The “early tease” of footage from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first chance movie audiences will have to revisit the galaxy far, far away in many years. Undoubtedly, it’ll provoke speculation about the finished movie and discussion about whether it will stand up to earlier episodes, but only one thing will be known for sure: how this tease fares next to earlier Star Wars trailers.
From the bombastic original 1976 teaser for George Lucas’ first Star Wars — long before anyone had heard of the Galactic Empire or the Rebel Alliance, never mind that movie’s subtitle, A New Hope — to the nostalgia-tinged Alec Guinness-starring tease for 2005’s Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, here are the trailers for the first six Star Wars movies (as well as 2008’s animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars theater release) for comparison.
Spoilers: you might be surprised by how appealing the prequels look from their trailers alone. Consider it a reminder not to get too excited about The Force Awakens footage, just in case...
Star Wars Teaser (1976)
How was the first Star Wars advertised to a world that knew nothing about it? Via a dramatic voiceover calling it “The story of a boy, a girl and a universe,” which sounds even stranger once you realize that the first part of that probably refers to characters who would eventually be revealed to be siblings. The movie was “a billion years in the making — and it’s coming to your galaxy this summer.” Between that and the visuals on offer, who could resist?
Star Wars Trailer (1977)
By this point, much of the familiar iconography of the movie is in place — note the debut of “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” — although the repeated use of the movie’s alternate logo seems jarring in an era when we’re used to seeing the words “Star Wars” in a very particular style.
The Empire Strikes Back Teaser (1979)
Created to accompany a Star Wars re-release, this teaser is notable for featuring absolutely no footage from The Empire Strikes Back at all, instead using concept paintings for the movie by Ralph McQuarrie and a voiceover that describes the Empire being “repulsed” in the first movie. Well, repulsive, for sure... Also worth noting: look at Lando Calrissian getting a shout-out so far in advance. If anyone was meant to be the breakout character of the movie, it clearly wasn’t supposed to be Boba Fett...
The Empire Strikes Back Trailer (1980)
The first thing that leaps out at you today with this trailer is the voiceover, which feels less like someone you’d hear advertising an epic movie and perhaps better suited to a car rally this Sunday Sunday Sunday. The trailer also makes it appear that this movie is almost entirely made up of explosions, even the “epic of romance!” line is followed by the sound of something blowing up.
Revenge of the Jedi Teaser (1982)
Yes, this trailer — which accompanied a re-release of The Empire Strikes Back — features the original title of the movie, before George Lucas decided that Jedi were above such petty concepts as “revenge.” Two important things about what would eventually become Return of the Jedi are missing from this tease: the Ewoks and the showdown with the Emperor. Some things are too important to tease, it appears.
Return of the Jedi Trailer (1983)
The most important thing about this trailer? Seeing Admiral Ackbar warning everyone that “It’s a trap!” The most surprising thing? That would be the lack of bombast about this being the final part of the saga; if this were a trailer being made today, just imagine how many times the word “final chapter” would appear. Also worth commenting on: cutting from calling Princess Leia a leader to the shot of her in the Jabba Palace slave outfit; well played, sexist trailer makers of the 1980s. Still missing, by the way: the showdown with the Emperor.
Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition (1997)
It’s unlikely that “screen size-shaming” was a real thing back in 1997, but this trailer is almost enough to make you believe otherwise. “Hey, losers! Were you the wrong age to see Star Wars in the theaters? You’ve never even see the movies!” it practically says, perfecting its hipster appeal a generation before such a thing was recognized. Of course, these re-releases were just a warm-up act for what was to follow — and the promotion of that needed to lay the groundwork for fans to have fond memories of the original trilogy.
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace Teaser (1998)
It’s difficult to remember, from the vantage point of today’s bitterness, whether the amount of Jar-Jar Binks in these trailers rang alarm bells, but this first glimpse into the prequels definitely differs in tone from what’s come before while also playing on the audience’s nostalgia for the characters and the mythology. Without a pre-existing relationship with this stuff, would this really seem like anything other than a random collection of scenes?
Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace Trailer (1999)
This trailer seems like an odd halfway point between the old-school trailers of the original trilogy and type of trailers we’ve become used to in recent years; gone is the narration telling you everything you need to know, but the trailer still follows a narrative arc and includes exposition instead of eye-catching images. Does it make for a particularly exciting teaser? Not so much — but then again, it’s not an amazingly exciting movie.
Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones Teaser (2001)
Again trading firmly on nostalgia for the first series instead of trying to sell the movie on its own merits, the most memorable thing about this trailer isn’t what it probably should be — the first glimpse at Jango Fett, perhaps, or Obi-Wan and Anakin in action — but the sound of Darth Vader breathing... something that wouldn’t even enter the series until the next movie. Unfair, trailer makers — but understandable, nonetheless.
Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones Trailer (2002)
A stronger trailer than that for The Phantom Menace — it’s not trying to tell you the basic sweep of the entire film, preferring instead to lay the groundwork in the first 30 seconds and then wow you with everything that follows — this nonetheless makes Attack of the Clones look more frenetic and scattered than it actually is, by seeming unable to settle on one big moment to center on. It also manages to make Yoda’s line “Begun, this clone wars has” even clumsier than it did in the movie. Which, you know, is saying something.
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith Teaser (2004)
The nostalgia factor is higher than ever for this teaser, but it kind of works — the viewer is left with the understanding that this is the big one where that whole Anakin goes bad thing finally happens, especially by the cut from Alec Guinness’ recounting of Darth Vader’s origin from the first movie to the Emperor’s “Lord Vader... Rise,” against a black screen. Could this be the best of the Star Wars teases so far...?
Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith Trailer (2005)
If the teaser for Episode III got it right, the full trailer almost manages to follow suit, realizing that all fans really needed was a sense of foreboding and the idea that everything was about to go to pieces in order to show up. That it’s as effective as it is is impressive; given the build-up to this point, you almost sense that they could’ve gotten away with two-and-a-half minutes of George Lucas just daring audiences not to show up without dampening enthusiasm.
Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens Trailer (2014)
The film itself may still be a year away, but the first teaser for J.J. Abrams' installment in the saga has already made fans believers. Featuring the familiar (Tatooine, TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon) and the new (tweaked X-Wing and Stormtrooper designs, a mysterious cloaked Sith and glimpses of John Boyega and Daisy Ridley) it demonstrates an allegiance to what made the original Star Wars films such a delight for viewers, while also clearly stating that a new era is about to begin.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars Trailer (2008)
High on atmosphere and low on... well, specifics, really, there are ways in which the trailer for the movie version of the long-running Cartoon Network series feels more like a “movie trailer” than any of the Star Wars proper trailers. If only the movie itself had been better...