The most epic movie trailers of all time

A good movie trailer has to strike a fine balance with viewers: it can't give too much away, but it also can't be too vague, and it has to hook potential audiences without giving up too many plot details—oh, and it should probably have a killer soundtrack, too. The film trailer has evolved tremendously over the years, and it's still changing. But a select few already stand out as the most epic of all time.

Inception (2010)

When Christopher Nolan's follow-up to The Dark Knight was announced, all we knew was that it would be "a contemporary sci-fi actioner set within the architecture of the mind." Throughout production, fans were largely kept in the dark—and the film's first teaser was a textbook example of marketing a movie without giving too much away.

No plot details are revealed. No dialogue is spoken. We learn nothing about the characters. Instead, we get a glimpse of the world they inhabit, one in which the mind is just as vulnerable to theft as a bank vault. A spinning top collapses. The water inside a glass tilts as the glass remains stationary. And finally, two men fight in a hallway in which the point of gravity seems to be in constant flux—all of it is set to Hans Zimmer's perfect score.

It's the perfect balance of showing flash without betraying substance. It shows just enough to convey that the film is visually stunning and innovative, and draws the audience ever-so-slightly closer to the film's premise with the tagline "your mind is the scene of the crime." Inception ended up being a huge hit, and the seeds for that were planted in this masterful teaser.

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

"My name is Max. My world is fire and blood." 

The Mad Max: Fury Road trailer opens with these words, then proceeds to show you exactly what they mean with raging flame, sand, and scrap metal hurtling across the desert. It never betrays plot details. Very little dialogue is spoken. It puts the spectacle of the action in the spotlight, which is exactly what a Mad Max audience wants to see. The trailer is edited to the rhythm of its soundtrack, a thudding rock-and-roll orchestral grind, matching the breakneck speed of the action in pacing and tone. It's a perfect sample of what the film brings to the screen—and the finished product lived up to the hype. Fury Road is, in every way, exactly what this trailer promised.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Selling viewers on a film about a team of weird cosmic superheroes starring the goofy guy from Parks and Recreation had to have been an uphill battle. It's weird to think about that now, knowing how big a hit Guardians of the Galaxy ended up being. But in retrospect, the first trailer had some pretty high stakes. Marvel had one chance to totally sell audiences on what was, on paper, a pretty strange superhero movie. Luckily, it didn't just deliver—it set the bar for an entire generation of superhero trailers set to pop music.

Rather than plot, the trailer focuses on character, breaking down heroes who were largely unknown at the time in a concise and simple fashion for potential new fans. The segment in which their rap sheets are read is a perfect introduction. And of course, it's all set to "Hooked on a Feeling" by Blue Swede. With Guardians now among the most well-received Marvel films of all time, it's fun to look back at this trailer and remember that all the mania started with a simple "Ooga Chaka!" 

Watchmen (2009)

When you're adapting one of the most acclaimed graphic novels of all time, you'd better not slip one step of the way. Admittedly, whether the film adaptation of Watchmen succeeded is a hotly debated subject. But when it came time for the first look at the film, the results were pretty spectacular.

The teaser doesn't bother with explaining the film's complex story or themes, nor does it try to introduce every member of the cast. Instead, it focuses on depicting some of the most memorable visual moments from the graphic novel, luring in new viewers with flash while showing diehard fans of the book that the filmmakers were devoted to the source material. It even threw in a nice Easter egg—the trailer's set to "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning" by the Smashing Pumpkins, a song whose title eerily foreshadows what's to come. The film itself may be less than universally beloved, but the first teaser is still spectacular.

Alien (1979)

The structure of trailers has changed and evolved over the last few decades in some pretty huge ways. You'd be hard pressed to find clips featuring corny voiceovers or point-by-point plot breakdowns of the films they're advertising these days. It's far more common now to see them used to establish tone—and while this style of trailer may seem inherently modern, Ridley Scott's Alien did it first and arguably best.

A sweeping shot of space and the title reveal leads to a closeup shot of a mysterious hatching egg. As the score builds, we see sound-free snippets of the film, but get no context for what they mean. As the pace of the score quickens, the drama escalates, building to a climax of violence and screaming. It finally pulls away to the incredible tagline "In space, no one can hear you scream." 

And that's all the film needed. The teaser simply needed to convey sci-fi horror, and did so by explicitly focusing on the genre itself. It doesn't give too much away, instead compelling viewers to come see for themselves. In that, it's very much the template for the modern trailer.

The Social Network (2010)

What do you spotlight in a trailer when a film's standout element isn't its visuals but its script? You follow the first The Social Network teaser, that's what. And why do anything else? When a film is scripted by Aaron Sorkin, putting the dialogue at the forefront is the obvious call.

Rather than focus on footage, the teaser is a slow zoom-out of a digitized image of Jesse Eisenberg as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, with descriptors like "Prophet" and "Billionaire" flashing across the screen. Excerpts of dialogue from the film are played over this, giving viewers a slight glimpse of where the film might go, but with no visual context for what's going on. Removing the visual element further accentuates the dialogue—which, again, is the real star of the film. By the time the title flashes, the trailer has dropped killer lines like, "A million dollars isn't cool. You know what's cool? A billion dollars" and "If you guys were the inventors of Facebook, you'd have invented Facebook."

A film like The Social Network doesn't have the content for a sizzle-reel trailer like an action-heavy blockbuster. This can make advertising films of this sort tricky. The composition of this one is stellar given the way it plays up the film's strengths rather than trying to adhere to traditional methods.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

Pulp Fiction is the kind of film you can't really adequately describe to a potential new viewer. It's sort of an anthology film, but not exactly, and efforts to explain the ways its plot strands connect will likely only confuse. That's why the film's first trailer is so great: it doesn't try to do any of that.

When faced with the gargantuan task of summing up the movie in two and a half minutes, it spotlights key moments from each vignette that allow its audience to gauge the types of stories told in the film, which is marketed as more of a simple ensemble piece than a series of interconnected shorts. It highlights key moments and lines of snappy Quentin Tarantino dialogue, and sets every minute of it to samples from the movie's killer soundtrack. There's also something subtly brilliant about the lead-in, which boasts the film's accolades while playing classical music. The juxtaposition between that and the rest of the trailer sort of says, "This movie about gangsters, hitmen, and violence just won one of the most prestigious awards in film, so you know it's gonna be good." Rarely has a trailer's bait-and-switch worked so effectively. 

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

To be fair, pretty much every trailer and teaser for The Force Awakens is stunning. But this one, released just two months before the film's premiere, stands out as especially exceptional. The bombast of the first two teasers is, in retrospect, largely due to the nostalgic cues on which they capitalize, namely the first glimpse of the Millennium Falcon in action and Han and Chewbacca's return. But in this trailer, there's no reliance on nostalgia; instead, the grandeur of the new film is conveyed through sweeping action shots, new character introductions (each reciting a line of dialogue or two to sum up their journey), and to draw it all together, the sweeping score Star Wars fans know so well. 

Somehow, amidst all the spectacular action on display, the trailer feels more poetic than anything else. It's beautifully composed, with the final moments being not a money shot but the voice of Maz Kanata urging Rey (and, in a way, the audience) to feel the Force. In that moment, you'd be hard pressed to find an audience member who wasn't ready to do just that. This is a trailer that serves as a love letter to the bright future of Star Wars. Regardless of how you feel about the movie itself, it's hard to watch this as a fan of the franchise and not get caught up in it.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2012)

David Fincher's previous film before The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was The Social Network, and one of that movie's breakout aspects ended up being the score from Atticus Ross and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor. Fincher, Ross, and Reznor reunited for Dragon Tatto, and the film's first teaser smartly pulled no punches in showing what this score had to offer. It also took advantage of one liberty offered when adapting a bestselling novel that's already had an acclaimed film adaptation—namely, that you don't have to bother explaining the plot.

Instead, the trailer takes some of the best shots and moments from the film and edits them together at a breakneck rhythm, set to Ross and Reznor's eerie cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song," featuring vocals by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. The lyrical content is cheekily perfect for a film set in Norway, and the tone works well for a murder mystery. It closes out in stellar fashion with no release date, simply the haunting promise that it's "coming." Before Guardians of the Galaxy, this teaser set the high bar for pop music bringing out the best in a trailer.

Spectre (2015)

Spectre ended up being a disappointment for a multitude of reasons, and its failure to live up to the promise of its spectacular first teaser ranks high on the list. This clip is a haunting, riveting piece of storytelling, revealing not the plot of the film but the villain James Bond would be facing: his infamous arch-nemesis from the Sean Connery films, Spectre leader Ernst Stavro Blofeld.

Framed around a conversation between Bond and the enigmatic recurring villain Mr. White, we see White visibly frightened for the first time. His usual demeanor of know-it-all ease has vanished; whatever threat is on the horizon has him spooked. It comes to a head with Bond showing him a ring sporting Spectre's symbol, to which White responds, "You're a kite dancing in a hurricane, Mr. Bond." It's an incredible line and an incredible moment. And then the trailer wisely cuts right to that threat: Spectre itself, with Blofeld's silhouette seated at the head of its table.

With the way it flaunts the return of a classic villain, its slow and methodical composition, and a killer final shot, the trailer promised something truly special. It's unfortunate that the final product didn't live up to expectations, but even knowing how it turned out, this clip is still a wonder to behold. 

Jurassic Park (1993)

Sometimes you don't need footage, music, or dialogue from the movie in a teaser or trailer. Sometimes, when your movie is spectacular enough, you can get away with a trailer selling the premise of the film alone. And when the premise of your movie is "a theme park filled with actual living dinosaurs," well, you're in luck.

The first trailer for Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park functions as a sort of prologue to the film, explaining that scientists found dinosaur blood in mosquitos trapped in amber, and that that blood was used to create living dinosaurs. It builds to this revelation slowly but surely, with the payoff hitting at just the right moment. There's no sizzle reel, Sam Neill, or shots of dinosaurs, because none of it was needed. When you're truly confident in your movie, you know the plot can sell it better than any footage, and Spielberg's team cut one of the best trailers of all time without using a single element from the finished film. As we now know, the end product is just as good as this trailer leads you to believe.