Sunday, June 5, 2011

In The Beginning

One of the most crucial choices a director has to make is how to begin a movie. A good movie opening will set the tone and introduce the characters, but a GREAT movie opening makes an audience sit up a little straighter. It should force an audience to give their full attention. It should grab an audience and suck them into the film. I know there are scores of films that could fit into this list, but for now here are a few of my favorites. I promise, I did try to make this post shorter than my previous ones, but I couldn't help it. I just have a lot say ;)

The beginning sequence of Chariots of Fire is one of the most recognizable openings to a movie ever, mainly because of Vangelis' score. If you haven't seen the movie you've probably seen this scene parodied somewhere (i.e. Madagascar) or you've at least heard the music. The movie begins in 1978 at the funeral of Harold Abrahams, one of the members of the British running team that competed in the 1924 Olympics. It then cuts back in time to 1924 to the team running on the beach. One continuous slow-motion shot introduces you to different members of the team. The first time you see the movie you don't who they are, but the next time you see it, you notice that each character is running in a way that suggests their personality. Harold looks very stoic and focused. Andrew is care-free and loose. Eric is joyful, but determined ("I believe God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure"). I've watched this scene so many times that when I listen to the soundtrack on my iPod I can picture it all in my head.

Here's the Madagascar scene:
(It's from the Spanish version of the movie, so it's not actually Ben Stiller and Chris Rock's voices. Come on, Youtube, work with me here.)

The very first note of "Circle of Life" jolts you awake at the beginning of The Lion King. Elton John's Academy Award-nominated song accompanies the epic animation as the many species of the pride lands come together to celebrate the birth of the new lion prince. The scene builds and builds until the music reaches its peak as Simba is presented and all the animals rear in adulation and then bow. I've seen this movie so many times that sometimes I don't appreciate the sheer beauty of this sequence. The gorgeous animation is second only to the ballroom scene in Beauty and the Beast, in my opinion.

The first film in The Lord of Rings trilogy was one of the most highly-anticipated films of all time. The movie opens with an empty black screen as we hear Galadriel speaking. I always think dialogue over an empty screen is very powerful because it forces you to give all your attention to what is being said. The narration of the prologue is so beautifully written and it tells the history of The Ring of Power from its creation to it being found by Bilbo Baggins. As I said before, a great opening sequence should make you sit up straight and force you to pay attention. This prologue says "Welcome to Middle Earth. You are not in Kansas anymore." It's such a powerful sequence and it makes the audience accept the circumstances of the world by just tossing them straight into the action.
For some reason I can't embed this particular video, but Click Here for the Youtube video. It's not entire prologue but you get the point. My favorite shot from this scene is during the battle on the slopes of Mount Doom at about 2:24. Elrond is shouting orders in Elvish as arrows are flying past his head, but he barely flinches because of his elven super-senses. I love the elves :)

When I went to see this movie in theaters, I didn't have very high expectations. It got sort of so-so reviews and I didn't think it would be as good as the first, but the beginning of the movie grabbed me instantly. It starts in Narnia, but not a Narnia we would recognize from the first movie. It's very dark and eerie feeling. I think the director Andrew Adamson put it well when he said, "Every good family film should begin with a birthing scene." (It sounds better in his New Zealand accent.) In this case, it's the birth of Lord Miraz's son. Though he isn't king, Lord Miraz aspires to be on the throne, so when his son is born he attempts to murder the rightful heir, Prince Caspian. This is one of my favorite opening scenes because of the incredible juxtaposition. The credits roll as Caspian flees the castle, closely followed by his would-be killers and fireworks burst overhead in celebration of the birth of the child. It's good enough that I can forgive that terribly melodramatic line, "Everything you know is about to change." An epic, exciting tone is set by the sweeping crane and helicopter shots across the Narnian plains. This opening immediately raised my expectations of what this film would be. Turns out my low-ish expectations were right. Bad accents, less appealing characters and a lot less charm. Not terrible, but not great. Check out the awesome beginning anyway. To get the jist, watch until about 5:30.

STAR TREK (2009)
This, the eleventh Star Trek movie, was an attempt to make Star Trek fun, fresh, and, most importantly, cool and in my opinion, it completely succeeded. It brought in a millions of new fans (some of whom live under the same roof as me) to Star Trek. During the audio commentary on the DVD, director J.J. Abrams says that when they started pitching ideas for the movie, one of their main concerns was how the filmmakers were going to make a movie that their wives wanted to see. (In case you hadn't noticed, most Trekkies are men). This opening scene is the answer to that. The audience is thrown head-first into a conflict between Starfleet and the Romulans.*SPOILER ALERT* The captain of the U.S.S. Kelvin is killed, making George Kirk captain. As he fights off the Romulan attack, we learn that his wife is on the ship and she's pregnant with James T. Kirk. As the rest of the crew evacuates, George stays to fight off the Romulans, knowing he will die, so the escape pods can get away. He has a heart-wrenching final conversation with his wife as the ship is on a self-destructive crash course. This scene is about 10 minutes long and no matter how many times I see it, it always makes me cry. *END SPOILER ALERT* 
 It is so enveloping that when it is over and the title card announcing the name of the movie appears, you are jolted back to reality and you realize you're still in the movie theater. The music makes the scene even more emotional. Take a listen:

Technically the opening of Lawrence of Arabia isn't a scene: it's an overture. At the time, it was not unusual for a movie like this to have an overture, but usually it was set to images on the screen. As with Fellowship of the Ring, the screen is completely black as the music plays. It sweeps you away and you know the movie to follow will be of epic proportions. The soundtrack to Lawrence of Arabia is now considered one of the greatest movie scores of all time. Take a listen:

And there you have it. A few of my favorite movie openings.

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