An Ad With More Buzz Than Most Movies
The overlooked power of the ‘United 93’ trailer

April 15, 2006

Movie trailers meant to set pulses pounding often achieve the opposite result. They’ve become so ritualized, noisy, oppressive and numerous that they function as depressants, putting audiences in a transitory funk. But not the trailer for “United 93.” For the past couple of weeks, moviegoers have been electrified, or horrified, by a preview of Universal’s forthcoming feature about the passenger revolt aboard one of the airliners hijacked on Sept. 11. Some have suggested that the trailer shouldn’t be shown at all, and no wonder; there’s never been anything like it.

For almost two decades, since the advent of digital editing, trailers have employed similar techniques: quick cuts (though this one begins with haunting calm on a beautiful morning), cross-cuts connecting disparate elements, nervous camera movements, graphic detail, pounding music, rising suspense and then explosive violence. Not until now, however, has a trailer used these potent tools — and used them exceedingly well — to dramatize a real-life event of epochal importance, one that still retains the power to overwhelm us with feelings of dread, awe and grief.

View the trailer for “United 93,” and read Joe Morgenstern’s take on three previews worth seeing for themselves, as well as for what they reveal of the films that spawned them. Whether the studio should or shouldn’t have unleashed such a literally stunning preview on theatrical audiences (as well as on the Web, and now, in a tamer version, on TV) remains to be seen. If “United 93” proves equal to its subject, objections will be moot. If the movie turns out to be a disappointment, the 150-second trailer heralding it will be seen, like so many of its genre, as one more piece of crass exploitation. For the moment, it’s worth noting that these short, vivid takes on the movies’ timeless themes — heroism and death — have suddenly breathed new life into a stagnant, if not moribund, form. Trailers rarely make us feel much of anything any more. Yet they were once, not so long ago, a bountiful source of excitement and innocent pleasure.

They’re called trailers because very long ago, before the movies learned to talk, they trailed — trailers were projected after, rather than before, the short silent features and serials of the day. At first they consisted of slides, then crudely-assembled scenes, often outtakes from the film, that were called animated heralds. By the early 1920s, distributors were putting trailers on separate reels so exhibitors could show them first, thereby taking advantage of captive audiences. By the late 1920s, optical printers and the art of montage led to quite sophisticated trailers with special effects — the one for the original “King Kong” in 1933 looks almost modern. (I learned some of this from a fascinating film, “Coming Attractions: The History of the Movie Trailer,” that was shown earlier this week at the University of California-Los Angeles film school’s documentary salon.)

What we’ve loved about trailers — which, like the movies they advertise attract passionate fans — has changed radically over the decades. In Hollywood’s heyday, trailers often used pontifical hosts, who were usually actors (Sidney Greenstreet purring, “I’m going to tell you an astounding story, the story of the Maltese Falcon”) or star directors (Alfred Hitchcock giving a guided tour of the Bates Motel for “Psycho,” Cecil B. DeMille hailing the character of Moses in “The Ten Commandments” by showing Michelangelo’s “original statue in Rome; notice the likeness to Charlton Heston”).Evoking Real-Life Horror: Frames from the original theatrical trailer for “United 93.”

Trailers also relied on limitless HYPERBOLE!!! — “NOTHING LIKE IT EVER SEEN!” “THE MOST REMARKABLE SCREEN CHARACTERIZATION EVER WITNESSED!” In the late 1950s and ’60s, though, the power of positive exaggerating gave way to the power of graphic design, influenced by such innovative artists as Saul Bass and Pablo Ferro, and by the trailer executive Andrew Kuehn. One of the most influential trailers of the 1970s — touting one of the most influential films — was “Jaws,” which was shot from the shark’s point of view. (“It is as if God created the devil…and gave him…JAWS!”)

Trailers have always tried to make their movies look good by heightening the highs and omitting the lows, but sometimes the highs don’t need heightening. Those who saw the first “Star Wars” trailers that surfaced in 1976 still remember the exquisite shock — was that a gorilla at the controls of a space ship? As summer spectaculars grew ever more so, trailers kept pace — quick cuts of a boulder chasing Harrison Ford in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” of Tom Cruise jockeying a Tomcat jet in “Top Gun.”

Yet the pace quickened radically in the late 1980s as film editing moved to the digital domain — so-called nonlinear computer systems that allowed editors to make more edits in less time, and therefore at less cost, than ever before. And the impact of their labors was amplified throughout the nation’s multiplexes by umpteen-channel Dolby sound systems and subwoofers strong enough to register on the Richter scale.

By now we’ve learned to protect ourselves from trailers, either by coming late (some theater chains have begun to acknowledge the extent of the plague by posting actual feature times) or by zoning out, and there’s a lot to zone out from — scenes that reveal most of the plot (the trailer for “Cast Away” gave away the ending), narrations that seem to be delivered by the same actor in the same bilious-basso doomsday voice.

In fact, the voiceover king of movie trailers, Don LaFontaine, has many soundalike colleagues, and audience research experts insist, with some evidence, that moviegoers want to know as much about the plot as they can learn before buying tickets. Be that as it may, movie audiences are shrinking, and one reason, in addition to the obvious problem of mediocre movies, is tedious trailers, and too many of them. What was once the cherished ritual of watching coming attractions — to use an older-fashioned term — has turned into something approaching ritual punishment, not to mention numbness. In this context, the controversy in advance of “United 93” has another dimension. Yes, the images are shocking, and we may not have been ready to confront them. Still, that is a far cry from numbness. For once a trailer evokes deep emotion, and forces us to think about what we’re feeling