by Kyle Ratsch
Spoilers for Ender’s Game, War for the Planet of the Apes, Game of Thrones, and Interstellar.
At the time of writing, Game of Thrones is in it’s 7th season and the 8th installment in the Star Wars series is only months away, and where do you find a person like me--who stubbornly clings to books over film and puts clues together in a manner that Cumberbatch would envy?
With my head planted firmly in the sand, scrolling quickly past the dreaded spoiler tags on all websites of the likes of Facebook, 9gag, imgur, reddit, etc.
But why? It’s been MONTHS since the delight that was Rogue one, and years since I finished A Dance with Dragons, shouldn’t I be voracious? Shouldn’t I be ready to devour every scrap of information about incredible stories because my ribs are showing? I am hungry for more, I promise, but I want to preserve every possible ounce of the things I love about storytelling to make for the best possible experience for me.
I highly value these things: wonder, anticipation, and shock. I feel like that’s true for most viewers. I want my film to give me strong emotional responses, and I feel like these things are strongly affected by the amount of information that you have. The purpose of a trailer is to get you to watch the media, but I feel like too many trailers detract from our viewing experience by giving us more information than we need.
If you’ve even dipped a toe in sci-fi or fantasy you will likely have heard of Game of Thrones and its massive shock value, plot twists, and defiance of conventional storytelling. Without a doubt, one of the most powerful episodes in the series is “The Rains of Castamere” with the infamous red wedding. Have a look at this video.
See those people freaking out? I want that. I want as much of that as I possibly can. This episode works because the viewers did not expect it. We as viewers have suspicion towards Walder Frey, but no more than the characters. We see the cultural symbol of hospitality and protection, so we believe no-one will be stabbed at this wedding. We ask, what’s this? A possible redemption for scheme-y scumbag Frey? We’re left unknowing. The only other possible place for us to get more information about this episode (books aside) is the preview (trailer) for this episode. Let’s have a look, shall we?
Not a clue. Not even the slightest of a hint to the jaw-dropping bloodbath we’re about to witness.
Now onto one of the better films I’ve witnessed this year: War for the Planet of the Apes. Let’s take a look at trailer one, but through the lense of someone wanting to see the movie without having the surprises taken away.
We see multiple scenes of warfare between the two sides, all-out and guerrilla (pun intended) with Caesar’s monologue saying that he does not want this war. Our investment is the knowledge that this trilogy climaxes with war, and that one side has a conflicted leader who fights despite having no desire to. What drives him to fight then? Will a conflicted leader be able to make proper war-time decisions? Will his mercy allow him to survive the conflict? Will he deliver the killing blow, as he did in the previous film, or will he stand firm on the honor we know him to have. So many good questions that build legitimate investment.
Then we get to 1:38 and it all goes south. We see a glimpse of Caesar in the midst of human soldiers and the main antagonist puts a pistol to his head. We as viewers think, “Wow. Caesar gets captured!” but we don’t have context for it, but we do know that Caesar gets captured. Will he survive the antagonist putting a gun to his forehead? We don’t know!
It all sounds very exciting until you’re in the theater and Caesar sneaks up to the human base. We know that he’s going to survive long enough until we get to the scene in the trailer. In fact, every possible fight scene involving Caesar promises that he survives until we see this exact clip. It’s quite a buzz-kill really, and the moment I saw that clip, I wished I hadn’t. In subsequent trailers, using clever deduction, you can see that humans are attacking the human encampment, which has two possible conclusions: one, that apes took over the encampment and the humans are getting it back, and two, that humans are fighting humans in addition to the apes. This is also a minor spoiler.
I’ll compare this to two opposite experiences. The first is Interstellar, which I went in with no expectations other than vaguely remembering the “those aren’t mountains” quote from the trailer months before. Fast-forward to the moment where Matt Damon’s character attempts to dock with their ship and subsequently blows a hole in the hull. I remember this deep sinking feeling, and I wondered if this was going to be a Shakespearean tragedy. Will humanity die as a result of human desperation? Intense stuff.
Why did I enjoy it so much? First, it’s a good movie, second, I had so little information I was in a prime position to receive the story prepared for me, and I found myself with the wonder and horror of space and time travel and the surprise of storytelling.
In retrospect, I found that Interstellar’s trailers were very effective at withholding information. There is a glimpse of the damaged ship, which has the potential for a massive spoiler, but even when I paused the trailer I wasn’t able to discern what it was, why it was, or even whose ship it was (using only clues from the trailers) so I gave it a pass. The trailers barely allude to the trials of time dilation or the ending, and I found them to be successful.
I will leave you with my personal worst-case scenario for a movie trailer. Ender’s Game is something of a sci-fi classic with powerful lessons in morality, compassion, and pride. In the climax of the book, Ender is participating in his final test of a war simulation. He successfully destroys his alien opponents, but he purposefully sends some of his own soldiers to die for no reason. In doing so he proves to his commander that he doesn’t need all of the resources provided to win, and it is a move of pride and spite. Pages later, Ender finds out that it is not a simulation, and that, not only did he kill aliens by the thousands or millions, but he also caused pointless deaths. Soon after he appropriately has a meltdown.
The movie trailer, on the other hand, strips away any possibility of this surprise with the film because the trailer showcases a real battle. I thoroughly enjoy sharing good media experiences with my friends (being near me in any capacity requires a tolerance for constant “you should watch…” suggestions) and I recommended Ender’s Game to no-one if they had seen the trailer.
Fairly speaking, if you were to ask me “do trailers show too much information?”, I would say that it depends on the trailer, but more often than not I would say that they do. “But Kyle, how will trailers entice people if they don’t show cool clips, and how will people know about good movies if they avoid watching trailers?” To that, I say make better movies. Good movies attract attention through word of mouth and by awakening the insatiable human curiosity. Please, movie-makers, awaken our curiosity, and make dead cats out of all of us.
Editor’s note: And all of this doesn’t even begin to consider when movie titles themselves give away secrets. The fourth entry in the Avengers films, for instance, has yet to reveal it’s title due to ramifications of the, yet-to-be released, third film.
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