Rarely does the world change in 90 seconds, but that's exactly what happened with the release of the first trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens exactly 5 years ago. The Star Wars franchise was in a very different place in 2014 than it is today; still immensely popular, of course, but with an aura of uncertainty. George Lucas' prequel trilogy was still largely spoken of in derogatory tones and Disney had swooped in to purchase Lucasfilm for a cool sum, immediately promising that a sequel trilogy headed up by J. J. Abrams was on the way. There was an air of excitement, but also one of trepidation. After the disastrous prequels, could anything actually come close to capturing the magic of the original Star Wars movies?
To say there was a lot riding on first impressions for Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a Death Star-sized understatement. Disney's investment, the future of the brand, and the careers of a largely unknown cast all rested upon how well the fandom responded to their first glimpse at footage from The Force Awakens. Most of the cast had been confirmed in advance, but little else was known about the upcoming episode. Character names, story details and potential returning faces remained closely guarded secrets but The Force Awakens' first trailer captured the interest of even the most casual Star Wars fan.
The trailer itself is fairly short, and arguably more of a teaser, clocking in at a mere minute and a half or so. However, plenty was packed into those early reveals. Finn dressed as a Stormtrooper, BB-8, Stormtroopers actually looking menacing, Rey on a speeder, beautiful X-Wing shots, the Millennium Falcon and, memorably, Kylo Ren's cross-shaped lightsaber, all topped off with a typically menacing voiceover.
How The Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer Was Received
J. J. Abrams couldn't have hoped for a better reception once the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens began circulating in theaters and going viral on social media. The reaction from both fans and critics was almost unanimously positive and hailed as a heroic return of the true spirit of Star Wars after the perceived dirge of the prequel era. First and foremost, the cinematography and design was praised as harking back to the "feel" of the original trilogy, with sweeping shots of alien landscapes and the Tatooine-esque aesthetic of Jakku. With John Williams' score, Finn popping up out of nowhere and a jaunty rolling droid, a sense of fun was evident throughout the trailer, letting fans know in no uncertain terms that this was not a film about trade disputes.
Nostalgia was a key word thrown around following the release of the first The Force Awakens trailer. The return of X-Wings and the Millennium Falcon stirred up fond memories, but commentators were quick to point out that the footage also focused squarely on the new cast, rather than the famed veterans, which was interpreted as a pleasing balance between the original and modern trilogy eras. This was countered with the ominous darkness of the Stormtrooper unit, who looked more militaristic than ever before, and the enigmatic man with the nifty lightsaber.
And it was this very weapon that dominated discussion in the months after the trailer was unveiled. Everything from the setting and placement of the scene, to the cloaked figure and evidence of the Sith's return were analyzed, and the image of the lightsaber itself became the defining moment of The Force Awakens in those early stages of marketing.
Why The Trailer For Star Wars: The Force Awakens Changed The Game
The trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens is perhaps the best example in recent memory of a trailer that sets the movie world abuzz without actually revealing anything of import about the film it's promoting. In addition to its glowing reception, the trailer also broke records for YouTube views, demonstrating how fully the footage captured imaginations and built anticipation for the full movie. Examining the trailer with the benefit of hindsight, however, there's absolutely no solid information about the plot. The biggest story reveal is seeing Finn in his Stormtrooper outfit, but there's no telling whether this could be in disguise, just like Luke and Han in A New Hope.
Traditionally, a trailer sets out the basic premise of the film - the good guys, the bad guys, the problem in need of solving. The trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens triggered a shift whereby major franchise movies could be promoted with just a series of standout "moments" and therefore completely hide the actual substantive content. Without knowing anything about the context of what they'd seen, Star Wars fans had fallen in love with BB-8, thought the new lightsaber design looked effortlessly cool and were intrigued by Finn and Rey.
This trailer structure has been ever-present throughout the sequel trilogy. The promotion for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has shown a cute new droid (D-O) and a cool new lightsaber in Dark Rey's flip-out weapon. Again, however, fans are left with very little idea of what will transpire. Even seemingly significant shots like the Sith Rey and the destruction of Vader's mask could be illusions or relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of the movie, and the fleeting look at Palpatine came long after the villain's return had already been confirmed via other means.
This approach to trailers took spoiler-guarding to a whole new level and has been adopted by other franchises. For example, compare the 2012 first teaser for Man of Steel to the 2015 trailer for Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Despite being almost half the length of the latter, the Man of Steel clip acts as a mini Superman origin story, charting his childhood, his early adult years traveling the world and, finally, his ascent into a superhero. The first Batman V Superman trailer, however, gives very little plot away, instead focusing on individual moments that get people talking. There are shots of Affleck's Caped Crusader, Cavill's Kal-El, and the famous "do you bleed?" line. However, the biggest actual story reveal is that Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne come to blows, something that fans might just have inferred from the film's title.
While it's hard to say whether the success of the trailer for The Force Awakens is responsible (and there are plenty of examples of minimalist trailers from throughout history), there does appear to have been a general shift in trailer style over the past few years, with Dunkirk, La La Land and Arrival prime examples.
Was The Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer Hype Justified?
In terms of creating hype, the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens went above and beyond expectations but, looking back, was that excitement justified? Certainly, part of the buzz can be attributed to the sheer joy that Star Wars was not only back but looking good. Back when mention of midichlorians and Jar-Jar Binks sent shivers down spines, the thought of a "proper" Star Wars movie was exciting enough; the fact that Abrams clearly had something special planned was the icing on the cake. Now that The Force Awakens has been around for a few years, it's clear that the film perhaps did play the nostalgia card a little too heavily - a notion that fans were happy to overlook with the first trailer. It could also be argued that, given the anticipation surrounding the trailer's release, Disney were lucky to get away with showing so little. Now that the novelty of Star Wars' return has worn off, the lack of substance and detail provided in the trailer is evident.
Compared to the current atmosphere around the Star Wars franchise, the reaction to the first The Force Awakens trailer demonstrates a dynamic of extremes. In 2014, fans might've got a little carried away with the excitement of Star Wars' grand comeback, losing their collective minds over the most minor of original trilogy similarities. In 2019, the prequels have not only undergone significant reappraisal, but the divisive Star Wars: The Last Jedi has bred a current of ill-feeling towards the sequel trilogy that was absent for The Force Awakens. This split in the fandom has resulted in some early criticism towards the upcoming final installment, where perhaps a little more of 2014's optimism would be preferable.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019