The first moments we witness when we watch a movie are important. They determine our first impression, influencing our mindset for the rest of the film. This is why it is crucial for filmmakers to set the correct tone and establish elements of the story at the outset: without them doing so, the audience can be completely misled as to what the film is really about or aiming to achieve.
In a video essay from The Closer Look called “How To Begin A Movie,” several examples are provided as to how the opening sequence of a movie can effectively provide insight as to what the viewer can expect from the film they are about to watch. While the goal of an opening sequence is to establish the elements of a story in an engaging way, the rules that come with doing this can also be broken to fit the film’s needs. Watch the video below.
Three simple illustrations of what can constitute as a good opening are provided at the outset of the essay, the first being a strong first line of dialogue. The example used for this is Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War, in which Nicolas Cage provides an opening line that effectively communicates that his character is an arms dealer looking to sell more weapons, showing that he is a money-centric and morally corrupt individual. While perhaps this is the most succinct tactic of the three, nailing the perfect line of dialogue can be difficult to carry the weight of the film’s exposition alone. Although a strong opening line is important in any film, one that fulfills this obligation in isolation from the sequence’s other parts is probably not all that common.
The second is an indicative title card sequence — in other words, a series of shots that establishes the film’s tone while the opening credits are rolling in front of it. This kind of opening is only really possible if the film has opening title cards. The example given is Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, where ominous music plays during an extreme long-shot of a car driving through the woods. The viewer is automatically under the impression that something chilling and disturbing is going to occur in the film.
Thirdly, the title card sequence can be indicative with its text, even if there is no shot at all. We are shown a clip of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, in which the title cards roll over a black screen and absurd captions at the bottom of the frame indicate the humorous nature of the film. Before the film transitions to its opening shot, the final title cards begin to have bright flashing lights behind them rather than an empty black frame. The flashing then ceases and the screen reads “England, 932 A.D.” This works to effectively disorient the audience and provides a sense of comic instability, and the viewer can infer that the film will be set in an environment of the same instability.
While there is a sense of what is to be expected in the film, can the quality of a film be determined from an opening sequence? In other words, what would a poorly crafted opening sequence mean for a film? This question is actually addressed in the essay, using the opening of Razzies winner The Emoji Movie. Here, the film directly addresses the audience with a narrator and describes the setting, resulting in telling rather than showing. One of the sole purposes of film is to see a narrative unfold onscreen, not to have it described to them.
However, I would argue that narration in an opening sequence can also work to the film’s advantage, so long as it’s not the only element at work. Take Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the opening scene of which shows Elisa’s apartment submerged underwater as the score plays, the camera slowly making its way deeper inside. There is an ethereal quality about it, and we begin to get a sense of the story’s magical realism. The narration that occurs simultaneously supports this by providing vague hints about the story to be told, calling Elisa “the princess without voice.” Here, it adds another layer of mystique and sets up the story’s elements without laying it all on the table.
Also praised for their opening sequences are the films in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy for their character introductions. While Batman Begins focuses on Bruce Wayne’s character as a child and adult, the bank heist scene that opens The Dark Knight introduces The Joker, and a similar scene of action opens The Dark Knight Rises to introduce the villain Bane. What is also notable about the two latter films, in particular, is that Bruce is not mentioned at all, but he doesn’t need to be — we are already familiar enough with our protagonist after the first film.
An important note that is emphasized as well is that these rules can always be broken, even if it seems to go against instinct for what would set up a story. This includes beginning with a scene that deviates from the narrative’s chronology. The Closer Look uses Raiders of the Lost Ark as an example. The film begins with Indiana Jones stealing the gold idol and is then running from the Aztec locals. The film then transitions to Jones teaching as a professor in a classroom. By beginning with this scene that has little relevance to the rest of the story, we are given a taste of the action and adventure that is to come and are not misled into thinking the film mostly takes place in a university.
In addition, many opening scenes can be separate from the story proper, being a part of but having little effect on the rest of the narrative. Examples include the beginnings of The Dark Knight, Scream, and The Matrix. What’s important to note about The Matrix, in particular, is that it goes further against instinct by not establishing the story’s elements but instead raising questions about it: who are these characters, why do they have powers? These questions provide an expectation to the viewer that they will receive answers in the film.
The essay names Logan as being an example of a movie with a perfect opening, but I find this to be somewhat subjective — is there such a thing as an opening sequence that is perfect? There are so many ways in which an opening sequence could serve as a fantastic exposition, but it ultimately just depends on the preference of the filmmaker in the end. Logan is cited as providing an opening sequence that is both thoroughly entertaining for the audience yet also provides the film’s tone and establishing elements. But to say which film does this the best is a matter of opinion.
Several other great film openings do what is said to make Logan excellent but do them in a different way. The beginning of Halloween comes to mind for me — the film opens through the eyes of a young Michael Myers, and the audience sees everything from his point-of-view. There is suspensefulness that immediately comes into play: the audience must figure out who this person is, and why what they’re doing is significant. The events of that first sequence set the film in motion, despite the rest of the film not taking place until years later, because we are introduced to our antagonist committing his first known evil act. On top of this, the scene is thoroughly entertaining as the events that are going to transpire are unpredictable to the audience. But while Halloween checks all of these boxes in my book, there will always be someone who thinks a different film did a superior job at achieving these goals.
All in all, the beginning of a film really does have an impact on the rest of it: if it creates the right tone with that first impression on the viewer, then the film has started on the right trajectory. Without this, it’s likely an indication of the film’s choppiness and inconsistency in tone and narrative. If the film is aware of the story that it’s telling, then the opening sequence will ultimately reflect this.