We know what you’re thinking: Another item about the new “Star Wars” teaser? The fleeting glimpse at J.J. Abrams’ upcoming entry in the biggest franchise in movie history is breaking every corner of the internet today; is there any good in adding to the noise?
But here’s the thing: When the original “Star Wars” hit theaters in 1977, it had an immediate, irrevocable impact on the way blockbusters were produced and marketed; it follows that the latest attempt to add to the story tells us plenty about the marketplace for big-budget American movies today — specifically, how they hold sway over millions. Anyone serious about movies should care about how they’re perceived, so even if you’re more excited about next year’s Cannes lineup than another lightsaber showdown, the attempts to keep “Star Wars” relevant illuminate much about the way mainstream film culture processes the medium today. Here are a few brief takeaways — but first, that trailer:
Studios Don’t Sell You Story Anymore
The trailer shows you the sheer power of the franchise in less than a minute. When the first “Star Wars” came out, the very idea of a movie world capable of generating hysteria among millions of potential audiences was unthinkable. George Lucas’ movie sold its appeal on the basis of its genre and ability to resurrect an old-school Saturday matinee feel. But today, as every studio battles to get a piece of the world-building pie — with Marvel leading the charge — “Star Wars” only needs to suggest the barest details to justify its existence. Despite the sheer scale and volume of anticipation, the teaser contains a mere eight shots and a pithy whispered voiceover (“There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it? The dark side… and the light”).
The vast appeal that the “Star Wars” universe has accrued over the course of nearly 40 years is boiled down to some of its most basic elements: Storm troopers, the expansive deserts of Tatooine, cute droids, swooping light sabers, and expertly rendered flying objects — the Millennium Falcon chief among them, of course. The fleeting narration, paired with the sudden burst of John Williams’ iconic score, tells you everything and nothing at once: It’s “Star Wars.” What else do you really need to know?
As television supplants movies as the chief source of narrative experience in most American households, cinema is increasingly forced to foreground other attributes unique to the medium. Consider two major 2014 movies currently jockeying for the top spot in the Oscar race: “Boyhood” showcases a 12-year production in under three hours; “Birdman” follows a disturbed actor’s conscious through a virtual long take. These experiences can only be conveyed as movies. With “Star Wars,” the studio needs to convince audiences that it’s offering an experience you can only get from the cinema — a giant, detailed universe boiled down to feature length.
Fandom Rules All
Trailers are designed to manipulate audiences to see the whole movie. But does Disney really need to worry about that, a full year before the actual movie hits theaters? Perhaps not, but without keeping its biggest fans happy, the studio runs the risk of alienating its biggest advocates. So it’s not surprising that while every ingredient on display in this trailer includes some familiar reference point designed to energize its base, it’s also notable for everything we don’t see: Principal characters from Han Solo to R2D2 are absent. Aside from that impressively rendered Millennium Falcon, there’s nothing on display that fans hold too dear, perhaps because if Abrams doesn’t get these details exactly right, angry fans will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.
The biggest indie successes also play this game: The “Boyhood” trailer casts Richard Linklater as its main hero by unveiling the narrative of the film’s production, stretching back to 2002. “Citizenfour” plays up the hype around Edward Snowden by only revealing his name in the closing seconds. Marketers must seize on every opportunity to toy with expectations that extend beyond the movies themselves. It’s a busy market out there, and if you can’t develop the sense that your movie is an event, something else will.
Special Effects Aren’t Enough
The first satisfying moment in the “Star Wars” trailer isn’t CGI — it’s an old-fashioned jump scare, followed by the curiously simple image of a Stormtrooper running across a barren landscape. While the effects work eventually arrives to satisfy expectations — look at that Falcon go! — hardly anyone appreciates movies on the basis of graphics alone. Sure, the “Transformers” franchise can get away with a basically nonsensical plot because of its sheer spectacle, but nobody respects it for that. Certainly “Star Wars” couldn’t get away with luring audiences to an empty narrative.
Consider that “Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards will soon direct a “Star Wars” spin-off movie. Edwards’ 2010 indie “Monsters” featured special effects that he made on his laptop. They looked great, but the movie’s real value was in its development of a near-future world around the alien invaders (he used real-life storm damage to suggest the aftermath of an extraterrestrial attack). Edwards’ “Godzilla” also focused on building an environment around the creature long before revealing it in detail. It’s easy to wow audiences into submission, but if you really want their respect, the product can’t lack substance.
The latest “Star Wars” trailer seems to be whispering more than the scant details provided by its narrator. It’s designed to suggest an actual plot beneath the visual splendor. And that’s one reason for a new hope: When even the commercial arena is being forced to tell real stories, it’s not unreasonable to dream of a future in which even big, loud Hollywood movies must smarten up.