It's finally here! The first trailer for Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I'm surprised it took so long, considering The Force Awakens trailer dropped more than a year prior to release. Rogue One was similarly quick to simultaneously take advantage of the new fans after TFA as well as offer hope to any critics. But in the case of Episode VIII, there's only about 7-8 months left before the film comes out and this is the first teaser of any kind we've been given besides its name. Disney must not want to burn out the hype too soon, considering this is the third film in three years and there are three more to go in the next three years too!
But is it any good? Do we learn any secrets? Does it rekindle the hype machine that fuels so many ticket sales? Let's take a look...
Trailers are notoriously better than the films they represent and this has been true even of the Star Wars franchise, at least since the prequels almost twenty years ago. Even when the film is well received, such as the more recent installments, the trailers are still even better. There's just something about having all the best parts distilled down to about two minutes of intense musical and visual euphoria. Plus, not understanding the context of many images and moments, our imaginations are free to run wild with creativity, unhindered by moments of bad acting, failed character development or poorly paced plot set-ups that occasionally sneak into the final product. The Force Awakens, for example, teased out mysteries that were still left hanging by the end of the film. Rogue One, likewise, is renowned for its fan-favorite but "fake" or deleted footage not included in the final cut. And don't get me started on the prequels! I don't care how disillusioned you are by the wooden acting, political digressions and shoddy pacing, those trailers looked good and kept people coming back each time in spite of themselves. Really, they should get these trailer editors to work on the actual films.
Episode VIII, on the other hand, is surprisingly restrained. Instead of building toward a crescendo of lightsaber duels (a la Phantom Menace and Darth Maul's double saber action), or warfare (see Attack of the Clones, or Rogue One), or even nostalgia (TFA when we see the reveals of Solo and Chewie and the long Millennium Falcon loop-de-loop) the new trailer climaxes with Luke Skywalker's long awaited first dialogue since the new trilogy and hangs us on that unexpected thematic hook.
We open with Rey's training on Luke's hidden island, where the last film left off. After brief references to light, darkness, and balance, (a summary of the main through-line from the previous seven installments) Luke responds with: "It's so much bigger." The music intensifies right there to signal that this expansion beyond the previous boundaries will be the real cornerstone of the film. It's throwing down the gauntlet and declaring that new ground will be broken here. Just as Empire Strikes Back expanded the mythology of the Force in some incredibly deep and complex ways, I think Director Rian Johnson has the same in store for us here.
There have been hints for a while now that the franchise is finally ready to move past the simplistic duality of the Jedi vs the Sith. Both Force Awakens and Rogue One laid the seeds for a version of the Force that goes beyond such archaic allegiances. The "balance" between the two that the franchise has been so long been framed around could in fact turn out to be the elimination of both "religions" rather than the success or failure of either. This could really free up the mythology which has sorta gotten bogged down of late. Back in the Eighties, anyone could quote Yoda's little Eastern-mysticism-inspired lines about the inter-connectivity of the universe and all it's parts. And anyone could relate to it, no matter their spiritual background. There was something beautifully vague and universally relevant about it all before the prequels cluttered the Jedi and the Sith with rules and institutionalization. It stopped being about whether or not to hold onto your anger and hate, something innate to human-nature, but rather started to focus on allegiances and politicking.
In credit to George Lucas, that was no accident. He turned the whole mythology into a socio-political commentary on organized religion and the dangerously hypocritical overlap of church and state. What read well on paper and in theory, ended up mortally undercut by distracting special effects, bad jokes, on-the-nose dialogue and poor casting. In pursuing his vision of a more complex and morally gray fantasy world, he lost the magic of it all. Something JJ Abrams is renowned for holding onto. Abrams openly admits to appreciating a mystery for its own sake, more so than the ultimate reveal. You can see it in his work, from the controversial ending to Lost, the lack of explanation in his Cloverfield or Super8 films, as well as The Force Awakens in which he stops short of answering a single one of the mysteries he sets up.
Could Rian Johnson, on the other hand, be finally building upon that foundation? To reset the sandbox, so to speak, in order to expand future story possibilities? By cutting the fat from the prequels he could be setting a new stage for future films to go in any number of directions not limited to past continuity. If Disney really plans to keep the franchise going indefinitely, (and why wouldn't they?) then moving past the forty-year old Jedi vs Sith conflict and taking it off the board is not only necessary, it's inevitable. Either way, I like what I see. The open-ended nature of the tease implies that truly anything can happen and there's no way to guess it.
Other details of the trailer include snapshots from the remainder of the cast. Kylo Ren still has his cross-guard lightsaber, but his helmet is crushed. Poe Dameron is still hanging out with his buddy BB-8, but his X-Wing gets destroyed. And Fin is still in some sort of stasis from his injuries in the last film. Will he pull through? Or more realistically, will he do so in time to be more than a mere object of the plot or a twist ending, akin to Han Solo in carbonite or Skywalker's glorified cameo at the end of The Force Awakens. Obviously he will survive and be a key player, but in what capacity? I suspect we will see very little of him in action or out of stasis through any of the trailers, perhaps even going so far as to see his comatose body in mortal danger, but this will only be a red herring to stir up fan theories of his demise, and ultimately thwart any attempt at deciphering the true plot of the film. While everyone complains of how trailers give away too much of a film's story, the Star Wars franchise has been very keen on avoiding that pitfall. Abrams' tight control of marketing gave us almost nothing with which to decipher the true nature of The Force Awakens until after we saw it in order to give us a taste of what it must have felt like in 1977 that first time. And Rogue One went so far as to include artificial shots and footage never intended to be used at all, to throw us off the trail. So I wouldn't be surprised if The Last Jedi follows some similar tactic, and omitting an entire main character from a trailer does make it difficult to predict the plot.
Besides a few more special effects shots to show off various new ships and locations and a reminder that yes, the Millennium Falcon will return, we're not given much else. Captain Phasma can be found breifly, as well as some AT-AT walkers in the distance and some classic TIE-Fighter dogfights, but not enough to know what the relevance will be. I think probably none. I'm betting that these more climactic moments, though a sorta prerequisite for any good Star Wars films, will occur early in the first and second acts of the film, rather than it's third act climax. Or if they do come late, it will only be a set-dressing for something more thematic and subversive. The way Empire Strikes Back chose to forgo any climactic end-battle, and rather conclude thematically on the idea of a family ripped apart while facing uncertain doom, it looks as though The Last Jedi will also have a heavy focus on theme. On the other hand, Rogue One managed to do a good job balancing both, addressing thematic issues of trust and reliability and sacrifice while also depicting some great space ship battles.
When the trailer ends with Luke's, "I only know one truth. It's time for the Jedi to end," you know this film will be about some heavy stuff. To hear those words come out of Luke's mouth, I get the feeling of someone cleaning up a mess. Redemption through self-destruction. Wiping a slate clean. Someone who needs to make some hard decisions that come at a cost, but finally solve a deeper sin or fatal flaw that the Jedi have long been turning a blind eye to. Whatever Lucas' intentions with the prequels, the Jedi are no longer the superhero-samurai-wizards they were depicted to be in the original trilogy. Fans have long noticed that despite being the "good guys" the Jedi are often portrayed as controlling, manipulative, and arrogant as they indoctrinate children, lie, and break their own rules when it suits them. Worse, they turn out to be incompetent and fail miserably at the one thing they should have been best at, defeating the fascist Sith and preserving peace and justice across the galaxy. Though never much more than subtext, it looks like Rian Johnson plans to explode these ideas into full scale drama and tackle them head on. It could get quite dark and ominous and I wouldn't be surprised at all if Luke Skywalker ultimately pays the final price for the Jedi and follows the path of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo before him (ie. to die sacrificially in order to propel the storyline forward).
So what say you? Are you just as excited as ever to see the next Star Wars? Or are you still moping about the conceptual redundancy of Episode VII and the blatant nostalgia-bait of Rogue One? I for one, loved both of films in spite of any flaws and I can't wait to dress up and get in line for The Last Jedi to see where the adventure takes me! Maybe I'll see you there!