Trailer Theory: The Obfuscation and Transformation of Chappie

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It may come as a shock, but Hollywood film trailers, by and large, aren’t a very honest endeavor (okay, probably not). One would assume a trailer’s purpose to be conveying an accurate summary of what a potential viewer might expect to see in the film, but when your job is to target a demographic and hype a film for the largest possible audience, economic imperatives inevitably get in the way. Or to put it more bluntly: Why be honest if you can sell one type of story as something you expect will be more profitable than the truth?

It’s not often that you get to see a straight-up course correction in progress, though—that moment when a studio apparently says “Oops. Let’s market this thing as the complete opposite of what we were doing before.” But you can see that happening right at this moment with Chappie, the Neil Blomkamp sci-fi feature set for U.S. release on March 6. Comparing the trailers released several months ago with the TV spots currently running on heavy rotation, the differences in tone and content are glaring—and they signal a huge change in how the studio wants potential audiences to perceive it.

First, let’s watch the original Chappie trailer, which started running in theaters back in the fall. That’s how I first saw it, and it projects the idea of a very specific type of story.

We open gently on a shy, inquisitive robot as he explores an unfamiliar world. The music is calm, inviting and inspiring. “I brought you into this world; a machine that can think and feel” says the voice of Dev Patel as he boots up the droid—obviously he’s the robot’s proud creator and father figure.

They have their first tentative meeting, and Chappie receives a name and reveals his capacity to learn. His creator nurtures these feelings: “Anything you want to do in your life, you can do. Write poetry, have original ideas.” But there are dark clouds ahead. The world won’t accept the threat of artificial consciousness. People pelt him with rocks on the streets. Sigourney Weaver intones “People are always fearful of something they don’t understand.”

Clearly, this is a film about a sentient robot finding his way in the world and overcoming prejudice and adversity. Chappie is a “black sheep,” according to its dialog, who will teach us to expand our minds and our hearts. “You taught us so much more than I could ever have imagined,” Dev Patel says. The tagline cinches it: “Witness one machine’s journey to become his own man.” What a heartwarming, inspirational story this movie must be—like a fusion of Pinocchio and Short Circuit. It must end with the robot making a speech in front of Congress, ‘ala Mr. Chappie Goes to Washington!

And then these TV spots began running recently:

Ummm … this is the same film, yes?

Suddenly, everything has changed. The music is blaring techno sounds (like any action movie in the last five years). A gruff-voiced narrator is on the scene. Apparently now it’s the 2014 Robocop remake.

“The government built them to oppress,” the new narrator informs us. “The people stole one to fight back.” The villain, meanwhile, tells us that “If we control the robots, we control the people. This is your day of reckoning.”

As it turns out, Chappie is apparently an action movie, not that you would know from trailer #1. The robot wasn’t single-handedly created by Dev Patel as was so strongly implied before—rather, he’s a police bot that was captured and reprogrammed to be a new type of weapon: “A machine that can think and feel can outsmart the enemy and free us all. He’s the key to the revolution.”

Wait, what? Since when is there a revolution? What about all of that painting and poetry stuff? In both this TV spot and the second full-length trailer, there’s next to no focus on all that touchy-feely crap. After all, why bother when there can be GUNS AND EXPLOSIONS! Cut to: Stock Action Shot #3 with the whole crew walking in a line toward the camera holding guns straight up in the air. Somewhere, Michael Bay gives an approving little nod.


The actual film is no doubt somewhere in the middle of these two extremes, but why the sudden change in ideology? One would presume that the two trailers are targeted toward very different demographics. Where the first says “This is a movie your kids could see,” the second says “Please please please young male demographic, we promise there are explosions and look at that awful Hugh Jackman mullet—this could be fun, right? Right?”

If the first trailer has been done away with entirely (and none of the TV spots seem to evoke it any longer), then it may also be a tacit admission that the film’s promoters are not feeling at all optimistic about its potential box office. We are living, after all, in an unparalleled age of box office metrics where audience engagement is monitored through everything from tweet volume to posts in this very vein from publications such as Paste. Every bit of data is assimilated in the weeks leading up to release to generate what are usually very accurate tracking and predictive numbers. Perhaps the potential audience simply wasn’t buying into the inspirational story of a brave young robot named Chappie?

Regardless, these new spots would seem to be an emergency repositioning: You’re not buying our inspirational movie? Well, here’s one with more guns.

Will anyone else notice or care? Only the box office receipts will say for sure.

Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor. He derives non-ironic enjoyment from watching Robot Jox and pays far too much attention to trailers. You can follow him on Twitter.