I went to see Dunkirk this past week. The film itself is very well put together, though not at all what I expected from the trailers.
(Some minor spoilers below)
Dunkirk’s trailers imply a sense of tension, but they also emphasize the “miracle at Dunkirk.” Phrases like, “When they couldn’t get home, home came for them,” and, “Survival is victory,” spring to mind. The emotional balance implied by most of the trailers is therefore a kind of pendulum, swinging back and forth between the horror of defeat and the heroism of the British civilians out to rescue their troops. The trailers make us expect a film that will pit those two emotions against one another more or less equally: we will experience horror, then heroism, then horror again.
But the emotional balance present in the film itself is very different. If it is a pendulum between horror and heroism, then the pendulum remains stuck on horror for much of the film. It actually reminds me a little of a nightmare. In a nightmare, no matter what you do you end up in the same unpleasant situation, over and over again until you wake up. And so, the vast majority of the film shows characters being stuck in this horrifying situation, waiting for a rescue that seems impossible. We know (from the trailers if not from our knowledge of history) that a good ending is on the way, but we cannot see from the film how it could possibly happen. And then, almost at the very end, we wake up from the nightmare. The civilian boats arrive, there is a tense climax, and the British forces go home to the tune of Churchill’s famous speech: “We will never surrender.” One brief moment of relief at the conclusion of a movie that otherwise grabs hold of your gut and clenches unrelentingly for almost two hours.
This is actually an incredibly interesting tension model, using the intense contrast with the long nightmare to make the brief awakening all the more powerful, but it isn’t what the trailers sold us. And that hampers the success of the film’s model. If the trailers had emphasized the nightmare, then the resolution might have been an incredibly satisfying culmination of that nightmare. Instead, the final frame left me feeling vaguely dissatisfied: “It’s great, sure, but it’s not what I thought I was going to the theaters to see.”
That isn’t a criticism of the film itself, but I do think it’s interesting how often the experience of a trailer affects the experience of watching a film. A good trailer can set us up to experience a film even more powerfully. A bad one can actually take away from the ultimate experience of watching the film.
Take another example: The Man from U.N.C.L.E. I actually really enjoy this film. It’s cheesy, goofy, full of bad accents, and so on and so forth. And, for all that, it’s also a lot of fun. But I didn’t like it all that much the first time I saw it. Why? Because the trailer showed the whole film. It told me too much, and so the experience of watching the film turned into checking boxes off of a list provided by the trailer. I felt like I’d seen it all recently. The trailer sabotaged its own film.
Some of my favorite trailers actually have nothing to do with films: they are cinematic trailers for video games. Like movie trailers these can be good or bad, but they take an interesting approach to the problem of selling the larger experience. In the case of movie trailers, segments of the larger work are cut down into a smaller one. In other words, we see the physical pieces of what we are buying. But cinematic game trailers often take a different approach. They take the characters and themes of the game in question, and they create a short film that tells the audience what those qualities are. The images onscreen are only circumstantially related to anything in the actual game, but that doesn’t matter. So long as the characters and emotional tone make an appearance, we get an idea of what we are buying (at least on a story level). For examples, check out the original cinematic trailer for Assassins Creed 2, the “Rendez-Vous With Death” trailer from Gears of War 2, and the “Killing Monsters” trailer for The Witcher 3. The principal at play is this: tell a smaller story, to make the viewer want to experience the bigger one. When done well it can be incredibly effective, and I’d be interested to see more feature films make use of it.
The bottom line is that a good trailer should give us an accurate picture of a film’s emotional content without exhausting it. It’s an emotional snapshot, giving us a taste of what we’re buying. That’s all marketing. The idea is to get peoples’ butts into theatre seats. But it’s a mistake to think of trailers solely as marketing. Because trailers can’t help infecting that first pristine viewing of a film. They are our prior experience. On some level we judge the final film by its trailer. Trailers aren’t just a marketing ploy; they are actually in dialogue with the films they represent.
Making use of that dialogue both for better marketing and to improve the audience’s experience of the film is an exciting and under-explored area of the filmmaking process. It isn’t set in stone that a trailer has to be cut from the same footage as the final film. As we see in the games industry, a trailer could be a short film in its own right, one designed specifically to give an idea of the emotional tone set by the larger piece. Such a trailer might resemble something like the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a separate but related story that informs our experience of the larger adventure.
A trailer might also bend the truth when it comes to what happens in its feature film. Many films reach for big reveals, but how many of those are undermined by the content of their trailers? The trailer shows too much, and suddenly the reveal isn’t such a big surprise after all. But that sword has two edges. I can easily imagine a film trailer being used to mislead the audience, presenting a sequence of events that would suggest (though not state outright; we don’t want anyone to feel lied to) that, say, “The butler did it.” When the truth lies down a very different path. In such a case, the filmmakers would actually be using the trailer to create a set of expectations, reinforcing the surprise we feel when those expectations are shattered. It’s a classic filmmaking technique taken a step beyond the contiguous body of a single film.
The possibilities for making interesting trailers are extensive compared to the run-of-the-mill work that we see on a day to day basis. There is a great deal of competition out there, all vying for our movie dollars, and if filmmakers want to get ahead of the pack they ought to take a more creative approach to creating movie trailers. Like films, trailers tell stories and express ideas, and that makes them an essential part of the filmgoing experience. It’s a cliche, but, so long as the trailer shows us what kind of emotional experience to expect from the finished film, the possibilities really are endless.