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Why ‘Star Wars’ Trailer May Be J.J. Abrams’ Real Masterpiece

‘Force Awakens’ director drops an Internet-breaking clip — and proves he’s this generation’s P.T. Barnum

Star Wars

John Boyega and Daisy Ridley in the final trailer for 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens.'

Nobody knows how the new Star Wars movie is going to pan out — by the way, there’s a new Star Wars movie coming out, in case you hadn’t heard — but that didn’t stop a mad rush of rabid fans from bringing Fandango to its knees when tickets went on sale last night. Likewise, the fact that nobody much enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ previous sci-fi extravaganza/franchise-resuscitation effort, 2013’s risibly hollow Star Trek Into Darkness, hasn’t stopped a majority of folks from believing that his latest effort is going to be the four-quadrant popcorn spectacle of the millennium.

Last night, less than two months from the film’s premiere, Disney dropped the final trailer for this blockbuster-di-tutti-blockbusters during the middle of an NFC East game, and the brilliant sizzle reel confirms something that’s become increasingly clear since that famous cast photo got imaginations racing back in April of 2014: J.J. Abrams is the cinema’s greatest hype man since Alfred Hitchcock. You don’t need to see The Force Awakens to know that he was the right person to direct it. No one else in Hollywood has displayed such a complete understanding of the idea that marketing is a narrative endeavor, an act of storytelling unto itself. The movie itself could be as flawed as the design of the original Death Star, but this trailer is so good that, for better or worse, you forget that it’s only selling a movie.

Consider this the checkmate move of a chess game that the director has been playing with fans for over a year now — the coup de grâce of a co-ordinated peek-a-boo promotional campaign that’s been as oblique as hieroglyphics, as ubiquitous as skywriting, and dense with wonder as any of the non-prequel films themselves. A money-shot supercut that manages to reveal almost nothing about the plot, the clip doubles down on the mythic tone established by the first teaser, its extreme wide shots owing as much to the eye of David Lean as they do the mind of George Lucas. That scale allows each image to function as a myth unto itself, making it easy to overlook how discretely the trailer introduces the film’s major characters and establishes the relationships between them.

There’s Rey (Daisy Ridley), scavenging for junk on a desert planet defined by the desiccated futurism of the original trilogy. There’s the First Order and its phalanxes of neo-Stormtroopers. There’s Finn (John Boyega), who’s disguised among — or disenfranchised from — the anonymous army of plastic henchmen. There’s evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose voice modification makes it sound like he delivered all of his dialogue on a prank phone call, and whose hard-on for Darth Vader confirms that Star Wars still boasts the moral ambiguity of a Mighty Ducks movie. (Fuck you, Team Iceland!) And finally, after a quick glimpse of pilot Poe “Don’t Call Me Llewyn Davis” Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Han Solo shows up to fold the previous episodes into the stuff of legend; the most skeptical character from the original trilogy has now been reborn as a resident in-house historian/true believer with a glint in his eye. “The Dark Side. The Jedi.  They’re real.” It’s a gambit that relies as much on Star Wars‘ monolithic place in our culture as it does on the saga’s in-world history, making this new chapter as irresistibly compelling to casual fans as it is to cos-players.

Sure, the “Chosen One” narrative — a franchise tradition — feels a little played out in this post-Harry Potter world (“The Force, it’s calling to you”), and the untethered digital camerawork in the flying sequences reeks of the videogame veneer that Abrams has worked to avoid with his focus on practical effects. But oh, that footage…it leaves the indelible impression of a galaxy meeting its reckoning.

By the time that title card stretches into view, John Williams’ music doing as much of the heavy lifting as it always has, we’re left with a few genuine answers about this project. Abrams’ gifts as a showrunner, not to mention a showman, have long been established; the jury may still be out on his filmmaking chops, but his genius as a conjurer of wonder is unimpeachable. And though the man’s “Mystery Box” approach to storytelling has been a heated topic of discussion ever since his small-screen co-creation Lost built its entire dramatic structure around slowly unpacking it, the Abrams-produced Cloverfield became the most talked about trailer of 2007 despite the fact it had zero mention of the movie’s title. This is a guy who sees every project as the reveal of a magic trick that he’s been performing from day one.

The knock against Abrams, however, is that the films themselves almost seem like afterthoughts, something that’s less important than the eggshell of wonderment he builds around them. But The Force Awakens turns his greatest weakness into the ultimate strength, because — for the first time — the movie he’s been hired to make simply isn’t as important as the experience of its unveiling. If this final trailer makes you forget that it’s just selling a movie, that’s only because J.J. Abrams never loses sight of the fact that he’s actually selling so much more.

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