Deconstructing The Exquisite Badness Of The Modern Movie Trailer
Is any of this supposed to make sense anymore?
As the turd that is Suicide Squad continues to bob in cinema’s toilet bowl, it’s worthwhile contemplating one reason Suicide Squad was such a disappointment: we were tricked by a decent trailer. Once Warner Bros realised that audiences hated Batman v Superman, the studio reportedly recruited Trailer Park — the company that made the Suicide Squad trailer — to help edit a ‘lighter’ cut of the film, which ended up being awkwardly merged with director David Ayer’s ‘grim’ original version.
Trailers are rarely considered a standalone cinematic art-form. More often, they’re vectors of hype for today’s vocal (and kind of entitled) fan communities. Most studio trailers are stuffed with exciting zingers and reveals for fans to anticipate, share, screencap, gif and analyse. This isn’t totally a bad thing.
I come here both to bury bad trailers and to praise them. There’s a special kind of exhilaration in watching a trailer that so dearly wants to be awesome that it punches straight through to ridiculous. Right now I’m filled with a weird glee, having just watched what’s possibly the baddest trailer of 2016, Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword:
This trailer is ambitiously bad — bad in every way a trailer can be. But what are those ways? Let’s break it down.
It Makes No Frickin’ Sense
Trailers have always reflected shifting industry values. Under the studio system, trailers promised sweeping spectacles and beloved stars. The mid-’60s New Hollywood swing towards auteurism ushered in more artful editing and an attention to tone. And in a world where gravelly voiceover men such as Don LaFontaine ruled the blockbuster, ’80s and ’90s trailers actually just narrated the plot.
This seems unbelievably quaint now. When it comes to the vital question of ‘what the film is about’, today’s trailers are in the paradoxical position of being both too specific and too vague. They’re full of elliptical intertitles and fragments of dialogue awkwardly edited together as character voiceovers.
At one point, in the new trailer for Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch actually says “this doesn’t even make any sense”. “Not everything does,” replies The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton).
I’m still not sure what will happen in this film. It feels like a combination of Batman Begins and Inception. I guess if you like Christopher Nolan’s films, you’ll like it… and if you care about coherent plotlines and characters who are motivated by specific goals, Doctor Strange you probably won’t.
Badassery is the default register of building hype in trailers — a function it picked up from professional wrestling. It’s an attitude of relentless insouciance: a doggedly relaxed disdain for authority, safety and vulnerability. Or, as Samuel L. Jackson puts it in the forthcoming xXx: The Return of Xander Cage: “Kick some ass, and try to look dope while you doin’ it.”
This trailer is wonderfully, breathtakingly bad because it’s utterly committed to badassery at the expense of just about everything else.
Badassery works best when deployed knowingly. This is why the sardonic Jackson is one of cinema’s greatest badasses, and pulls it off to hilarious effect. But Vin Diesel is a far more crudely calibrated badassery machine, and this trailer deploys him with joyless heaviness. It’s stuffed with lines of posturing dialogue, followed by smash-cuts to reckless stunts.
Guns, Girls, Global Domination
In a way, terrible trailers are fetishistic: they alternate slow-motion mayhem with extreme, leering close-up shots of weapons, sexy bodies, sardonic warrior faces, sardonic warrior faces squinting through gun-sights, and sardonic warrior faces squinting at sexy bodies.
See how many close-ups of guns (and other sundry weapons, and Haley Bennett’s cleavage) you can spot in the trailer for Magnificent Seven. It practically uses gunshots and explosions as punctuation.
Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns set the template for this visual grammar, so it’s kind of appropriate in a western. But Ennio Morricone (who made the original 1960 version of the film) may not endorse the anachronistic hip-hop soundtrack. Speaking of which…
An Aggressively Ironic Soundtrack
Trailers frequently work within a limited soundtrack repertoire as a shortcut for accessing emotions we’ve felt before. My personal favourite: ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin. It’s in practically every action film you’ve ever seen.
But some trailers hit you over the head with a clever-clogs contrast between song and image. The Social Network trailer, which used a choir singing Radiohead’s ‘Creep’, kickstarted a veritable industry of ironically maudlin trailer songs.
Then there’s the opposite kind of badness — the use of rock and hip-hop to soundtrack period dramas and utopian sci-fi. When Star Trek: Beyond opted for the Beastie Boys’ ‘Sabotage’, it came across like a bargain-basement Guardians of the Galaxy.
What makes this trailer bad is that it woefully misjudged the right tone. Star Trek is one of cinema’s least ironic franchises: it’s about earnest fellowship and interstellar exploration. And it already has a beloved theme, which the trailer failed to render either on a wistful piano and/or in dubstep form. To be fair, Star Trek: Beyond actually did include ‘Sabotage’, but the film didn’t divert as far from the old days as the trailer would have you believe.
Total Visual Confusion
When a film is visually stylish, simply cutting together a rhythmic montage of its most striking images can make a great trailer — although this can be a bit misleading if the film doesn’t offer more than just that imagery. But bad trailers set out to fill the screen with digital confetti, or churn dozens of shots into breakneck sequences whose visual juxtaposition produces a mood of total bewilderment.
Exhibit A: Ben-Hur.
This is a total roller coaster ride. First I struggled to tell Jack Huston and Toby Kebbell apart, because Huston’s hair and beard kept changing length and shape. I also wasn’t sure which female character was Ben-Hur’s sister and which was his love interest. Then, as I was recovering from the Fast and Furious-style CGI chariot mayhem — how did that horse get up in the grandstand? — along came Jesus! Was this a religious vision, like in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah? Or is Ben-Hur’s chariot race actually happening at the same time as The Passion of the Christ?
Anyway. Exhibit B: Inferno.
What makes this trailer so funny is that it wants to look hectic and confusing in order to convey the hallucinatory conspiracy in which super-sleuth art historian Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) finds himself embroiled. This doesn’t really work. Langdon’s Socratic dialogues with Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) instead give us excruciatingly obvious insights such as, if PROPHECY is written on a picture of Dante’s Inferno, it means Dante’s Inferno is a prophecy.
At one point, the baddie (Omar Sy) yells, “Let’s get him!”. Let’s get him. LOL. This has instantly become my favourite line of stupid trailer dialogue so far in 2016, overtaking “The whole kingdom, Snow White!” (Snowden) and “We’ve just been hacked — could be worse than Snowden!” (Jason Bourne).
‘Good’ trailers may be tasteful, witty and evocative: judiciously balancing plot, spectacle and tone. But they go down so easily that they become ideologically invisible. Terrible trailers, on the other hand, reveal what studios already think we want to see. If you react with confusion, annoyance or straight-up laughter, it might be a sign that the film itself will surprise you. It could be an unexpected delight — like Bad Neighbours 2, whose exploitative trailer failed to flag its feminism. Or perhaps it’ll be more like Suicide Squad — a bite-sized treat that’s sickening as a full meal.