By Charlie Jane Anders for io9.com
Right now, in the middle of summer movie season, it’s easy to get sensory overload. Big-budget movies are coming thick and fast, each of them trying to overwhelm us into opening our wallets. And the more movies you go to see, the more hyperactive trailers you’re going to see on the big screen.
Is it possible to tell just from the trailer that a movie is going to blow chunks? We believe it is. Put those 15 minutes before the movie you came to see to good use, by gathering crucial clues that can help you avoid a wasted movie outing in future. Here’s our handy guide to becoming a movie trailer detective.
We know what you’re going to say at this point: Trailers are good at being deceptive. They often cherry-pick the handful of great scenes from a movie. They use music and other tricks to make the films look cooler than they really are. All too often, they use scenes that aren’t actually in the movie. The people who make these things are often better at their jobs than the people who make the actual movies.
That’s all true — but you can use those strengths against them. The more tricks you can catch a trailer using, the likelier it is that the people cutting the trailer together were struggling mightily to make this movie look decent. (This is obviously going to be truer for trailers that were made after a film was done filming, rather than early teaser trailers, that might have been cut together while a film was still being made.)
There’s no dialogue
Any movie, no matter how terrible, can string together a few shots of people staring into the camera wordlessly while shit happens around them. But if they can’t find even one scene where someone opens his or her mouth and speaks, without it looking ridiculous, then we’re in trouble.
There’s a buttload of unfunny jokes
This is sort of a gimme, but worth mentioning. Says Jackson West, “If there’s even one joke that falls flat, it means that you’ve already seen all the good jokes in the film and they ran out when cutting the trailer.” Also: If there’s some up-and-coming indy hipster comedian who’s probably in the movie for ten minutes, and the trailer leans heavily on that person being cute, RUN AWAY.
The only dialogue is ridiculously cheeseball
This one is really a judgment call — a lot of great movies have cheeseball dialogue. But especially if the trailer heavily emphasizes someone shouting and bugging out while saying something uber-dramatic like “There’s no going back,” or “Win or lose, this ends tonight.” At least you know it’s going to be a midnight movie.
Dog Reaction Shots.
If they have to show you a dog’s reaction to the events that are happening on screen, that’s probably a pretty bad sign. They don’t think you’ll know how to react without a dog letting you know.
A pretty woman does an over-the-top pratfall
This is mostly in romantic comedies, but also in other types of films. Comedian Emily Heller describes this one thusly: “Whoooaaaa! She’s clumsy! She has a FLAW! She falls down! That’s the only thing wrong with her though because otherwise she’s a 10.”
A lot of shots are obviously from the final reel
If you can tell that a lot of the cool stuff in the trailer is from the last 30 minutes of the movie, then that’s probably a sign that nothing interesting happens for the first 90 minutes. (You can usually tell.)
The trailer gives away the entire movie
“Bad movies have a way of telegraphing themselves,” says Dashiell Bennett, who used to blog about movie trailers over at Precogs.net. Often, if the trailer spills every single plot point in the movie, it shows a lack of confidence. Plus the movie is flimsy enough that you can summarize it in two minutes.
Bennett offers another rule: When the trailer says “From the People Who Brought You [Title of Other Movie]” but won’t mention their names. Or when it says “A Film by [Random Name]” and it’s someone you’ve never heard of. Run away!
The trailer is at least 30 percent slow-mo
Maybe you like movies with a lot of slow-mo. It can be used well, like for some martial arts sequences. But if a movie’s trailer leaves you with the impression that the director of the film is probably just going to be squashing the “slow advance” button on the remote the whole time, so you appreciate the coolness of this particular truck flipping over, that could be a major warning sign. A trailer should move fast, because it’s only two minutes long and it’s supposed to be exciting. Not majestic.
They try to make it look too much like a cool music video
Sort of a related note. A lot of action movie directors started out in music videos, so it’s not surprising that movie trailers are emphasizing this note. But we’ve noticed a direct correlation between a film’s big trailer being music-video-esque, with lots of slow shots and a crashing rock anthem, and the movie turning out to be blah.
The special effects look obviously unfinished and weak
It’s kind of amazing that we even have to mention this, but it’s a thing. A lot of movie trailers lately feature unfinished CG and rendering that would be laughed out of a video game cut scene ten years ago. And the sad fact is, often this is a cue that the final movie is going to look terrible as well, because they’re behind on their deliverables and scrambling to make up the lost time. Studios seem to keep shortening the timeframe in which you’re supposed to deliver a finished movie, and you can often tell.
They try to make it look like a totally different movie than what you already know it is
You know this movie is a cheesy action-adventure film, but suddenly the trailers are trying to make it look like a cheesy romantic comedy instead. This is because they’ve decided it’s a weak action-adventure film, but they think they can possibly trick a few women into going and seeing it for the romance that’s in three scenes of the actual movie.
It’s an action movie but the trailer is trying to look emo
The one that sticks in my mind is this Terminator Salvation trailer that tries really really hard to make it look deeply emotional and “intense.” But there were a number of terrible action movies that tried for the “emo” vibe in their trailers for a while there, and you still see this sometimes.
You’ve seen five trailers for the same movie, and you’ve noticed there are only three cool bits, repeated over and over.
Again, this is one that we notice a lot. When you have a movie where exactly three cool things happen — like, say, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, the trailers are going to run out of cool things to showcase and start looking repetitive. If you go see a lot of movies and thus see a lot of different trailers for the same film, this one might jump out at you.
There are a lot of boring things cut very quickly to make them look exciting. Perhaps with a thud thud thud in between
We called this one out a while ago. A lot of movie trailers use the “short flashes of stuff that might or might not be interesting” technique, interspersed with blackouts and sometimes a loud “thud” sound or a rising whine. If you notice that most of the things you’re just seeing for a split second are just people brushing their teeth, that’s a sign of something.
You hear the same song, or the same weird sound effects, that you’ve already heard a million times before.
Like when every trailer had to have the Inception BRAAAAMMM noise, or the same piece of music that had already been in a dozen other trailers. Not necessarily a sign of anything other than the fact that the person making the trailer was phoning it in — and possibly feeling very uninspired by this movie.
If you didn’t notice the movie title, you’d have no clue what movie this was
This is the ultimate one. If it looks absolutely like the generic Everymovie, and you can’t even tell what film you’ve just watched a trailer for — it’s got stuff blowing up and a guy scowling, and a car flipping over, plus some CG shapes — then this is a movie that has no identity of its own, and it’s probably going to be derivative crap.
Thanks to Katharine Trendacosta, Lyn Rapoport, Emily Heller, Cia Bernales, Dashiell Benett, Kelly Faircloth, Genevieve Valentine and Jackson West for the input!