There’s a real art to cutting a good trailer. It shouldn’t just sell you on the movie via exposition, big names, and flash — it should itself be an encapsulation of how the movie is expected to make you feel (or, at the very least, how the producers hope you will feel). Generic, workmanlike trailers can get the job done if the movie has a star or two and a little bit of sizzle, but if you want your audience to be counting down the days until they can buy their ticket you need a little more.
It should come as no surprise, perhaps, that the trailers for David Fincher’s filmography are of a uniformly above-average caliber. Fincher broke through as a music video director, and though he’s not (as far as I know) cutting the trailers himself, his sensibilities shine through regardless — both mediums heavily rely on mastery of smart editing in a truncated format in order to impart a particular atmosphere that leaves the viewer wanting more.
Below we take a look at the marketing for Fincher’s movies, one trailer for each film — though some stand out as more innovative or more impactful than others, it’s hard to argue that any of them would leave you too ambivalent about giving the finished product a shot.
The film many would argue is Fincher’s best somehow managed to produce one of his most conventional trailers. That’s not to say it’s bad: if anything, it speaks more to the difficulty of distilling such a complicated film down to a two-minute essence. Though the trailer doesn’t quite capture the destructive obsessiveness of the film, it does manage to showcase Fincher’s commitment to period detail, with the use of Rod Stewart’s “(I Know) I’m Losing You” a nice musical choice.
10. Panic Room
The strength of Panic Room’s trailer is actually in the exposition. The bulk of the time is spent on the set-up: new house is equipped with a panic room, home invasion leads to mother and daughter barricading themselves in said panic room. The trailer imparts this basic information clearly and cleanly, and then includes just enough money shots of Fincher’s use of slow-motion and computer-assisted camera moves to leave you on the edge of your seat about the twists and turns you know a film with that premise is going to take.
With Fincher’s latest yet to premiere, it’s hard to say whether the trailer accurately represents his foray into the Hollywood of yesteryear. In some ways I doubt it does (I’m not sure Fincher has it in him to be this cheeky) but that matters less than the fact that it seems to serve as a thesis statement for what kind of project this is. We know what a movie about Old Hollywood is supposed to look and sound like — we all saw The Artist for god’s sake — so what we’re really interested in is how Fincher is going to subvert those expectations, and the trailer nicely walks the line between straight-faced and winking. Plus, quick cuts of actors yelling “Mank!” was never not going to be a winning play.
8. Alien 3
This is the trailer that really makes me miss the over-the-top narration we used to get. Visually speaking this is yet another smartly cut piece of marketing that unfortunately may have helped lead to the disappointing response to the film — Alien 3 is a lot weirder than this trailer might indicate, even in the butchered form that eventually hit theatres — but give the editors here credit: they knew this movie had one shot that holds up with anything else in the series and they used it to its fullest. The Xenomorph, mouth dripping, pressing its face ever closer to a terrified Ripley while the narrator booms “The Bitch...Is Back”? Pure cinema.
7. The Game
One of the simplest concepts for a Fincher trailer, but it works like gangbusters. The use of a literal puppet in the teaser for The Game — a film all about string-pulling — is almost too obvious, but the layered dialogue and atmospheric music and sound effects make it all work. You can’t help but be entranced by that wooden CGI doll as it dances in agony, finally snapping the strings and plunging to some unknown depths. The kicker though, is the trailer’s last shot. After the puppet falls, and the title card plays, we finally get our first (and only) moment of actual footage: Michael Douglas, gasping for air as he emerges from an expanse of water he clearly just fell into. It might be too cute by half, but I can’t say I didn’t love it.
6. Gone Girl
The Gone Girl trailer is expertly edited, and makes excellent use of voiceover pulled directly from the film, but the real key to success here is that the trailer makes full use of the film’s secret weapon: Ben Affleck’s homicidal potential. Very little time is spent with Rosamund Pike’s title character outside of that voiceover, which is the right move; instead, the trailer takes all the ways in which Fincher makes Affleck look like a lying piece of trash (not to mention a terrible husband) and plays them like a rapid fire greatest hits album. Now that’s how you sell a movie.
You have to admire a movie that uses its trailer to call its own shot: “Have you ever seen anything like this?” “No.” I should probably ding this trailer for the questionable tagline (“let he who is without sin try to survive”) and the recurring list of the sins quickly shown in blood-red font (we get it already), but that overcooked pulp just adds to the atmosphere. This is a trailer that gives you exactly what you need to know: voiceover tells you about the two detectives, one old and one new, and Morgan Freeman rattles off the seven deadly sins and makes it clear they’re the basis of the murders. All that’s left to do is show a bunch of sinister rainy footage over a propulsive and ominous score and I’m hooked — it’s a specific brand of trailer for a specific brand of movie, but it’s close to the best possible version.
4. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Like the teaser for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (keep reading), the trailer for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button sells its product via non-narrative emotional response. By stripping away almost all dialogue and relying on relatively quick cutting that syncs up with the underlying musical track (Camille Saint-Saëns’ “Carnival of the Animals: Aquarium”), the trailer conjures up a sense of magic that almost leaves you awestruck. You don’t fully understand what the movie will entail (though bookending voiceover gives you the gist), but you can feel the sense of wistful wonder and you can’t wait to experience it again.
3. Fight Club
The brilliance of the Fight Club trailer is that it takes the close-to-hackneyed voiceover trope and blends it with the film’s own unreliable narrator. It’s easy to overlook in the modern metacommentary of Deadpool and the like, but in 1999 the main character taking control of the trailer narration was much more novel. More than any other entry on this list, the Fight Club trailer feels like it could be the Cliffs Notes version of the movie — even though it’s clearly not — with its incorporation of the film’s various elements, down to the use of The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind,” foreshadowing Fincher’s apocalyptic climax.
2. The Social Network
Is it fair to blame The Social Network for spawning a decade of trailers set to increasingly laughable sad covers of popular songs? Yeah, probably, but when a trailer is this good I think it’s fair to overlook the pale imitators. Interestingly, the teasers for the film lean even more heavily into portraying Facebook’s interface on screen, and are surprisingly terrible — the full trailer nails the balance, partially through the use of that choral rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep,” partly because about halfway through it transitions from the abstract Facebook UI of it all to a more standard, though incredibly well-edited, clip-based structure. But key to it all is that the overwhelming feeling you have after watching it is loneliness: the film exposes the hollow nature of supposed connectivity, and the trailer perfectly conveys that sentiment in a brisk two and a half minutes.
1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It was really a toss-up for the top spot here, but in the end I don’t think any trailer has ever really rattled me the way the teaser for Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo did. Does it benefit (as others on this list have) from being a teaser as opposed to a trailer proper? Sure: it isn’t saddled with the need for narrative exposition the way a full trailer might be. But if a teaser is meant to leave you wanting more, this does so in spades. From the perfectly staccato editing and the brilliant, percussive cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O and Trent Reznor, this is a trailer built on viscerality, a jolt of electricity built to prepare you for — as the trailer wickedly puts it — “The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas.” Every single time this played in front of a movie, I left the theatre thinking as much about my desire to see Dragon Tattoo as about the film I just saw: I can’t think of higher praise for a trailer editor than that.