In this week’s blog post Keith Johnston looks back on Star Wars trailers we have known and loved. As a film (and franchise) that looms large in narratives of Hollywood, science fiction and the growth of the modern blockbuster, these trailers offer a parallel narrative around the impact and influence Star Wars has had on the ‘coming attraction’ trailer.
‘This is where the fun begins’: The first Star Wars trailer is a relatively low-key affair, with less of the bombastic special effects spectacle that would become associated with the franchise. Following many trailer structures of the time, the trailer offers a broad range of sales messages – romance, adventure, broad character and narrative information – with occasional flourishes of a TIE fighter- Millennium Falcon dogfight, or a brief glimpse of a lightsaber duel. Watching from a distance of 40 years, those short bursts of exuberant and fast effects-created fantasy still linger, but aren’t the central draw – perhaps a demonstration of how unsure the studio was in the film’s place or potential.
The teaser trailer for The Empire Strikes Back features no special effects imagery at all. Instead, the teaser displays an array of painted images (by the conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie) and, towards the end, photographs of the main cast members. The only moving images (in a film series predicated on speed and motion) are the camera flying through a starfield, and moving over the McQuarrie drawings. Here, the lack of visual spectacle is likely a product of 20th Century Fox’s desire to promote the sequel six months ahead of release, well ahead of Industrial Light and Magic having finished all the effects work. Without access to those star effects, the teaser relies on known pleasures and setting up the ultimate anticipation: a confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. By the time the main trailer arrived in cinemas, there were a few more special effects shots on display but the bulk remained practical effects (bounty hunters in costume) rather than space battles (a brief asteroid belt sequence is the main example here). In 1980, for a fuller experience of the special effects spectacle, audiences were better served by various television trailers, which featured a full raft of AT-ATs, the Super Star Destroyer, and the final lightsaber duel.
The teaser for Revenge of the Jedi (1983) is treasured among fans in part because it retains Lucas’ original title for the film, but it also offers the reassurance that a third franchise entry should: recurring characters dominate, but the teaser ends with a montage of space battle sequences that hark back to the first two films (and which these does would be decried as ‘spoiling’ the final Death Star battle). This confidence and nostalgic pleasure (‘return to a galaxy far, far away’) is equally clear in the main trailer, where more finished effects sequences appear, but there is little clear narrative structure. Known visual and emotional pleasures appear to be more important than story.
‘Every generation has a legend…’: On November 17th, 1998, the teaser trailer for The Phantom Menace debuted in selected cinemas across the U.S. Featuring the first new footage from George Lucas’ Star Wars universe since Return of the Jedi, the trailer was described as the most anticipated two minutes of film ever. Yet seventeen years ago, the only place Lucasfilm made the trailer available was in cinemas. Dedicated fans recorded, digitized, and uploaded that teaser online hours after it debuted, and it was shared widely across the internet. Lucasfilm, wrong-footed by the desire for an online version, eventually provided their own – and the teaser broke all previous internet download records, with an estimated 450 Star Wars fans a second downloading the official version. The trailer’s shift to an online distribution model has never looked back, with over 60% of trailer viewing now happening online.
The Phantom Menace trailer features a traditional mix of special effects-led CGI-enhanced sales message – space battles, alien landscapes, lightsaber duels – with teasing central narrative concepts (a first meeting between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker) but its mythic status is more about the effect it had on the trailer industry, and the rise in fan-led and trailer-driven speculation on what the trailer had ‘revealed’ about the final film. With fan audiences now in control of the trailer – able to rewind, pause, stop and examine in a much more exact way than VHS – speculation and trailer scene breakdowns became a more common aspect of media websites.
‘Dangerous and disturbing this puzzle is’:
Acknowledging the desire to interact with a cultural text like a trailer, Lucasfilm targeted that market with a range of trailers for Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002). While teaser ‘Forbidden Love’ focused on the Anakin-Padme love story, the online teaser ‘Mystery’ offered a narrative puzzle rather than a straightforward presentation of narrative. Broad clues are given through glimpses of key locations (Tatooine, Coruscant), key characters (Padme, Obi-Wan), but the trailer relies heavily on a montage of new and strategically familiar images. Barely on screen long enough to register, such shot require and reward the frame-by-frame analysis that The Phantom Menace trailer had been subjected to: Lucasfilm had learned a key lesson in engaging with fans. Litter in clues (a bar fight that seems to echo the original cantina scene; Christopher Lee; an ocean planet; Anakin wreathed in Force lightning) and viewers will unearth them, and then debate them online. The trailer becomes even more layered and complex, designed to be engaged with in this way. Considering the response to the different trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this theme within trailer viewing has only grown more powerful.
(Alongside this activity, of course, fans were now creating their own trailers: an October 2000 trailer purporting to be for Episode 2 featured a particularly epic lightsaber battle that, on closer inspection, was a sequence from Braveheart (1997) with digitally-added lightsabers)
A response by Ed Vollans
We know the campaign is aware of the different forms of audience members form the invested to the casual, and the campaign for The Force Awakens is playing up to all of these through reintroducing characters and themes in very clever ways. TFA trailer has a really interesting blend of old and new, while the CGI spectacle that we see of the earlier films is kept to a fast-paced montage that fleshes out the story world set up in the first minute. By developing the storyline early on, the trailer echoes the previous franchise while gesturing to the sense of uniqueness here. The fast montage towards the end combines the character voice overs and introductions of the first half with some pretty stunning visual effects that lend themselves to being poured over at leisure for further information. At this point CGI technology has developed significantly – allowing an increasingly high definition tablet and smartphone viewing experience to accommodate this kind of close watching. It remains to be seen how well the film will fare at the box office but as far at the trailer goes it combines setting up the story with enough references to existing franchise tropes that echo the by now comparatively low tech CGI of the earlier films with updated renderings that will be certainly prove to be considered as a form of homage to the roots of the franchise. Overall the trailer is bringing back the sense of the spectacle but it’s doing so in a different viewing context, and that’s the key change here. Fans engage on a variety of media forms as well as within a range of different levels of interest - it may be worth looking at this trailer in comparison to other franchises and seeing if there are any shared elements suggesting a way of referencing the old while bringing in the new.