No one understands the true magic of the cinema more than Steven Spielberg, since he basically invented (or, at the very least, reinvented) that magic with his beloved Amblin classics in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He’s the first filmmaker that comes to mind to even the most passive moviegoer and he’s responsible for even more of the highest-grossing movie record holders than James Cameron.
A large part of the iconic director’s phenomenal success has been in powerful opening scenes that set the unique tone of each of his films perfectly. So, here are Steven Spielberg’s 10 greatest opening scenes, ranked.
10 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Elliott might technically be the lead character of E.T., but it’s the titular little alien that’s the heart and soul of the movie. In the opening scene of the film, we see some alien botanists land on Earth. Most movies that open with aliens landing on Earth lead to some teenagers getting mutilated or a farm boy getting abducted.
However, here, the aliens are not the villains. The government agents that show up and scare them away are. The aliens flee in their ship, leaving E.T. behind. Immediately, we get what this movie is about: an innocent alien’s quest to get home.
9 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Since Spielberg’s intention with the Indiana Jones series was to give America its own James Bond, all of the movies open with a spectacular action sequence. However, the opening scene of the third one stands out, because it flashes back to Indy’s first adventure as a Boy Scout, played by the late, great River Phoenix.
The scene showcases the character’s unwavering courage as he’s just a kid and he takes on a gang of grown men, just because they’re stealing an artifact that he believes belongs in a museum. At the end, the scene flashes back to the present, where Indy displays the same values and he fights some guys on a boat for the exact same artifact, years later.
Munich is not a typical Spielberg film – there are no absent father figures, no aliens, and no sense of childlike wonder – but it is one of his finest. As a historical thriller, it’s virtually unmatched, and the opening scene offers viewers a cinematic recreation of the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre – in which the Palestinian terrorist group Black September murdered 11 athletes on the Israeli Olympic team – that is equal parts shockingly violent and hauntingly beautiful.
One of Spielberg’s greatest strengths as a director of movies based on real-life events is his respect for the victims of historical tragedies, and that’s on clear display in Munich.
7 Bridge of Spies
For an espionage thriller about Soviet agents in the Cold War, Bridge of Spies has a quiet opening. But then, it was a quiet war. The movie opens in New York in 1957, with Rudolf Abel going about his day. He goes out into the city to paint a landscape and returns home, where some CIA agents raid his apartment and arrest him on suspicion of being a spy for the Soviet Union.
Mark Rylance doesn’t play Abel as a classic, mustahce-twirling villain – quite the opposite, actually. The cinematography in this scene is gorgeous. With its framing of vintage New York architecture, each shot looks like a work of art.
6 Jurassic Park
In many ways, Jurassic Park is a monster movie, but it’s not a monster movie in the traditional sense, because it’s easy to empathize with the monsters in Jurassic Park – and, in a sense, the real monster in the movie is man. In the opening scene, some workers constructing John Hammond’s ambitious theme park attempt to get a velociraptor into a cage. The raptor outsmarts them and rams the cage, knocking the gatekeeper off-balance.
Then, the raptor feeds. This scene is not only an intriguing introduction into the world of cloned dinosaurs that leaves a lot to the imagination; it also expertly sets up the story’s thesis: the dinosaurs don’t attack unless provoked, a theme park full of cloned prehistoric creatures is a bad idea, and man shouldn’t play God.
5 Schindler’s List
Spielberg’s harrowing Holocaust drama Schindler’s List has the perfect opening scene for its tale of good versus evil. The lead character is a classic “good German” archetype, as he goes from a self-interested member of the Nazi Party to the savior of 850 imprisoned Jews whose only regret is that he couldn’t save more.
The opening scene establishes Oskar Schindler’s initial characterization by showing his arrival in Krakow. Polish Jews have been forced into the overcrowded ghetto just down the street and the only thing on Schindler’s mind is the prospect of making his fortune. This is a tragic, but accurate, portrayal of German attitudes at the time.
4 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Steven Spielberg met with a number of scientists studying extra-terrestrial life before making his UFO movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. They told him that aliens would likely contact humans using universally recognizable forms of communication, like lights, colors, and sounds. Since he made the movie in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Spielberg decided to frame the alien landing as a government conspiracy.
So, the movie begins with the kind of unexplained phenomena that fuels conspiracy theories. A World War II squadron that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle decades earlier reappears in the Mexican desert. This settles us in for a more thoughtful piece than the average sci-fi movie.
The real power of Jaws is in its use of subtlety. Lesser filmmakers would’ve shown the shark in all its glory whenever they had the chance – and many lesser filmmakers have with the many rip-offs that followed Jaws’ success – but not Spielberg. (This may have been due to budgetary restrictions, but it still led to a masterful film, so it doesn’t matter how the sausage gets made.)
In the opening scene, we see a young, drunk woman swim out into the ocean in the middle of the night and get dragged under by an unseen force. The Hitchcockian camera angles, the spine-tingling suspense, the use of John Williams’ iconic score – it all serves a perfect opening scene for a near-perfect movie.
2 Saving Private Ryan
While it’s not technically the opening scene of the film – that distinction goes to the framing device with an elderly Private Ryan visiting his fallen comrades’ graves – but the actual opening scene feels more like a prologue. The gritty 20-minute D-Day landings sequence is the true beginning of the story, and it’s breathtaking.
Spielberg achieved the visceral feel of the scene by making the viewer not a distant observer, but another soldier on the frontlines. He didn’t storyboard the scene, instead allowing the action to tell him where to place the camera during the shoot, and he used handheld cameras. This scene is so unnerving and realistic that it’s given veterans PTSD attacks.
1 Raiders of the Lost Ark
The opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark is more than just an awesome action sequence that sets up the character and his world, although it does do that wonderfully. It also acts as the first of seven acts in the movie’s uniquely structured screenplay.
It establishes Indiana Jones as a cool-as-ice archeologist who ventures deep into uncharted territory to uncover ancient artifacts and it establishes his rival, Rene Belloq, as a smarter and more powerful archeologist working with the Nazis. Already, we have a protagonist we’re rooting for, an antagonist we’re rooting against, and by virtue of those two things, a movie.