The opening 10 minutes of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" use a three-act structure to create a compelling mini-story within the story.
Writing the opening of the film as a mini-movie allows the audience to get to know the character and the world that he inhabits.
The sequence perfectly balances action with revealing character.
The following is a transcript of the video.
The opening temple-raid sequence of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is one of the best movie openings of all time because it reveals everything you need to know about Indiana Jones, all in only 10 minutes.
It shows that he is clever and goes with his gut feeling. Indy makes plenty of mistakes, but he always keeps trying, even in the face of defeat. His determination and his tendency to make mistakes are Indy's two defining characteristics throughout the franchise. And the film introduces the audience to these qualities right from the start.
Now, compare that to the intro from "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," a movie that borrowed heavily from "Indiana Jones." Chances are you forgot how this movie starts. To refresh your memory, Lara fights a giant robot. She's acrobatic and skilled at using pistols, but that's about the only thing we learn about her in the first five minutes. Or take "The Mummy," where, again, essentially the only thing we learn about the protagonist in his first scene is that he's good at shooting guns. So, what exactly is the intro to "Indiana Jones" doing differently from its imitators?
While the acting, directing, and editing are all superb, what really sets this opening sequence apart from most other films is that it's a self-contained story that's well structured. We meet Indiana Jones and watch him struggle through multiple obstacles to try and reach his goal. In fact, this opening sequence has a similar narrative arrangement to that of a feature-length film and actually fits perfectly into the format of a traditional three-act structure, a screenplay structure popularized by author Syd Field. The three-act structure expands upon the concept of beginning, middle, and end. Let's take a look at the entirety of "Star Wars: A New Hope" as an example:
In act one, there's the beginning: setting up the story.
The inciting incident: an event that sets the story into motion.
The climax of act one: an event that signals that the protagonist's life will never be the same again.
In act two there's rising action: The protagonist is met with new challenges.
The midpoint: Something goes terribly wrong, altering the plans of the protagonist.
The climax of act two: The protagonist hits their lowest point.
In act three there's the climax: the most intense point, where the story's overarching conflict is on the brink of being resolved.
And finally, the resolution: wrapping up the story and leading towards closure.
Now, most movies, including "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones," tell their three-act stories over the course of their 90-plus-minute run times. What makes the opening sequence of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" so special is that it also creates a mini three-act-structure story in only 10 minutes:
The camera follows a mysterious character and his porters making their way through a jungle.
One of the porters pulls a gun on the mysterious character, but the man uses a whip to disarm him. We're officially introduced to Indiana Jones.
After entering the temple, Indy intentionally activates a trap, which reveals the skeleton of his former rival.
Indiana and Satipo forge deeper into the cave, navigating their way past more traps.
Indiana Jones retrieves the golden idol but accidentally triggers a trap, and the temple starts to collapse behind him.
Indy is betrayed by Satipo, and the temple doors start to close.
Just when Indy thinks that he's in the clear, a giant boulder starts to hurdle towards him.
Indy is alive, but he has to hand over the idol and his gun to another one of his rivals.
By writing the opening of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" as a mini-movie, it serves as a teaser for the rest of the film and allows the audience to get to know what kind of world they're about to explore.
Compare that to the structure of the opening of "Tomb Raider," which only has a beginning and a climax, nothing in between. Her obstacle stays the same the entire time, the killer robot, and she never really changes her approach to defeating it, shooting it with her guns. On the other hand, the temple raid presents Indy with a plethora of obstacles, and we get to watch as he comes up with solutions for each new problem.
While the film itself has some problematic moments, from a purely filmmaking perspective, the excellent structuring of the opening sequence of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" makes it an unforgettable introduction to Indiana Jones. And at the end of it, the audience feels like they know the character and the world that he inhabits.
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