A Meditation on Movie Trailers.


Battle: Los Angeles is a prodigiously stupid film. The plot is stupid. The characters are stupid – both in their conception and in their actions. The aliens are stupid. The film is almost proud of how stupid the whole thing is.

That being said, Battle: Los Angeles also manages to be fucking awesome no less than 65% of the time. The twelve-year-old sitting behind me in the theater loved it, and so did I; I left the theater wishing that I, too, could shove my submachine-gun underneath the metal-plated ribcage of a robotic alien and empty a clip into its slimy thorax. The alien-invasion subgenre has become fashionable recently for reasons I’m not entirely clear on, though I mostly blame District 9. And while B:LA is nowhere near as smart as that film, it’s also no stupider than Signs, which I also loved.

However: I don’t really want to talk about B:LA. What I really want to talk about are movie trailers – because they’re one of my favorite art forms, and because most people think about them in the wrong way.

Most people think of movie trailers as being a reasonably good representation of what’s in the film. They watch the trailer, take in the stars, plot overview, and general tone, and decide to whether to see the film based on that.

But this is a recipe for disappointment, because the point of trailers is not to accurately represent what’s in the film. The point of movie trailers is to cram as much enticing footage into two or three minutes as humanly possible, in the hopes that it’ll convince you to buy a ticket. This is why it’s so common to hear people walk out of a theater and say, in disgust, “Well, that was nothing like the trailer”. Of course it wasn’t: if trailers accurately depicted what movies were actually like, many fewer people would be tricked into seeing bad movies.

Trailers are representative of movies in the same way that yogurt commercials are representative of what it’s like to eat yogurt. That doesn’t mean that people don’t decide to see films based on the trailer, in the same way that yogurt commercials do actually sell yogurt. But it’s obviously not an accurate depiction.

In the olden days, even the movie studios who made the trailers hadn’t figured out how this marketing distinction was going to work, which is why old movie trailers seem so unsubtle and weird. The studios in those days figured that the best way to sell tickets was to give you as much information as possible about the plot and characters of the film, which turns out to be emphatically what people do not want from movie trailers. Check out this trailer for the original True Grit, which was released in 1978.

Now, check out the trailer from the 2010 True Grit.

Which of these trailers most accurately represents the film its promoting? The first one does. In fact, watching that trailer almost negates the need for you to watch the film at all. Whereas the second trailer doesn’t represent the tone of the Coen Brothers’s True Grit at all; it has none of the sweetness and whimsy that underlies most of the film. But it’s undeniably a better trailer.

The more interesting way to think about movie trailers is to decouple them from their associated films and instead consider them as their own art form, with their own conventions and artistic vision – as two-to-three minute experimental short films, designed to play upon your imagination and your visceral reactions. This fundamentally changes what it means to have a ‘successful’ trailer: instead of one that accurately depicts the film, a successful trailer is one that is the most effective at thrilling, saddening, intriguing, or otherwise moving the viewer.

Which brings me back to Battle: Los Angeles, whose moody, eerie trailer was the only reason anybody even knew about the film in the first place.

No plot. No characters. Not even any information about the film, really. Just a single effective song, random images from the film, and a creeping sense of dread. It’s beautiful. This is what music videos have the capacity to be but usually aren’t, because few artists seem to care much about the visual component of their music videos.

And I love it even more now that I’ve seen the film, because I can understand why the trailer was made as it was. I can almost see the editor in charge of the trailer slumped at a desk, his head in his hands. On the screen in front of him are hours of footage full of ham-fisted dialogue, over-earnest acting, and mediocre special effects. He doesn’t even know what the film is called yet – during production, the film was variously known as Battle: Los Angeles, Battle: LA, World Invasion: Battle Los Angeles, and Battle for Los Angeles. His superiors have told him that people are really into gritty, indie sci-fi films now, like District 9 or Sunshine. How am I supposed to make this crap look like that? he thinks. And then: fuck it. I’ll just make it look crazy instead.

The earliest example that I know of this sort of plot-less trailer is for 1979’s Alien, a two-minute nightmare that’s infinitely more upsetting than the entirety of most horror films. Imagine watching this in the same session as the older True Grit trailer – I’m surprised people didn’t flee the theater. (Here’s a higher quality version that is not embeddable.)

More recently, the trailer for The Social Network opened with a sort of strange multimedia poem set to a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by a Hungarian children’s choir; it’s the sort of thing that almost anyone could have made but somehow no one else did. The remainder of the trailer is mostly random lines and shots from the film, and I honestly think that you could substitute almost any line or shot from the film and it would be equally effective.

There are a number of films for which I prefer the trailer to the film itself, and would rather rewatch the former than the latter. These include The Watchmen…

… and Where The Wild Things Are.

I even like trailers for films I never bothered to see, like the 2006 Dwayne Johnson vehicle Walking Tall.

Such economy of storytelling! How could another ninety minutes possibly improve on that?

Possibly my favorite trailer of all time is for a documentary about Jerry Seinfeld called Comedian. Not only does it not include any footage from the film, or tell you what the film is about, it is actually a meta-parody of trailers themselves.

It’s possible that the trailer for Comedian wasn’t particularly effective, though, because no one I know has ever seen the film.

Lastly, my favorite trailer of the moment is for the third Transformers film, Dark Side of the Moon (wow, that is a horrible title).

I don’t know how big of a plot point this is in the film, but the conceit here is absolutely brilliant. It’s doubling down on the traditional conspiracy theories about the moon landing – not only did we actually visit the moon, we found GIANT SPACE ROBOTS while we were there! I love it. And while I’ll probably see Dark Side of the Moon when it comes out, I honestly wouldn’t care if no further scrap of footage from the film were ever released. The trailer is enough.

And that’s really what the point of all this is: sometimes, two minutes is more effective than ninety-two. And I think that once you stop thinking about trailers as being abbreviated versions of the films themselves, that time before the feature presentation will become a lot more interesting.