Lightning Round: Notes on Our First Thousand Viewings of the ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Trailer
You may not be aware of this, but someone released the trailer for Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens on Black Friday. It’s true, you can look it up. So we stayed in and watched it two or three or 1,000 times from the safety of our homes instead of braving the door-buster melees. Lightning round, go.
Ben Lindbergh: It’s hard to screw up a teaser for the reboot of a series like Star Wars. More than a year from the film’s release, all the first look at The Force Awakens had to do to fuel fan anticipation was flash a few franchise signifiers, cue the main theme, and cut to black while the nostalgia surged. It’s the filmic equivalent of scoring a runner from third with no outs, tapping in from two feet, or converting a field goal from 15 yards: Anything without Gungans was going to be a success.
All trailers lie. If you can unlearn what you have learned about the Star Wars prequels and watch with fresh eyes, even the prequel trailers look like they might be preludes to satisfying films: There’s no Trade Federation in the trailer for The Phantom Menace, no cringe-worthy courting in the trailer for Attack of the Clones. With less than 40 seconds of actual footage in the new 90-second video, we can’t rule out similar missteps in The Force Awakens, but this early look, at least, is free of unforced errors. A few takeaways from the teaser:
• The teaser’s Millennium Falcon has a rectangular sensor dish, replacing the circular one that was destroyed during the attack on the second Death Star. The stormtrooper helmets are sleeker, with wider visors. The X-wing’s S-foils have a different design. The lightsaber has crossguards, which isn’t even close to the silliest lightsaber idea. It all looks and sounds like Star Wars, but the design tweaks tell us that time has passed without giving us a glimpse of the wrinkly original cast, which puts the focus squarely on the actors who’ll have to carry future sequels. Better yet (from Disney’s perspective), the slight alterations ensure that parents can’t get away with regifting their old action figures to unsuspecting kids next Christmas.
• The Internet has gone to great lengths to open the Star Wars mystery box early: Some informants have ignored the secrecy-promoting posters on the walls at Pinewood Studios, while others have used drones to scope out the set. As a result, obsessive Star Wars spoiler readers learned very little from the teaser. The news that John Boyega would be playing a stormtrooper leaked earlier this year, as did a photo of the fixed-up Falcon and concept art for the new helmets, new lightsaber, soccer-ball droid, and Daisy Ridley’s speeder. Even a detailed description of the teaser arrived in advance of the video. None of this matters if you’re ignoring spoilers, but if you’re reading them eagerly (or, like me, following them fatalistically because it hurts less to spoil yourself than it does to be spoiled unsuspectingly), the teaser’s contents lend credence to the still-unconfirmed rumors circulating online, some of which are whoppers.
• This is Star Wars, so there’s going to be green screen, but our first look at The Force Awakens suggests that J.J. Abrams has curbed some of the prequels’ CGI excesses (if not his own love for lens flare). Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy hinted that the movie would have a more realistic, lived-in look, and that’s true of the teaser: Actors aren’t miming on sound stages, and the armor and equipment is convincingly worn. Repeat viewings reveal admirable attention to detail, from Ridley’s scavenged stormtrooper goggles to the lettering on the flight vest of Oscar Isaac’s X-wing pilot (“pull to inflate”). It’s fiction, but unlike the prequels’ all-digital army, it doesn’t feel fake.
Chris Ryan: I don’t think I was prepared for this. The maybe Tatooine stuff is cool, the maybe Adam Driver limping in a forest is awesome, and Daisy Ridley looks like she really needs to get somewhere in a hurry; but I don’t think I was ready for the X-wing. I do not get butterflies when I see Ultron. I’m indifferent to Spider-Man swinging in between skyscrapers. And I have no Proustian madeleine episode when I hear the snick-snick of Wolverine’s claws. But Oscar Isaac setting controls for the heart of the sun in that X-wing? GTFO. The childhood fantasy of doing the trench run came back to me, times a hundred. When I saw that cockpit shot of Isaac — the one I associate with Luke, Wedge, and your man Red Leader (R.I.P.!) — the hair on my arm stood up. I was shooting womp rats back home. Bull’s-eye.
Dan Silver: For all the prognosticating and debating that’s been done over these 11 shots (12 if you count the title card), the one topic I’ve yet to see covered concerns the most glaring omission. No, not glimpses of the original cast. The most egregious absence is that there’s not one company credit to be seen anywhere (well, if you look really closely under the “December 2015” title, you can barely make out the Lucasfilm 2014 copyright marker). This may seem like a minute matter after seeing a broadsword lightsaber.1 But after spending $4 billion, one might assume some level of justified, top-of-trailer posturing by Disney might be in order. That, or implement the Marvel tactic and just go with the Lucasfilm Ltd. logo. But this trailer has nothing.
And I am very pleased with this decision because I still don’t know how I’m going to feel about going to see a Star Wars movie without the 20th Century Fox fanfare at the top. Not so much the company logo, just the music. For generations of Star Wars fans, those musical notes are akin to Pavlov’s bell. We hear those, and we just know that we’re going to see some aqua text stating that the events we’re about to see happened “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … ” followed by a title card, some iconic music, and a scroll. Whoever made the call made a good one here. I’m much happier debating who’s in the black cloak, but it’s still interesting to think about, no? Will it be Cinderella’s castle? Just the Lucasfilm logo? Something else?
OK, three more things.
1. I’d like to believe that that jaw-dropping Millennium Falcon shot was not only a little message by Herr J.J. that this film is not the prequels, but also his way of paying homage to the original trilogy. (Before Lucas went back in and made them “special.”) That shot is next-level motion-controlled photography, a cinematic technique originally developed to make the original Star Wars’s space battles more dynamic.
2. I still really dig The Phantom Menace teaser. It’s really well done. The problem was that the film (or films) never lived up to the promises established in the trailer. So let’s just hope my … our … experience with these new episodes don’t follow in the famous words of Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
3. And I know that I should not even voice this, but I have a slight concern with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford being in this film. As much as I really, really, really want to see those characters again, I was incredibly distracted during Dumb and Dumber To seeing two characters I knew and loved do new stuff 20 years later. (It also didn’t help that they look exactly the same.)2 Now, if I’d practically memorized the antics of Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels in that film, the actions of Han, Luke, and Leia are basically a part of my DNA. The reason that a sequel works in some part is its proximity to its predecessor. Yes, Dumb and Dumber and Star Wars are totally different, made by different folks. But I know that I’m not going to be the only one a little taken aback when Han Solo raises an eyebrow or says a line of dialogue that I haven’t memorized. Just saying.
Mark Lisanti: This is a very brief intermission to dream about what might have been …
��� And now back to our regularly scheduled programming.
P.S. Don’t search “Pineapple Express cross-joint lightsaber” on Twitter. You’re not going to believe it, but some people have already thought of that.
Jason Concepcion: I’m most interested in the redesigned stormtrooper armor and weaponry. Hopefully, those cosmetic tweaks represent sea changes in the Empire’s defense strategy, because Grand Moff Rumsfeld or whoever is in charge of infantry training and organization needs to answer for why the stormtroopers are far and away the weakest branch of their armed forces. We’re talking about a group that was consistently beaten by ragged bands of child soldier dead-ender rednecks from Hoth and Tatooine. The Empire’s one tactical victory, the invasion of Hoth, was really a strategic defeat because the infantry allowed the rebels to escape to outer space. Thousands of blaster rounds were expended on the first Death Star and still the stormtroopers were outgunned by a teenager, a smuggler, and a large dog. Maybe divert some of the funds from those super-weapon boondoggles and invest in marksmanship training.
John Lopez: Looking back at the trailer for Phantom Menace, the signs were all there — a flash of Jar Jar; Liam Neeson running through alien shrubbery à la FernGully: The Last Rain Forest; Yoda just so wrong — but I was just too starry-eyed to read them. This time it’s different. Sure, Star Wars says he’s got his act together, and he’s got this great new director, J.J., helping him get his life back on track. But really, Star Wars, do franchises ever actually change? And do I even owe you the chance? Well, nothing looks patently ridiculous. J.J.’s even holding back on starting with those famous chords; he’s not relying on nostalgia alone to turn us back on. In fact, that first shot almost seems to reach for 2001 and There Will Be Blood, as if to announce Star Wars has grown up; even the requisite ominous voice-over has dropped an extra couple of octaves. OK, R2-D2 qua soccer ball: That could be a mess, or genius (either way, we now know the hot toy for Christmas 2015). And what’s Daisy Ridley riding into the desert, a maglev stapler? Of course, maybe J.J. can sense my deep-seated skepticism, so he breaks out Oscar Isaac in an X-wing on the water. Obviously, I’m a sucker for Llewyn Davis on an X-wing, but did that Sith Lord take a wrong turn into the land that’s always winter?
Then he busts it out the theme. And the Millennium Falcon, popping camera wheelies that George Lucas could never even dream of. I got to admit, as strong as I want to be, I get a little weak in the knees. And for just a second, I imagine that somehow probably the most over-produced movie since Ben-Hur might get it right.
Lisanti: Because I’m the magnanimous sort — no, really, ask anyone! — and because this movie is still more than a year away, I’m giving every single thing here the benefit of the doubt. Teasers gonna tease, so I’m retreating into the safety of an impenetrable Kevin Smith–quality anticipation field that can repel even a thousand yammering Jar Jars freebasing midi-chlorians bought in filthy Mos Eisley cantina toilet stalls. (Gungan junkies inject between the toes. I’ve thought this through.) There’s a different place I could be, where I’m worrying about how soccer-droid’s bobbling head floats atop some kind of magnetic field, or if the cross-saber’s blade seems too thin and crackly with black-market Force fire, or why Daisy’s Sand-Doo land speeder flies on its side. It helps to remember that in our beloved episodes IV through VI, R2-D2 is a squealing bipedal diaper genie, C-3PO’s elbows are awkwardly locked for no discernible reason, and Jabba the Hutt is an overgrown banana slug with no genitals but acute satyriasis. Some stuff’s never going to make a lot of sense if you sit with it for too long.
Maybe in March we’ll reconvene here, a couple more trailers deep in creeping disillusionment, ready to whip J.J. Abrams with some loose Sarlacc tentacles for not completely healing the wounds of the prequels, for traveling 18 parsecs too far into fan service territory, for letting Harrison Ford keep the earring in as a character flourish. (Han would wear one, he swears. It says “semi-retired rogue who still knows how to party.”) But for now, it’s all majestic Falcon pirouettes and X-wing vapor trails up in this piece. Disney owns Grantland.
Alex Pappademas: Cutting this trailer was probably an interesting thought experiment. What do you choose to show people when you know that literally anything you show them will break the Internet? Like those “next week on Mad Men” anti-promos, the ones that Matthew Weiner builds out of nothing but peevish Don Draper reaction shots and clips of Peggy saying things like, “I’ll get a pencil,” the only thing this commercial for the new Star Wars had to do was reaffirm that there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out. It’s 12 long seconds before John Boyega’s head pops into frame, long enough to make me wonder on first viewing if the teaser was going to be nothing but voice-over, a long, slow pan across Tattooine’s hills at magic hour, a title card, and a release date. I wouldn’t have put it past Abrams. Instead, we get glimpses of action that function as fairly promising glimpses of tone; I like the idea of a Star Wars movie in which everyone’s lost and confused and looking over their shoulder. Even Umbro-D2 looks freaked out. But then the Millennium Falcon shows up. Look: I was really comfortable dreading and/or not caring about this movie when it was first announced, and I fully expect to get back there again before next December. But the Falcon is the Falcon. That first barrel roll felt like this trailer just reached out and high-fived my inner 8-year-old. I am a sour, pretentious turd and I want so badly to be immune to this bullshit, and yet I can’t deny that I’m in. It turns out that my heart is like that thermal exhaust port on the Death Star — after all is said and done, it turns out to be kind of an easy target.
Bryan Curtis: Shortly after the Episode VII trailer appeared, I noticed this exchange on a comments section:
Fan No. 1: If Luke had that lightsaber hilt, his hand might not have been lobbed off.
Fan No. 2: Probably still would have. The cut that sliced off his hand was a horizontal slash.
Fan No. 1: True.
Ready for the next 12 months? Of course, we’ve seen directors and super-fans slug it out over the intricacies of canon before. But this is an interesting war. Here’s a Star Wars fan base that has spent the last eight years yearning for a “real” Original Trilogy companion, and yet greets director J.J. Abrams with off-the-charts suspicion about what he’ll do to the franchise that George Lucas already ruined. And in the other corner, we have Abrams, who has shown on Star Trek that he’s both in the thrall of canon and willing to savage it as his whims dictate.
Many Bothans died litigating the super-blood B.S. in Into Darkness. That was just a warm-up. The next 12 months will be a canon war unlike anything since the one that academia underwent in the ’80s. And I’m pretty sure both sides will shoot first.