Friday, April 21, 2017

No, Not That Star Wars Trailer, a Different One

Well, the teaser trailer for the new Star Wars film was released last weekend and it’s already been watched about 30 million times on YouTube.  Pretty impressive for a clip that showcases less than two minutes of footage, some of which might not even end up in the finished film (right, Rogue One trailer?).  I’m not going to link to the clip here, mainly because if you’re reading this you’ve probably already watched it a dozen times.  This is a post about other trailers, and I’m not going to pour over the scant footage to try to work out any and all plot points and clues from the- OH MY GOD THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE ON LUKE SKYWALKER’S ISLAND:

Oh wait, on closer inspection that just appears to be a rock. But, I digress.   Apart from showing Rey levitating several small stones and enough shots of Skellig Michael to make the Irish tourist council happy, there’s not much to glean from the teaser.  I should mention at this point that I myself am a huge Star Wars fan and watched the trailer almost immediately after it was posted over the weekend (and several more times since then).  Seeing the original Star Wars at the drive-in when I was three is potentially my earliest memory as a human on planet earth.  I realize that many fans are also excited about the new movie and will spend the next few months watching the trailer frame by frame, trying to figure out the entire plot based only on the back of Leia’s head, and that’s fine by me, you’re dedicated and I respect your commitment.  I just try to avoid the endless speculation, and I stay away from spoilers. So I’m using the release of the new trailer to talk about an older Star Wars trailer, as well as the evolution of movie trailers in general.

The idea of a highly anticipated movie trailer is a relatively new one.  Platforms like The Internet Movie Database and YouTube allows us to watch them whenever we want, as many times as we want, and I think that’s ultimately a good thing.  You used to have to buy a movie ticket to see them, or settle for short 30 second TV commercials.  Now trailers are big business (and essentially free to watch), and movie studios spend time and money crafting them into mini movies, and their release is sometimes as eagerly awaited as the movie they’re advertising.  This can be taken to extremes (remember how the teaser for Rogue One had it’s own teaser?) but for the most part I think this just helps increase excitement for a film.

But trailers weren’t always an art form.  Older trailers, readily available to us today thanks to YouTube, often look like they were slapped together quickly, and seem like they’ve had only the slightest association with a thing called “editing”.  Take a look at this original trailer for the film Apocalypse Now to see what I mean (I have to link to it this way because Blogger isn't letting me embed the video I want)

Apocalypse Now is rightly considered a masterful film, but the trailer looks terrible.  The beginning, which features Martin Sheen’s voiceover, is o.k., but then it turns into a roughly chronological outline of the movie told through a bunch of strung-together clips.  There isn’t an overall soundtrack to the trailer, and it seems as if the music that’s playing is there because it was already in the scene.  This creates a disjointed rhythm to the whole thing and makes it look like kind of a mess.  This was the norm at the time.  There are many other old trailer you can find that look just as rushed as this one.  30 years ago, trailers just weren’t something that a studio put a lot of time and effort into, and it shows.  

To get back to Star Wars, the original trailer for The Empire Strikes Back upped the game a little.  It’s from around the same time as the Apocalypse Now trailer but seems to be showing a little more effort.  It’s not just a chronological series of shots, but aims more to reintroduce characters that are already familiar as well as introduce some new settings.  The music is still a mess, though, and seems choppy and random.  Compare this to the full trailer for The Force Awakens (which seems to have a soundtrack that was composed specifically for it) and the difference is clear.

Perhaps the strangest part of that original trailer is the voice-over narration.  Yes, it’s Harrison Ford, and no, I’m not the first person to notice this.  Voice-overs were incredibly common in older trailers, so it’s use here isn’t odd.  Don LaFontaine made a career out of it, but I always preferred the creepier narration of Percy Rodriguez I think LaFontaine's "in a world" shtick got old).  Rodriguez was doing trailer voice work in the late 1970s (he narrated the original trailer for Jaws), and even did the narration for the Star Wars special edition trailer in 1997.   So, why didn’t they get someone like that for The Empire Strikes Back?  I understand why the filmmakers might want to use one of the actors from the film, but Ford isn’t even narrating it in character as Han Solo (which admittedly would probably be stranger).  Instead, he gives us a corny delivery that makes it seem like he’s trying to rope us in to a sketchy ring-toss game at a carnival.  The disconnect between the tone of the film we all know today and that goofy, used car salesman narration is jarring.  Writer Lawrence Kasdan said that Empire was the film where “everything goes to hell”, and he’s right. Everyone’s betrayed at some point, Luke’s hand is cut off, and the rebellion loses so epically they actually have to flee the galaxy at the end.

Yes, cynical Family Guy writers, this is how it ends.  Everything the rebels are fighting for is visible through that window.
Why Ford chooses to narrate the trailer the way he does remains a mystery to me.  I wasn’t able to find much out about his involvement, other than confirmation that it is, indeed, him.  Was he intentionally trying to sound as cheesy as possible?  Was he trying to torpedo the whole thing by sounding as goofy as he could?  He famously hated the Star Wars dialogue, so perhaps this is meant to be his revenge? Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want him to be recognized, but then why even use him at all?  

How bad was the Holiay Special? Allow
me to present Exhibit A.
It’s almost as if there wasn’t a really clear direction that the franchise was heading in at this point, and the overall tone was just confused.  At this point in time, the only Star Wars based entertainments that had been released were the original film and the horrendous Star Wars Holiday Special.  I’ll take a second here to mention that the Holiday Special is just as terribly godawful as everyone says it is.  I was child in the 70s and was obsessed with the first film (I still can’t bring myself to call it A New Hope- it’ll always be Star Wars to me).  My family had a VCR at the time and my father taped the Holiay Special for me and my siblings (we couldn’t stay up late to watch it).   We watched it once the next day and then never watched it again.  We had recording technology in 1979 that would have allowed us to watch a Star Wars themed TV show as many times as we wanted and our response was “pass”.  That’s how bad the Star Wars Christmas Special was. Kids, who I'm presuming were the intended audience, wanted nothing to do with it.  George Lucas should be lucky that it didn’t kill all future interest in the franchise (and yes, I'm aware of the fact that Lucas was not involved in the planning of the Holiday Special, but viewers in 1979 wouldn't have necessarily known that).  Would future Star Wars films be adventure films that explored ideas of good and evil, or would they be variety show farces filled with goofy wookiees?  Ford’s narration of the trailer makes it sound like he was still in Holiday Special mode, ready to introduce Bea Arthur and Harvey Korman right after Lando Calrissian.

I think everyone exhaled a sigh of relief when Empire turned out to be such a great movie.  It’s consistently considered the best of the Star Wars films, and I don’t disagree with that.  George Lucas will repeatedly say that the Star Wars films are made for children, but I think Empire busts that idea a little.  Sure, it has space battles and giant ship-eating slugs, but also introduces more adult themes such as loss, love, personal responsibility, and destiny.  It vastly expands the story and improves on the first film, and is probably one of the greatest science fiction films ever made.  But you wouldn’t guess it from that corny trailer.

My last thought on the matter is a personal message to Harrison ford. Thank you for not using that cheesy carnival huckster voice while you were playing Han Solo. That might have traumatized me more than the Holiay Special.

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