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Trailer Talk: In a World Where Characters Narrate Trailers, Who Needs Announcers Any More?

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by Vadim Rizov
January 31, 2013 12:04 AM
9 Comments
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You may not know the name Don LaFontaine, but if you watched trailers anytime from the '80s to the aughts, you know The Voice ("In a world where..."). Before LaFontaine began doing voiceovers for trailers in the 1960s, they were largely held together by title cards promising thrills, chills, stars, and so on. LaFontaine's deep voice gave automatic gravitas and held audience attention for prominent movies, as in his work for The Terminator's original trailer—working on literally thousands of trailer-bred audiences’ familiarity and, eventually, the inability to take such narration seriously. Towards the end of his career, LaFontaine's voice became a tiresomely automatic indicator that you were about to watch a trailer for a comedy—often a spoof—rather than a truly "dramatic" blockbuster. Since his death in 2008, it's been rare to encounter a trailer that embraces the deep-voiced voiceover with a straight face. I nearly fell out of my seat when I encountered an un-ironic contemporary version in this Regal Cinemas trailer imploring folks to see A Good Day To Die Hard in the theater:

"HEART-POUNDING ACTION," the screen says in all caps, redundantly read aloud for the illiterate. "HEART-STOPPING MOMENTS," text and narrator inform us in unison, and we get a shot of a motorcycle babe stripping down to lingerie in a parking garage while Bruce Willis smirks approvingly. The clip is designed to get Regal's patrons to "GO BIG OR GO HOME"—i.e., check in with a 25-year-old franchise "only in theaters." The use of voiceover seems self-consciously ironic, as if acknowledging how anachronistic the plea is.

The day after Christmas, I was sitting in a different Regal Cinema, and suddenly I found myself watching 5 trailers in a row that were, in one way, all the same. Instead of The Voice, they had the voices of their characters narrating the images—a post-LaFontaine attempt to retain the guiding authority of a narrator without turning to schlock. Such as this trailer for April's Tom Cruise vehicle Oblivion:

The first 30 seconds are expository without voiceover, then Cruise takes over the soundtrack, explaining exactly what's going on with this particular post-apocalypse. ("We're here for drone repair with a mop-up crew"). Halfway through, Cruise lands in the clutches of some feisty Matrix resistance types. There's a shot of Morgan Freeman smoking a cigar without talking, sitting in for Laurence Fishburne. "I've been watching you, Jack," he says, laying out a red-pill-or-blue-pill pitch. "You're curious. If you're looking for the truth, that's where you'll find it." The point's clear: Cruise will be fighting his former corporate masters and combating some form of skullduggery. Freeman's pitch to Cruise gives a synopsis of what to expect without making use of an  explicit narrator or giving away too many plot points.

Another apocalypse occurs in After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan's Will-and-Jaden-Smith vehicle, a trailer which was hilariously shown right after the one for Oblivion, as if some underpaid, disgruntled theater employee were trying to underline how redundantly similar this summer's crop of visions of a destroyed Earth are:

The first 40 seconds give the set-up purely with visuals: a spaceship crashes on a strange planet. Then comes Will's voiceover. "Crash landed," he says redundantly. "Son, this is not training," he continues, making it clear that this portentous voiceover is part of the movie (unlike Cruise's voiceover, which almost certainly seems recorded just for the trailer). "Everything on this planet has evolved to kill humans," he continues. His monologue pervades the entire trailer but doesn't really match the random grab-bag of F/X chaos, running and jumping. Finally, there's the payoff: "Do you know where we are?" At this point, Smith's speaking, for the first time, directly to the camera and his son, just to underscore the seriousness of the moment. "This is Earth." Cuing Dr. Zaius.

In the trailer for Pacific Rim, there’s another apocalypse, which means more voiceovers:

First there's an audio collage of news reports confirming that some big bad aliens have shown up and are causing major infrastructural problems for bridges ("Nobody can tell us where they came from"). Then, character voiceover number one, from an unidentified, gravelly-voiced man: "We always thought alien life would come from the stars, but it came from beneath the sea," he says, setting up the premise in one neat sentence. That's enough justification to cut to a lot of nasty looking beasts fighting men in gigantic robot suit gear. There's some downhearted talk about fighting back, and then Idris Elba takes over at the 1:30 mark, raising the rhetorical temperature significantly. "Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen to believe in each other," he says. His voice rises into a very St. Crispin's day register, shouting: "Today we are canceling the apocalypse!" There's one shot of him actually speaking for clarity's sake, oddly leaving our first narrator unidentified. Overall, it's a much stronger trailer than After Earth: clearly organized, full of money shots, and rousing rather than ponderous.

Of course, if it's somber, blustery voiceover you want, the trailer for Zack Snyder's forthcoming Superman reboot Man of Steel out-Shyamalans Shyamalan:

We hear voices just before we see the speakers."The world's too big, mom," young Clark Kent moans. "You can make it small," mother replies. There's a wordless middle section in which Clark goes from boy to man, and then a monologue direct from Superman for the finale. "My father believed that if the world found out who I really was, it would reject me," our newest Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) says, clearly addressing those coming to arrest him, which is shown after he's started talking. "He was convinced that the world wasn't ready. What do you think?" I think the world's gonna embrace you, Clark, probably within the last 10 minutes of the running time, but what do I know?

Finally there's Star Trek: Into Darkness. The camera hurtles through the familiar ship in the opening shots; unlike the Man of Steel trailer, which takes its time confirming that you're watching a new Superman (presumably to restore mystery to potentially over-familiar material), anyone who's seen the show (or even just the last Star Trek film) instantly knows what they're watching. "There's greatness in you," an unidentified voice says as we stare into the blue eyes of Chris Pine's Captain Kirk, "but there's not an ounce of humility." The images correspond to the voiceover: when talking about making mistakes, Kirk runs so fast that he jumps off a cliff before realizing what's happened and so on. "You think you're safe," the man says. "You are not." Cue an Inception-aping "BRAHM" on the soundtrack and a wordless near-minute before the ponderous voiceover comes back to ask Kirk whether he'll do anything it takes to keep his family and loved one safe. The monologue is stock and tonally unnecessary; it's doubtful that this sequel will ditch the original's fleetness for mopey heroics.

Saying all five trailers are the same may be a bit of a stretch: some make use of multiple narrators, the level of expositional information and correspondence to the image varies, and so on. Don LaFontaine's death prompted an industry that could no longer use his voice seriously to try to find new ways to make a heavy dramatic pitch. The pulled-from-the-movie voiceover promises urgency plucked from the drama itself, cutting out the hard-sell middleman. But all five fight giggle-inducing cliche by minting a new one: the overly somber protagonist, promising either the end of the world or its aversion. In time, this familiarity will breed its own new form of contempt.

Vadim Rizov is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. His work has been published in Sight & Sound, Filmmaker Magazine, Little White Lies, and LA Weekly, as well as other places.

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9 Comments

  • Daniel | February 3, 2013 11:23 AMReply

    Judging from the trailers, these look like some of the worst pictures I've ever heard about... then again, Hollywood never fails to surprise, year after year.

    I agree with N. Pfeifer that narrated trailers will increasingly feel like weird anachronistic relics as time goes on, similar to news reports with background music.

    What I find interesting is how for me personally, the role that trailers play in my choice of what films to go see has changed, and I can't believe I'm the only one who feels that way. While back in the 90s, a good trailer made me want to go watch the picture, this has become so rare that trailers work more on an exclusion principle now. Most of them are so horrifically bad, like the ones posted in this article, that I consider myself "warned", even if I might have been interested from just reading a plot synopsis or newspaper review. This kind of F/X-overladen, quickly-cut trailers that try to cram in as high a percentage of the production budget as possible, make it pretty clear what their creators and directors most focussed on: eye-candy and overused, pointless editing clichés. If I want to see 80 minutes of bullet-time—timelapse—bullet-time, I know what to go watch. If I want to see a good story with interesting characters that makes me think, I know where I'll be disappointed.

  • Daniel | February 3, 2013 11:24 AM

    Your comment system seems to not deal well with Unicode characters--might be worth looking into :)

  • Max | February 2, 2013 8:23 AMReply

    The other day I watched part of the hearings on gun control. One of the speakers justified assault weapons by pointing out how necessary they will be after an apocalypse when the streets are full of marauders and the only thing between you and your family's demise is your finger on an automatic weapon. That's when I realized why so many gun advocates are afraid to give up their guns--they've watched too many trailers and films like those you've just shown us. They've been indoctrinated to expect the worst. It was a revelation.

  • N Pfeifer | January 31, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    I'm fine with the status quo. Movie trailers are some of the quickest-expiring artifacts of this industry. Watch the original Star Trek or Star Wars, then watch the trailers for them on their included sets. They're terrible. Just as you described, they're strung together with uncut 'ACTION' footage or 'DRAMA' footage that sluggishly makes its point with awful title cards.

    We all miss Lafontaine, but he had his era and now it's done. Just like those odd science fiction trailers of yesteryear, the idea of having a third party step into the frame to narrate what's going on in broad exclamations seems anachronistic now, even though it was just a decade or two since those aired.

    The best analogue I could think of would be Audi's car chase trailer that manages to capture the various decades. Movie trailers are like that.

  • Matt | January 31, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    Yeah trailers suck, always have... The bigger the movie, the worse the trailer is. As a sci-fi fan I am excited for all of these films... And anything Die Hard is holy... Yippie Kai Yay to all the film snobs. It looks like a fun year at the movies!

  • Matt | January 31, 2013 9:19 PMReply

    Yeah trailers suck, always have... The bigger the movie, the worse the trailer is. As a sci-fi fan I am excited for all of these films... And anything Die Hard is holy... Yippie Kai Yay to all the film snobs. It looks like a fun year at the movies!

  • David Klein | January 31, 2013 9:36 AMReply

    I'm no Luddite and the democratization of technology has made this an exciting time for watching media across platforms. But I don't get your "anachronistic" comment regarding the Die Hard TV Spot. People should feel free to experience a film however they want, but theater screens with a quality sound system are still the best way to experience cinema. Bar none.

  • Vadim Rizov | January 31, 2013 10:32 AM

    That might be unclear. I'm a huge believer in the theatrical experience and keep DVD/streaming viewing pretty much to a minimum, and then mostly for work reasons. But that "SEE IT BIG" draw increasingly seems like a non-factor for (American, at least) audiences, although that might be my misperception based on 14 million reports about the rise of Netflix and how multiplexes are struggling.

  • Brian Roan | January 31, 2013 8:27 AMReply

    I thought that this trend had already reached its "silliness apex" with the use of character voiceover in the What's Your Number trailer. I guess I was wrong.

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