The most critical point in a melody tends not to be the first note, but the second. First notes allude, suggest, but they tell us nothing. By the third note, we already know too well where the line is trending. The second note is a pivot point. It establishes tempo and direction. But the second note is rarely teased for two and a half minutes, two months before the whole string is played. Yet, here we are, nearly 70 days ahead of its release, wondering if Star Wars: The Last Jedi is establishing a slope that plummets or ascends.
Monday night’s trailer showed us a lot: Luke Skywalker speaking about his fear of his new pupil’s strength; an unmasked and carbon-fiber face-bandaged Kylo Ren piloting a fighter and apparently contemplating firing on a vulnerable vessel before the camera cuts to a shot of a concerned General Leia; Supreme Leader Snoke torturing Rey; and Kylo extending his hand toward Rey as she asks for guidance. All of this is cut with voice-overs from Luke, Snoke, Kylo Ren, and Rey, speaking about fear and direction and potential and all things Force.
Of course, because half of the quartet is surely committed to the darkness or the light, director Rian Johnson also showed us nothing at all. After Johnson tweeted on Sunday that if fans wanted to “come in clean,” they should “absolutely avoid” the video, it seemed that this three-minute snippet would be less cryptic than the usual formulaic Star Wars trailer. But with The Last Jedi serving as the first pivot point in the film universe since The Empire Strikes Back, any perceived spoiler could have been read as misdirection.
It turns out that the trailer doesn’t give us answers, but instead directs us toward its most important questions. What demons are torturing Luke? How much light (if any) is left inside of Ben Solo? We aren’t meant to wonder if Rey will be pulled toward the darkness, but rather why she will swim toward its lure. When Ben/Kylo speaks about killing the past, he is not talking about shooting a proton torpedo at his mother (though it sure looks that way), but whatever is keeping him from becoming, in his mind, a worthy successor to his grandfather. Wondering who the hero is and why they are heroic is what makes Star Wars, at its best, Star Wars.
Last year’s Rogue One was a success, but it thrived as a war film, not as a critical part of the Star Wars canon. As Ringer boss Sean Fennessey put it at the time, “It never matters that we know where we’re going.” A key part of the mythmaking process is, well, allowing the myth to be made. George Lucas’s prequel trilogy failed because it dwelled on the minutiae of Trade Federations and made some questionable casting choices, among other things, but it was doomed by its very nature: It had no chance to establish direction or provoke curiosity.
The Last Jedi, inevitably, already looks like Empire. We will spend ample time reaching toward the darkness and wondering what we will find. But as with The Force Awakens, we are left to ponder other mysteries, to contort our eyebrows and conjecture wildly about the path of the new antiheroes and our old saviors. It matters that we don’t know where we’re going. If we did, TLJ would already be no fun.