginning of a film is one of the most important parts of telling the story. The tone, the setting, the genre are all established and usually, we get to meet our hero for the first time. As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Some movies, like Raiders of the Lost Ark, introduce the hero in the very beginning of the film and while giving us plenty of reasons to root for him. Some movies merely introduce the antagonist, like the shark in Jaws, giving us plenty of reasons to fear him. Other films, like Inglourious Basterds, introduce both the heroine and the villain to set up the deadly rivalry. Whatever your strategy is, and it will change among different genres, the opening scene must set hearts racing and pique curiosity.
Here are ten amazing examples of opening movie scenes that hook us from the first frame.
10. A Clockwork Orange
The movie starts with a blood-red background and ominous music. We are then invited to stare deep into the wicked eyes of Alex (Malcolm McDowell) until we just can’t stand it anymore. The camera slowly pans back to reveal a strange, hyper-sexualized milk bar that we want to both explore and escape from at the same time. It is psychologically menacing and sets the stage for a dark and violent story.
In this opening scene, Renton (Ewan McGregor) literally hits the ground running from whatever crime he’s just committed. Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” underscores the action while Renton espouses cautionary advice on “choosing life” even though we learn by the end of the monologue he’s unable to do so because he’s addicted to heroin. The scene also plays out symbolically if we contemplate not only what Renton is really running from, but also what we are all running from.
8. There Will Be Blood
Without dialogue, this opening scene plays like a meditation on human will. We meet Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he struggles not to simply survive, but to thrive. His mettle is tested as he builds his oilrig but he stays on course. This scene also helps a modern audience quickly familiarize itself with the intense physical labor and determination required to scout and find oil.
7. The Dark Knight
The combination of zip lines, clown masks and guns is a recipe for one of the best bank heists ever put on film. These first few minutes move a breakneck pace, helped by the music that implies a ticking clock. But amidst the action and violence, we learn important things about the mysterious Joker (Heath Ledger): he wears makeup to scare people, he’s crazy and he likes to play jokes. He’s one of our favorite villains of all time.
6. Citizen Kane
The iron gates, the imposing castle on the hill, the free-range monkeys and resting gondolas cast in stark black and white set the tone for a tale of one man’s quest for wealth, greed and power that is loosely inspired by the real publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst. But it’s the utterance of one single word, “Rosebud,” on a dying man’s tongue that implies there are things more valuable, more essential for happiness than material goods. This is probably the most iconic movie opening ever made.
As a side note, many in Hollywood have long argued that “Rosebud” was a pet name for Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies. That’s all we’re going to say on that.
The very opening credits of Jaws set up something sinister: the point of view of the man-eating shark. We sail through the water with it in search of its next meal. Who better to eat than the naked, sexually free Chrissie (Susan Backlinie)? Primal terror fills our souls as she is first jerked under the water. With limited special effects and budget, this scene is a masterpiece of storytelling.
4. Inglourious Basterds
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino masterfully creates suspense in this gut-wrenching opening scene where Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is hiding beneath the floorboards while Col. Landa (Christoph Waltz) takes his sweet time drinking milk (that’s the second opening scene featuring milk!) and chatting about how pleased he is with his nickname, “The Jew Hunter.” It takes a full four minutes, but by then, we’re all on the edge of our seat. The scene sets up Shosanna as a heroine who will stop at nothing to get revenge. Experiencing those fateful four minutes of terror with her has us rooting for her through the rest of the film.
3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
This opening scene is more about the introduction of a classic adventure hero, Indiana Jones played gloriously by Harrison Ford, then a mere set up to an action franchise. The golden idol scene is where we learn exactly what Jones is made of: he’s clever, he’s resourceful and he’s fast – all things he needs when Nazis are chasing him later in the film. He is a man who values risk as much as reward. And he’s flawed – he famously hates snakes. Indiana Jones would go on to appear in 5 feature films (the next of which is set to release in 2020, starring Ford and directed by Steven Speilberg), a TV show and numerous videogames.
2. Apocalypse Now
Under a black screen, we hear the sound of a helicopter before we see the jungles of Vietnam. Yellow smoke and The Doors song “This is the End” set up a devastatingly bleak tone. It is war, after all. Suddenly, the entire jungle explodes into flames. Helicopters hover like flies over a carcass as Captain Willard’s (Martin Sheen) face appears upside down, indicating the off-kilter world we are about to enter.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey
The best and worst of humanity is summed up in this opening scene – destruction, survival, innovation. That director Stanley Kubrick so poetically filmed this intellectual leap from the first stone tools to a fully functioning spaceship shows he had a deep understanding of man’s past and possibly, his future. Released a year before Americans set foot on the moon, the movie explores our own flaws and those of the computers we make in our image.
Shanee Edwards graduated from UCLA Film School with an MFA in Screenwriting and is currently the film critic for SheKnows.com. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her pilot, Ada and the Machine, is currently in development with America Ferrera’s Take Fountain Productions. You can follow her on Twitter: @ShaneeEdwards