We have movies to thank for making us all fat and lazy, but what can we thank for getting us into the movies in the first place? That’s right: the taglines. They’re Hollywood’s way of telling us, “This movie is so simplistic that it can be summed up into a few pithy little words — but it’s still totally worth the ten bucks and the two hours, we promise!” The best taglines are often just as loved as the films themselves — just try to imagine popular culture without phrases like “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” or “You will believe a man can fly.”
Did you try?
Cool. How’d it go? Not great, right?
Great taglines can make good movies great. They can even turn terrible movies into billion-dollar blockbusters. But then there are those bad days, when the marketing department decides to phone it in, and we end up with taglines like…
10. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
The tagline: Every saga has a beginning.
Why it sucks: Well, let’s be fair here: this one probably seemed like a good idea at the time, given the “legendary” status the franchise held in many people’s hearts. But taken at face value, this one really makes the film seem mundane, inevitable, and inconsequential.
…But the worst part is: The movie actually was mundane, inevitable, and inconsequential. (Then again, maybe this is that “truth in advertising” stuff I keep hearing about.) It seems that with each new piece of Star Wars canon, fans try harder and harder to forget everything that’s been made since Return of the Jedi — and this line will always be there, reminding them just how dang uninspired the series has been since George Lucas started living in a bubble.
9. The Prince of Egypt
The tagline: The power is real. The story is forever. The time is now.
Why it sucks: The Prince of Egypthas become something of a minor classic among animation buffs, but it was a film that was never really comfortable with itself. It was terrified of offending anyone — Jews, Christians, agnostics, Cecil B. DeMille fans, people who were expecting a half-assed Disney knock-off — and this tagline is merely an extension of that. Here we have three short sentences that all seem to be trying to say something without actually, y’know, saying anything. “The power is real” appears to be an attempt to get religious butts in the seats without actually committing to any theological tenets; “The time is now” is nothing more than an admonition to hurry up and buy your ticket; it’s that second sentence that has me stumped, though. “The story is forever”? Are you trying to tell me that God is continually redeeming his people throughout all of history — or are you just admitting you’ve made a slow, boring movie that feels like a bad Sunday school lesson?
…But the worst part is: It gave The New Yorker an excuse to publish this pithy little review:
The picture is O.K. The picture is fine. The cast is packed. The prince is Kilmer. The brother is Fiennes. The squeeze is Pfeiffer. (The dance is hubba-hubba.) The trouble is scale. The trouble is bombast. The predecessor is DeMille. The mood is tumescent. The music is nuts. Look. The thing is this. The cutting-edge computer-generated imagery is white-hot new. The movie is old-fashioned. The story is forever. The movie is for the holidays. The choice is yours.
I’m not fluent in Aging Hipster-ese, but I’m pretty sure the proper response would be “Pwned.”
8. Ghost Ship
The tagline: Sea evil.
Why it sucks: Let me be honest here: there was a lot of really low-hanging fruit in the horror department, and many of them have already been mocked to death on dedicated horror blogs. There were a couple, though, that were so bad that I thought they each deserved another thrashing. This is one of them: a little gem from the 2000s, that decade that will forever be remembered as a time when horror films got so stupid that we couldn’t even remember whether we were being ironic about them anymore. As implied by the title, this film was never developed very far beyond the initial concept of “They’re ghosts…but they’re on a ship!” Of course, the tagline is just as creative: “It’s evil…but it’s at sea!”
…But the worst part is: Even when I try to give it a bit more credit and assume it’s a reference to the Japanese proverb “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” that only makes it worse. On the one hand, the fact that “see” and “sea” are homophones hasn’t amused me since I was about four years old (well under the requisite age for an R-rated horror film, I might add); on the other, is this tagline implying that I should, in fact, make it my goal to see evil? Granted, that would sum up the attitude of most of America’s filmgoers…but still.
The tagline: The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film are the first 92!
Why it sucks: Venerable classic though it may be, Italian horror auteur Dario Argento’s masterpiece of shock is arguably even more of an easy target than Ghost Ship, mainly because it was released in the 1970’s — an era when violent horror movies with ridiculous taglines were the bread and butter of the drive-in industry. Still, this would seem to be the worst of them. Here are the problems I’m seeing here:
1. If you have to tell me your film is “terrifying,” that’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s not.
2. Why the arbitrary division between the “last 12” minutes and the “first 92”? Why not the last 10 and the first 94? How do the first 64 minutes stack up against the last 40? What about the middle 17 and the other 87?
3. Why would I want to see a horror movie that’s going get progressively less scary? Methinks you slept through Screenplay Writing 101, signore.
…But the worst part is: Well — not that this is at all related — but this one has come up due for the Obligatory Remake next year.
The tagline: Size does matter.
Why it sucks: How would you introduce the world to your Western bastardization of a beloved Japanese movie monster? I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a better way than a wink-wink joke about penis size that hasn’t been remotely edgy or amusing for at least 30 years.
…But the worst part is: Putting aside, for a second, the question of whether there’s anything sexier than Matthew Broderick administering a pregnancy test to a hermaphroditic mutant lizard (there’s not), the movie doesn’t even seem to live up to its own tagline. The entire second act revolves around the thousands of baby Godzillas, which are implied to be every bit as dangerous as their mother/father/whatever. I don’t really want to enter into this debate, but it would seem that what really matters here is how you use it. And by “it,” of course, I mean your mutant lizard. Obviously.
The tagline: An epic fantasy of peace and magic.
Why it sucks: Wow, who came up with this one? Leo Tolstoy? But even if this one wasn’t a serious contender for the Sledgehammer Award for Subtlety, it’s still got one serious problem: “peace”? Um, guys, the movie’s about war. The working title was even War Wizards. And last I checked, war is pretty much the opposite of peace. Come to think of it, I can’t even imagine an “epic fantasy” that is about peace. Aren’t “epic fantasies” pretty much always about war? Would anyone even want to see a two-hour “epic” about peace?
But yeah, the “magic” part is right. The movie definitely has magic in it.
So there’s that.
…But the worst part is: This particular film was made by a talented animator named Ralph Bakshi — who you may also know as the man behind Fritz the Cat and The Lord of the Rings. As you can probably guess from this tagline, studios had no idea how to market his films. It’s no wonder he faded into obscurity in the 1980’s, only to resurface briefly in 1992 with Cool World, a film that was torn to shreds by studio meddling and probably set American animation back several decades. It all goes to show you that — as Walt Disney himself proved — talent might help, but if you want to be truly successful, you need a knack for shameless self-promotion.
4. Rocky II
The tagline: Rocky shows he’s a champ…and wins!
Why it sucks: Let’s be honest with ourselves: it’s hard to imagine a less-necessary sequel than Rocky II (unless, of course, you count Rocky III, Rocky IV, Rocky V, and Rocky Balboa — but I digress). Rocky, like all good sports movies, wasn’t really about sports. It was about a man overcoming his personal demons and reclaiming his humanity. That’s why he didn’t actually win the fight at the end — the outcome of the fight wasn’t what mattered. Unfortunately, the American movie going public isn’t the brightest, so three years later, they made a sequel for the ones who still wanted to see Rocky win. And then they put the fact that he was going to win on the stinkin’ poster, to make sure even the stupidest of the stupid knew that this one wouldn’t be a disappointment. And then they raked in the cash. Hey, maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
…But the worst part is: Okay, two things: First, don’t people hate it when you tell them how the movie ends? Isn’t that why the Internet is littered with the phrase “SPOILER ALERT”? And second, is there a difference between “showing you’re a champ” and “winning”? Why not save space and say “Rocky shows he’s a champ, achieves victory, comes out on top, proves that he’s a winner, emerges victorious, triumphs, defeats opposition, wins, and seriously, he wins this time, guys!!!”?
3. The Butterfly Effect
The tagline: It will all end in the beginning.
Why it sucks: For anyone who didn’t spend the last ten years watching terrible movies, I’ll clue you in here:The Butterfly Effect is a film about time travel. Sort of. So, to a point, I guess that line makes a little bit of sense. In that, y’know, if you can travel through time, “the end” could potentially turn out to be “the beginning.” Sort of. I guess. But, as it turns out, this movie was actually like any other movie, in that it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And the end was, in fact, just the end. Although, as with Prince of Egypt, it is possible that the tagline is just an acknowledgment that the movie is poorly paced and seems to go on forever.
On the other hand, maybe they’re just letting you know that if you hide in the theater after the movie ends, you get to see it again (!!!).
…But the worst part is: Ashton Kutcher, running around, constantly creating new lives that suck as much as or more than his previous lives, dialing 555- numbers, and trying desperately to act. Geez, did I even have to say that?
2. Office Space
The tagline: Work sucks.
Why it sucks (the tagline, not work):The year was 1999, and the American workplace had come full circle: Americans had finally gotten the Third World to do all of their hard labor for them; they had achieved their own dream of getting paid to do nothing but push numbers around on computer screens all day; they had realized that jobs where you do nothing suck at least as much as jobs where you do something; they had found a comic strip to help them whine about it; and they had gotten sick of said comic strip’s ubiquity. By 1996, Scott Adams’ Dilbert could be seen everywhere; by 1997 the title character was featured on the cover of Newsweek (with the slightly-more-clever catchphrase “Work is hell”); and by 1998, the powers that be were finally running out of awards to throw at the strip. By 1999, it had waned considerably in popularity — and right around that time, an ad for Office Space popped up on TV, with the insightful, witty, and oh-so-unique catchphrase “Work sucks.” Obviously, people lined up days in advance for the midnight showing.
…But the worst part is: Of course, Office Space had absolutely nothing to do with Dilbert, other than the fact it was also set in an office. It was, in fact, based on the Milton series of animated shorts that Mike Judge (Beavis and Butt-head, King of the Hill) had produced for Saturday Night Live — shorts which consisted of biting satire that was arguably much more potent than the broad bread-and-circuses of Dilbert — but there was nothing about the marketing that made any of this readily obvious. In fact, it almost looked as though the marketing department had chosen to try as hard as they possibly could to ride the fading glory of Adams’ creation all the way to the bank. If that was the case, they were at least two years too late, and the venerable film became the box-office flop they were practically begging for. (The good news: Word of mouth made it a huge hit on home video. But you already knew that.)
1. Kangaroo Jack
The tagline: He stole the money…and he’s not giving it back.
Why it sucks: I debated for a while whether to actually give this one the top spot. After all, this one’s not a good movie that was torpedoed by a bad tagline like Office Space, and it’s not a depressing note in a more-depressing career like Wizards. This one is just a truly awful film with an unbelievably awful tagline — one so bad that it couldn’t be placed anywhere other than the number-one spot. I’m not sure which is worse: the fact that someone in Hollywood thought it was a good idea to let the director of Coyote Ugly make a children’s film about a kangaroo with stolen drug money, or the fact that someone else thought this completely limp tagline was the best way to sell it. Here’s the first rule of writing taglines, guys: when you put an ellipsis before the second clause of a sentence, there had better be a shocking revelation in that second clause. I don’t know about you guys, but when I’m told that someone stole some money, I kind of assume he or she isn’t planning on giving it back. That’s kind of the point of stealing money. And it’s pretty much always a given with a caper like this. (You let me know if you ever see a movie with the tagline “He stole the money…but then he gave it back, so it’s all good.” Actually, come to think of it, that would probably have been the tagline if Rocky II had been a heist picture.)
…But the worst part is: Let’s put it this way: the film had talking animals. It was rated PG. That’s pretty much all you need to make a guaranteed fortune at the box office. And yet, it barely even recouped its production budget. (And keep in mind, that still leaves its promotional budget, which included, among other things, a menagerie of Aussie critters at an inexplicably lavish premiere.) When a guaranteed hit is that big of a flop, you know something’s wrong. I’m no expert, but I’m guessing it’s because the trailers practically screamed, “This movie is really stupid!” — and the tagline confirmed that fact beyond any sort of reasonable doubt.