Stop me if you’re heard this before:
“Trailers give away too much of the movie nowadays. I might as well not even see the movie because now I know everything that happens!”
This has actually been a complaint for a few years now, but it seemed to all come to a head a few months ago when the trailer for Terminator Genysis (2015) revealed a major twist about the identity of the antagonist. The trailer for Antoine Fuqua’s Southpaw (2015) was also criticized for revealing too much, namely that Rachel McAdams’ character is shot and killed and Jake Gyllehaal’s character must fight to get custody of his daughter. The “teaser trailer” for The Martian (2015) – which is more than 3 minutes in length – revealed that Matt Damon does a bunch of science and Kristen Wiig looks concerned a lot.
To a certain extent, I understand the anger. We live in a world of story leaks, avoiding social media for fear of spoilers, and the outrageous notion of nerdy book readers knowing things about my favorite TV show that I don’t. But here’s the thing: spoilers can only do so much to (airquotes) “ruin” a movie. Forgive me if this sounds pretentious, but I don’t think we watch movies purely to find out what happens. Stay with me.
Consider, if you will, a passage from Alexander Mackendrick’s book On Film-making:
Of the three basic elements of a film story (plot, theme, and character), plot is in many ways the least important. A story’s plot is the sequential ordering of connected events and incidents (usually in the form of cause-and-effect) that sustains the narrative momentum. But in the end, when a good story is over, it is seldom the plot that sticks in our memory – it is the situations and the characters, and sometimes what we call the theme.
He’s got a point there. Plot is the least important element of a film story. To some, this may seem obvious (Richard Linklater claims to have “gotten rid of plot to some degree”), but to others, this may seem ridiculous (Richard Linklater films are certainly not for everyone). But to those that think it sounds ridiculous, really think about it. Think about your favorite movies. What’s memorable about them? Is Pulp Fiction (1994) beloved and remembered because of the sequence of events that happens or because of its characters and dialogue? I’d argue the latter. In fact, I’d argue that there hardly even IS a “sequence of events” in Pulp Fiction. Things just…happen. And they only happen so that the great characters can react to and overcome conflict. This is partially due to the nonlinear structure – it’s hard to get a sense of “sequence” – but still. The plot is a just vessel to deliver the characters and the dialogue and the tone.
Ok, but how about a more conventional plot? Think about The Shawshank Redemption (1994) [Spoiler alert: I’ll be talking about the ending/third act reveal of a 21-year-old movie, so in case you’ve never watched TNT on a Saturday afternoon, skip this paragraph]. Is Shawshank “ruined” if you know that Andy escapes? Fucking of course not. Would it have been a great experience to be sitting in a theater in 1994 and gasp when Warden Norton threw that stone through the poster? Absolutely. But, personally, even after several dozen viewings, I still gasp and say “Wow” when he rips the poster off the wall and the camera dollies through the hole – because it’s a powerful moment even when you know it’s coming. Shawshank isn’t beloved (as the #1 movie of all time according to IMDb users) because viewers like finding out whether or not Andy gets out; it’s beloved because of the universal theme of hope (and how it’s a good thing – maybe the best of things). As much as I love when the warden throws that rock, it’s not nearly as moving or memorable as Red saying “I hope” as he rides a bus into the sunset towards the border and freedom.
So, to those who say trailers spoil too much of the movie, I have to ask: what’s really spoiled?
I know what some of you are thinking: what about comedies that give away all the funny parts in the trailer? Ok, well, now you’re complaining about spoiling a 90-minute movie that apparently only had 2.5-minutes’ worth of jokes. If they were able to fit all the funny parts into a trailer, then not knowing those funny parts beforehand isn’t going to make sitting through Dumb and Dumber To (2014) any easier. You’re misplacing your ire that you should be feeling for the movie and putting it on the trailer.
The same can be said about a big plot twist (which aren’t usually spoiled by trailers, but people certainly worry about them getting spoiled and thus "ruining” the whole movie). Just as is the case in the above paragraph, a movie being ruined by learning the plot twist says more about the quality of the movie than anything else. I learned the big plot twist in Fight Club (1999) before seeing it because I watched too much I Love the 90s in middle school, but guess what: Fight Club is still a kick ass movie that I’ve watched a dozen times. Memento (2000) stands up perfectly well on its own regardless of whether or not you know the ending – in fact, knowing the ending probably enhances the viewing experience (as opposed to, say, Shutter Island (2009), but that’s a whole other article to be written). And don’t even get me started on “Rosebud.” Here’s the hard lesson M. Night Shyamalan learned sometime in the early 2000s: if the quality of your movie entirely depends on a twist, your movie sucks. The SIxth Sense (1999) isn’t great because it has a twist; it’s great because it has brilliant execution of a brilliant premise. The Village (2004), on the other hand, has neither of those things.
Academy-award winning director Robert Zemeckis prefers to put the whole plot of his movies into the trailers, because (according to his marketing research) audiences like to know exactly what they’re getting when they go to the movies. Hell, the trailer for his movie Cast Away (2000) is literally a 2.5-minute recap of the plot, and (spoiler alert) the last shot of the trailer is the last shot of the movie. And yet, it’s hard to argue with a movie that made over a quarter of a billion dollars in domestic box office. I suppose what Zemeckis (and Alexander Mackendrick) would argue is that it’s not the “what” that matters, but the “how” and “why”. We don’t want to see Cast Away to see what happens to Tom Hanks; we want to see how it happens, why it happens (e.g. what motivates him, what impedes him, etc).
I haven’t seen Southpaw, but judging by the fact that Rachel McAdams’ death is included in the first of four paragraphs in the Wikipedia plot summary, I can surmise that that happens in the first act. If the movie is about Jake Gyllenhaal’s struggle to deal with his wife’s death and get his daughter back, how do you sell the movie without giving that away? It’s not a spoiler; it’s telling you what you’re getting. And regardless of how much the trailer gave away, Terminator Genisys still sucks (unless you’re in China, apparently, where the movie is inexplicably printing money at the box office).
If you personally own even one DVD or blu ray, or if you’ve ever watched a movie more than once, you have to admit that the best movies aren’t enjoyed for the plot/what happens. If you already know what happens in The Sandlot (1993) or The Big Lebowski (1998) or Animal House (1978), what’s the point of watching it twice?
So before you cry foul about a movie being spoiled by a trailer (or by a Brit or a French dude), ask yourself this honest question: can a good movie ever really be spoiled? And if a movie is now not worth seeing because you now know what happens, was it ever worth seeing in the first place?
But if anyone tells me what happens this season on Game of Thrones, I’ll cut you.