Star Wars Trailers Through the Years

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Andy Markham is your guide through nearly 40 years of Star Wars movie trailers...

Trailers are a tricky old animal. Imagine you've spent years - perhaps decades - working on your project, with hours of material filmed, full of rich plotting and wonderful characters - and then a studio executive tells you you've got to sell it to viewers. In two minutes. If they don't like the trailer, they won't watch it and that's that. No pressure! For that reason, trailers are huge deals for the big money-makers of Hollywood, and none more so than Star Wars, who have produced some of the most memorable landmark trailers in modern years. Given we're currently in the midst of "trailer season" for new entry The Force Awakens, let's take a look at how Star Wars goes about giving us a glimpse of that galaxy far, far away.

Star Wars (1977) - Original Teaser Trailer

For some cinema-goers (though not many of them, given the low-key marketing), this will have been the very first sight they would ever have caught of the Star Wars galaxy. And the main impression of it... confusion, and muddle. For starters, the film is clearly nowhere near finished. Even the very few shots that have been specifically chosen for this trailer often feel weird and wrong - all the lightsabers are white, Darth Vader's voice is conspicuously absent, there are hardly any sound effects and instead there are audible production sounds. Not great, really. In the meantime, a bland, featureless logo moves towards the screen while a narrator tells us... not much. Other than the general "young boy and girl in space" concept, we don't learn anything about the story. And that's because at this time, the studio just didn't know what the hell to make of this film. One wonders if the executives behind this trailer had even seen the film yet, such is its vagueness. All in all, this trailer gives a fascinating snapshot of a time when no one knew what Star Wars was or how to sell it, which seems a long time ago indeed.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - Original Trailer

This is a bit more like it, and here the traditional marketing tools are plainly obvious and out in force. Front and centre are the characters we know and love - there is an almost hilariously big focus on the return of the cast from A New Hope. The developing character relationships - specifically the Han/Leia romance - are highlighted rather than the story itself, giving us our first indication of a more character-driven movie. Interestingly, there's no mention or appearance of Yoda. It's known that everyone was concerned about Yoda and how he would come across - perhaps no one felt brave enough to unveil him at this point. On the other hand, a big deal is made of Lando, and given the era of this trailer, it's not hard to guess why such an effort might have been made to emphasise Billy Dee Williams' character. Finally, there's a hell of a lot of action on show here - a far greater level of action than turned out to be in the film. And bizarrely we have the same rubbish exploding logo thing at the end. Why?

Return of the Jedi (1983) - Original Trailer

First of, let's be clear - this film is called Revenge of the Jedi at this point. The title change was a real last-minute thing, and a very rare case of an unused title making it all the way to the trailer. Another blind alley on show is a blue lightsaber for Luke, interestingly enough. Once again, there's a heavy focus on the established cast - but this time, there's a special effort to point out Yoda, Obi-Wan, and Boba Fett, all of whom only appear in a cameo. By this time, a fanbase was established and it's likely that these fan favourite characters were deliberately sought out for inclusion in the trailer to drum up further excitement. Once again, we have a conspicuously absent character; the Emperor. And once again there's no indication of any story and there's not even any dialogue in this one. Is this secrecy or just a trailer that plays it very, very safe? Judge for yourself. Either way, it's probably the most generic and box-ticking one so far, with the marketing machine clearly visible.

The Special Editions (1997) - Cinema Trailer

In 1997, Lucasfilm chose to release re-vamped versions of all three films, to much interest and eventual controversy. The opening of this trailer is very, very cool indeed and is probably the neatest idea that's appeared in any trailer so far, bringing the saga vividly to life on the big screen. The content has a dual focus - on the one hand, we get to glimpse some new scenes, including a truly appalling early rendering of the infamous CGI Jabba, and on the other we get a breakneck ride through all the iconic scenes of the films. Add that to the aggressive tagline that this is "the way it was meant to be experienced" as though you're missing out by not watching it, and it would have been damn hard not to get suckered in by this one. Very good job.

The Phantom Menace (1999) - Teaser Trailer

Never has any film been quite so manically anticipated as The Phantom Menace (until this year, perhaps...), and the first trailer was a huge event, and quite certainly the most widely viewed trailer ever at the time. The trailer itself takes that feeling and runs with it, beginning with a slow, intense opening complete with the spine-tingling Force theme. Then... bang! As the main theme blares triumphantly, we see so much exciting new stuff that it's almost too much to process. We even, for the first time, get a glimpse of the actual story (which is very clearly the coming of age of Anakin at this point). Unfortunately, this is a rookie mistake. It shows us way, way too much - indeed, it reveals practically every single awesome moment and feature in the whole film. This of course created an unparalleled level of hype, but meant that when the moment came, there was nothing else behind the curtain. So depending on your viewpoint, it's either a magnificent, thrilling trailer, or one of the great downfalls The Phantom Menace forced upon itself. In truth, it's a bit of both.

Attack of the Clones (2002) - Teaser Trailer

Here we have something totally different from anything before. There's a quiet, sinister mood in the air. After the widespread criticism of the muddy plotting and lack of clarity in the previous film, this trailer tries to sidestep that issue by focussing entirely on the look and feel of the film - to some success. It also takes the wise decision of reminding us that this is all about Darth Vader, and shots of the clone troopers boarding Star Destroyers as Vader breathes assures us that the Star Wars we know and love is starting to show itself. A very interesting effort.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) - Teaser Trailer

As the final film in the series (well.. not anymore) approaches, there's a sense of finality, doom and climax in the air. A clip of Obi-Wan from A New Hope is used to narrate the trailer, once again reminding us that this is all linked to the original trilogy, and that we are finally going to find out exactly what Obi-Wan was talking about. And then of course - Vader is revealed! Again, given that this is Vader's only scene, is it wise to reveal something like that in a trailer? The rest of the trailer unfolds with an apocalyptic and somewhat frightening mood developing, and we're left with a distinct notion that this film is going to be something very different. The genius of this one is that with all the imagery and mood-setting, it's highly satisfying and appears to reveal a lot, whilst really giving away very little. An excellent trailer.

The Force Awakens (2015) - Teaser Trailer #1

And here we are ten years on, with our first ever glimpse of a post-Return of the Jedi world. With excitement at fever pitch, the only realistic option is to take a less-is-more, keep-them-wanting-more attitude. There's a very curious opening that plays on the viewer's knowledge of Star Wars what with the familiar desert landscape and the reveal of the stormtrooper suit. Then we get a few quick moments with our new main characters, the reveal of a highly awesome new lightsaber, and then a nice big sumptuous shot of the Falcon flying into battle to the tune of the main theme. It's all very Star Wars, and very exciting, but apart the lightsaber, it shows absolutely nothing of any consequence. That they got away with it, and that the trailer is still so exciting, just shows how high the interest in this film is!

The Force Awakens (2015) - Teaser Trailer #2

And finally, we have the most recent trailer for franchise comeback The Force Awakens - and this time, there's a very definite tactic, and boy does it work. It's all very heavily built around nostalgia and the "return of Star Wars" - we see Luke, Leia, Vader's mask, Artoo, TIE fighters, the Falcon, Chewie, and the reveal of Han Solo speaking one, already iconic, line. And it's a line that deliberately reaches out and speaks to the fans - "we're home". Without doubt, it's the most unashamedly emotional trailer of the lot. We get a lot of glimpses of other stuff, but once again it pulls off the trick of revealing a lot, but also sort of nothing at all - ensuring a million rewatches. Combine that with the heartwarming, unbearably exciting tone, and you have a trailer that just has everything, and is easily the best Star Wars has produced.

What's your favourite? Let me know in the comments below! 

Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast. Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.

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