You know that phenomenal trailer for The Force Awakens? Pretty great, right? I mean, it hits all the right buttons, it teases with just the right amount of mystery, and the John Williams score swells with more than enough emotion. Based on those two minutes, the film is guaranteed to be pretty freaking great, right?
Well, I hope so. But that’s not a guarantee. Remember the teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace? I mean, divorced from any knowledge or context of the film itself, it was also a pretty dynamite trailer. I remember getting chills when I first saw this in the theater.
And I think we all know how that turned out. Let’s not dwell on it.
The people who make trailers are the best of the best (marketers). And the best of those have insight into the secret formula for capturing whatever magic, mystery, comedy, or drama a film has and packaging it up – with some fantastic music and editing – into a tidy two minutes that makes people jump out of their seats in excitement.
So let’s take a moment to reflect on 18 of the best trailers ever made . . . for what were ultimately some pretty terrible movies. Let me be clear: these are neither the best trailers ever made nor the worst movies ever made. This group of trailers did their job remarkably well – they made bad movies look amazing, and they tricked us into paying good money to see the movies.
And listen, I’m sure you’ll disagree with me here. Heck, your favorite movie might even be on this list (if so, I’m sincerely sorry for your poor taste). Lists like these are inherently subjective.
However, to reduce the subjectivity (as much as possible), I’ve presented the movies in alphabetical order. (The quotes I’ve included for each film come cherry picked from Rotten Tomatoes.)
Without further ado…
What we were promised: A feature-length animated film based on Shane Acker’s incredible short about a band of rag dolls roaming around a post-apocalyptic wasteland, fighting demented robot monsters. What’s not to love there? Produced by Tim Burton and Timur Bekmambetov, the film looked to be dripping with style.
What we got: Unfortunately, this film is essentially the poster child for style over substance. By most accounts, the film was a convoluted mess, and it should’ve stayed as an inspired short film.
“The feature film version of 9 is one of the most amazing visual experiences you will enjoy inside a cinema this year – for about the first ten minutes.” “”Rarely has so much imagination been poured into one facet of a film at the expense of another.”
2. Alien 3
What we were promised: Yes, the trailer actually uses the “In a world…” trope. Nevertheless, both Alien and Aliens were classics of the horror and sci fi genres, and in 1992, we hadn’t yet been burned by the franchise. Plus, Sigourney Weaver was back as Ripley! Come on, with an official tagline like “The bitch is back,” how on earth could this be bad?
What we got: Even though many today like to play around with revisionist history and claim Alien 3 to be a misunderstood masterpiece from a young David Fincher (it was his directorial debut), it’s really rather awful. Its only saving grace might be that it’s marginally better than all of the Alien films that followed.
“Those looking for thrills or some enhancement to the first films will be very disappointed. Those looking for a headache will have come to the right place.”
3. Battle: Los Angeles
What we were promised: A summer disaster flick. It certainly didn’t make any pretenses about what it was, but the alien invasion conceit was clearly the selling point of the early marketing push.
What we got: I’ll admit – I actually kind of liked this movie. It wasn’t high art, but I thought it was a fun blow-’em-up. But I’m in the minority. The film was a disaster among critics and audiences, with a script that focused too much on the soldiers and not enough on the aliens.
“Battle: Los Angeles is one of those rare films that fails on just about every level a film can fail on.” “You’d be forgiven for crying after witnessing it purely out of sadness for the art of cinema.” “Tedious, lazy and thoroughly nauseating with no palpable thrills or excitement to be found. The asinine script and excessive use of shaky-cam will make your eyes and ears bleed simultaneously.”
What we were promised: On the heels of Neill Blomkamp’s groundbreaking District 9, hopes were sky high for this, his sophomore film. Sure, this trailer is a master class in giving away the entire plot of the film, but it makes it look like one hell of a fun ride.
What we got: What did we get? We got hit over the head (repeatedly) with not-at-all subtle diatribes about class warfare and the inevitable decline of the human race. There were lots of ‘splosions but not a lot of sense.
“Blomkamp turns subtext into text into screaming red letters into massive hands that appear from the screen and slap you repeatedly in face.” “An intriguing premise evaporates into mindless sci-fi action. Jodie Foster gives the worst performance of her career.”
5. The Godfather, Part III
What we were promised: Fans of the first two Godfather films and of Francis Ford Coppola were waiting with bated breath for this one. Eighteen years had passed since Part II, and Coppola, Mario Puzo, and Al Pacino were all back. Do I smell a third Best Picture for the series?
What we got: Alas, no. Even Pacino’s overacting couldn’t save this one. Maybe we should’ve taken it as a sign that the first HALF of this trailer was a highlights reel of the first two films.
“A discordant and unnecessary coda to an already completed and glorious symphony of films.” “Anyone with memories of The Godfather and its 1974 sequel will shudder at how Coppola reduces their powerful iconography to the level of a daytime soap.”
6. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
What we were promised: Fans of Douglas Adams’s books were cautiously optimistic about this one. The trailer, especially, seemed to “get it.” It broke the fourth wall and went completely meta in a way that felt true to the books. Surely, that was a good sign.
What we got: A bumbling mess of a film that disappointed fans and alienated everyone else. Alan Rickman as Marvin was the definite highlight, though.
“The pace is so slow that die-hard fans will be using their towels for pillows.” “It’s a mutant piece of entertainment that’s bound to leave fans feeling betrayed and everyone else befuddled.”
7. King Kong
What we were promised: Coming off the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Peter Jackson basically had a blank check to make any movie he wanted. And he did. The trailer for King Kong promised a lot, not least of which was an epic Kong vs T-Rex showdown.
What we got: A 3+ hour bloated mess of a film that takes forever just to get off the island and back to New York. This is where I part with what is apparently majority opinion. King Kong has a shockingly high (84%) rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so clearly there are a lot of fans out there. But this is my list.
“In the process of modernizing Kong, Jackson has made his film a mix of ungodly spectacle and masturbatory overkill.” “Overlong by half, hedonistically animated and decadently self-indulgent, King Kong is beastly to be sure, but there is little beauty here.”
8. Lady in the Water
What we were promised: In 2006, M. Night Shyamalan was still a respectable director. He was riding a high from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, and his previous film, The Village, was mostly fun if you didn’t think about it too much. This trailer, gorgeous to watch, promised a film of breathtaking beauty.
What we got: Lady in the Water is the clear beginning of Shyamalan as a self-indulgent, delusional “storyteller” who bought into his own hype. This film is so bad, it makes The Happening look like high-quality cinema.
“You wonder if Shyamalan has crossed from mere self-regard into actual mental illness.” “A screenplay so eye-rollingly dippy that it plays out like something a bunch of second graders cooked up on a rainy day playing fort in the living room.” “Lady in the Water is not a good movie – not by some mythical ‘Shyamalan’ standards, but by even the most basic standards of proficiency.”
9. Man of Steel
What we were promised: Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel had some fantastic trailers. Each one made the film look completely different; thus the power of trailers and marketing in general. However, for my money, the first teaser – the one that made it look like a Terrence Malick film – is the best. It also benefits from one of the best tracks in Howard Shore’s epic soundtrack for Fellowship of the Ring.
What we got: Look, I know this film has its fans. I’m not necessarily one of them. Opinions for this one are all over the place. Me? I wish we had actually gotten a Malick-inspired Superman film like this trailer promised.
“Like the man with a hammer to whom every problem looks like a nail, to Nolan and Goyer, every superhero universe apparently looks like Gotham City.” “An oppressive movie filled with a blaring seriousness, inconsistent production design, mundane conflict, heavy exposition and a huge amount of super-destructive action that leads to nothing.”
10. The Matrix Reloaded
What we were promised: It’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking and mind-explodingly different The Matrix was. Even though the phrase has become a cliche nowadays, audiences genuinely did see things they had never seen before in that film. That’s why excitement was at a fever pitch for the two sequels. The trailer for the second film, The Matrix Reloaded, clearly promised to take things up to 11.
What we got: Ugh. I think the less said about this, the better.
“Worryingly, the longer this movie goes on, the harder it is to care.” “The most distressing thing about the reloading of The Matrix is just how much it feels like The Phantom Menace.”
What we were promised: Prometheus had such potential. Ridley Scott was returning to the franchise he built with Alien, and what information we had in advance was indeed promising. And man, this trailer is so good. Watching it again, I still hold out hope that the movie could be great.
What we got: An astonishingly gorgeous film that makes absolutely zero sense. Seriously, this is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve ever seen. But the script makes no sense, the characters do things for no discernible reason, and the plotholes have plotholes. But hey, Michael Fassbender was still pretty great.
“In space, no one can hear your disappointment.” “This tale of an interstellar search asks cosmic questions about the meaning of life, but comes up with lame answers in a script that screams attention-deficit disorder.”
12. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)
What we were promised: A feel-good film about making the most of your life. Ben Stiller as a dramatic lead? Why not? This trailer made it look like he could handle it. And “Dirty Paws” by Of Monsters and Men fits this trailer just perfectly. Honestly, it’s what makes the trailer.
What we got: A story that bore so little resemblance to its apparent source material (James Thurber’s short story of the same name), it’s a wonder why they even bothered to keep the name.
“Who would have predicted that the rich fantasy world of James Thurber’s day-dreaming Walter Mitty looks a lot like a second-rate Wes Anderson movie?
13. Superman Returns
What we were promised: The return of Superman to the big screen for the first time in almost 20 years. Directed by Bryan Singer, the guy who made your favorite X-Men movies, it was clearly coming from a place of love. And this teaser. My god, this teaser. Just so good.
What we got: It should’ve been a sign that this brilliant trailer relied so heavily on our nostalgia. The Marlon Brando voiceover, the John Williams score, Brandon Routh looking like a carbon copy of Christopher Reeve. The entire film was entirely too slavish to Richard Donner’s original, and it lacked any real heart.
“Superman Returns is arguably the most expensive film ever made, and yet you leave the theater thinking, wow, those Spider-Man movies are really good.”
14. Terminator Salvation
What we were promised: After the debacle of the third Terminator film, fans were eager to see another good installment in the franchise. And this time, Christian Bale was along for the ride as John Connor. This trailer, no matter how many times you watch it, makes you think Terminator Salvation is a great action film.
What we got: Alas, it is not. It’s not even close. A loud, stupid story that forever runs in circles and never gets anywhere. I’m afraid 1991 will continue to be the high water mark for the Terminator franchise.
“It was depressing. It made you feel foolish for ever being scared of Arnie or the melty dude from James Cameron’s second film. It was stupefying.” “Once the screeching din has died down, you won’t recall a single line of dialogue, note of music or plot point that wasn’t punctuated with an explosion.”
15. Tron: Legacy
What we were promised: The original Tron was and continues to be a cult favorite among nerds everywhere. No one was really screaming for a sequel/reboot, but we got one anyway, and it looked . . . surprisingly good! The trailer really upped the ante for this film, and it got a lot of people really excited for it.
What we got: A 2-hour commercial for the Daft Punk soundtrack. If watched as a music video, it’s mind-blowing. If watched as a film, it’s mind-numbing. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s really pretty to see, and it’s a thrill to listen to. You know what? Just go listen to the soundtrack.
“If you choose to see Tron: Legacy, leave your brain at home, and be ready to watch what boils down to a great dramatic Daft Punk music video.” “Tron: Legacy could get away with a script as stupid as the one it has if the movie crackled, if any of the actors popped or if any of the action scenes felt truly next level or groundbreaking.”
What we were promised: The unfilmable movie. A faithful and loving adaptation of the most famous and best-selling graphic novel of all time. The visuals in this trailer were enough to convince millions of fanboys that maybe Zack Snyder really got it. Maybe he really could translate Alan Moore’s story to the screen. Though some might prefer the trailer with the Smashing Pumpkins song, I actually think this is the better version. Muse’s “Take a Bow” in the second half is a surprising but inspired choice.
What we got: Again, this might a controversial pick, because I know this film has its fans. But Zack Snyder just can’t seem to win. Seriously, Watchmen just narrowly beat out Sucker Punch (another Snyder “masterpiece”) to make this list. His use of sped-up action punctuated by sequences of slow-mo is perhaps most egregious here. I mean, count how many times it’s used just in the trailer!
“It should have remained what it was from the start: a masterpiece of vicious Cold War paranoia, completely and gut-churningly rendered on the printed page.” “The moviemakers are too busy digitizing ice castles on Mars to bother with much in the way of meta-commentary. Or, for that matter, with personalities.”
17. Where the Wild Things Are
What we were promised: A sweet, family-friendly adaptation of one of the most popular children’s books of all time. From the visionary Spike Jonze no less! And using The Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” in the trailer is just perfect.
What we got: A bleak, depressing film that has no kid-friendly sensibilities and has very little to entertain adults. Sure, Maurice Sendak’s book has a strong subtext that deals with serious themes (e.g., loss and anger), but it’s also only 10 sentences long. Making a 100-minute film requires significant…embellishment.
“Jonze has produced a gorgeous $80 million Muppet Movie in the shape of an art film that will bore kids as much as it will depress adults.” “I have no idea what Jonze and Eggers are trying to say here, either to children or to adults, but it’s difficult to imagine how they could have made a more tedious and exasperating attempt at it.”
18. X-Men: The Last Stand
What we were promised: Hey, remember that Bryan Singer guy who made those X-Men films you like? Yeah, well, he passed on the third installment to go and make Superman Returns (see above). Still, the trailer hits most of the right buttons and raises hopes for another awesome mutant throwdown.
What we got: The worse X-Men film in the entire franchise. Seriously, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is better than this trainwreck. Its most egregious blunder? Forcing Sirs Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen to take directions from Brett Ratner.
“A couple of mutants die in X-Men: The Last Stand but not nearly enough to save this boring mess.” “This is a stupid, hateful, ignorant movie, one of the very worst comic book films ever made.”