I quite enjoyed Nacho Vigalondo's Colossal, starring Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis, despite - perhaps even because - the film I watched bore little resemblance to the film being advertised to audiences. If you haven't seen the trailer, check it out.
It's like a mashup of an indie comedy and a Kaiju flick: A quirky girl comes home from the big city, licking her wounds from her latest romantic failure, only to discover she's taken control of a massive, funny monster. Look at Anne Hathaway dancing, just like the monster! It's so kooky! There's the upbeat music, suggesting good times; the neon pink title cards, promising something a little sillier and zanier; the pull quotes ("thrilling, funny, smart"; "Hathaway is hilarious"), promising something uproarious.
"Godzilla, by way of the Duplass brothers" might be the elevator pitch you'd offer, judging by the trailer alone. But Colossal is not that movie: It's far darker than the advertising suggests, far more devastating. This is a movie about alcoholism and domestic violence, about the horrors of an Internet-Cable News Age where everyone gets their 15 minutes of infamy, about the damage we do to ourselves and others while we're under the influence of alcohol or anonymity or both.
Critics have been mixed-to-positive, with the film clocking in at 74 per cent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I myself will give it a positive review. But I'm curious to see how audiences react to the movie: They tend not to like being tricked by ad campaigns.
In the annals of Angry Customer Reactions, few can top the consumer who sued the makers of Drive as well as the theatre in which it was playing, for an ad campaign that promised Fast and Furious-style thrills and delivered instead Nicolas Winding Refn-style meditative chills. And, to be fair, she had a point.
The movie in this trailer is very different to the one in multiplexes. I remember walking out of the theatre, exhilarated at having seen something different and unexpected, while simultaneously thinking, "Huh, audiences are really going to hate that." (I wasn't wrong; it received a C-minus from CinemaScore, a stark contrast with the 92 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Sometimes audience disappointment has more to do with hype than advertising campaigns themselves. The genre of horror seems particularly susceptible to this variety of letdown.
Consider the reaction to The Witch, Robert Eggers' chilling tale of radicalisation and alienation in the woods of puritanical America. Its trailer seems rather honest in retrospect - its atonal score and eerily beautiful imagery and Ye Olde English are quite representative of the final product - but its quick cuts and pull quotes ("one of the most genuinely unnerving horror films"; "a nightmarish picture"; "disturbing", "terrifying") may have primed an audience interested in the jump scares of The Conjuring for a more jolting brand of terror than the slow-burn horror The Witch brings to bear.
As Katy Waldman highlighted in Slate last year, there was a striking divergence between audiences and critics: " The Witch has left many movie critics spellbound, but among general audiences its impact is less clear. The film ... earned an 86 per cent Tomatometer rating from critics but only 53 per cent from audiences. Its CinemaScore is an unimpressive C-minus, and it came in fourth at the box office netting US$8.6 million."
Waldman noted that The Babadook and It Follows (C-minus CinemaScore) suffered similar divergences, earning plaudits from pundits and less-enthused notices from others. The Babadook is similar to Colossal and Drive as it was pitched as one thing - a James Wan-style boogeyman-slash-haunted-house picture - but is something rather different (a soul-searing meditation on the dangers of depression).
, on the other hand, was another victim of hype and thwarted audience expectations: Shown a synth-heavy trailer featuring attractive teenagers running from an unstoppable killer and promised the scariest 1980s-style throwback they'd ever seen, audiences hoping for
Friday the 13th
A Nightmare on Elm Street
weren't expecting something as subdued and stylish as David Robert Mitchell's chilling tale about the dangers of premarital sex.
Some may scoff at my references to CinemaScore, but I quite like it as a diagnostic tool, given it's a survey of audiences who paid to see a film taken shortly after they left the theatre. This means that a) they were interested in the subject ahead of time and had likely been swayed by advertising, and b) had actually paid to see the product - facts we cannot assume from IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes user ratings.
This is not to say CinemaScore should be used as a measure of quality, just that it helps understand whether audience expectations have been met. For the films above the answer is clearly "no".
Allow me to suggest audiences bear some responsibility for their disappointment: We are so spoiler-sensitive and unused to grappling with difficult emotions in the multiplex that studios sometimes feel the need to keep us in the dark regarding plot points and tone; anything other than obvious chills or lighthearted japery is likely to turn audiences off. We swoon for nonsense like the Thor: Ragnarok trailer while shying away from anything a shade darker.
So if it takes a little chicanery to get audiences to see something as original and interesting as Colossal, we can't be too mad at the studios.
We've brought this on ourselves, after all.
• Colossal opens in New Zealand on April 27