Applying chaos theory: An introduction to trailer analysis

We’re going to start reviewing high profile trailers on this site, and I’ll tell you the reason.

It’ll get more clicks. That’s it. That’s the reason.

The reason it won’t be trashy bullshit is because of how far movie trailers have come in the past few years and how important they’ve become to the art form. Movies release so much promotional material now, every bit of it making its own wave via social media if the movie is anticipated enough, that the material has realistically become part of the movie. It shapes expectations, caters directly to the target audience and betrays a lot about the producers’ state of mind. Obviously it’s not OK to say a movie is bad or good without seeing it, but it is OK — necessary, given the amount of work that goes into it — to glean as much as we can based on how distributors are communicating with their audience.

We’re going to go through a few examples of recent trailers, good and bad, and explain why they’re good or bad and what they tell the audience.

***

Good trailer: Fant4stic

This movie became an instant classic in the worst possible way, but even with that knowledge, this teaser is incredible. Everything’s out in the open now about the troubles with director Josh Trank and the film’s extensive reshoots, which may or may not have ate the budget and lead to its cut-rate visual effects. With this teaser releasing in January and the reshoots announced just a few days beforehand, it’s possible this was stitched together from literally a completely different movie.

The teaser masterfully introduces themes and a basic story without getting into specifics. The first two shots, juxtaposing New York City’s majestic sprawl with the Central American mountains, establishes themes about technological advancement even before narration kicks in. The shots get faster and keep with these themes, eventually introducing the main cast. The music, menacing piano soon joined by a violin, also rises, eventually introducing what sounds like a distorted foghorn, but never climaxes, leaving the audience unsatisfied and with a greater need to see the movie. The action at the end of the teaser is also short to the point of being unsatisfying, creating a similar effect.

Frank Storm’s speech establishes a story about Icarus and the fall, with the Fantastic Four standing in for the legendary craftsman and their accident being his melting wings. This is a really interesting concept for a superhero story, and it had me really excited. Marvel and its competing studios have managed to steer clear of plots that are too similar, but recreating a legend like this is another undertaking altogether.

This teaser establishes a tone, sets up symbols and themes to watch for during the film, and doesn’t descend into some of the annoying things we’ll talk about later. It’s a unique, exciting trailer that sets up a unique, exciting movie. That’s not what happened, but even after the catastrophe that was Fant4stic, I still want to see what movie this is teasing.

Bad trailer: Suicide Squad

If the Fant4stic teaser does a good job establishing tone, the Suicide Squad trailer does the opposite. This trailer is cacophony. The sad, operatic song is a cover of the Bee gee’s “I Started a Joke,” and the amount of sadness it must have taken to make that somber I’ll never know. The dimly lit shots and fade cuts in the central part of the trailer support the song’s tone, but star Margot Robbie is on a completely different page and seems to be playing for a laugh track. Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has a completely different thing going on for the first minute, as does the Joker (Jared Leto) in the last 20 seconds. The title, with the Nirvana smiley face grenade inside the Q, as well as the wind-up opening logos, seem to have been made for a screwball comedy, and the initial press release announcing the film’s cast said Warner Brothers wanted it to be analogous to Ocean’s Elevenbut there’s no hint of either of these tones in the trailer.

The dialogue is also its own issue. Nothing that comes out of Waller’s mouth makes any sense, and the talk about abilities is an outright lie — the only announced character with any powers is Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), who will probably have a minor role, the rest are just skilled assassins and crazy people. Deadshot’s (Will Smith) title drop is stiff and forced, and despite being billed as the protagonist, Harley Quinn’s (Robbie) lines are pathetic, even discounting her bizarre delivery. “Huh?” is her climactic quip here.

There’s also the context of DC in general right now to consider. This movie was first announced as one of 10 to be pushed out in a five year span, all based on 2013’s loathsome Man of SteelThey said their series would be run by “master filmmakers,” and if we were talking about Quentin Tarantino’s The Flash or Green Lantern Corps: A new comedy by the Coen brothers, that’d be one thing. Instead, Suicide Squad is written and directed by David “eh, I’ve heard the name” Ayer, James “jump-scare! hahaha” Wan is in charge of Aquaman, and Zack “eats paste” Snyder is directing Dawn of Justice and the two-part Justice League movie, even after directing Man of Steel. Then Batfleck happened. Then there was Lex Jewthor and tHug LyyyFE Joker. The kindest reaction to any of these decisions was skepticism, and they all inform reaction to DC’s future projects since they’re so bound together.

The common thread with these decisions, if there really is one, is that Warner Brothers has been looking for the biggest recent names possible to sell their movies on star power instead of actually looking good, and Suicide Squad confirms that bias. Ayer has been in headlines recently with End of Watch and last year’s decent but hotly anticipated Fury, so he gets the job. Nothing in Wan’s extensive filmography indicates that he would do well with a superhero movie, but his movies are popular recently, so he gets the job. Leto’s character was horrifyingly transphobic and he only won because the Academy loves it when gay people die, but he got an Oscar last year, so he gets the job. The emphasis on recent success is so dramatic that Robbie, on the strength of her performance in 2013’s Wolf of Wall Street, is getting billed over Smith, one of the single most bankable stars of all time. But he hasn’t had a hit since 2008, so Robbie gets the job.

This trailer is another exhibit in the mountain of evidence that Warner Brothers has absolutely no idea what it’s doing.

Another good trailer: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Much like the Fant4stic teaser, this trailer establishes the film’s tone and general story archetype without getting into specifics. What really draws me to this trailer, though, is its visuals.

Film is a visual medium, and despite everything else they can be, movies live and die on the strength of their visuals. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has fantastic visuals, and the trailer flaunts them. It features static, head-on cinematography juxtaposed with lively camerawork and action in the surreal sequences. This camera movement and onscreen activity eventually moves outside Mitty’s (Ben Stiller) daydreams and into his real life as he becomes more adventurous. Even in a two-minute dialogue free trailer, there’s a solid character arc here. It’s like the entire movie already played out. “My Head is an Animal” plays over it all to set the tone and comfort viewers.

This trailer emphasizes what is unique and exciting about this film, which is the opposite of what this next one does.

Another bad trailer: The Maze Runner

This shit gets on my nerves.

Where the Mitty trailer shows off what makes the movie unique, many studios are putting out trailers that all have a few hallmark sounds and visuals that are exactly the same, particularly for young adult adaptations. This trailer for Maze Runner is an especially annoying example.

This trailer is a cliche hunt. Just five seconds in, we get the rising violin alarm sound that is in so many trailers, which recurs just 20 seconds later. At 0:53, we get into the fluorescent, seizure-inducing editing that has also become common for action sequences in trailers. For some reason, moviemakers think this makes a shot more dramatic, but it’s really just an annoying obstruction between the audience and the movie. They pull this again at 1:03.

More than specific effects, this trailer is typical for its music video editing. The whole thing is designed like a pop song. If you don’t see it, watch again with your eyes closed — it’s got an opening, rough approximation of a chorus and bass drops every 20-40 seconds or so. This isn’t necessarily bad — the Fant4stic trailer does essentially the same thing with its sound. But where that trailer’s song constantly rises and never climaxes, this one is complete. It doesn’t leave that unresolved tension that makes you want to see the movie.

Where you come away from the Walter Mitty trailer with a sound idea of what to expect from the movie, Maze Runner gives you nothing. There’s a lot of exposition — always bad, even worse in this case for a movie hell-bent on surprising viewers every few minutes, even though it’s deliriously predictable — but next to nothing to show the film’s style or feel, because it was all cut up into this trailer’s style and feel. Basically any movie can be edited into this sort of trailer, especially if you accept the cliched sounds and editing gimmicks this trailer uses. It doesn’t describe the movie in any meaningful way, and is essentially a wasted two and a half minutes.

It’s a trailer designed for people who don’t see a lot of trailers and won’t realize how much this fades into the background, just like the movie was designed for people who don’t see a lot of movies and won’t realize how cliched everything is.

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One Response to Applying chaos theory: An introduction to trailer analysis

  1. Pingback: Still not mad, just disappointed | Reel Entropy

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