There’s an art to the movie trailer, although not everyone who constructs a trailer is an artist. The best tell us a story about the film we’re meant to go see, to tell us precisely why we’re meant to spend our precious movie dollars and run off to the theatre for a couple of hours (and/or throw $35 at Disney+ for an evening).
For a great movie, you can simply throw together a few of the film’s most impressive shots with a haunting version of a pop song running behind them and, voilà — butts in seats. For a movie that’s not destined to be an instant classic, however, a bit more artistry may be required. Sometimes, that’s in finding an angle from which the film does work and leaning hard into that. And sometimes, it involves an out-and-out deception in suggesting the movie is going to be something entirely other than what it actually is.
Here are some truly great trailers from movies that are troubled, deeply idiosyncratic, niche, or just plain bad.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999)
Why it’s great: Maybe it’s just that, in an era before there was a new Star Wars something-or-other every couple of months, it didn’t take much to make us freak right the hell out. In retrospect, all the less-beloved elements from Phantom Menace are proudly on display: Jar Jar Binks plays with electricity, wee Darth Vader is adorably good at everything, and armies of dim-witted battle droids begin a very CGI invasion. The thing is, out of context, it all looks so cool. Much of that coolness does work its way into the finished picture…but not nearly all of it. The trailer builds to those thoughtful and incredibly ominous lines from (pre-digital) Yoda about hate and suffering, suggesting something with a bit more depth than wound up in the movie.
(And, in an effort to avoid kicking off a new round of the Rise of Skywalker discourse, I’ll avoid any commentary on the merit of that film’s trailer vs. the film…except to say that it’s a great teaser trailer. Maybe the series’ best.)
Why it’s great: I’m an apologist for Alien 3, so I’d contend that the trailer here is approximately as good as the movie. Since I know I’m in the minority, I’ll say that the trailer does a great job of selling a sci-fi slasher movie that builds to that iconic shot of the alien breathing, literally down Ripley’s neck (it also has a very solid example of that trope-iest of all trailer tropes, the “In a world…” voiceover). I’m not sure if the tagline (“The Bitch is Back”) is badass or casually misogynistic, but it definitely gets your attention.
Why it’s great: The trailer builds suspense and suggests an atmosphere of horror that the movie never quite manages. I don’t think Prometheus is a bad film by any means (I might just have a soft spot for Alien-adjacent movies), but it gets wrapped up in its own convoluted mythology and never delivers the nail-biting tension that we’re promised here.
The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
Why it’s great: It relies on those really memorable shots of a dead city buried in snow. The trailer smartly avoids showing much of the movie, instead relying on visceral imagery to sell the premise. 2012, a similarly competent but not-entirely memorable disaster movie from a few years later, and which we’ll get to shortly, does something similar.
Terminator: Salvation (2009)
Why it’s great: In three prior Terminator movies, we’d heard an awful lot about Skynet’s global takeover, but we’d never seen more than snippets of it. In retrospect, that’s probably for the best. As much as it’s tempting to imagine that dark future (of 2018!), the heart of the Terminator franchise clearly lies in the present. Still, with a little help from Nine Inch Nails, the Salvation trailer makes a strong case for an action movie set during Skynet’s reign — showing promise that the loud but frequently dull film never delivers on.
Why it’s great: Anyone remember when people thought the world was going to end in 2012? This instantly dated trailer figures that you already know everything that you need to know about the forthcoming end of the world and just shows some impressively rendered images of global catastrophe under a nerve-jangling, droning score. The finished result is a fairly cookie-cutter disaster flick (I saw it, and can’t remember a thing about it), but this trailer makes it look like it’s going to be something truly jarring.
Battle: Los Angeles (2011)
Why it’s great: It’s a really impressive tease that doesn’t give too much away (a cardinal sin of too many trailers). The imagery suggests a war movie in an urban setting, with only a few brief hints that there’s something much more sci-fi going on. The full film, while fun, lacks any of that type of subtlety, instead hitting action movie beats as hard and as loud as possible.
Why it’s great: The ‘98 American Godzilla movie did a few teasers like this, and they’re all entertaining…like (very) short films that touch on aspects of the bigger motion picture without just showing clips. Done right, that can be a very effective way of selling a movie, but it can also paint a false picture.
Lady in the Water
Why it’s great: It looks like a really lovely modern fairytale (with the great Paul Giamatti, no less!), offering just the tiniest hint of fantasy at the end — a supremely confident tease that suggests you’ll want to see this movie without knowing anything about it. Audiences didn’t, for the most part, the result feeling a bit silly where it should have been magical.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
Why it’s great: Maybe it’s the Of Monsters and Men song, but it feels like the trailer for a Wes Anderson movie, which is approximately the vibe you’d want in a movie about a daydreaming executive who finds himself on a very real adventure. The trailer makes it look like the kind of movie that gets nominated for awards, which, though it has its admirers, mostly didn’t.
Friday the 13th (2009)
Why it’s great: It just looks scary. While the 2009 F13 reboot was perfectly enjoyable, and certainly not the worst Jason movie, it didn’t nearly manage to generate the tension promised here.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003)
Why it’s great: Though we ought not have had our hopes too high for any of these 2000s horror remakes, this trailer has an arc of its own, building a sense of looming suspense without giving much away. The movie itself was OK as these things go, but being more polished than the original didn’t make for a better movie.
Suicide Squad (2016)
Why it’s great: Where was this movie when we went to see Suicide Squad way back in 2016? It looks like a darker version of the recent non-sequel/reboot than it does the muddle that we got.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Why it’s great: I’m not sure this looks like the trailer for a great movie, but it does look like the trailer for a fun movie, and one that’s more overtly queer than the finished product — perhaps a darker, modern-ish take on the Adam West Batman series. It also gives us one of the most quotable lines in trailer history: “My name is Freeze. Learn it well…”
The Last Airbender (2010)
Why it’s great: It looks like the animated series come to life, giving fans (myself included) everything that they’d want in an adaptation. Which the resulting film does not do. At all, really.
(This is the second M. Night Shyamalan picture on this list, so I’ll say this: When he’s good, he’s brilliant. But his valleys are sometimes as deep as his peaks are high.)
The New Mutants (2020)
Why it’s great: Superhero horror sounds like a winning combination, but it’s rarely attempted in the movies, and even less rarely is it successful. This trailer makes New Mutants look like it might have been the one to get it right! Ultimately, it was…fine. Entertaining if not tremendously memorable, and not particularly scary.
Fantastic Four (2015)
Why it’s great: The teaser suggests a deeply personal journey for Marvel’s original super-team, conjuring a bit of emotion and promising a movie that would ground what is potentially an outrageous premise in genuine humanity. The movie offers some of that, but doesn’t really know where to go once it’s established its characters.
The Dark Tower (2017)
Why it’s great: The trailer makes the most of Idris Elba’s not-at-all inconsiderable charisma to suggest a really solid sci-fi western with a True Grit-style relationship between the Gunslinger and the boy who becomes his companion. Of course, you never know what you’re going to get with a King adaptation (part of the fun?), and the finished film fails at making the novel series’ complex plotting comprehensible in a movie-length format.
Pearl Harbour (2001)
Why it’s great: It looks like it could be a defining movie take on the Pearl Harbour attack, human and restrained. It does this by conspicuously not referencing the full film’s disaster movie tropes and over-reliance on a dull love triangle.
Sucker Punch (2011)
Why it’s great: Zack Snyder is an impressive visual stylist, and it’s not hard to make a great trailer from pretty much any of his movies; this one is gorgeous. But the characters and situations aren’t developed in the full film much beyond what’s seen here.
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