Over the last few months I’ve been watching with increasing amazement at how perfectly the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, has been pitched. Nostalgia has been a key tool for Hollywood for a long time now. Whether it’s a rebooted Ghostbusters, Terminator, or Mad Max, the hysteria over Back to the Future Day, or just the nostalgia piano in Jurassic World trailers, the landmark films of the 1980s are back. Each has had a shot at trying to make a profit based on making audiences feel like they were 20 years younger, with varying success.
But with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it’s different. Nostalgia has become weaponised.
It’s a tough gig, making a Star Wars film today. In the shadow of the prequels, any new film needed to overcome a healthy scepticism in those old enough to have encountered the originals first. J.J. Abrams seems to have recognised this early on and, along with Disney, is running a marketing campaign that essentially boils down to this: The Force Awakens – it’s the Star Wars that you used to like.
So when Han Solo tells Rey and Finn in the recent major trailer that “It’s true – all of it. The Dark Side, the Jedi – they’re real,” he’s not revealing anything to the characters standing in front of him so much as he’s talking to us, the audience. “Remember that thing you loved – that thing that went away? Well, it’s back,” Han is saying. That connection that you once had to Star Wars – it’s real. All of it.
This is a Hollywood blockbuster that walks a perilous marketing tightrope between emotion and intellect. Disney have had to precisely target a finite reserve of emotion and nostalgia through marketing material that asks us to remember some Star Wars films, but not others. The way that this has been done has been nothing short of fascinating. It’s no coincidence, for example, that the major musical theme of the full length trailer is “Han Solo and the Princess” from The Empire Strikes Back, as it’s the only major musical theme from the whole original trilogy that didn’t return in the prequels. We haven’t heard that particular piece of music in Star Wars since Han, Leia, and Luke disappeared from the big screen in 1983.
But the key strategy for this targeted nostalgia, especially because so little dialogue has accompanied the trailers so far, has been visual. Every Force Awakens trailer has contained any number of carefully crafted callbacks to the original films, all designed to reassure us that it’s the spirit of 1977 (and not 1999) that’s being captured today.
Some of these links are obvious. When Han and Chewbacca made their first reappearance in April’s teaser, many were quick to point out the visual allusion to the 1977 original, including the composition of the shot and the pose of the characters:
From here, the obvious references have only multiplied. For example, in the more recent trailers we’ve now seen Han and Chewie in surrender, turning around in surprise at something off-camera – just like they did in Return of the Jedi:
We’ve got Rey, a young nobody stuck on a planet she doesn’t want to be on, gazing wistfully off into the distance, just like Luke did in 1977:
And a shot that looks awfully similar to the iconic dual sunset of Tatooine from that same sequence:
Our first major glimpse of Leia also immediately reminds us of the last time we saw Han and Leia going through emotional turmoil towards the end of Return of the Jedi (“Hold me,” might accurately caption both):
We see Rey firing angrily after what we might assume to be some sort of traumatic event (a death, perhaps?), just like Luke did after old Ben Kenobi died on the Death Star in 1977 (with similar framing):
We see an inexperienced and likely ill-equipped young man wielding a lightsabre in battle against a presumably much more dangerous evildoer – just like Luke and Vader in Empire Strikes Back (notice here too the similar use of lighting and vertical lines in the set composition):
And of course we see the major villain of the film observing the world on the bridge of an enormous starship with triangle viewports, as in Empire:
There are other more complicated things going on here, thought, and seemingly fewer people have consciously noticed them.
For example, almost certainly the single most iconic shot in the entire Star Wars series to date is its first: after the giant logo and the opening crawl, in 1977 Star Wars reaffirmed that this was a film about escapism and scale by giving us a tiny rebel ship, followed by an enormous Imperial Star Destroyer.
Go take a look at the sequence if you haven’t seen it in a while. It’s this scene more than anything that assured Star Wars’ success. It tells us everything about the conflict at the heart of the film in a single shot – an impossibly tiny, yet determined force, up against the biggest impersonal killing machine you’ve ever seen. The way that the two ships echo the movement of the opening crawl – by falling forwards into endless space, daring the audience into pursuit – was a literal entry point into the Star Wars universe, a shorthand way of telling the audience that yes, this was pure escapism into a galaxy far, far away, but that it was also an impossibly large universe that could be opened up an explored in any conceivable direction through sequels, merchandising, and spin-offs.
Speak to anyone who saw the film at the time and it’s usually this shot that they remember most. It told them about possibilities. It told them about Star Wars.
Not many have noticed it, but the shot that set the tone for The Force Awakens’ marketing campaign actually performs the same move – and turns it on its head, literally.
Take a look at the first shot from April’s teaser:
This is a perfect image precisely aimed at a certain kind of nostalgia. Consciously or not, it gives us a narrative and a way of understanding the relationship between this new film and the ones we loved, in just a single shot.
But even beyond that, these images from The Force Awakens have told us not just about the relationship between the new film and the originals, but the way that this new film allows us to mark time in cinematic history, too. Through locating itself in the history of cinema, it allows us to acknowledge that we’ve grown older, just as the films have – but that we can go back to this world, too. Let me explain.
Partly, what made the original Star Wars so great was George Lucas’ voracious borrowing of visual style. Other directors were doing it at the time, too – Martin Scorsese, for example, peppered films like Taxi Driver with allusions to French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism – but with Lucas, it wasn’t about being clever, or making a point. He just loved style, and took it from where he found it.
To give you one well-known example, in the final scene of the original Star Wars, we’re shown a medal ceremony that bears a striking resemblance to Leni Riefenstahl’s extraordinary (and obviously morally dubious) Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. Now, is Lucas trying to tell us that the Rebel Alliance is secretly fascistic? Of course not. Instead, it’s just a striking visual image that he’s appropriated. He’s taken the aesthetic, and is (I hope) crossing his fingers that the intellectual association doesn’t come with it.
To an extent, it seems like The Force Awakens, though similarly revisiting the Nazi imagery, has tried to mitigate any similar uncomfortable comparisons by firmly leaving displays of military might to the evildoers.
More generally, though, the allusions to longer traditions of film are clearly present here too, even in the relatively brief glimpses of material that we’ve seen so far from The Force Awakens. Despite J.J. Abrams in one interview with Vanity Fair seeming to downplay the amount of referencing that would be going on in the new trilogy, the trailers tell their own story.
Beyond its obvious Flash Gordon adventure serial style, the original Star Wars tapped into three broad cinematic genres: the Western, the War movie, and the Samurai film. Even from the handful of trailers we’ve seen so far, these genres have been rearticulated in The Force Awakens, too.
Take, for example, this shot from the International trailer where we can see a reworking of the Star Wars relationship to the War genre. It’s a homage to the Francis Ford Coppola classic, Apocalypse Now, both in terms of pure visual aesthetics, but also seemingly in tone. From what we can see in the trailer, it looks like this is a scene of foreboding, where the evil Empire-like First Order is coming to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting galactic backwater. Compare that to Apocalypse Now, where we see the helicopters rising at dawn for a raid on a Vietnamese fishing village.
For the first Star Wars, Lucas edited together archival footage of dogfights, along with the climactic battle from 1955’s The Dam Busters to give his special effects team an idea of what the Death Star sequence should feel like. But with The Force Awakens, we’re now seemingly drawing on the war films of Star Wars’ own era, too (Apocalypse Now was released in 1979, two years after the first Star Wars).
The allusion feels even more ironic when we remember that for years, Apocalypse Now was actually a George Lucas project – one that he only pulled out of directing because the success of American Graffiti allowed him to focus on making Star Wars. Supposedly, when Star Wars became an overnight success story, Francis Ford Coppola sent Lucas a telegram of congratulations that simply read: “Send Money”. Well Francis, I guess now we’re sending you Tie Fighters.
And then of course we have the Western. The original Star Wars, along with basically every other Hollywood film from the 1970s, pays homage to the 1956 John Ford classic, The Searchers in a shot-for-shot reference that shows Luke discovering his Aunt and Uncle’s destroyed homestead.
Even with a preliminary glance it looks like Abrams has continued Lucas’ obsession with Ford. Take, for example, this shot from the International Trailer:
The Kurosawa link is, of course, here in The Force Awakens, too, as we see what is rumoured to be the Knights of Ren standing in the rain:
It’s not an exact match, but the image of seven (count ‘em) pseudo-samurai characters on the field of battle in such heavy, textured rain surely comes from Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai from 1954, which features perhaps the most iconic combat-in-the-rain scene in all of cinema.
Of course, the titular Seven Samurai are heroes, or at least anti-heroes, and from what we can tell the Knights of Ren are anything but, yet the imagery is pretty consistent here. It may again be a return to the Lucas-era strategy of aesthetic – and not intellectual – borrowing.
Lucas himself made heavy reference to his original trilogy in the Star Wars prequels, and is sometimes mocked for it. “It’s like poetry,” Lucas says in a making of video while a fleet of onlookers eagerly agree, “it rhymes.” What for Lucas might have been “rhyming”, for many otherwise looked like lazy storytelling, with a fleet of reoccurring characters, planets, and iconic moments making the galaxy far, far away seem like a very small place indeed.
But what Disney and Abrams are doing here with The Force Awakens is more than a narrative or aesthetic technique. They’re framing The Force Awakens as a moment in history. It’s marketing that allows us to acknowledge that yes, Harrison Ford has gone grey, and John Williams’ romantic melodies aren’t the Hollywood trend anymore. And at the helm of this film is a director whose idea of a war movie isn’t The Dambusters but Apocalypse Now, a film that George Lucas himself would’ve made if Star Wars hadn’t got in the way.
But these images also allow us to go back and feel like we’re young again, to feel the rumble of that Star Destroyer overhead both in our bones and in our memories. There’s this old story about how when the first Star Wars came out, the beat poet Allen Ginsberg saw the words “A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” and turned to his cinema-going companion and said: “Oh thank god, I don’t have to worry about it.”
That’s actually not too far away from what The Force Awakens is doing right now. It’s telling us we don’t have to worry about it anymore. The Jedi, the Dark Side, they’re real. It’s true – all of it.