Remember the “Dark Knight Rises” teaser? Sure you do — it was better than the movie itself. At barely 90 seconds long, it offered little in the way of actual footage from the film but made every frame count: Commissioner Gordon beseeching Batman to return to Gotham; the briefest glimpse of Bane; those ominous chants rumbling from the background that apparently translate to “rise.” It was a model for all other such ads, and one that yesterday’s look at Denis Villeneuve’s “Arrival” brings to mind.
Set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival early next month, the “Sicario” director’s latest is about an extraterrestrial species that visits earth for reasons unknown. Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker have to make their way into the aliens’ spacecraft and…well, it’s difficult to say after that, because the minute-long teaser doesn’t actually tell us — which is as it should be.
The problem is that this fleeting, evocative look at this fall’s most anticipated sci-fi picture is to be followed by a full trailer that will almost certainly trade mood for plot details best left to the film itself. There was no reason to show Batman in the “Suicide Squad” trailer or to give away the fact that John Connor’s loyalties have been compromised in “Terminator: Genisys”; going further back, the ads for “Cast Away” went so far as to show that Tom Hanks eventually makes his way off that island (R.I.P. Wilson) and goes back home. Imagine if the “Empire Strikes Back” trailer had revealed who Luke’s father is.
Others fare better, of course. If you’ve seen “The Place Beyond the Pines” or “Children of Men,” you know how jarring it is that a major character is killed off relatively early in each of those films; kudos to their respective marketing departments for allowing both moments to remain surprises, as there’s no substitute for the feeling of genuine shock in a movie. Readers who demand that critics dare not give anything away in their reviews are often overzealous — and potentially looking for trouble by even reading reviews in the first place — but their underlying point is valid.
Some directors have gone on the record in agreement: Antoine Fuqua commented on his disappointment with how much the “Southpaw” trailer revealed; ditto Colin Trevorrow and “Jurassic World.” Others, like Christopher Nolan, are able to approve what footage makes its way into advertising, but most are at the mercy of the studios and trailer-makers.
It’s the same reason “Lost” ended nearly every episode on a cliffhanger and Ridley Scott barely shows the xenomorph in “Alien” until the end — there’s a fraught pleasure in filling in these narrative gaps for ourselves, and plot-revealing trailers rob us of that. Even if, like this writer, you rarely seek them out, you’ll be subjected to at least 15 minutes of them every time you go to the theater.
Next time you’re excited for a movie, try going into it without having seen a single preview — you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how different the experience feels.