Today was something of a Christmas morning for Star Wars fans across the globe. We’ve waited with growing anticipation for months as director J.J. Abrams and his production crew filmed what represents the start of a new age in the Star Wars universe.
Episode VII, now officially titled The Force Awakens, will be the first film produced under Disney and without creator George Lucas. Fans who remember the excitement of the prequels—perhaps with some trepidation—woke up early Friday morning to see the first official footage of the film, which is set to premiere in December 2015.
The debut of the trailer is especially meaningful because it sets the tone for what we can expect in the next chapter of the massively popular franchise. It’s a critical 88 seconds for Abrams and Disney, too, with the potential to win fans over or start premature rumblings of doubt. Given the anticipation and the stakes, it’s not surprising that many fans skipped Black Friday shopping to see the trailer on the big screen at one of the 30 theaters in the U.S. to get it.
Here in Austin, Texas, a local Alamo Drafthouse theater did fans one better. Instead of merely tossing the trailer in front of Big Hero 6, it blocked out an entire event, promising to run the trailer 17 times while dissecting it with a panel of experts (Britt Hayes from Badass Digest, Harry Knowles and Eric Vespe from Ain’t It Cool News, John Gholson of movies.com, and novelist and performer Owen Egerton). A line stretched around the side of the building as I arrived for the 9am screening. Local members of The 501st Legion even showed up in full stormtrooper regalia.
Even fans jaded by the disappointment of the prequels seemed to have renewed excitement. What melted my heart: An elementary schooler in front of me declaring, “This is so cool,” as he walked into the theater wielding two plastic lightsabers. You’re right kid. This is so cool.
We barely hit our seats before theater owner Tim League had projection cue the trailer for the first time. It moved so fast I could hardly take it in, but I remember getting goosebumps when the theme struck up over a gorgeous shot of the soaring Millennium Falcon. I immediately felt sorry for the poor jerks who had to buy another Big Hero 6 ticket for each subsequent big-screen screening—and interminably grateful that the movie nerds at the Drafthouse knew we’d want to pick this thing apart frame by frame.
Over the course of 13 or 14 more rotations (we slowed down once we realized the projector had a pause button so we could freeze frame) we dissected and speculated over every moment. Here are just a few of the big takeaways.
It’s significant that J.J. Abrams opens a new era of Star Wars with a close-up of John Boyega. He pops up in a desert landscape wearing a stricken expression and stormtrooper armor. The British actor has a much lower profile than, say, Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher. Abrams could have led with that star power, but giving the introductory moment to Boyega lends freshness and intrigue to a scene that could have been pure nostalgic pandering. Here’s a character we know next to nothing about, played by an actor best known for a limited-release 2011 British sci-fi flick, Attack the Block.
“I like that it opens with Boyega, because it’s so much establishing him as here’s the first face you see. You don’t see Han Solo, you don’t see Luke, you see John Boyega, and anyone who has seen Attack the Block knows he’s got movie star qualities,” Gholson said. “He is a movie star who is waiting for his movie-star movie.”
The few seconds of footage doesn’t hint at why Boyega looks so startled or confused, but the panelists have some guesses. Using a pretty literal interpretation of the film’s title, The Force Awakens, it could be that a stormtrooper suddenly starts feeling the power of the Force and realizes that he should be a Jedi. He could also just be reacting to a physical event—maybe a ship exploding—but the struggle appears to be internal. In any case, we can expect Boyega to be an important character in the upcoming film, based on his prominent placement at the start of the trailer.
Who does the voiceover?
While sand dunes and Boyega’s sweaty face are the first things we see, it’s not clear who’s behind the first voice we hear.
“There’s been an awakening,” a deep voice intones. “Have you felt it?”
Most members of the panel thought this could be Andy Serkis, the incredible and chameleonic character actor behind Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Serkis has a confirmed role in Episode VII, and given the range of his abilities the voice could definitely be his.
There’s also Mark Hamill, who is reprising his role as Luke Skywalker in the film. After starring in the original Star Wars trilogy, Hamill went on to become a popular and prolific voice actor. You’ve likely heard him in dozens of commercials and cartoons, perhaps most notably as The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. Because Hamill’s voice is so familiar, it seems like it would be easier to pick up on it if it’s him in the trailer. I was skeptical, until I did some digging and found the voice he used for The Spectre in Batman: The Brave and the Bold. It’s deep and sinister, and it convinced me that Hamill isn’t outside the realm of possibility.
Another popular guess is Benedict Cumberbatch, which would be a surprise indeed considering that he’s not an official cast member. Cumberbatch also has some voice work under his belt as Smaug, the dragon in The Hobbit trilogy. If you close your eyes, you can definitely hear the similarities between the trailer voiceover and beast that hoards treasure under the Lonely Mountain.
Name that Sith
Just shy of a minute into the trailer, we see a dark figure tromping through the snow in a heavily wooded landscape. The character stops in a semi-crouched position and whips out a red lightsaber that’s modified to with two smaller blades coming out the sides (more on that in a minute). Creepy woods, dark music, black cloak, red lightsaber—clearly this is a bad guy. Or, as the panelists pointed out, it could be a bad lady. We know Gwendoline Christie, who plays Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones, has been cast in the Episode VII. She’s tall and thin, just like the hooded figure. But so is Adam Driver, another confirmed cast member, and someone who’s long been rumored to play a villain in the film. Driver is another up and comer, best known for his role in HBO’s Girls.
Star Wars fans are already in hot debate over the modified light saber. Remember, Episode VII takes place about 30 years after Return of the Jedi, when Luke, Leia, Han, and their Rebel pals defeat the evil Empire and Darth Vader (cue the Ewok celebration). There are several places in the trailer where you can see updates and potential advancements in technology. The X-wing engine mounts have changed, and the stormtrooper helmets have undergone a redesign. It seems obvious that the addition of a crossguard to the Sith blade is an attempt to protect the swordsman’s hands. You’ve probably watched enough Star Wars to know that amputation is a real danger in lightsaber battles. But there are plenty of doubts among fans about the design.
Other stuff you may have missed
No Disney logo. For a company that spent $4 billion on Star Wars, it’s interesting that the Disney logo is nowhere in the trailer. Really, there’s no branding other than a tiny Lucasfilm credit at the end.
Dirt. One major complaint from fans who didn’t like the prequels was that George Lucas made everything too polished and clean. Fans liked the lived-in feeling of the original series that came with filming on location in Tunisia and other remote settings. The dirt and imperfections made the fantasy world feel much more real. Take a close look at the grime on the little soccer ball droid in the trailer and you can see that the production team for the new series was listening.
Oscar Isaac. The pilot of one of the X-wings we see flying low across a lake is Oscar Issac, who played the lead in the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. It might be hard to see on a small screen, but the close up of Isaac’s face shows a large bruise below his right eye and another abrasion on his chin. This guy just came from a fight.
Daisy Ridley. She’s seen on a speeder heading across a sandy landscape—likely Tatooine. She looks over her shoulder as if something might be chasing her before she takes off. Like Boyega and Isaac, we know little about Ridley’s character so far, though there’s speculation that she’s the daughter of Han Solo and Princess Leia. What’s interesting about this scene is perhaps the absence of something interesting. The production team shows great restraint resisting the urge to throw a big, impressive ship or city in the desert background. This willingness to go minimal in scenes where it makes sense is promising.
No aliens, no old cast members. To the great relief of many, there’s no Jar Jar. In fact, the only characters that show up in the trailer other than the droid are human. The trailer very carefully introduces us to the newest members of the Star Wars cast and wows us with a glorious shot of the familiar Millennium Falcon. It holds back when it comes to the rest of the story and the original characters. We don’t see Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, or Mark Hamill at all.
Screengrab via StarWars/YouTube