Unless you’ve attended a preview screening of The Signal, chances are you have no idea what it’s actually about. That’s because, in a move that’s now all too uncommon, the producers of this week’s viral-outbreak-catastrophe-whatever thriller only released one trailer for the film. And in terms of key narrative details, it gives away a whole lot of nothing:
Note: This isn’t a “teaser” trailer, the initial promo released to theaters and designed to provide a tantalizingly brief glimpse of a future work. Rather, this is the official, two-minute, 10-second trailer. The fact that it offers only hints about the central crisis at the heart of its story—intimating horrors through random images of alternately happy and screaming kids, and Laurence Fishburne in a Hazmat suit—makes it the rare Hollywood trailer to take a less-is-more approach to selling its feature.
This past January, the National Association of Theater Owners recommended that theatrical trailers’ lengths be kept under two minutes, in large part because of a rise in customer complaints about the duration (and sheer number) of pre-film previews, which frequently run close to three minutes each. It was something of a stunning industry backlash against what’s become standard practice. For decades, trailers have routinely spoiled their own product by revealing surprise plot developments and character behavior, to the point that watching many movies is an exercise in simply filling in the blanks around all the pre-release clips that have been seen, ad nauseam, for weeks and months beforehand.
Take, for instance, the trailer for Cast Away, which lets viewers know that Tom Hanks will, ultimately, get off the island. Or The Sum of all Fears, which makes it clear that Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck) will not stop terrorists from detonating a nuclear bomb. Or the original Carrie, which assures you that Sissy Spacek’s telekinetic high-school outcast will eventually have her bloody vengeance on classmates. Or What Lies Beneath, which spells out the identity of the ghost haunting Michelle Pfeiffer (and how that specter is related to Harrison Ford’s character). Or Terminator: Salvation, which answers its own central mystery—who exactly is Sam Worthington’s character?—by informing everyone that, well, he’s a Terminator.
There are countless other examples of this practice from the past 30 years, and from even farther back in cinema history as well; a glance at Alfred Hitchcock’s five-minute (!) trailer for The Birds, or Cecil B. DeMille’s 10-minute (!!) ad for The Ten Commandments, makes clear that giving away everything about a movie has long been business as usual. Yet at least for the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the only way for patrons to get a genuine feel for an upcoming film was via a theatrical trailer. Consequently, at least in those older cases, making a lasting impact often meant spoiling things that might otherwise have best remained unmentioned ahead of time.
Today, however, the endless barrage of TV trailers, online advertisements, and YouTube-streaming trailers has resulted in an environment in which we’re practically drowning in spoiler-rific promotional material. And it’s largely because Hollywood has deduced that we—meaning, mainstream moviegoers at large—want it that way. Just like the Internet’s tidal wave of covertly snapped set photos, leaked scripts, and baited-breath reporting about movie productions, trailers now habitually keep no surprise a secret because of an instant-gratification pop culture that demands to know everything possible about a forthcoming movie right this second. Moreover, studios are convinced that the more they give away, the more likely we are to leave our couches for the multiplex, since we’re far more apt to risk spending our time and money on a film whose quality (and nature) we can deduce in advance, rather than on a movie we can’t quite get a beat on.
Thus, for example, Cast Away’s trailer divulges Tom Hanks’ fate so that prospective patrons can be assured that there’s a happy ending awaiting them. In that regard, giving away the ending becomes a prime sales strategy, comforting would-be viewers by notifying them about exactly what to expect. Of course, the problem with that policy is that it drains any sense of dramatic unpredictability from the equation. And yet for every amazingly successful teaser like the one for The Matrix (whose initial “What is The Matrix?” promos stoked, rather than inhibited, curiosity) or The Shining (whose teaser was all ominous suggestion), there are plenty more which have spoiled their way to the box-office bank. The most recent, and glaring, culprit is The Amazing Spider-Man 2, whose May 2 release was preceded by so many long-form trailers, online featurettes, television spots, and other assorted images that anyone with half an interest in the film had already seen the good stuff weeks or months earlier.
Whether The Signal lives up to its sterling trailer remains a question to be answered after this weekend, when audiences finally get a chance to see if it delivers on its heretofore-insinuated mysteries. However, its tease-don’t-tell campaign already marks it as a small but significant triumph in this age of endless spoilers. It’s a beacon of hope that nothing about moviegoing is as enticing, or exciting, as the promise of experiencing something unexpected and amazing for the first time.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.