I know what JJ Abrams, his marketing team and the entire apparatus of the Hollywood marketing machine are doing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m aware, at least to some extent, of how the sausage is made. But watching the new trailer for the upcoming film, that knowledge made no difference. I’m a 40 year old man, and it made me feel twelve years old again, in about 90 seconds. Of course, that’s precisely what it’s designed to do, and therein lies what I suspect is the film’s genius.
We would all prefer to forget George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, which ran from 1999-2005, but in this case we must raise the issue, Jar Jar and all, to make the appropriate comparison. Those films were profoundly disappointing to just about everyone I know over the age of eight, but to a younger audience, keying into individual sequences and relishing the simplistic characters and complete lack of plot, they’re every bit as powerful as the original films from the 1970s. They weren’t disappointing to Lucas’s target audience, and part of the reason why we, as adults, had a problem with the films is out of resentment that Uncle George wasn’t speaking directly to us anymore. Instead, he took a look at what the kids were watching – probably a lot of anime – and aped the style as best he could. The films made money, and he was able to sell his company and retire in style. Everyone was satisfied, except of course, us.
“Us” in this case means the people who saw and loved Star Wars at a young age, probably before the internet and media saturation, played with the toys and made the films into a sort of core canonical text of our shared popular culture. That was never what Lucas intended the films to be, but it’s what they became. What we really want is to be able to go back and be a child again, and see those films for the first time. It’s a bit like what Eric Idle said about the possibility of a Beatles reunion: “That’s you wanting to be young again. You don’t really want to see the old buggers. You just want to remember when you were young.” When the Beatles finally did get back together in the early 1990s, sure enough, people raced to pour derision over the band, their new songs, and their reputation. Much like what happened with the prequels.
JJ Abrams and his team have heard the message, and are making the necessary adjustments. The new film, it seems, it pitched directly at us. Everything yet revealed about it is nostalgic and sentimental. Notice, for example, how little about the plot has been shown, even in this final trailer. For any other film, this would be considered a pre-pre-teaser. But in the land of Star Wars, the most important seats to fill are those for the midnight premiere audience, who wants most of all to be the first to know what everyone else will know in a few days. That level of fan culture commitment to having a specific piece of arcane knowledge is peculiarly acute in the legions of Star Wars fans. But it also demonstrates how little the plot really matters at this stage. What matters most of all is tone, and nostalgia is the one Abrams shoots for, and squarely hits.
The real kicker comes about mid-way through the trailer, when one of the new characters says, “There are stories about what happened,” as John Williams’ majestic music churns under her voice. The response, from none other than Han Solo, is “It’s true. All of it.” To a child who grew up on the prequels and with the animated series, this is a strange note to strike, as they already know this information. But to us adults, or at least to me, that was a transformative exchange. It’s what our generation dreamed of every night of our childhood, that Han Solo would swoop down from space and tell us, “It’s all real”. I’ll wager just about all of us would have responded like Justin Long’s character in Galaxy Quest: “I knew it!”
If we can distance ourselves for just a moment from the sheer emotional impact of that trailer, we can appreciate that the brilliant story point is that it’s folding myth into myth. Star Wars has long since been its own echoing mythic self-referential universe: that’s the function of the prequels. But the referencing there wasn’t done very well, with poor writing and ill-conceived sequences robbing the moments of much of their power. (For example, “Nooooooooo!”) Abrams, instead, hits us in the heart in exactly the right way. Just as he did with an earlier trailer that borrowed Luke’s lines from Return of the Jedi (“You have that power, too,”) in order to create an invitational, collaborative feeling. In other words, JJ is speaking to us as an equal, a brother, where George spoke down to us, in a slightly condescending way. Where Lucas would say, “See? It’s the same toy you had as a kid! Play with it!”, Abrams says, “It’s all real,” and we believe him.
The film itself cannot possibly live up to expectations, but if we know that going in, I’m sure everyone will have a wonderful time. But even if all we ever had was Han Solo telling us our fantasies are real, in a way, that would always be enough.