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5/25/1977: The Greatest Opening Sequence of All Time

A question was recently put to the floor on Social Media:

What is the greatest movie opening sequence of all time?

My biological CPU quickly scrolled through options. Jaws? A Touch of Evil? Inglorious Basterds? Raising Arizona? Raiders of the Lost Ark? Vertigo? Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?

All and more, dangerously close to the top, masterclasses for setting tone and pushing filmmaking boundaries.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws grabs the most primal fear in all of us, putting us right there in the water with the doomed shark victim.

Orson Welles’ A Touch of Evil is technical perfection with its meticulously choreographed and innovative continuous shot that ends in an explosion.

Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds masterpiece opening sequence geniusly builds a tension not seen since the likes of Hitchcock and gives us the most charming face of evil ever committed to celluloid.

Christopher Nolan has made it a staple of his films to present tightly executed opening sequences that are complete stories onto themselves with The Dark Knight Rises, Dunkirk, Tenet, and seen below, The Dark Knight.

However, only one opening sequence shall forever reign, embossed in all our memories. A film that very few believed in until it was unleashed upon cinema history on May 25th, 1977.

Star Wars

I’m a Star Wars fan. Of course I’m biased. But, I’m also a lover of cinema and I can think of no other film that says so much in such short amount of time.

No other subsequent Star Wars film or property has even come close.

Not only was George Lucas’ Star Wars like nothing that had ever been seen before, it’s opening sequence told an epic story in a few short moments by the sheer power of its painstakingly crafted visuals. More story is conveyed to the audience in this opening sequence than in some whole feature length films.

It all begins with a title card “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Simple. No music. It tells us we are about to watch a fable. The science fiction version of “Once upon a time.” It fades to black. Then –

BLAM!

One single musical note begins the adventure! The note of B. It demands our attention, thrusts us into a moment. This note by composer John Williams elicits and has become synonymous with excitement.

Simultaneously, the title “Star Wars” fills the star filled screen and quickly recedes into the distance making way for 1950’s film serial styled titles that crawl up and away, setting up the epic struggle we’re about to experience. The score, triumphant. Regal. Perhaps only rivaled by Williams’ own score from Jaws two years previous which has become synonymous with terror in the water.

The text crawl recedes leaving a starfield.

Then we pan down.

The music builds as not one, but two moons are revealed above a desert-colored planet. We are nowhere near Earth.

The framing and photographic clarity gives us the perspective of watching from a space station floating in orbit.

The anticipatory sound of some type of a vessel approaches.

In 1977, theaters were in the process of being fitted with the new Dolby A surround sound system that makes us feel like this ship is coming from behind us. That’s because it is!

A starship flies over our heads, barreling towards the planet.

A truly immersive experience, even to this day.

This must be Princess Leia’s starship mentioned in the opening crawl.

This starship is not pristine or smooth like a Flash Gordon or NASA rocket, nor saucer shaped. It’s large array of eleven engines that dwarf the fuselage tells us that this a fast starship.

Then, BOOM! Laser fire from an unseen force behind

The starship fires back! A firefight. These lasers are a new kind of animated visual effect. Short, fast, deadly bursts. A far cry from ray guns or phasers. The vastly more menacing sound effects, with the help of the Dolby A sound system, resonate in our chests.

A deeper, darker roar grows from behind and another ship enters frame.

It dwarfs the starship as it keeps going and going, growing in size. It’s enormous, filling half the screen! The contrast in size puts into perfect perspective David verses Goliath.

The Empire’s sinister agents we presume.

In just these series of events, just under 30 seconds of screentime since the pan down, dazzling brand new visual and audio storytelling tools bombard us with a completely alien, yet accessible universe.

And we haven’t even cut out of the shot!

While John Dykstra and the wizards at Industrial Light and Magic deserve a lion’s share of the credit for pulling this off, it was ultimately Lucas’s love of cinema, storytelling and gift of imagination that conspired to create cinematic perfection. With very few exceptions such as King Kong (1933) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968,) visual effects up until 1977 had largely been glorified establishing shots.

In Star Wars, each element has character and tells its own specific story.

Cutting to the reverse. The small starship now hurls towards us, exchanges volleys with the gigantic vessel pursuing it.

The next shot, an overhead of the starship, the enemy scores a direct hit which gives way to a perfect match cut inside.

Robots! The first characters we see are robots!

Not shiny and new. A leg on the gold human-shaped one has been replaced with a mismatched colored part and the short blue robot is basically a domed can on wheels. Is this a crew of robots?

Talk about defying expectations and world building.

What follows is more perfection.

The blue robot communicates with beeps with no translation setting up rules of this universe. The gold robot’s line: “There’ll be no escape for the Princess this time,” tells us everything we need to know about the princess character before we even meet her.

Human soldiers take up position in a hallway waiting for the enemy to charge through the door at the far end. Tension builds as an ominous metal clanking permeates throughout the ship commanding everyone to look above.

The starship is captured! Fitting perfectly within the bay of the Empire’s massive ship.

Close-ups on the soldiers make each one relatable. In particular, a bright blue-eyed man invites us to share in his determination. There’s a perceived wisdom about him. We like him. One of our heroes perhaps?

Grinding from behind the far door brings the tension to its boiling point as the door explodes! White armored troopers blast their way through. Wait! Isn’t white a color reserved for the good guys? Our reality is in chaos.

Our blue-eyed soldier is one of the first to fall! All bets are now off the table. No one is safe. This enemy means business and is relentless.

The brave defenders slaughtered, the breach is now safe for the most famous villain reveal in cinema history. The white troopers stop and stand at attention as a large ominous figure cloaked in black enters and surveys his troops’ handy work.

But, it’s the respirated breathing that grabs our attention. It’s a battle scar. This foe is a fierce survivor.

And without a word of dialogue, we know that this guy is the stuff of nightmares.

Star Wars may be a children’s science fiction film, but it is no less a cinematic achievement on every level. It has withstood the test of time, resonated with generations of fans and has inspired countless filmmakers.

Star Wars’ opening sequence is the greatest opening sequence of all time and it’s impossible to imagine that it can ever be beat.

 

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