"There has been an awakening. Have you felt it?"
And so it begins. The gravelly, croaking voice of an off-camera Andy Serkis on the soundtrack to an 88-second movie trailer that revealed no major characters, consisted only of seven short plot-free set-ups (11 shots altogether) and yet notched up over 50 million online views in less than five days and thus suggested in no uncertain terms that 2015 would be, on Planet Film at least, the year of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
This was, perhaps, to be expected. There has been, over the past two years, an increasingly positive momentum surrounding Star Wars that the franchise hasn’t witnessed since the pre-release days of The Phantom Menace (1999). Back then the infamous prequel trilogy almost immediately killed the Jedi buzz stone-dead. Directed by George Lucas and a phalanx of computer hard drives, they reduced a global franchise – and a cultural milestone for many – to a gaudy embarrassment and a hackneyed sales pitch for billions of dollars-worth of licensing rights.
Thus, when Disney announced in October 2012 that it had gained complete control over the Star Wars universe (by buying it from creator George Lucas for $4.5 billion), the pundits and fanboys were bounced between the suspicion that it couldn’t actually get any worse (Jar Jar Binks, anyone?) and that, given Disney’s recent takeover track record (see Pixar, see Marvel), it might in fact get far, far better. It was under Disney’s stewardship that Pixar produced the double-Oscar winning, third and best, instalment of the Toy Story franchise, and Marvel went from producing erratic underperformers like Daredevil and Hulk to non-stop tent-pole classics such as the Robert Downey Jr Iron Man franchise, Avengers Assemble and Guardians of The Galaxy.
Crucially, the takeover announcement was simultaneously delivered with the news that a long-gestating sequel trilogy – Star Wars VII, VIII and IX were allegedly conceptualised inside the head of Lucas in 1976, on the Tunisian set of the first movie – were to become a reality. But the ensuing two years of hysterical external speculation were matched by a near complete media blackout from Team Star Wars.
This, of course, is where JJ Abrams comes in. The Star Trek rebooter and creator of TV’s Lost was hired to direct Episode VII in January 2013. It was a smart choice, perhaps the only choice. Abrams had done wonders with Star Trek (another flat-lining movie franchise), by ingeniously utilising a time-travel plotline to reinvent an alternate Trek universe and drive the first two rebooted instalments to an $850 million box office haul.
Abrams wrote the Episode VII script in LA with black paper taped over his office windows (in the case of telephoto snoopers in the skies outside). He spent nearly a year casting the movie, and in April 2014 released a single black-and-white photo from the film’s London base at Pinewood Studios of a script read-through, featuring 16 key Star Wars personnel, including franchise veterans Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, and new stars Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, plus young British actress Daisy Ridley (the latter four would all inevitably feature in the trailer).
During shooting between May 2014 and November 2014 in Pinewood, Abu Dhabi and Iceland, he released a photo of R2-D2, one Tweet of Chewbacca, a brief snippet of a parked X-Wing fighter, and a latex creature on the Abu Dhabi set. He confirmed that a leaked Pinewood sound-stage shot was indeed the Millennium Falcon. Oh, and he announced that the official title of the film would be Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The first shot of the Millenium Falcon in the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
And that was it. No plot précis. No on-set sound bites. No major character in costume shots. No villains. No heroes. Nothing. Abrams’s big thing, you see, is secrecy. He tells a story, whenever he gets the chance, about buying a mysterious black box from a Manhattan magic store when he was a kid. He’s had the box for over 30 years now, and yet he’s never opened it. It represents, he says, “the infinite possibility” of the undisclosed secret. It’s also a metaphor, albeit not a very subtle one, for the archetypal pre-released JJ Abrams movie, and it dovetails neatly with the insane levels of hype that the director has managed to generate, through secrecy alone, around his own movies.
For Cloverfield he created fake websites, for Super 8 he encoded messages in the trailer, and with Star Trek: Into Darkness he forbade Benedict Cumberbatch from revealing his part in the movie, even after it had premiered across the globe. It is something of a masterstroke in a world of information overkill, and with The Force Awakens it’s helped to create a genuine sense that something magical is happening behind those gates at Pinewood (I was at Pinewood, reporting from the Woman in Black 2 soundstage, during the pre-production of The Force Awakens, and the security levels there were through the roof – passes cross checked and double-checked, followed by barred airport-style security gates that were opened, individually, on an authorisation only basis – plus a large ominous sign, or so I was told, above the Star Wars soundstages themselves that read “Loose Lips Sink Starships!”).
And yet, even so, the real coup in The Force Awakens is not in the secrecy of Abrams. It’s in his capacity for nostalgia. Who else makes a movie like Super 8, and fills it with so many loving Spielbergian touches (kids on bikes, broken families, lens flares, Eighties fashions) that the plot almost ceases to matter? Nostalgia is his bread and butter, and Star Wars, more than anything, needs nostalgia. Lucas’s mistake with the prequels was to go for high-tech and bleeding edge – because nothing ages quicker.
This is a franchise, remember, whose chromosomal essence is nostalgia (a long time ago…). It is built upon a tender mish-mash of old westerns, and old war movies, and old Arthurian legends. The original Episode VII script that Abrams inherited during the Disney takeover allegedly focused on a hot young new breed of Jedi characters. The Abrams rewrite shifted back to the original trio played by Ford, Fisher and Hamill, and clearly speaks to the very core of the Star Wars universe. For what is Star Wars other than remembered innocence, and the sweetened sadness of times past?
It’s no coincidence that the teaser trailer for The Force Awakens saves the Millennium Falcon money shot – and trademark fanfare – till the very end. Because that one rousing shot says something very specific to the movie-going public, both old and young. In this starship, it says, we carry your past, we treasure your memories, and we hold onto your dreams. Now, only 12 months to go.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens 18 December 2015
MORE STAR WARS:
Star Wars Episode VII: What You Need To Know About The New Cast
Everything You Need To Know About Star Wars: The Force Awakens (So Far)
5 Reasons To Be Excited About The Star Wars: Episode VIII Director