Fascinating or just frustrating? The trailer debate

If the release of the Star Wars: Episode VII trailer didn’t leave you banging your head against your keyboard and scratching out your eyes with a combined dose of disdain and disbelief, you’ve obviously been absorbed by the mind-numbing systematic conveyer belt of smug and cheeky trailers we find ourselves subjected to as a twenty-first century audience. Yes, I said ‘cheeky’. Trailers are cheeky, and the new Star Wars trailer is perhaps the cheekiest trailer ever made.

Never before in the field of film trailers has a teaser been so aware of its own power.

J.J. Abrams and his team have harnessed the brimming worldwide anticipation for the latest addition to the Star Wars franchise – the new reboot, titled The Force Awakens – and capitalised on fans hungry for the slightest glimpse of what they’ve created. And a glimpse is what they got. The trailer abandons any notion of form or convention; instead, it seems the makers have hastily assembled a series of random vignettes, the order of which is illogical, inconsistent, and more than mildly frustrating, to satisfy an audience that will – by this point – take whatever they can.

The team behind the trailer is well aware of the cash cow that they’re dealing with. It’s been almost ten years since the last Star Wars film, and thirty years since the original trilogy (which the new series will continue from – confusing, isn’t it?). That’s a lot of time to acquire a certain degree of hype and, with fans so loyal and stoical as Star Wars aficionados, there has been a monumental buzz around the entire project. The expectations are huge. You can almost feel the vibrations. You can’t exactly blame the producers for wanting to milk the multibillion-dollar franchise dry (they have even released a series of 1970s-style trading cards with characters from the new film – you have to hand it to them, they know what they’re doing).

With the new trailer, we are somehow excited by what we see, even though what we see is not particularly revealing about the film itself. There’s a paranoid helmetless stormtrooper; a droid riding on a miniature futuristic version of that boulder that almost kills Indiana Jones at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark (no?); a woman mounting a speeder; a cloaked figure walking through a dark forest (cue fan frenzy over what appears to be a new light saber design); and, of course, a snapshot of the Millennium Falcon. Add the classic John Williams score into the equation, and the producers think they’ve just about got away with a polished trailer. But the smoky, Strepsils-craving voiceover does not add a sense of the epic, it just adds to the confusion. Who is it talking? What on earth are they talking about? Yes, it’s designed to be provocative, but it’s just doubly flummoxing when we don’t even know what exactly we are being provoked with. We’re intrigued, but we’re not even sure exactly what is intriguing us. It’s like teasing a dinosaur with a veggie burger. In short, this trailer is one big mess, and yet – in some bizarrely inexplicable way – it works.

There’s been an argument of late that film trailers disclose too much: that they give away vital plot details and spoil the story of the film. But the new Star Wars trailer suggests precisely the opposite.

Nobody would argue that too much has been spared from the film for this teaser, but is the Star Wars franchise a rare exception due to its ferocious fan base and staggering marketability? If you’ve seen the new Jurassic World trailer – a profitable franchise in its own right – it follows a similar suit (though it is not nearly as frugal with its footage). It’s the art of toying with anticipation – of enticing us with as little as possible. We never actually see the terrible dinosaur that presumably wreaks havoc in Jurassic World, just as we never see the face of the alluded villain in The Force Awakens. It’s a guessing game. Trailer makers are experts in creating guessing games. Their purpose is enshrined in the very word “trailer”. Originally named thus because in the past they would be shown after a feature film was screened, the term has stuck, but is still interestingly apt in describing what they do: they leave a trail for us to follow.

And yet, in spite of all this heated ranting and begrudging analysis, I still find myself wrought with anticipation for the new film. Perhaps I too have been engulfed by its clever marketing campaign; its flirtatious clips that lure me in; its irrepressible smugness at the fact that holds all the cards. One cannot deny that the producers of such blockbusters are playing a very dangerous game: they must provide just enough essence of what their film has in store to persuade audiences to see it, and yet suppress and hold back just enough of that essence in order to yield a few surprises when the audiences finally do see it. If anything, one is forced to admit that the teaser has been very cleverly made, despite its painful simplicity. The architects of this trailer know exactly what their fans want to see, and they know that they only have to show a few seconds of footage here and there in order to create a storm amongst diehard enthusiasts. In any case, our frustration at the trailer will just have to transcend itself into eagerness for the film. We can protest all that we want about the stinginess of material, but if we want to see any more, we’ll just have to see the film – and thus, the trailer is doing its job.

PHOTO/Steven Lee