Movie trailer editors have their work cut out for them (pardon the pun). Their job is to get audiences excited about a film without giving too much away; ideally, a trailer should give a brief idea of the plot while explaining what’s different or appealing about the film. Throw in a few of the most exhilarating scenes, give the names of the stars and director, and you’ve got a pretty decent preview.
Sometimes, however, the editors fail. Over the years, we’ve seen dozens of trailers that completely misrepresent the actual film—either because the studio intentionally decided on a misleading marketing campaign or because the editors didn’t have enough footage to make a more accurate trailer.
Granted, misleading movie trailers can be bizarrely entertaining in their own way. We decided to collect a few of the more egregious examples for your review.
1. Kangaroo Jack
The Trailer: Two hapless criminals are forced to track down a CGI kangaroo. The audience gets the sense that this film is pretty lighthearted; the kangaroo’s (awful) rapping might have contributed to that.
In any case, from the trailer, we’re pretty sure that the kangaroo talks, and the film’s tone is probably similar to that of a Wile E. Coyote cartoon. It doesn’t look sophisticated, per se, but it seems like a pretty by-the-number kids’ movie.
The Movie: Produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, Kangaroo Jack is a surprisingly violent crime caper with some fairly adult themes (to the extent that this film has themes, as it’s pretty poorly executed). There is a kangaroo in a hoodie, but it doesn’t talk, except in a single dream sequence.
Instead, the film follows the aforementioned hapless criminals, who try to track down the kangaroo while making inappropriate innuendos and avoiding the mob. It’s…not good.
How Audiences Reacted: Ticket sales for Kangaroo Jack were decent, but critics absolutely hated it. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film received positive marks from a mere 8 percent of critics. Audiences were more kind; according to CinemaScore surveys, viewers gave Kangaroo Jack an A-, but remember, these were people who paid to see a movie called Kangaroo Jack.
Really, the critical reaction shouldn’t surprise anyone involved with Kangaroo Jack’s production. Setting aside the awful CGI and horrible acting, the movie simply isn’t smart enough for adults, and it’s far too over-the-top for children. On the positive side, it did win a Kids’ Choice Award for “Favorite Fart in a Movie,” which is…something.
2. Birdman or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Trailer: This seems to be yet another superhero movie. Hey, superhero movies are in, right?
Birdman seems like an action-packed popcorn flick, albeit with some artistic undertones. Around the 43-second mark, we see Michael Keaton snapping his fingers, apparently igniting a car near him. A giant robotic bird is poised to attack the city; a meteor streams through the sky as Emma Stone looks on in wonder. Granted, we’re given the impression that this is an atypical superhero movie, but it still seems to be a superhero movie.
The Movie: In reality, Birdman is the New Orleans mogul who discovered Lil Wayne, Juvenile, and Mannie Fresh, and…oh, sorry, we’ve got the wrong Birdman reference article open.
— Birdman Movie (@birdmanthemovie) April 20, 2015
Birdman: or (the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is an art film about fictional actor Riggan Thomson, played by real-life actor Michael Keaton. Thomson is best known for his work as the Hollywood superhero Birdman. He struggles with his faded reputation while trying to adapt a short story for a Broadway play.
He does have magical powers (in fantasy sequences), and he does do some fighting to win back his estranged daughter and defeat his personal demons—but he’s not exactly Tony Stark. The film is constructed to appear as if it was mostly shot in one take, and it’s a dark comedy, not an action movie.
How Audiences Reacted: Birdman might not have been The Avengers, but it did well at the box office, earning a domestic gross of $42,340,598 on a production budget of $18 million. While the trailer might have been misleading, audiences didn’t seem to mind—they rated the film an A- according to CinemaScore.
Critics loved Keaton’s performance, and the movie has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 92 percent. That’s too bad; if it was an awful movie, we probably would have made a joke about it being “for the birds” or something.
— Birdman Movie (@birdmanthemovie) February 28, 2015
The Trailer: Disney’s first-look trailer for Frozen shows a snowman, Olaf, and a reindeer, Sven, fighting over a carrot (Olaf’s nose) on an iced-over pond. The reindeer drags its butt on the ice, the two struggle briefly, and Sven eventually brings the carrot to Olaf. It’s simple, cute stuff.
The film seems like some sort of animated buddy comedy. We’re given the impression that it centers on these two characters, but we’re not given much more info about the movie. But hey, how different could it be?
The Movie: Ostensibly a retelling of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, Frozen is the story of sisters Anna and Elsa. Olaf and Sven are relatively minor characters.
We get why Disney decided to go this route with the Frozen trailer. After all, why give away key scenes from your movie when you can create a completely new short that gives audiences an idea of what to expect?
The problem is that Frozen’s trailer doesn’t really do that. By pushing the focus onto its animal characters, it buries the movie’s real appeal: It’s a Disney princess movie that empowers young women. The sisters aren’t miraculously saved from trouble by a handsome prince; they solve their own problems. That’s a pretty drastic departure for Disney, and it’s part of the reason for the film’s success—but you won’t find any indication of that in the trailer.
How Audiences Reacted: If you’ve been around a kid at any point over the last five years, you know that Disney’s target audience didn’t care about a misleading trailer. Frozen is the highest-grossing animated film of all time, earning $400,738,009 domestically against a production budget of $150 million. Worldwide, it earned another $875 million. It catapulted singer Idina Menzel to international fame and gave us this hilarious moment:
CinemaScore audiences gave Frozen an A+, while about 90 percent of critics reviewed it positively, per Rotten Tomatoes. It’s safe to say that the film’s teaser trailer didn’t hold it back.
4. Red Eye (2005)
The Trailer: The editor actually had a pretty novel idea for Wes Craven’s 2005 thriller Red Eye: For the first minute or so, the trailer seems to portray the film as a romantic comedy. We see Rachel McAdams running into the always-charming Cillian Murphy several times on her way to board a plane, while title cards tell us about how these “two strangers” share “a mutual attraction.”
Then, the lighthearted music drops out as McAdams realizes that something’s off. Murphy stares at her—and at around 1:19, his eyes flash red. He’s clearly some sort of demonic entity, and when Wes Craven’s name flashes on screen (along with references to A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream), we’re sure that this is a horror movie. What a twist!
And it makes sense, too. He’s got red eyes, and that’s the name of the film. Also, late-night planes are called red-eye flights. That’s, like, screenwriting 101.
The Movie: While the late Wes Craven was one of the greatest horror directors of all time, Red Eye is more of an action thriller. It’s closer to Die Hard than A Nightmare on Elm Street, and while it’s a fantastic film in its own right, the studio clearly decided that audiences wouldn’t see it unless it had a supernatural twist.
The issue, of course, is that it doesn’t have a supernatural twist. Murphy’s eyes never flash red in the actual movie—the trailer editor added that misleading shot.
How Audiences Reacted: Red Eye was a modest success, bringing in $57,891,803 domestically versus its $26 million budget. It received a 79 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, so the critical response was decent, but we wonder whether it would have topped 80 percent if Cillian Murphy’s eyes had flashed red in the actual film for no apparent reason. According to CinemaScore, audiences gave Red Eye a B rating.
Despite those stats, we’re of the opinion that Red Eye is overlooked. It’s a taut thriller with excellent performances from both McAdams and Murphy, and if you haven’t checked it out, it’s well worth the watch. Just don’t expect any demons to pop up, and you’ll have a good time.
5. It Comes At Night
The Trailer: From what we see here, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night seems like some sort of zombie-horror flick. There’s a shot of a weird woman spitting black liquid into a boy’s face, a shot of a humanoid monster with white skin and black eyes, and a teenage kid saying “They’re sick.” It seems like an action-packed monster movie.
Plus, there’s the name to consider. What is the “it,” and why does it “come at night”? Nighttime is scary, so we’re fairly confident that “it” is some sort of horrifying nocturnal creature.
The Movie: It Comes At Night is more of a slow-burn psychological thriller. The memorable shots from the trailer (for instance, the monster with the pale skin) come from dream sequences.
The film builds some serious tension through its character interactions, and there are a few action scenes, but the real horror comes from what the audience doesn’t get to see. The “it” that “comes at night” is a metaphor, not an actual monster.
For anyone hoping for a Night of the Living Dead-type gorefest, however, it’s a disappointment.
How Audiences Reacted: It Comes at Night received a CinemaScore of D, indicating that audiences disliked the film. Critics loved it, though; it currently has an 88 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
The Trailer: We’re given the impression that Mother! is a fairly typical horror movie, with star Jennifer Lawrence uncovering some sort of conspiracy, or possibly going insane. The plot apparently involves a haunted house, some mysterious visitors, and an unbelieving husband. We’re pretty sure we’ve seen that type of movie before.
“Seeing is believing,” the title card reads. Well, we just saw a trailer for a horror movie—should we believe it?
The Movie: In a literal sense, the film is a horror movie, and some pretty disturbing stuff happens over the course of its 2:01 runtime. However, it’s not a straightforward story by any means. The surreal, non-linear plot is closer to something like Eraserhead than The Conjuring, and if you’re not ready for serious symbolism, you’re probably going to be disappointed (or at least confused).
To give you an idea of the film’s arthouse tone, neither of the main characters have names, and one recurring thematic element is the house’s beating (real) heart. Director Darren Aronofsky acknowledged that it doesn’t really make sense if you try to break it down.
Pretty cool mother! making of book for people who speak shot list, cinematography + Aronofsky pic.twitter.com/VgrVQlgwCx
— jen yamato (@jenyamato) December 5, 2017
“I think it’s okay to be confused,” he told The Guardian. “The movie has a dream-logic and that dream-logic makes sense. But if you try to unscrew it, it kind of falls apart. So it’s a psychological freak-out. You shouldn’t over-explain it.”
How Audiences Reacted: Mother brought in $17,800,004 domestically against a $30 million production budget, so it wasn’t exactly a success. Critics appreciated the surrealism—Mother! earned a 69 percent positive Rotten Tomatoes score—but audiences rated it an F, per Cinemascore. We’re just guessing here, but the film’s by-the-numbers promotional campaign might bear some responsibility for the negative reaction.
7. Alien 3
The Trailer: After the first two Alien movies, expectations were incredibly high. The first Alien was a claustrophobic horror movie expertly directed by Ridley Scott. The second film, Aliens, was a science fiction war thriller perfectly executed by James Cameron.
But what do you do with xenomorphs when you’ve already blasted them out of airlocks and nuked them from space? Simple: You bring them to Earth.
The teaser trailer for Alien 3 is simple but effective. A camera slowly moves over the surface of an alien egg.
“In 1979, we discovered: In space, no one care hear you scream,” the narrator says. “In 1992, we will discover: On Earth, everyone can hear you scream.”
Sigourney Weaver’s name flashes up on screen, along with a vague release date (1992). Now that’s how you make an effective trailer that doesn’t give anything away.
The Movie: Alien 3 doesn’t actually take place on Earth. If you’re keeping score, that means that the trailer was about 33 percent misleading (after all, the film did star Sigourney Weaver, and it did come out in 1992).
For what it’s worth, that’s probably not the trailer editor’s fault. Alien 3 had a notoriously problematic production, and several scripts were considered and ultimately rejected while the promotional team struggled to keep up the hype.
Those alternate scripts would have completely changed the Alien franchise, possibly in an awesome way. The original script (which you can read here) reduced Weaver to a cameo role, while Corporal Hicks, one of the few survivors from Aliens, was the protagonist. The studio quickly threw that idea out the airlock. Another concept would have actually brought the aliens to Earth, and yet another saw the aliens on a vegetation-rich space station that looked somewhat like the midwestern United States. We could have had aliens in an intergalactic shopping mall, or we might have had an Alien 3 in which (spoilers) Ripley survives.
Ultimately, Alien 3 was set on a remote penal colony planet (basically, the interstellar equivalent of Australia), and first-time director David Fincher was tasked with making the concept interesting. In the film, Weaver’s character is the only survivor from the previous film—a move that shocked and alienated (pardon the pun) fans. Ripley dies at the end, a plot point that Weaver insisted upon, although she eventually returned for the ultra-weird Alien Resurrection anyway.
How Audiences Reacted: While Alien 3 wasn’t a complete disaster at the box office, its $55,473,545 domestic gross was disappointing compared to its $50 million production budget. Critics were divided; it has a 45 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, and while shaved-head Sigourney Weaver did her part to elevate the film, it’s easily the worst film of the original Alien trilogy. CinemaScore audiences rated it a C. In our view, that’s about right.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad film, exactly. Alien 3 takes some interesting chances with its source material, and Fincher’s direction is adequate, but its poor pacing drags it down. A re-cut version of the film—known to fans as “the assembly cut”—has received better reviews than the original version. Unfortunately, you’ll have to buy the collector’s edition DVD to get that version, but for die-hard xenomorph fans, it’s worth the money.
8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Trailer: We actually get a good idea of the plot of this Tim Burton movie from its trailer. A London barber (played by Johnny Depp, because, in case you missed it, this is a Tim Burton movie) has everything, until…well, just listen to the voiceover:
This is the tale of an ordinary man who had everything until a man of power stole his freedom, destroyed his family, and banished him for life. And in his sorrow, a new man was born.
That seems pretty straightforward. The “ordinary man” ends up in Australia, but he returns to London as Sweeney Todd, a mad man looking for vengeance. He goes on a rampage, desperate for revenge against the people who wronged him. Also, Helena Bonham Carter is in it, because, again, it’s a Tim Burton movie.
The Movie: The only issue is that the movie is an adaptation of a Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim musical.
If you didn’t pay close attention to the trailer, you might miss that entirely—it only shows Sweeney Todd singing for a few seconds, and as far as the audience knows, that clip could be from a dream sequence or a single tune in the middle of the film.
After all, the narrator specifically mentioned that Todd is a madman, so it’s reasonable to assume that at some point, he goes a little nuts and sings a song (it happens to the best of us).The rest of the trailer focuses on the action, portraying the movie as sort of a classic Tim Burton thriller. We’re sure that a few goth kids bought tickets, hoping for something like Edward Scissorhands, only to leave the theater in dismay after the second song, dejectedly shuffling towards the exits in their JNCO jeans and Hot Topic t-shirts.
In the trailer editor’s defense, American audiences aren’t exactly in love with musicals, so maybe it makes sense to portray Sweeney Todd as some sort of action-drama hybrid. After all, other modern musicals like La La Land and Mamma Mia! failed miserably at the box office.
How Audiences Reacted: Sweeney Todd didn’t do well domestically, as it grossed $52,898,073 on a budget of $50 million. However, it did much better in foreign markets, earning an additional $99 million. The musical currently holds an 86 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and critics loved Depp’s performance.
We wonder whether Sweeney Todd might have sold more tickets in the United States if it were promoted as an over-the-top murderous musical. In any case, it’s still worth a watch as it’s one of Burton’s better late-career movies.