The launch of the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens arrives more than a year in advance of the movie’s premiere, but it has rekindled fan frenzy and generated more geek discussion than any other montage of eleven incongruous images in cinema history. It’s also made us harken back to those great teaser trailers of yesteryear that touted would-be blockbuster movies a year or so beforehand with merely snippets of the final product to tease us with.
Fans are gladly compelled to watch and re-watch the Episode VII trailer to absorb the intricacies of those eleven mesmerizing shots and pontificate on and debate their meaning—such as: Do the bonus Lightsaber daggers serve as a protective hilt and/or are they used as close-quarters weapons; or are they mere window dressing and/or wouldn’t they present a self-infliction hazard to the user?
While we collate our theories, let’s take a few moments to recap some other terrific teaser trailers for movies that definitely got our blood pumping.
I still remember the pulse-quickening mix of adrenalin, goose pimples, butterflies in my stomach and chills running down my spine as I caught my first peek in 1979 at the teaser trailer for what had heretofore been dubbed “Star Wars 2.” The first teaser didn’t reveal much—images of our heroes in ominous and strange surroundings, looking somewhat older and decidedly distressed; quick shots of bizarre alien creatures; the Millennium Falcon swerving around an asteroid; scenes of an epic light saber duel—but even from these few cryptic images, we all knew the follow-up to the cheery Star Wars would take us to scarier places.
The Shining (1980)
Few trailers convey such untold yet gut-wrenching primal horror as does the single shot of the eerie Overlook Hotel elevators gushing a slow-motion torrent of blood that creeps towards us and ultimately envelops the camera. It endures as one of the film’s many precisely composed signature images. The otherworldly screech on the synthesizer soundtrack helps immensely to create a feeling of utter dread and, for devout fans who were eagerly anticipating what a director of Stanley Kubrick’s caliber would do with Stephen King’s popular ghost story, prickling excitement.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
I recall a capacity crowd for 1984’s The Natural applauding the first advance glimpse of the forthcoming Indiana Jones sequel.
In late 1983, just as serious geeks were beginning to come down off the rush of Return of the Jedi, we caught our first glimpse of our next great classic in the making. We knew little about the movie other than the guys behind Stripes were making a special effects-laden supernatural comedy and that it was set in New York City. The catchy “no ghost” logo instantly conveyed that this would be a fun and funny movie. “Coming to save the world next summer.” I’m in!
Back to the Future – Part II (1989)
The original 1985 Back to the Future preview is often cited as being one of the great teases, but it can be argued that fan reaction to the first peek at Part II was far more feverish, coming with the four-year anticipation of wondering how the filmmakers could ever top the first movie. The quick sight gag of Michael J. Fox shown dressed in drag as Marty McFly’s futuristic daughter brought down the house.
The Two Jakes (1990)
Jack Nicholson returns to the role of private eye Jake Gittes in this long, long awaited follow-up to Chinatown. If the finished movie were half as snappy as this crisply edited and breezily narrated montage of “Jack” moments, the film might have approached the caliber of its progenitor. It would be cruel—and inaccurate—to say all the greatest bits are revealed in this terrifically entertaining trailer, but the film remains stubbornly less than the sum of its beautiful and haunting parts.
The Godfather, Part III (1990)
Speaking of a film being stubbornly less than the sum of its beautiful and haunting parts, Francis Coppola’s long-gestating third Godfather movie generated waves of advance publicity—on par in its pre-Internet day with the current fan and critical frenzy surrounding the mass-media unveiling of the new Star Wars or Avengers trailers. The first advance teaser began with a lengthy intro that recapped highlights of the first two movies and reminded us of its prodigious Oscar tally, then segued into a montage of an aging Michael Corleone being drawn back into something vaguely sinister involving the church and familial tumult. Sixteen years is an eternity to wait for a sequel, but it appeared from the glorious photography and the exquisite production design that the makers of the classics The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II hadn’t missed a beat. This was, of course, long before audiences ever heard Mary Corleone mumble her first words.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)
The first teaser trailer is a montage of the construction of what is revealed to be the familiar T-800 endoskeleton under the flesh of the iconic Arnold Schwarzenegger character. Fire up the glowing red eyes and cue the popular catchphrase from the first movie—“I’ll be back”—and fans go wild with anticipation. We hadn’t even caught our first glimpse of liquid metal yet, nor had we learned of a pivotal character twist in store for us, but we were already sold on the mere notion of Arnie’s return.
Okay, so massive credit is due to the music librarian who dug up some appropriate Mozart and mixed it up with an indelible climactic motif from Orff, but this stylish and otherwise silent action montage showcasing sweeping images and breathtaking stunts announced with authority that Sylvester Stallone had finally scored his first post-Rambo success.
The first Pierce Brosnan 007 flick is full of stylish trailer moments that accentuate our handsome new hero in dashing poses under moody lighting. From our first images in the teaser reel, we knew Broz not only looked the part, but the lush production design and the quantum leap in cinematography briefly on display promised the world a sleeker and more polished Bond movie than ever before. Fans languished for six long years while legal proceedings delayed the follow-up to Licence to Kill; this was our long-awaited payoff, and we were immediately assured James Bond would not only be back with a bang, but that he would readily hold his own in a cinema landscape now crowded by the likes of Batman, John McClane, Jack Ryan and Riggs & Murtaugh.
For better and for worse, the arrival of this teaser marks the first instance of a definable “stinger” to punctuate a trailer with a final clobbering exclamation point—in this case, a giant tractor wheel whipped up by a tornado is hurled towards the audience and crashes violently into the camera.
Fight Club (1999)
Maybe it was George Lucas’ decree that all previews preceding theatrical showings of The Phantom Menace be sixty seconds or less, but the forced time limit resulted in some terrific and mystifying trailers like this one. Our initial peek at David Fincher’s seminal tale of male angst on the eve of Y2K is an exhilarating mix of surreal imagery and sonic fireworks, but the teaser reveals very little of the storyline and closely guards a crucial plot spoiler.
Man of Steel (2013)
Our introductory look at how Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan would reboot and contemporize Superman, the preview trailer is glorious and awe-inspiring. In addition to fleeting images of our new leading man, the trailer showcases a grand production design of tremendous scale, and soaring special effects leaps and bounds beyond what Richard Donner and company could achieve in the days of Christopher Reeve. If only the finished film lived up to the trailer’s solemn promise, fans might be less snarky towards the imminent Batman v Superman mash-up and the eventual Justice League spinoff movies.