Unless you’ve been hiding in a galaxy far, far away, you probably heard that a new “Star Wars” trailer has dropped. Forty years into the most spectacular blockbuster franchise of all time, it’s hard to imagine a sneak peek into the universe generating anything less than religious fervor from its rabid fanbase, which is all the more reason to scrutinize this uniformly embraced nugget of sights and sounds for what it’s really doing.
The stars making publicity rounds at the Star Wars Celebration event in Florida could have blurted random “Star Wars” terms and found themselves showered with cheers. (“Stormtrooper!” “Yoda!”) At this point, it’s almost too easy for Disney to drive hysteria surrounding the latest entry in the current trilogy, “The Last Jedi.” After all, nobody’s seen “The Last Jedi,” and millions of people can’t wait to do just that, so even a fleeting taste is enough for them to get the fix that will keep them waiting with bated breath. There are reasons to care about “The Last Jedi” from a purely cinematic perspective — director Rian Johnson chief among them — but that’s not the chief focus of the trailer, which has been engineered to convey a very precise set of experiences.
It might seem like overreach to invest much intellectual energy into a two-minute mashup of moments, but “The Last Jedi” trailer is actually a fascinating look at the delicate craftsmanship that drives “Star Wars” fandom. All hero worship aside, it’s an extraordinary cultural object — it’s a blatant marketing tool chiseled from the bigger picture, with the precise intent of pandering to its acolytes and building intrigue without giving away the whole show.
Here are three big takeaways from today’s preview.
It’s Exactly Like the Last ‘Star Wars’ Teaser
Three years ago, I looked at the way the “Force Awakens” trailer avoided storytelling in favor of experiential details — the John Williams score, the whispery voiceover, the spectacular arrival of the Millennium Falcon as the music swelled. Now the story has launched, and it’s a completely new challenge: an established world that invites scrutiny of every detail. At the same time, the trailer’s cadences are nearly identical to the teaser for “The Force Awakens” released over Thanksgiving weekend two and a half years ago.
That one began with a quiet, empty shot of a desert landscape that was abruptly interrupted by a dramatic music cue as John Boyega’s stunned-looking Stormtrooper burst into the frame. “The Last Jedi” trailer begins with another seemingly mundane image — a rocky surface in extreme closeup — followed by a similar burst of music as a frantic character interrupts the image: This time, it’s Rey (Daisy Ridley), spotted in a state of exhaustion as the camera tilts up to her shocked face.
Then comes a series of fragmented visuals — the lush, isolated island where Rey finds Luke Skywalker at the end of “The Force Awakens,” underscored by a whispery voiceover from an unspecified source, presumably Luke. In “The Force Awakens” teaser, the first we hear from Supreme Leader Snoke is a raspy narrator mentioning “an awakening” and asking an unseen companion, “Have you felt it? The dark side, and the light.” Cue the bright lights of the Millennium Falcon, and the giddy rush that big reveal entails. Without revealing any specific information about the narrative, the Snoke voiceover guides viewers through a sensory experience filled with suspense and exciting imagery without even a suggestion of plot.
In “The Last Jedi” trailer, the narrator also asks a question. “Reach out,” it implores, “what do you see?” This time, Rey gets to answer, in a response that echoes the snippet from “The Force Awakens” trailer. “Light,” she says. “Darkness. The balance.” It’s a brilliant device for slowly guiding viewers through the unspecified awe of the “Star Wars” universe, but the callback to the earlier approach lulls audiences into a sense of familiarity with the material. It tells them not to worry.
But Rey’s answer isn’t good enough. “It’s so much bigger,” she’s told. Which is another crucial takeaway from the trailer…
Every Big Story Needs to Get Bigger
Of course it’s bigger. How can any sequel possibly satisfy expectations without creating the anticipation of a narrative that reaches beyond what they’ve seen before, raising the stakes in every possible way? After a franchise that spawned sequels and spin-offs that stretch across multiple media — from comic books to video games and novels — what could possibly seem fresh and exciting about more of the same?
“Star Wars” devotees love to revisit this world, but the idea of a complete retread would only satisfy the newest fans. (There was even a vocal contingency that took “The Force Awakens” to task for repeating many of the plot details of “A New Hope” with fresh characters.) However, the “Star Wars” movies exist on a cogent timeline based around the rise and fall of empires and the ongoing struggle of the Jedi to preserve the sanctity of the universe. They’ve been through a lot — hunted to near extinction by the end of Episode III, and scattered again by the start of Episode IV, these lightsaber-wielding heroes simply can’t get a break.
And that might be why this time, the stakes have risen to the point of no return. At the very end of the trailer, we see Hamill in silhouette, his voice echoing through a shadowy cave as he asserts, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” It’s one thing to hear Darth Vader say it, but for the most iconic Jedi in four decades of “Star Wars” to reach that conclusion suggests a scarier proposition: That even the Jedi themselves have made peace with their imminent extinction.
Or maybe that’s not it at all. But the trailer drops just enough details to create the expectations for something otherworldly and exciting without going into any specifics. All we know is this: It’s definitely a sequel to “The Force Awakens,” and not a retread. But perhaps more importantly…
So Much Pretty!
From that gorgeous Irish seaside landscape to the reddish fumes escaping from spacecraft jutting across the surface of a bright-yellow desert, every color in every frame of this 132-second collage is a painterly wonder. In addition to satisfying fans with narrative, the “Star Wars” universe must feel like a fully immersive environment. While “The Force Awakens” director Rian Johnson proved his sci-fi chops with the inventive time-travel thriller “Looper,” his career owes much to the efforts of cinematographer Steve Yedlin, who also shot “Looper” and is another newcomer to the “Star Wars” world. He seems to have delivered with dynamic camerawork and a sophisticated palette appropriate for this eclectic project.
But we also hear the blaring Williams score set to menacing explosions, an injured Boyega with his eyes closed, presumably fighting for his life, and witness a dusty Jedi emblem illuminated by a single ray of light. This is “Star Wars” crack elevated to the plane of high art, proof that the latest installment delivers something close to objective beauty no matter how the plot zigs and zags. That’s just enough to keep fans happy — while keeping casual moviegoers sufficiently curious for now. By playing to both crowds, “The Last Jedi” trailer pulls off a marketing mind trick of its own.