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The Secret of Star Wars Trailers Has Always Been Keeping a Secret

Trailers are built on lies and deception in service of larger truths.

Still taken from the trailer

Now that the latest trailer for the latest Star Wars film is out, fans are faced with the eternal question: to watch or not to watch. Even The Last Jedi’s director Rian Johnson has been flip-flopping. “I am legitimately torn,” he tweeted before its debut. “If you want to come in clean, absolutely avoid it.” But just after the two-and-a-half-minute ad was released online, he tweeted again: “FORGET EVERYTHING I SAID AND WATCH IT WATCH IT WATCH IT.

Will The Last Jedi’s new trailer spoil the film? The odds are about the same as successfully navigating an asteroid field (that is, approximately 3,720 to 1). Do you honestly think a global conglomerate like Disney is going to jeopardize a film franchise that’s grossed more than $7 billion over 40 years? Mouse house honcho Bob Iger would as soon kiss a Wookiee.

The Star Wars saga has historically prided itself on keeping secrets; 1983’s Return of the Jedi used the working title Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination to throw off nosy paparazzi and prying fanboys. And in this day and age, when devout loyalists routinely dissect every single frame of released footage within a matter of hours, Lucasfilm still knows to divulge secrets with the élan of a burlesque striptease.

The franchise’s marketing has always been superlative, and this new trailer demonstrates exemplary craftsmanship: an exquisite use of the saga’s unforgettable orchestral leitmotifs that supports a dazzling montage of action footage and punctuates cherry-picked sound bites that address grand themes of the ongoing struggle between good and evil.

It also trolls the audience with some delicious dialogue snippets. “This is not going to go the way you think,” says Luke Skywalker with a mix of exasperation and world-weary wisdom. You really think this trailer will spoil anything? Think again.

Kylo Ren killed his dad in The Force Awakens. Is it so surprising that he might be tempted to off his mother? Luke was clearly devastated by his failure to train the powerful force-sensitive Kylo Ren. Is there a chance he might not be up to the challenge of training the powerful force-sensitive person Rey? And—guess what—a young, directionless orphan like Rey might even be tempted by the dark side. Spoilers? More like obvious educated guesses, whether you’ve watched the trailer or not.

The fact that the new trailer strongly hints at all these possibilities is a credit to the marketing team and to the editor who designed such an emotionally potent structure. But trailers are built on lies and deception in service of larger truths. Compression, shorthand, and expressionistic dream logic are their stock in trade. They rarely work in a literal, or chronological, way.

Sure, it looks like Kylo Ren has his thumb on a button that could incinerate General Leia. But does he? This is a trailer montage: Just because the editor combined shots of Kylo Ren in battle with shots of a pleading-eyed Leia doesn’t mean it actually happens that way in the film. Or at all. Or maybe it does! We don’t really know.

It seems like Snoke is torturing Rey at one point. But is he? And, at the end of the trailer, is Rey really standing in front of Kylo Ren when he offers his outstretched hand? We have no idea. It’s a shot of Rey followed by a shot of Kylo Ren, and they both appear to be in the same space. So maybe yes, maybe no. But the trailer sure makes it look that way.  So definitely, possibly, yes. Or not.

In the trailer for The Force Awakens, a sequence where Kylo Ren is torturing Poe Dameron has a close-up of Poe’s face dissolve into a massive immolation of a wintry forest. Were the two related? As it turned out—not at all. But they seemed to be. And let’s not forget the trailer campaign for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which famously had 46 shots that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film.

The strength of any trailer is whether it bears repeated viewing. And we don’t watch good trailers again and again because we want to find out spoilers. We revisit them because we love how the shots resonate against each other, how the music and sound effects capture the excitement of the film, and how the dialogue (or voice-over narration, if you go back to the original trilogy) amplifies the enduring themes of the saga.

The Phantom Menace is a much-maligned movie—maybe the most hated Star Wars film ever made. But the original trailer for it absolutely rocks. Hearing Yoda intone, “Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering” still feels chilling. And the reveal of Darth Maul igniting his double-bladed lightsaber is just as thrilling now as it was then. Just imagine if the movie had lived up to it.

Remember the copy line from the original Star Wars trailer back in 1977: “The story of a boy, a girl, and a universe.” It’s perfectly vague and yet perfectly relevant. And it could work just as well in this most recent trailer—although instead of Luke and Leia, it’s Kylo Ren and Rey. In the trailer for The Empire Strike Back, the narrator invokes “heroes and villains” and “a galactic odyssey against oppression.” Could he be just as easily talking about The Last Jedi? Yup.

The greatest secrets in the Star Wars saga have always been hinted at in the marketing but never revealed. “Is Darth Vader my father?” asks Luke in the trailer for Return of the Jedi—and gets no response. For decades, Lucasfilm has excelled at goosing the imaginations of millions to maximize anticipation with a minimum of exposition. And as the best filmmakers will always tell you, what the audience imagines is always superior to what they could ever show on screen.

So what will you see in this latest Star Wars trailer? To paraphrase Yoda, “only what you take with you.”