Aug 14 2012
A good beginning is crucial to a movie. It has to introduce the world of the story, give you an idea of the tone it’ll be taking, and give you a reason to stay in your seat (or not change the channel, or shut your browser, or whatever). Star Wars. The Matrix. The Godfather. Apocalypse Now. The Dark Knight. Great movies, great openings. You were definitely sticking around for the rest of those.
Then again, there are movies where so much work goes into the opening scene that the rest of the movie pales in comparison. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s always a little curious when it happens. Like it did with these six movies…
Touch of Evil
In what has to be one of cinema’s most impressive long takes, Orson Welles shows us a bomb being placed into the trunk of a car, then follows the car through a crowded street, introducing characters and scenery along the way. As long takes go, this is one of the bigger ones I can think of. Not only is the shot impressive, but the scene builds on good old nuts-and-bolts filmmaking extremely well. A ticking time bomb is the very definition of cinema suspense, and this opener gets the most out of it.
After this scene, unfortunately, the movie goes downhill a bit. Other memorable highlights of the film include Charlton Heston as one of cinema’s least convincing Mexicans…
… and Orson Welles as a sort of Jabba the Hutt prototype.
“Wonkee chee sa crispa con Greedo?”
The rest of the movie ranges from fine to good. Welles is a consummate filmmaker, and on the technical side of things this picture is no different. Its plot, however, doesn’t stick with me like my favorites from the era. In short, it’s a somewhat lesser movie from one of cinema’s iconic figures,
But man does it open with a bang. Um… literally.
An alien menace. A murdered captain. A young officer, promoted in battle. George Kirk had a matter of minutes to save as many people as possible, and succeeded with flying colors. J.J. Abrams’s Star Trek reboot opens in sensational fashion. A pre-Thor Chris Hemsworth goes all-in for the ten minutes he has, and the result is the most emotional scene of the movie. It’s almost essential that the main title punches through when it does, since the opening scene feels a bit like a great self-contained short film.
Remember, just because the opening scene is the best part doesn’t mean the movie is bad. Star Trek is clever, energetic, and simply a blast to watch. The opening, however, simply functions on a different level. Nothing in the rest of the movie (like, say, the destruction of Vulcan) really ever gets to that emotional register again. Spock’s loss in the middle of the story is a downer, sure, but we don’t feel torn apart the way we do in the opening scene. In fact, that opener is strong enough that, when we meet Capt. Pike and hear of his admiration for Jim’s father, we understand why someone would admire the last ten minutes of Kirk’s life in the way he does.
Speaking of emotional openings… I mean, do I really have to say anything else here? The montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together makes the opening scene of Star Trek up there look like a Lifetime movie. And honestly, people forget how funny and touching the small scene before that is, too. Watching young Carl trying to figure out this new girl, simultaneously terrified of her and enraptured by her, is one of the great character beats of this movie.
Like Star Trek, there’s some great stuff sprinkled throughout Up’s runtime. Carl’s first ascent in the balloons, the ensuing storm, the incessant frustration of Russell… but again, none of it packs the wallop of that prologue. In fairness — and again in comparison to Star Trek — the opening serves its purpose by being so freakin’ good that you understand why Carl has such a problem creating a new life after Ellie’s ends.
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