'An Adventure Unlike Anything On Your Planet': A History of Star Wars Teaser Trailers
It's almost time to take a glimpse at Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the highly anticipated eighth episode directed by Rian Johnson, set to be released shortly following the film's panel at Star Wars Celebration. To get properly excited, we here at Talk Film Society decided to take a look back at the style, structure, and impact of past teasers from films within the franchise.
Star Wars (1977)
The Star Wars teaser trailer, the very first look the world got at that galaxy far, far away, is a fascinating little artifact. The first thing a modern eye (or ear) will notice is that Star Wars without John Williams is a creature shambling straight out of the Uncanny Valley. When 20th Century Fox assembled this two-minute hype reel in late 1976, the film was waist-deep in its infamously troubled postproduction. Williams hadn’t recorded a single note, the fledgling Industrial Light and Magic crew was straining to churn out effects, and Marcia Lucas had not yet swooped in to help reshape the footage into the dynamic rhythm that would win an Oscar for Best Film Editing.
The teaser is stiff, clunky, and barely resembles the thrilling tone of the finished product. A strangely spooky ambient score pulses under a voiceover that sounds desperate to convince audiences that Star Wars will be worth their time. “It’s a big, sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance,” the trailer promises, before ratcheting up to the absurd claim that it’s “a billion years in the making.” The film is also described as “the story of a boy, a girl, and a universe,” which sounds like an intriguing polyamorous sci-fi love story.
What it does have is a peek into the world being conjured by George Lucas (“the man who brought you American Graffiti,” the trailer reminds us). Some ships fly, some lasers are fired, and there’s a tantalizing glimpse at some lightsaber action. To moviegoers of 1976, it was likely a thrilling invitation to the kind of high fantasy they had only dreamed of. To us, four decades later, it’s an intriguing remnant of a bygone time before Star Wars had any kind of brand identity, and was just a project a garage full of nerds hoped people would care about.
- Andrew Ihla
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
An interesting approach to a teaser, this preview released in 1979 is composed mainly of storyboard concept art by Ralph McQuarrie, depicting several of the key sequences from the film, such as the icy climate on Hoth and its ensuing Battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, the sun soaked hues of Cloud City, and a glimpse at Luke and Vader's climactic duel. As the film was still in the production process and didn't have enough finished material to be cut into an actual trailer, this instead gives audiences an inspired taste of what to expect the following summer. In an interesting way, it's utilized in a way that's comparative to the way modern blockbusters tease audiences with pre-production material and early artwork. Either way, it came at a point when the hype for Star Wars was still at an all-time high, making for an atypical preview to say the least.
- Rob Trench
Return of the Jedi (1983)
“Here we go again.” It's one of the first lines of dialogue heard in the second trailer for 1983’s Return of the Jedi and looking back nothing could be more apt. At this point in the Star Wars saga, the series was a juggernaut in terms of profits as well as scope, making more money and garnering more young fans than almost any film series in history. Featuring now iconic sequences such as the speeder bike race on Endor, to the final lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader, like other Star Wars trailers it was ‘money shot’ after ‘money shot’ and after doing some research, people rightfully lost their minds. Audiences around the globe were more than ready for the next Star Wars film, but this wasn't the first they'd heard of it.
Months earlier, another teaser premiered in theaters but this was for a film called Revenge of the Jedi. In one of the few instances of a film being advertised with a working title, this clip featured a few of the scenes later used in other trailers but in a far more rough form. Revenge of the Jedi was a mythical beast when I was young, as my local theater had a poster for it on display, a poster they still have up on their wall to this day. “What the heck is that?” I would constantly ask, and with the dawn of the internet I finally got my answer. Sure it was just a working title but it was a fascinating one - a title that George Lucas would repurpose years later for the third prequel Revenge of the Sith.
Growing up, Return of the Jedi was my favorite Star Wars picture and in retrospect I can thank this trailer, which brings the goods by the barrel full and does everything it can to increase an already palpable sense of hype. The Force is with us, always, when it comes to this trailer.
- Matt Curione
Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999)
The hype for The Phantom Menace was really strong. It had been 16 years since Return of the Jedi— Star Wars was finally back, baby! The first trailer does a great job of introducing new fans like myself to the universe, and bringing back the longtime ones. The first shot in the trailer is a foggy swamp, with cool creatures and strange sounds. Then a title card: “Every generation has a legend…”
The trailer starts slow, with striking shots and mysterious phrases—then a cut to the middle of what would become the film’s signature action scene: the podrace scored by the iconic Star Wars theme. It’s a high adrenaline edit, guaranteed to get the audience cheering. The trailer offers a taste an epic space opera, even though it looked more expansive and expensive than the original trilogy. The trailer was first shown with Meet Joe Black, now best remembered for the Star Wars fans buying a ticket to catch the trailer. At the time, even the skeptical fans were won over and became sure the movie would be a success. The nostalgia was complimented by elements that were completely new and the made the film seem unmissable and classic. This two-minute clip reignited excitement for Star Wars and the trailer lived up to the long anticipation.
- Manish Mathur
Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002)
After The Phantom Menace, the Star Wars marketing team had to really dig deep and get people hyped up for the next entry in the series. Menace’s first trailer still remains one of the best produced and released, and while Attack of the Clones’ teaser doesn’t come close, it sure made people excited for another Star Wars. The 71-second teaser has no dialogue, a tiny bit of John Williams’ score, and uses Darth Vader’s trademark heavy breathing to frame the footage on display. It’s sparse, and it really lays its gimmick on thick—remember, kids, this is a Star Wars movie with cool stuff and a character who’s going to be Darth Vader someday. It was and still remains effective after all these years. There are a total of 21 shots in the teaser, and I remember thinking how exactly each of these random pieces would fit in the movie. There was no sense of the plot given, and all we see are shadows of a story: Anakin and Padme falling in love, Jango Fett and the clone army, Mace Windu thinking, Anakin and Obi-Wan with lightsabers, a CGI Yoda looking pissed, and Watto there for some reason. To me it is a perfect teaser, it gives a hint of the movie that doesn’t reveal much at all. Of course, there was a good reason why they didn’t give much of the story away here. Attack of the Clones isn’t a good movie. Great teaser, though!
- Marcelo Pico
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Beginning with the familiar opening title card of 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...', the first teaser for Revenge of the Sith takes us back through familiar scenes from past films, as Alec Guinness's Obi-Wan Kenobi reflects on the dawn of the Empire following the Clone Wars. As this was the film to finally show audiences just how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader, a dark and ominous sensibility permeates through this entire 100 second clip, culminating in a barrage of action, familiar faces against new characters, and the thought that this chapter will be the best of the prequel trilogy (which the majority of audiences agreed upon following its release in May 2005).
- Rob Trench
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
Well. It was bound to happen. More Star Wars films were heading our way immediately after George Lucas sold off his juggernaut of a franchise. The next trilogy was instantly greenlit and launched into production. When the day came we were all glued to our monitors and smartphones eagerly awaiting new images from the beloved saga. The Lucasfilm logo in all it’s green shimmering glory fades into full view. Then, an unknown desert planet (let’s face it, most thought it might be Tatooine), and a gravely voice over: “There’s been an awakening. Have you felt it?” A stormtrooper, with his helmet off pops up into frame covered in sweat, eyes glaring with intensity.
Cut to black! Now before I go into full blown trailer description mode let me just say the next few seconds absolutely blew me away. New characters were being splashed across the screen in a vague manner and yet despite all the mystery it projected it had what we all were craving: it felt like Star Wars. Hell, it looked and moved like Star Wars. No greenscreen, real settings and cool droids were back in full effect! After the rough reception of the way-too-digital prequels, this tiny glimpse into the first chapter was a dream come true for many fans and the final two trailers only drove that feeling home. Home being the key word here, it felt like we were going home.