Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The 5 Best Movie Opening Sequences

I’ve been in a movie kick lately. And hearing a song on the way to work from a favorite film of mine, it spurred me to start up another list.

The 5 Best Movie Opening Sequences!

These are the scenes that kick off the movie. They bring the audience into the story and keep their butts in the seats for 2 hours. They can be humorous, full of action, or really depressing – but then why would you stay in the movie if you know you’re going to spend the rest of it crying your eyes out? This is why I will never understand The Notebook or movies of the like. Even Grave of the Fireflies has a softer opening to ease people into the drama-laden plot…I’m digressing again.

To make it clear, I don’t mean title sequences. These are portions of the story told at the beginning before the opening credits, or while the credits are rolling over the story. So, let’s roll. Not out. We are not rolling out. No Transformers in this list.

5: Halloween. The original. Not the remakes or sequels or any of those Horror Character A vs Horror Character B movies. I’m talking about the first, the one, the only, with a young Jamie Lee Curtis before she became an action star in the 1990’s rocking against Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a very underrated opening sequence, and really long. From the get-go the camera settles in on a first person perspective. It feels very claustrophobic while maintaining its voyeuristic feel. You’re stuck in this person’s mind, caught behind their mask, and it’s quite eerie. Even more so when you continue on and you figure out that this person you’re looking through is the killer. THE killer.

You watch as the camera continues through the house that you have apparently broken into. You walk up the stairs and go to a young girl’s bedroom. You see her get murdered in front of your eyes. There is no finessing. It happens! When you think you can’t handle anymore, the killer leaves the house and is stopped by someone. The camera tilts up and you see it’s someone taller than you. And adult. That’s when it hits the audience like a ton of bricks that the killer is a child - as the camera finally changes and he is unmasked. It sends chills through one’s spine seeing this. It’s not a flashy opening and doesn’t rely on a lot of fluff. But it gives you the right frame of mind to watch the movie.

4: Memento. There is no denying that Christopher Nolan is a genius of non-linear storytelling, and Memento is a fine example of this. The opening sequence of this film was shot in reverse order, unknown to the audience until you hit the conclusion of the film. But you see the early set-up for this out-of-the-box story technique through the opening. It starts out with a series of photos. The audience can’t really identify what’s on the photos, and the more you start to look, the more they begin to fade into a giant puddle of ‘wtf’. It isn’t until you see the photo is being taken by a man, and that the shots are taken in reverse order, does it start to make sense. And once you can make out the photos, you realize there is more going on. Is the photo a crime scene? Why is this man taking photos? Is he the shooter? The opening is a crazy mix that tells the audience yes, you have to think through this movie if you want to understand it. And in it, you realize that Memento is a game of revealing the truth while asking more questions about truth.

3: Rear Window. No list would be complete without a Hitchcock movie. What makes this opening sequence so great is that it is 100% visual. There is no dialogue! It’s bitchin. Especially from a master of suspense and the spoken word. The scene begins with the camera going outside a window, and then giving a 360 degree perspective of the entire neighborhood setting. Full. 360. That breaks so many cinematography rules I don’t know where to begin! You just don’t cross that 180 line. It messes with people’s heads (see my comments about the new Game Awards show). But Hitchcock said screw it! I’m doing it. The camera then cuts back to the living room of the male character (we soon find out his name is Jeff), using two shots to indicate how stupidly high the temperature is in the neighborhood. The camera goes back outside giving more details about the people living in the area, and Jeff looking longingly outside.

When we see Jeff again, the camera shows us why Jeff is stuck in his home, and reflects on what he does for a living. All of the objects in the shot tell you exactly who Jeff is - you know the protagonist within a few seconds of a camera shot. You see his name written on his leg cast. Then it’s a broken camera that was used before the accident, along with a photo of said accident that has left Jeff in a wheelchair. There are more photos and a pile of fashion magazines, and from all of this you can figure out that Jeff is a photographer. He was in a bad accident that has now robbed him of his work, temporarily, and he’s going stir crazy in his home. This is cinema at its best. No narrator. No dialogue. No dumb clues to tell you the plot. Items used all have a very specific meaning, and are not haphazardly placed. Rear Window is a visual story, just a movie should be.

2: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Star Wars is on this list for two very distinct reasons: the way it began a movie was completely unconventional and unheard of because it did not include any of the actors. It started out telling you the story and bringing you into the setting. Movies before this had a very strict formula of ‘title,’ ‘actor credit,’ ‘producer/director credit,’ ‘start story,’ and Star Wars jacked it all up. And now it’s totally normal to do that, so thanks Star Wars! Second: it’s still a really awesome way to start a movie.

For its simplicity with a title cards and scrolling text, you feel the sense of excitement and boldness from the first note of the music played by the London Symphony Orchestra. It all ties in so well. And then you have the Alderan convoy ship crossing in front of the screen at an angle, followed by an Imperial Cruiser arching and pulling all your attention – the massive scale and scope of the vessel drawing awe from the audience…for as simple as the first 2 minutes of Star Wars is, it is beautifully complicated and grand. On a scale of grand that cannot be measured. Even now, 30+ years later (holy crap it’s almost been 40 years since release... O_O) the opening still produces excitement in the viewer. You see their faces light up as they get swept into the excitement of it all; whether it’s the first time or the hundredth. It’s simplistic beauty.

1: Zombieland. Yes. I placed Zombieland in front of Star Wars. Nerds of the world, before you accost me, let me defend my decision. The opening to Zombieland does everything right and wrong with a sequence. It blends in classic film-making techniques with modern storytelling in a seamless way that you don’t realize that the movie is doing a lot of things that a number of people would find sinful in Hollywood. Here’s why the movie should be panned. Let’s start off with the use of a narrator. The number one rule for screenwriters is to never, ever, ever, EVER have a narrator for your script. It is a crutch and generally screams “this piece of work is horrible and the only way people will like it is if we have a narrator.” Zombieland totally abuses the narrator clause, in spades. Second, text in a movie. Film is a visual medium. You are meant to watch actions and react to them. It’s not about reading.

While it doesn’t signify that the movie is crap, any excessive text can detract from the story because you’re forcing the audience to do additional work - versus sitting back and enjoying the show. Zombieland is well known for having text appear during the scenes covering the lead character’s rules for surviving the apocalypse. Next: “He’s right behind me, isn’t he?” The gag that if you are talking about someone, or in this case, a zombie, and then bam! They pop up on the screen? It’s an abused classic that has now become a pit of distaste for screen writers. Guess what happens in the first 2 minutes of Zombieland. We’ll follow that with the pointless jump-scare tactic, where you think something bad is going to happen and you get faked out because it’s actually a cat or nothing at all. This happens to our leading man when he wants to use the bathroom at the gas station, and is scared off by nothing. But then the “he’s right behind me” kicks in and starts the action sequence. Zombieland abuses this trope, but it works. The point of this movie is to give a satirical perspective of the apocalypse. It doesn’t take itself seriously, aside from the gory zombie kill effects. We all know that the premise is ridiculous, and the production crew did as well. And the best thing this movie could have done was throw in as many tropes as possible. That’s why Zombieland stands out in my mind.

By blending in all of the things an opening sequence should do (lighting, sound, music, the premise, wonderfully detailing the life of the main male lead without smacking us in the face) with a smart use of camera techniques and editing, and throwing in all the tropes screen writers avoid (narrator, text, fake-out jumps, etc.), it’s everything a 2 minute opening should have. The follow-up title sequence is equally as entertaining, going for broke and really creating an experience that will always remain with you. It’s a great use of stereoscope and computer technology with a delicate balance that current filmmakers could learn from. And Metallica. Because, Metallica.

Video game tie-in! Gamespresso looks at why video game movies are not great adaptations of the source material. While the writer harkens on some of the things many have said before, there are some new thoughts that provide a fresh perspective. He also mentions Prince of Persia, which in itself is not a bad movie, even if it’s not quite like the source material.


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