Approved for All Audiences: Our Favorite Movie Trailers

Every Thursday, our staff of pop culture addicts tackles a topic or question about movies, music, comics, video games, or whatever else is itching at our brains.

We now live in a culture for which the release of a film trailer is as highly anticipated an event as the release of the film itself. We now have trailers for trailers. But let’s be honest, we’ve always loved movie trailers. They’re the reason we arrive at the movie theater thirty minutes early, why we argue over who goes back out to the lobby to pick up the snacks. If you’re not one of the people who says “the trailers are the best part,” then the person next to you probably is. Movie trailers condense everything we love about movies into two minute chunks. Sometimes the trailer is even better than the movie. So let’s celebrate our favorite movie trailers, (even the ones for movies that kinda suck).

Alien (1979)

We seem to have entered a strange landscape in popular film where demand for a vaguely predicable franchise film is so high that the trailer itself is teased in hilariously small doses on social media. It’s fascinating to remember, then, that one of the most recognizable sci-fi brands, Alien, was first introduced to the world with a brief, effective two-minute trailer that made only the broadest promise of the terrors therein. With no dialogue and razor-sharp quick cuts, viewers are treated to some sort of planetary exploration that results in some sort of close-up scare—no facehugger, no chestburster, no Xenomorph, and only fleeting glimpses of an as-yet-incomplete egg model. The only tangible hint of the film’s enduring legacy is the tagline: “In space no one can hear you scream.” The Alien trailer’s context among the fanbase is as strong as any of the film’s sequels or spinoffs, to the point where director Ridley Scott reused the trailer’s haunting, high-pitched howls in the marketing for 2012’s sequel/spinoff Prometheus.

– Mike Duquette

Scanners (1981)

A nebbish, bespectacled man speaks to a crowded auditorium about a mysterious and unspecified action called “scanning.” He calls a volunteer (Michael Ironside) to the stage, where the two men sit side by side and concentrate, seemingly, on the same unseen thought. The nebbish man begins to twitch and struggle, and the score intensifies while the second man remains eerily focused. This hardly seems the stuff of a red band trailer for a horror movie, or the “outer reaches of future shock” that the opening crawl promised—but then, suddenly, brutally, beautifully, the nebbish man’s head explodes.

David Cronenberg’s psychic horrorshow Scanners was sold with that single gore shot, one of the most famous bursts of violence in horror film history. Even if you’ve never seen Scanners, you’ve almost certainly seen a gif of the exploding head in some dark corner of the internet. Whoever edited this trailer knew damn well this scene was the film’s money shot, and significantly, the trailer features footage only from this scene. The trailer gives only the barest exposition (“Scanners: their thoughts can kill”) and shows nothing at all of the film’s protagonists, Patrick McGoohan and Steven Lack—perhaps for the best, considering Lack’s appropriately blank performance as the “good” Scanner. But Scanners is the kind of horror film where the plot hardly matters. The trailer is as focused and brutal as Michael Ironside destroying a man with a single thought, and it knows how to hook you. Once you see that Tobias Fünke lookalike turn into red paste, you never forget it, and for good or for ill, Scanners will always be the “exploding head” movie.

– Kayleigh Hearn

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Pearl Harbor is Not A Very Good Movie, and I say that as a regular defender of Michael Bay’s pure id, pop rocks and soda pop brand of movie spectacle. But the two minute teaser trailer for the 183-minute film is essentially a mini-movie in its own right. The Japanese planes flying over familiar scenes of Americans going about their lives strike a chord harder than any actual military recruitment ad could. There’s a palpable sense of doom in this trailer as (specifically) women and children watch helplessly as the planes grow almost impossibly in number until they fill the screen. But then, BOOM, we cut to brief flashes of future Batman Ben Affleck and a then-relevant Cuba Gooding Jr. (with a gattling gun!) fighting them off. As with the best trailers, Pearl Harbor’s teaser is propaganda; in this case, very literally American propaganda. It’s crazy to think that the film’s release pre-dated September 11th by only a few months.

– Max Robinson

Lilo & Stitch (2002)

I know, I know. I fully expect my selection to get me vilified on Tumblr or start a war in SOMEONE’S Facebook comments. But look at that trailer. Stitch finding his way into tender moments from Disney films from the past fifteen years and absolutely torpedoing them. Stitch crashing the chandelier in Beauty & The Beast was just the best thing. Stitch replacing Simba in Rafiki’s hands? Amazing. Stitch one-upping Aladdin on the Magic Carpet? Fantastic. Stitch surfing over Ariel? Brilliant. The poster for the movie even had about a dozen iconic Disney characters expressing fear and disgust at this blue creature. I couldn’t wait to see what kind of shenanigans this little guy would pull, and I would champion this movie to disbelieving friends based on this alone.

I saw the movie in the front row of the now-closed Berkley Cinema in Berkley Heights, NJ, for my friend’s birthday. When my friend’s mom asked everyone what they thought of the movie, I was the only one who was disappointed. The promotional campaign that made it seem like it would be some kind of self-parody of Disney, or at least have some Mel Brooksian fourth wall breaking, had none of that. Instead I got what I felt was a sappy, predictable, by-the-numbers story about loving something unconditionally and…well…who cares really, that’s some false advertising. It’s entirely possible that if I had never seen a bit of advertising for it, I would have had the same soft spot for it that everyone else seems to have, but A) it was an unavoidable ad campaign, and B) alas, I couldn’t, didn’t, and still don’t. In retrospect, I’m able to appreciate the fact that the story is about familial love instead of romantic love, but even so, the whole thing is tainted for me.

Then again, I now take care of a Bengal cat—who, much like Stitch, is a powerful, intelligent, destructive creature. Maybe I should rewatch it through fresh eyes now that I’m in a more sympathetic position.

– David Lebovitz

Hot Rod (2007)

I saw the trailers for the Andy Samberg comedy Hot Rod and for Superbad at the same time. Hot Rod had a much, much better trailer, to such an extent that I thought it would actually be a funnier movie than Superbad. It’s not. It’s not even close. I’d overestimated the quality of a film from a trailer before, but it was the first time I’d seen a trailer make a film redundant.

Of course, no Hot Rod—The Lonely Island’s tongue-in-cheek eighties-style farce involving an adolescent “stuntman’s” attempt to raise money for his ailing stepfather—then no trailer. But the movie’s funniest gags all wind up landing better in a two-minute highlight reel than in a stretched-out 90-minute Hollywood comedy with obligatory romantic and dramatic arcs. It’s not as if the plot needed the extra time to develop; the trailer itself has an interesting beginning, middle, and end, and does the entire main conflict of the film justice. It’s a shame when a good comedy is ruined by a trailer using all its best jokes, but in this case I wonder if the trailer’s editor went for broke because he knew holding back for this not-quite-funny-enough movie would result in a forgettable trailer and a never-seen film.

To this day when I think of great comic timing, this trailer plays in my head. I’ve seen the movie a few times and I barely remember how it ends. To me, poor hapless Rod will always be frozen mid-jump, explosions going off behind him, a 21st century Quixote.

– Patrick Stinson

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

The first time I saw the trailer for Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, I cried. I was at a movie theater and I don’t remember what I was there to see, but I do remember feeling self-conscious over the big fat tears rolling down my cheeks. I was struck at how perfect the Wild Things were on screen, a lovely marriage between special and practical effects. The boy, Max, in his footy pajamas and gold crown, looked like he stepped off the pages of the book along with the monsters. It made me think of my baby brother, Max, barely two years old at the time, and I imagined sitting down with him and watching this film together when he was the same age as the protagonist. The trailer lists three themes—hope, fear, and adventure—and the alternating scenes between Max playing with the gorgeously executed Wild Things in his made up land and those in the “real world” where he faced real adult issues affected me deeply, making me nostalgic for my own childhood. All of this paired with a wonderfully bittersweet song about growing up (Arcade Fire, “Wake Up”) churned up all of these unexpected emotions in me.

I never got around to seeing it in theaters, but when the movie came out on DVD, I had a bunch of friends over to watch it. The film itself was…different. Very different from the trailer. It concentrated heavily on the more adult issues that Max was dealing with at home which bled over into his imaginary playtime with his monster family. The story was so focused on the darker aspects of growing up that it forgot about the joy. I felt sad and uncomfortable, and I guess I wasn’t alone because every single friend that I invited over left, one by one, as the movie went on until I was completely alone. To this day, I’m actually impressed with whoever edited this trailer because they managed to sift out all of the negative energy the movie exudes and made it something beautiful. Maybe one day I’ll sit down with my brother, Max, and we’ll watch this trailer. Just the trailer.

– Sarah Register

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