I come back to it every morning. This brilliantly edited snippet for Borderlands 2, a post-apocalyptic satire set for release next week, is the best video game trailer of the year and one of the finest ever made. At its core, it is a superior music video, a magical mashup of the sweet, melliflous do-wop in The Tokens’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with the unrelenting chaos and haunting violence within a gritty game somewhat influenced by “Mad Max” and perhaps “Apocalypse Now.”
The infectious ditty, first recorded in 1939 by South Africa’s Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds, is heard in unexpected juxtaposition to the bloodshed and explosions within the game. Near the outset, a brownish lizard slithers to the precipice of a waterfall, foam spraying around it. Nearby, the Rakk, a graceful flying dragon, is shot from the sky by Maya, one of the game’s four protagonists. As the word “Wimoweh” is sung over and over again, odder creatures are introduced. There’s the Bullymong, a kind of space gorilla clad in steel. But what sets the toes tapping is the vacant-looking little undead characters whose heads bob from side to side in rhythm with the music. These psycho midget zombies steal the show.
When propeller-driven planes rush toward your face, the sung “Wimoweh” morphs and becomes an electrified, high tech warning. Momentarily, the screen goes to black and you hear something scream “Rock and Roll!” as if you were near a crazed fan at a heavy metal concert. As “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” hits its crescendo and singer Jay Siegel begins to improvise, a montage of the game’s features come to the fore. The lithe Maya wields magic and holds an enemy in a blue, glowing orb. A mischievous girl named Tiny Tina dances in rhythm to the music as she moves to a dynamite plunger to blow up an enemy. And finally, Claptrap, a charming, determined robot that was one of the stars of the first game, grunts “Wimoweh, Wimoweh, Wimoweh,” as he proudly marches forward.
The overall effect is so thrilling that it trumps the best music-oriented trailer to date, the creepy BioShock trailer from 2005, which was shot underwater with Bobby Darrin’s evocative “Beyond The Sea” in the background. In that trailer, however, the overpowering sounds of violence temporarily distract you, interfering with both Bobby Darin’s cool detachment and the overall theme of terror. Equally effective, though far less ironic, was Sun Kil Moon’s dark, brooding “Blue Heron,” which played over the debut trailer for the bromance war epic, Gears of War 3. That video was so grimly affecting that Jimmy Fallon, a game fan himself, chose to debut it on his show. And the pounding, crashing drums from Health’s gloomy “Tears” sounded like harsh bullet fire from the gun of the morose anti-hero in Max Payne 3.
However, the Borderlands 2 trailer, bolstered by that catchiest of pop songs, creates a visceral desire in a way that most preview videos cannot. In fact, many of these trailers bludgeon the viewer with a constant barrage of chaotic footage from the game and metal music, this medium’s version of the hard sell from marketers who perhaps suffer from arrested development. But with quirky, cute animation made especially for the trailer, these game makers are signaling that Borderlands 2 will be something special, something closer to popular art.
When a thoughtful creation like “Wimoweh” hits the web, fans go happily battery, parsing every second while rhapsodizing on message boards and via social media. The old song itself might even see a spike in sales on iTunes. The “Wimoweh” tidbit can build a kind of grassroots credibility that no expensive Hollywood-produced movie trailer can match. But releasing a piece like this can also be a gamble. Borderlands 2 has been so expensive to make that Take-Two, the game’s publisher, is seeking to lure a more general audience. However, they also can’t afford to alienate the four million gamers who bought the first edition with what might be considered a stodgy song. Yet the marketers need not worry. The “Wimoweh” trailer is all things to all nerds of all ages.