The parsing of each new piece of “Star Wars” marketing verges on the Talmudic: Is that a Death Star? Why are their right eyes covered? Where the hell is Luke? But the most recent trailer for “The Force Awakens” is the first to genuinely excite me, and it’s for reasons that have nothing to do with plot or character. While J.J. Abrams is, as per his usual “mystery box” protocol, keeping the movie’s plot entirely under wraps — we know (or think we know) who the good guys and the bad guys are, and that’s about it — some of the underlying ideas have started to leak out, and they hint at some exciting departures from previous films.
For one, there’s the idea, unveiled in the previous “final” U.S. trailer that the Jedi have passed into legend since the defeat of the Empire, which may be difficult to rationalize in plot terms but acts as a canny mirror for the way the movies’ real-world audiences relate to them: When John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey quiz Harrison Ford’s Han Solo about whether the stories they’ve heard are true, they might be children asking their parents what it was like to see “The Empire Strikes Back” in the theater, or at least what life was like before the prequels. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboots may have met with mixed reactions, but he has few equals in his understanding of how franchise storytelling and fan culture go hand-in-hand.
What’s exciting in this most recent international trailer is not the words but the images: three of them, specifically. There’s a shot of three tie-fighters silhouetted against a blood-red setting sun that viewers quickly pegged as a reference to “Apocalypse Now” — the movie that, at one point, George Lucas was going to make instead of “Star Wars.” There’s Rey, shivering in fear as a lightsaber comes close enough to touch her cheek. And there’s the sight of an Imperial stormtrooper using a flamethrower on what appears to be a village, followed by Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma (I think) striding through the flaming wreckage.
It’s the latter that struck me at first, mainly because of the choice of weapon. A flamethrower seems awfully, well, un-“Star Wars”-like. It’s not a sci-fi sidearm like a blaster or a lightsaber; it’s real, and the destruction it causes feels moreso as well. (We do see Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s smoking skeletons in the original “Star Wars,” but the image feels glaringly out of place with the rest of the series, and they’re so stripped clean of flesh the effect is almost comical.) The image of troops burning a village with flamethrowers hearkens back to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, or the more recent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, perhaps not in a political sense — we’ll have to wait for the movie to get a better sense of the context — but enough to make it seem familiar rather than alien. For a galaxy far, far away, it feels unusually close to home.
The same goes for the shot of Rey nearly having her head taken off by Kylo Ren’s lightsaber, framed so our focus is on the fear in her eyes. Plenty of people have died in the “Star Wars” series, but their deaths have been bloodless and mythological: Obi-Wan Kenobi vanishing into thin air as Darth Vader strikes him down, or a distant Alderaan exploding into a shower of sparks. That kind of visceral terror isn’t something we’ve seen before, and, like the choice of a flamethrower in the earlier shot, it suggest that the violence in “The Force Awakens” may be a little more grounded, its inevitable deaths weightier. Perhaps Abrams has learned from the blowback to Spock’s deus ex machine resurrection in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” or he’s simply trying to brand the new trilogy as more adult- (or at least adolescent-) oriented after the kid-friendly prequels. Either way, it suggests “The Force Awakens” is pulling the “Star Wars” series into unexplored territory, and that could be a very good thing indeed.