Early trailers for Life, the new film starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhall, intrigued me. A clearly collegial atmosphere and a few lighthearted jokes are punctuated with a brief moment of violence at the trailer’s end. In that early preview, we only get the faintest sense of what might go wrong aboard the ship. We know they have a life form on board, we know it presents a danger that the crew didn’t anticipate, and that’s about it. It’s unsettling in the best way.
Unfortunately, we were soon to find out a great deal more. In subsequent trailers, we see the life form up close and hear dialogue describing its rapid growth. We see it crawling all over a character’s face and Jake Gyllenhaal blasting it with a flame thrower. We hear a character exclaim that it has taken over the astronauts’ ship.
Whatever intrigue once existed has been entirely extinguished by these latest previews. You had me, Life. You’d shown me just enough to ring a few of my most Alien-loving bells while shrouding all the juiciest plot details in mystery. I was in; now I’m not. Now, I feel like I’ve already seen the movie, which, when the movie in question is a suspenseful thriller, kind of defeats the purpose.
This kind of promotional foolishness has been par for the course for a good long while now. Maybe it started with Cast Away, when they let audiences know during the trailer that Tom Hanks’ character makes it off the island. Still, I can’t get used to it.
Just this week, two trailers for two blockbuster comic book movies — Justice League and Spider-Man: Homecoming — were released. As a huge comic book and movie nerd, you can imagine my excitement. Here’s my first chance to see (A) whether Zack Snyder is going to continue to destroy any interest I have in DC’s roster of heroes and (B) whether the promise shown by Tom Holland in Captain America: Civil War will translate to a dedicated Spidey-film. Hooray!
Except, not hooray. Not hooray, because, in their own ways, each trailer trips over itself to give us as much information as it possibly can over the course of its runtime.
Justice League gives us the full roster rundown, and we get clips (by which I mean repeated slo-mo action shots and “clever” quips stacked on top of each other like gritty, desaturated pancakes) of each of the JL’s five members. The problem with this? We have no investment in any of the characters as portrayed by these actors because only one of them (Batfleck) has even appeared onscreen in an actual movie (Wonder Woman and Aquaman movies are coming, for what it’s worth). To compensate, the trailer tries to make the characters interesting by simply showing us as much badassery as it can and hoping that will sustain us. But by giving us so many shots of these characters (and the film’s bad guys) so early, the creators have played their most meaningful card a full seven and-a-half months before the movie hits theaters. By the time it actually comes out, seeing the movie will just feel like playing connect the dots between scenes you’ve watched two dozen times a piece.
And Spider-Man’s trailer wasn’t much better. I mean, yes, the movie looks a whole lot more interesting than Justice League (I should probably note again that I hate Zack Snyder), but from the two and-a-half minute preview, I know the villain’s motive, Iron Man’s role in the movie, and about half a dozen other things that Marvel could have kept close to the vest.
I know that movie studios do enough market research to choke an elephant, but what moviegoer is telling these people to give away more of the movie to entice people to see it? Is it you? If it is, stop it!
Listen, I understand the inherent risk in leaving audiences in the dark, even just a little. Studios know that audiences need to see enough in trailers to make an informed decision about the movies they’ll see, and they assume that any uncertainty will lead audiences to the movie that gave away the farm in its trailer, since that movie will seem like more of a sure thing to viewers.
But I would argue that this approach only leads to a cycle of crappy promotion, where each movie treats trailers like little movies of their own and strains to pack in as much of the final product to the preview as possible. I wish this weren’t the case, and I don’t think it has to be. I think viewers are savvier than studios give them credit for (perhaps a fatally stupid assumption on my part), and that they’ll respond to trailers that convince audiences that the only way to get the answers to the most pressing questions will be to actually show up and see the movie. Act like the audience will have to pry those answers from your cold dead hands. I bet you they’ll want to try.