If first impressions are everything then you can never underestimate the importance of a great opening credit sequence. It's one of the first things an audience sees in a film -- it introduces us to the movie, tells us who's in it, and maybe even gives us a hint about what we can expect during the course of the next ninety minutes or so. Opening credit sequences have come a long way over the years -- from the days of title cards with lists of names to more recent fare that's lavishly animated, computer generated, or tells us a story in and of itself. Maybe the most iconic of all sequences are the openings to the 20+ James Bond films, but picking just one is hard (I'm a huge Bond geek), and it seemed a little too obvious anyway.
Instead, I came up with five titles with openings that were cool, but not quite as universally recognized as something like Bond. I hope that once you've read through my list you'll stop by the comments section to share some of your favorites. Picking five was difficult -- and doesn't even begin to scratch the surface, but ...
Ok, yeah, I told myself I wouldn't be obvious -- but there weren't 20+ versions of David Fincher's Se7en and it's still definitely worthy of inclusion. This is a really great opening sequence because there's a synergy between all the different elements -- the song by Nine Inch Nails, the grimy environment, the cinematography that puts the viewer in super close proximity to everything being filmed ... it all works. You know the person we're watching isn't quite "normal" and the credits sequence gives us a hint as to just what kind of madman Pitt and Freeman are up against.
Lord of War
While I found Nic Cage's 2005 film Lord of War to be pretty average overall, there's no denying that it has one of the best opening credit sequences around. Utilizing Buffalo Springfield's instantly recognizable song, For What it's Worth, the segment in this film follows a single bullet from the time it's a flat piece of metal, through the factory, around the globe to various armies, into a magazine, down the barrel of a rifle, and finally into the unsuspecting head of a human being. It's like a story within a story, and honestly it's probably my favorite part of the entire film. Shame the rest of the movie didn't quite equal those first few minutes.
Lots of credit sequences like to show you action while the names are onscreen. It makes sense, too -- credits are boring. Only us film nerds really care about anything past the top billed stars and maybe the director. Because of that, filmmakers have to give us something to keep our attention. When action isn't an option, the other standby is something sexy. Roger Vadim shows us a great example of that with the opening of Barbarella, which features Jane Fonda stripping out of her spacesuit in zero gravity. The ridiculous theme song only adds to the mood, and the floating letters that shoot out of Fonda's discarded clothing and eventually form names are a nice touch too. This one definitely sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The opening sequence of The Shining terrified me as a child -- which was amusing looking back on it because there's nary a ghost, monster, or anything scary in it. Kubrick merely films the Torrances driving up to The Overlook Hotel on a series of empty, winding mountain roads. The music, coupled with the eerie feeling of desolation, and Kubrick's decision to film it all from a helicopter floating along above and beside them is just extremely unsettling. There's a pervasive feeling of isolation and impending doom in this opening -- a perfect lead in. Kubrick certainly new how to get under an audience's skin -- this opening proves it.
The Wild Bunch
To be completely truthful, there were two opening scenes fighting for this last spot: Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch and Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Both openings are great for similar reasons -- they introduce us to no-nonsense men with testosterone to spare. Tarantino's has great dialogue about the meaning of Like a Virgin, thoughts on tipping, and the very cool Little Green Bag song on the soundtrack before cutting to a great shot of the characters walking in slow mo and freeze-framing on each actor. Peckinpah's does many of the same things, and it did them first. That counts for something. Also, Wild Bunch's opening feels like it's a genuine credit sequence. Reservoir Dogs is excellent, but it's like a scene, then a credit sequence tacked on at the end. Peckinpah's opening is really fantastic, with its use of black and white freeze frames as the crew moves through the town. Shots of kids laughing while they watch scorpions being devoured by ants are haunting, and Peckinpah ends the whole thing beautifully with the last freeze frame on William Holden's face immediately after he's delivered an important line of dialogue. There's a sense of simplicity and elegance in this opening -- and that's why it's always been one of my favorites.