If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent the last few days processing the new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I haven’t been fretting over the details and plot specifics (the footage is vague for a reason), I’ve been marveling at the accomplishment of what the trailer represents. The footage is great and the trailer as a whole is tremendously exciting, but more importantly it caps off what might be the best and most important marketing campaign in the history of modern mass media. Even though The Force Awakens doesn’t open for another two months, it’s already been a major ongoing cultural event for the entire past year and I think it’s been one really worth savoring.
I don’t normally call advertisements “art,” but the three trailers and perhaps most importantly the Comic-Con reel have a lot going on that’s worth exploring and acknowledging. Over the past year, Disney and Lucasfilm have been carefully threading a meta-narrative through the footage about this film’s place inhistory and sending the most important message they possibly can: we’re not going to fuck it up this time.
Disney’s media rollout of the film has been very slow and carefully measured, and all in all we still don’t know very much. However, whenever anything new is released the results are seismic. Why is this? The easy answer is “because it’s fucking Star Wars,” but that undercuts the incredible quality of what we have been shown. These are not normal trailers. They assume a high familiarity with the brand, and are designed meticulously to evoke a certain set of feelings on their intended audience. They reveal basically no plot information. They exist in the unique position of selling a product that sells itself, and don’t have many uninitiated to convince. They are truly for the fans, and possess a certain sparcity and delicacy rarely seen in mass marketing. They also get deeper and more exciting with each viewing.
The trailers form a progression, each getting more detailed and esoteric as December 18 approaches. The first teaser from late 2014 is strikingly bare: a series of simple, unconnected but incredibly striking images. A harried stormtrooper removing his helmet. A jangly, homemade-looking light saber. BB-8. The Millenium Falcon being chased by TIE fighters as the Star Wars fanfare blares in the background. Each of these images is both evocative of what has come before and an enticing tease of what is to come. I cried.
In the subsequent trailers, the main fanfare is not used again. It’s not necessary. The first teaser was a shot across the bow and basically achieved the goal of acknowledging that the new film will draw heavily from the iconography of the original trilogy. The second teaser provides some new images, most importantly establishing the post-Jedi film universe, and the big Han Solo money shot. Like the first teaser, it’s much more regal than frenetic, allowing the viewer time to digest what they are seeing and begin to grasp the significance of each shot. And while “Chewie, we’re home” may be a bit on-the nose, it works. I cried.
As Star Wars took over Comic-Con, the behind-the-scenes reel provided a great look at lots of new things, but was more about establishing an overall narrative for the project. Each of the trailers is its own mood piece, and the the mood evoked by the reel is one of unbridled optimism and joy. It’s probably the most earnest piece of publicity for a movie I’ve ever seen. However, just because it isn’t a trailer doesn’t mean the Comic-Con reel is any less meticulous in its construction. Footage of real sets, real vehicles, serious character makeup. A lively creature shop. 35mm film running through a Panavision camera. For film dweebs, it’s heady stuff. I cried.
The final trailer is a bit more conventional than the other footage, but no less thrilling. There’s still virtually no plot, but this time we’re treated to a barrage of images, an embarrassment of riches that will keep folks guessing all the way up to opening night. The pacing and arc of this trailer are as flawless as the previous trailers, and the two minutes greatly expand the scope of what we’ve seen, and Han Solo’s dialogue give us an idea of the mythic scale the storytelling aspires to. In a brilliant moment, at the end of the trailer the music, shots and cutting escalate to a tremendous crescendo, before the screen cuts to black and film’s logo appears resting above the soundtrack that’s gone almost silent. It’s striking and ballsy, and plays to an audience that is paying rapt attention. It’s about as good as a trailer’s going to get. You can probably guess my reaction.
The Star Wars franchise occupies a unique space in film history both in terms of its near-universal cultural acceptance and its troubled filmography. Few, if any other films are as ingrained into the collective American psyche as the three films that make up the original trilogy and it’s easy to make the case that the original Star Wars is one of, if not the most, culturally important movies ever made. To many of us, we grew up on the original trilogy and got close to wearing out the VHS tapes.
Then the prequels happened. All three films are deeply flawed, and while upon some detached examination they do have some merit and on the whole are not terrible, it’s too late. The only reason people still watch the prequels, and the only reason they got made, was because they are Star Wars films. The Phantom Menace came out when I was 9 years old, and I still have memories of seeing it in a theater, and I still have a lot of the toys, and I know it back-to-front. This is not because it’s good, it’s because it’s Star Wars.
Whether The Force Awakens is good or not, as a culture we will absorb it just the same. Kids will get to grow up playing with BB-8 toys instead of Jar Jar figures. They’ll think black X-Wings are just a normal thing. Everybody will know who John Boyega is. Just as we’ve learned to live with the prequels, elements of Episode VII will enter our standard pop culture lexicon. We’re going to get a new Star Wars film every year too, so it’s possible we’ll be soon be living in a future where the prequels are just a weird footnote. That alone is something to celebrate. So enjoy this moment of anticipation, and get your tickets. December 18 is going to be a very big day.