Last night, a friend of mine went to see the movie United 93. Out of curiousity, I decided to check out the website, and I was struck by a number of things.
Firstly, the movie poster and site style is the most tastefully restrained I can remember seeing in a while—perhaps ever. Simple but very strong imagery combined with simple but very strong typography; common in our world of design, very rare in the world of Hollywood. Furthermore, while I confess I didn’t know what the movie was about before I went to the site, I did immediately upon seeing that imagery.
Now, I want to emphasise that I have not seen the movie, and I have read no reviews or heard a single thing about the movie itself (yes, I live under a rock), so this post is not about the movie and is completely uninfluenced by whether it is good or bad, or what emotions the movie itself has stirred up.
But what I noticed throughout every aspect of the website for the movie was a carefulness of design that I found to be unique and striking, coming from the Hollywood industry. There are many ways that a movie about heroism in America could be portrayed, but the overriding sense I got from this promotional material is caution and respect. It’s as though from every level the producers, director and designers are walking on eggshells. Judging by the website, this is not an action film, but perhaps more of a memorial.
The site music—a haunting choral—gives an overtone of religious sorrow. In fact, it feels exactly like stepping into church, where suddenly you leave your boisterous talk behind, and despite any opinions you might have about the Church (the movie/the issues), you are immediately compelled to calm down and show some respect.
After the very short, atmospheric intro, which shows us only one scene of the passengers in the plane, we rest on a map-like page showing the names of several US cities around which float and fade numerous dots. Are they airplanes, or are they souls, which fade in and fade out?
The only fast action on the page is in the distressed typography of the movie title in the lower right corner. The site is a good lesson in how to use typography to convey content: much of the type on the site is in a pixel-font, which to me alludes to what will presumably be computer-screen action. (However, the site does suffer from some difficult to read text, set in light blues and greys.)
When you select from the menu, the words “Never Forget” (which seems to be the closest thing this movie has to a tagline) fade on and off the screen.
Down the right-hand side of the screeen, is a series of little + icons. It didn’t take me long to figure out that this was a timeline (it did take me a while to figure out it begins at the bottom and ends at the top), and again, each segue between images contains the words “Never Forget.”
The imagery is another striking aspect. Throughout the site, most of the images are realtively calm and serene; it is the treatment, the light exposure and the distressed effect of the images which give us the sense of action, not the content of the images themselves. In all, this borrows strongly from the titling of Six Feet Under: the graininess, the serenity, the fade to white.
In the “Photos” section of the site, these effects all but disappear: these photos take us out of promotional images into either “real time” (photos on set) or “movie time” (shots from the movie).
The site also contains a section of memorials, with photos and small bios (seemingly individually written) of the actual people from Flight 93. This real-world inclusion into a promotional piece furthers the impression that what is on offer is not mere “entertainment.” (Similarly, there are direct links to memorial and donation pages.)
Interestingly, they chose to use unknown actors for all the roles. This in itself is a tactical move which negates the usual grandstanding, and creates an aura of depiction rather than star-driven entertainment. It’s also probably the reason the poster is so tasteful.
I can tell a lot (I think) about this film from this website, but I can tell more about the sensitivity of the topic. How to make a movie about 9/11 without showing what we’ve already seen in reality (and thus having the serpent eat its tail in entertainment imitates life which imitates entertainment); without having Bruce Willis busting down the doors to save … no one? How do you depict terror, when the terror is real? In the marketing of this movie we are shown an uncommon restraint and consideration which has resulted in a remarkably tasteful and respectful set of materials.