Since the earliest days of motion pictures, studios and marketers have fused images with words to sell a film: whether referencing its story, cast, technology, or source material. Over the past decades, the creation of the movie tagline has been elevated to an art form, delivering movie fans some of the greatest one-line summaries of an entire movie (or franchise).
Not all tagline are winners, of course: sometimes, combining a few buzz marketing words into a sentence is considering good enough to put audiences into theaters. Even more often, attempts at humor are more likely to elicit groans and eye-rolls than laughs. But occasionally, a professional marketing team comes up with a tagline so clunky, so bland, or so downright uninspired, they may have been better off simply leaving it out of the advertising.
There are plenty to choose from, but here is our list of the 10 Worst Movie Taglines.
10. Winter’s Bone (2010)
We try not to be sticklers over simple grammar or sentence structure, but in the case of Winter’s Bone, the tagline “talking just causes witnesses” is simply too awkward to overlook. For some, the sentence might flow perfectly fine, but the real problem is that the line is so meaningless and detached from the actual story, it serves no purpose whatsoever (aside from sounding painfully generic).
That’s a shame, since the film is anything but. The adaptation of Daniel Woodrell’s novel stars Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, Silver Linings Playbook) in a star-making role as a daughter looking for her father in the crystal meth underworld of the American Ozarks – yet the tagline captures none of that gritty reality, instead sounding like a throwaway marketing line for a John Grisham courtroom drama.
9. Basic Instinct 2 (2010)
A movie doesn’t have to be an award-winner to sport one truly disappointing tagline. Scholars may argue (briefly) whether there was ever any reason to make Basic Instinct 2, but sex sells, after all. And for an entire generation, Sharon Stone’s nude scenes in the original had become synonymous with the film as a whole.
The first poster featuring Stone once again cross-legged with cigarette in hand threw subtlety out the window, but then came the tagline: “everything interesting begins in the mind.” While that is… technically true, we would wager that any reader could take a few seconds and come up with a more clever, in-joke tagline to the original film (and scene being alluded to). Instead, the generic and self-important tagline showed what fans could expect from the sequel, and the finished product was as flawed as predicted.
8. Alex Cross (2012)
There is a time and place for puns, and movie taglines are most certainly one of them. But even so, audiences have come to expect at lease a slight sense of wit or humor, and usually only if the film’s tone permits it. In the case of Alex Cross, a dark adaptation of James Patterson’s novel “I, Alex Cross,” it seemed out of place. In hindsight, “don’t ever cross Alex Cross” was the first sign fans had that the adaptation would be far from inspired.
Besides being too long to come off as ‘badass’ as the marketers likely intended (‘Don’t Cross Cross’ is at least somewhat clever and catchy), the tagline seems to position the titular psychologist/detective as an action hero. It’s likely meant to differentiate Tyler Perry’s version from Morgan Freeman’s, but ends up promising an attitude and story that the movie couldn’t deliver.
7. The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Flawed taglines can hint at a flawed film, but even the best pieces of cinema can be saddled with some baffling one-liners. Take The Magnificent Seven, for instance. The adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai saw a group of gunmen hired to protect a small Mexican town from a group of raiders, battling with themes of honor, duty, murder, and fatality. So what tagline was concocted to highlight them?
“The Magnificent One!” Admittedly, the film was released when exclamation points abounded on film posters, and taglines were less of a science. Still, the tagline is completely ambiguous: is the “one” meant to be the film itself? The story? A particular actor? Plenty of lines from the script could have teased the action, so we can only assume the one responsible for this tagline was late for a meeting.
6. Clash of the Titans (2010)
Nobody is going to give Clash of the Titans praise for its story or ingenuity; but it was intended to be a swords-and-sandals action film, and packed enough action and spectacle to live up to that charge. It was going to be difficult to live up to the nostalgia and affection movie fans have for Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion Medusa in the 1981 film, or the tagline that accompanied it (“An Epic Entertainment Spectacular!”).
So how did the studio decide to excite audiences about the events set to unfold in Clash of the Titans? By confirming that in the film, “Titans will clash.” No other tagline on our list required less energy or thought than this entry, and the fact that at no point in the film do Titans clash only proves that those charged with creating it never even bothered to see the film.
5. Avatar (2009)
James Cameron’s Avatar has become something of a lightning rod among fantasy and sci-fi fans since release, but there’s no denying its impact on blockbuster filmmaking – or box office sales records. The 3D spectacle promised in marketing has anyone even remotely interested convinced to see the film in theaters, which means many failed to realize Avatar even had a tagline. But it did. And it is truly baffling.
Telling moviegoers to “enter the world” is at best confusing, and even now seems like the first or last laugh of a full tagline. Was Cameron referring to the fictional world of Pandora, or the new age of 3D storytelling? While the movie may be immortalized for its scale and box office milestones, it’s permanently burdened with a tagline that could be applied to nearly any genre movie ever made.
4. Kangaroo Jack (2003)
There are bad taglines, and then there are bad taglines written by those who think they’re being clever. Perhaps it’s best that the tagline for Kangaroo Jack – a universally-panned comedic romp set in the Australian Outback – be just as inane and brainless as the film it was advertising. When your story centers on a kangaroo mistakenly outfitted in a hooded sweatshirt, sunglasses, and $50,000 in cash, a clever tagline is the least of your problems.
The tagline is a bit unfair, since ‘Jack’ didn’t actually steal the money (he is a kangaroo, remember), but the studio presumably felt it was worth pointing out that unlike most(?) thieves, “he’s not giving it back.” If the line seems like it’s trying too hard, it fits the movie perfectly.
3. Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
Generally seen as not only one of the films that helped define the “buddy cop” genre, but one of the best of all time, Lethal Weapon was a success from its story and action down to its taglines. Warning audiences to “pity the bad guys” and that “Glover carries a weapon. Gibson is one” gave a dose of humor and bravado, and the movie delivered on both. While Lethal Weapon 2 mostly continued that success, the taglines were a different story.
“The magic is back!” may seem a suitable tagline for a fantasy adventure, but in the context of Lethal Weapon, it’s incomprehensible. Honestly, “Still too old for this” would have been at least something of a reference to the actual movies, but the studio decided to stick with “magic.” Lethal Weapon 3‘s “the magic is back again” takes the cake for worst in the series, but it’s the second in the series we have to blame for it.
2. Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
Although Star Trek fans may accuse J.J. Abrams of sullying the intellectual style of the original TV series with blockbuster action, he wasn’t the first to try to draw audiences in with the promise of big screen spectacle. That title rests with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, a movie hinting that the action would be so impressive, movie theaters would need to install seatbelts.
The marketing apparently worked, bringing the fifth film a larger opening weekend box office than the prior installments. However, the odd direction for a tagline was a clear indicator of just how problematic the movie had been from beginning to end. The other taglines ranged from forgettable to spoiling the climax, so this may not be the worst crafted. But with a franchise like Trek, it still seems out of place.
1. Earthquake (1974)
These days, the term “event film” is thrown around quite often, or used interchangeably with terms like “tentpole, flagship,” or “blockbuster.” But back in the 1970s, the term was just beginning to gain meaning, as disaster films became the most coveted to American audiences. Universal’s Earthquake was one such project to take advantage of the wave, and the overall enthusiasm is evident in just how unimpressive a tagline the film required.
Promising nothing more than “an event” was good enough to earn the film a total of $80 million ($367 million in today’s dollars), even if it’s mostly remembered for the technical aspects than the story or characters. The cast of survivors spread across a massive disaster is still a structure seen in modern blockbusters, but a tagline describing virtually any film in history no longer makes the cut (thankfully).
That’s just a small sample of the many taglines that have left movie fans underwhelming, misled, or simply confused. Some movie fans are clearly willing to overlook some fumbled marketing if the attached film is strong enough to stand on its own, but there’s no denying that while taglines may be works of art for some, they are still elusive for others. Be sure to name your own favorites in the comments.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.