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Best Cinematic Prologues?
December 25, 2007 9:15 PM   Subscribe

What films have the best prologues?

• "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...."
2001's "Dawn of Man" sequence
• Battlestar Galactica's "The Cylons were created by man..."

What are other examples of prologues that set up necessary backstory while kick starting a film in style? Bonus points for fantasy or sci-fi examples.
posted by roger ackroyd to Media & Arts (41 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I like the one in Magnolia with the montage of strange coincidences from urban legends... "these things happen!"
posted by moift at 9:20 PM on December 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


Raising Arizona and The Fellowship of the Rings are two that come immediately to mind.
posted by infinitewindow at 9:31 PM on December 25, 2007


I like the opening of Serenity, starting with the Universal logo's Earth morphing into 'Earth that was'
posted by pupdog at 9:40 PM on December 25, 2007


The Kingdom first 4 minutes (youtube) have been acclaimed recently as the best résumé of the story of the oil relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia for the past 70 years.
posted by bru at 9:45 PM on December 25, 2007 [2 favorites]


A lot of the Coen Brothers' films have had memorable prologues. My favorite is the Stranger's opening narration in The Big Lebowski.

I'm seconding The Fellowship of the Ring. They compressed about 3000 years of fictional history into 7 or 8 minutes, and made it a clear and exciting narrative.
posted by Vic Morrow's Personal Vietnam at 9:53 PM on December 25, 2007


"The Player" has one HECK of an opening shot.
posted by clango at 9:58 PM on December 25, 2007


Layer Cake has an exhilarating prologue, which gives you a very good idea of Daniel Craig's character's personality and the world he inhabits. Admittedly, a lot of crime films heavily influenced by Guy Richie have taken to the flashy prologue.
posted by Gnatcho at 10:20 PM on December 25, 2007


Contact's gorgeous universe-long tracking shot with chronologically matching radio mix: though this doesn't setup a backstory, per se, it does highlight a major theme beautifully.
posted by asuprenant at 10:29 PM on December 25, 2007


If you don't mind a reference to anime, I think the Ah! My Goddess! movie has an incredible beginning. Fairy Princess Morgan le Fay bounces across the surface of the moon and dives into a deep crater. She then breaks through a magical shield, draws runes on what looks to be a magically sealed vault door, and eventually releases a prisoner held there.

Truly an amazing scene, and quite a contrast to what comes next: switch to Tokyo, where we see everyday life with Keichi, Beldandy, Urd, and Skuld.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:36 PM on December 25, 2007


I Am Legend starts off with a kick, introducing Will Smith alone in New York City.

But Raising Arizona, for the win.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:05 PM on December 25, 2007


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.

Exit

posted by Faux Real at 11:18 PM on December 25, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Alan Smithee version of Dune has an extended animated prologue that is best appreciated in an elevated state of consciousness. It's incredible. Is the backstory necessary? Not at all. I don't remember the specifics, but it outlines some untold number of years before the story begins, and by the end of it you realize that absolutely none of what you just learned save the last minute or so is meaningful.

But, really, Raising Arizona takes all cakes.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:42 PM on December 25, 2007


It's not fantasy or sci-fi, but the intro for "The Kingdom" [youtube] compresses seven decades of US/Saudi Arabia history into its four-minute prologue / title sequence. It's masterfully done.
posted by churl at 1:11 AM on December 26, 2007


Crap, I totally overlooked bru, who already recommended The Kingdom. Disregard, sorry.
posted by churl at 1:14 AM on December 26, 2007


That Dune prologue. God, the pain... And it's as animated as a week-old dead cat, IIRC... ;-)

Can a single take count? Then the one in The Prestige gets my vote for the perfect prologue. "Are you watching closely?". Heh.

The one in The Host is great, concise, witty, and a lesson on tight narration.

The remake of Dawn of the Dead has a brilliant prologue, truly spooky up to and including the title credits.
posted by Iosephus at 1:45 AM on December 26, 2007


Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in Pulp Fiction

And every single James Bond film ever made...
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 2:15 AM on December 26, 2007


This is a tale about an unprejudiced heart, and how it changed our valley forever.
posted by jbickers at 3:34 AM on December 26, 2007


Oh, how quickly they forget.
When The Matrix came out eight years ago, its prologue was the most amazing bit of action film ever seen, with the jaw-dropping introduction to the "bullet time" technique, followed by Trinity's amazing escape run with the inter-building refenestration dive.
People would have paid to see this even without the rest of the movie.
posted by spasm at 4:10 AM on December 26, 2007


Director's cut of Aliens. Not fantasy or sci-fi, but most Scorsese films, Goodfellas ("As far back as I can remember, I've always wanted to be a gangster") and Casino are the first two that come to mind as having awesome prologues.
posted by marxchivist at 4:53 AM on December 26, 2007


Each Lord of the Rings film has a pretty amazing prologue, including Fellowship, but especially Return of the King, with the Smeagol/Gollum transformation.
posted by quentiniii at 4:55 AM on December 26, 2007


The opening minutes of Citizen Kane, where the camera tracks through the deteriorating Xanadu, toward Kanes bedroom window and his death bed, culminating on his uttering his last word.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:12 AM on December 26, 2007


The single-take, 3-minute-long, crane tracking shot that opens Orson Welles' Touch of Evil is widely regarded as one of the best (and most famous) film prologues of all time. In its own way, it is just as cinematically breathtaking as the Matrix opening.
posted by googly at 5:30 AM on December 26, 2007


Sunset Boulevard
posted by fuse theorem at 5:58 AM on December 26, 2007


Reservoir Dogs is still one of my favourites but Tarantino is always good for setting things up - see also, Kill Bill I.

Go! has a cool prologue with Claire's v.o. Rona lying in the ditch, then to Simon in the trunk of the car and then onto the actual chronological start (well, the first one) of the film.

Then there's always Joan Fontaine's v.o. prologue for Hitchcock's Rebecca:

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter for the way was barred to me. Then, like all dreamers, I was possessed of a sudden, the supernatural powers and passed like a spirit through the barrier before me.

The drive wound away in front of me, twisting and turning as it had always done. But as I advanced, I was aware that a change had come upon it. Nature had come into her own again, and little by little had encroached upon the drive with long tenacious fingers, on and on while the poor thread that had once been our drive.

And finally, there was Manderley. Manderley, secretive and silent. Time could not mar the perfect symmetry of those walls. Moonlight can play odd tricks upon the fancy, and suddenly it seemed to me that light came from the windows. And then a cloud came upon the moon and hovered an instant like a dark hand before a face. The illusion went with it. I looked upon a desolate shell, with no whisper of a past about its staring walls.

We can never go back to Manderley again. That much is certain. But sometimes, in my dreams, I do go back to the strange days of my life which began for me in the south of France...

posted by i_cola at 6:04 AM on December 26, 2007


Equilibrium. This is a german language version, but you get the idea.
posted by cashman at 6:14 AM on December 26, 2007


Saving Private Ryan
posted by softlord at 7:38 AM on December 26, 2007


The wedding at the start of The Godfather. And even within that, Bonasera's introductory monologue ("I believe in America...").
posted by equalpants at 8:40 AM on December 26, 2007


The silent film "UNLUCKY!" opening of O Lucky Man!
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 8:57 AM on December 26, 2007


That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women...
posted by Hlewagast at 10:06 AM on December 26, 2007


Great answers, everyone. Keep 'em coming!
posted by roger ackroyd at 10:12 AM on December 26, 2007


Reservoir Dogs, enough said. It doesn't have anything to do with the movie really and its a conversation that at least half a dozen partake in, but its still incredible.
posted by Black_Umbrella at 10:19 AM on December 26, 2007


I enjoy the Blade Runner opening, especially with that gigantic throbbing bass thump in the background.
posted by evisceratordeath at 10:35 AM on December 26, 2007


I always loved the intro to LA Confidential. Danny Devito does a great voice-over introduction which, you realize as he winds it up, is his weekly gossip column.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:47 AM on December 26, 2007


The opening from Lord of War showing the "life of a bullet" was sadly the best part of the movie.
posted by mrbill at 10:52 AM on December 26, 2007 [1 favorite]


Payback (1999), either version (they are very different), but as mentioned above, the Matrix has an awesome prologue.
posted by wierdo at 11:26 AM on December 26, 2007


1. The Hunt for Red October:

In November of 1984, just before Gorbachev came to power, a Typhoon-class Soviet sub surfaced just south of the Grand Banks.
It then sank in deep water, apparently suffering a radiation problem. Unconfirmed reports indicated some of the crew were rescued.
But according to repeated statements by both Soviet and American governments, nothing of what you are about to see...
EVER HAPPENED.


2. The beginning of Boogie Nights introduces most of the main characters in a single several-minute shot.
posted by Mapes at 11:46 AM on December 26, 2007


This might veer dangerously close to "my favorite movie intro" But I thought the monologue and ingratiating smugness of that guy from Thank You For Smoking was superb.
posted by Student of Man at 11:48 AM on December 26, 2007


Not exactly SF, but... A Matter of Life and Death (known as Stairway to Heaven in the US), a 1946 film that's mostly a love-story between a British bomber pilot and an American radio operator, begins with a very long, slow pan across a starscape, as a sonorous narrator intones:

"This is the universe."
(pause)
"Big, isn't it?"
posted by Hogshead at 2:26 PM on December 26, 2007


I loved the prologue in Evil Dead 2, which was basically all of the first Evil Dead movie summed up in about 5 minutes.
posted by cazoo at 11:03 PM on December 26, 2007


Loved The Host. Digging out my Tarantino and Raimi. Checking into Touch of Evil...I can't believe Netflix doesn't have Stairway to Heaven. :-P

Thanks again, everyone.
posted by roger ackroyd at 1:16 PM on December 27, 2007


Stranger Than Fiction
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
2nding Magnolia
posted by iamkimiam at 11:44 AM on December 28, 2007


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