Like millions of other people in July, gathering around the world to stare at one of 4,050 movie screens, I waited breathlessly for Optimus Prime and his band of disguised robots to transform. However, something peculiar occurred as we sat through reminders about turning off cell phones and watching requisite trailers for other films.
The screen is filled with the image of a going away party in New York City, thrown for a twenty-something hipster by his equally beautiful friends. It seems amateurish, voyeuristic: we’re not sure why we’re watching this. How long until the mpovie starts? Some folks head out for popcorn. Suddenly, the onscreen loft party is disturbed by an explosion from outside; young adults spill downstairs into the streets as they hear an ominous groan so loud it echoes throughout the city. Looking at the source of the explosion, they scream and run as something plummets to the street. We realize, as it crushes cars, bounces and lies still, that we’re looking at the broken head of our nation’s Statue of Liberty. Something horrible, something apocalyptic, is happening right before our eyes.
What happened? Did I miss the DreamWorks credits? Did I fall asleep and miss the opening of the movie? Are giant robots fighting? Slowly, we realize this is not the start of the movie we paid to see. it turns out to be a preview for an upcoming film, and yet the trailer offers little information. not even a movie title! A date (1-18-08) is all the cinematic teaser offers. The theater audience erupted with cheers, avid filmgoers turning in surprised whispers musing why they’d heard nothing of this before. Several weeks and thousands of blog posts, articles, and talk shows later, including documentation of this unique marketing technique in Advertising Age, this is yet another superbly executed moment for writer/director/producer J.J. Abrams. This man is becoming one of our generation’s masters when it comes to spinning stories and sustaining suspense, a pale but appreciated reflection of our Master Storyteller’s brilliance.
I generally dislike this century’s movie trailers; anticipating the lowest common denominator, they often spell out the entire rhythm and story and its narrative structure, and include all the poignant lines of each character. It’s virtually a Cliffs Notes experience that can ruin a film, making one’s actual viewing feel like going through the paces versus experiencing revelation. Often, a film will release an initial “teaser” that reveals much less, yet fulfills the purpose of whetting our appetite. Why filmmakers (or a usurping advertising department) feel the need to spell out the film point-by-point, lessening the later viewing enjoyment is beyond me. The Hulk was a classic example; the teaser was mysterious, engaging and disturbing, but the trailer released early and against the director’s express wishes contained unfinished computer effects and revealed too much, actually turning audiences against the film.
Co-Creator of “Lost“, J.J. Abrams not only seems to understand this, he seems to have a firm grasp on how to intrigue, mystify, and reel in his audience. Abrams delivered the only “Mission: Impossible” (the third) which truly captured the spy/suspense feel of its source material, and has enjoyed so much success he’s been entrusted with a seemingly insurmountable task of resurrecting Captain Kirk and the “Star Trek” franchise. However, he points to the other sci-fi giant as his primary inspiration: “Star Wars is probably the most influential film of my generation. It’s the personification of good and evil and the way it opened up the world to space adventure, the way westerns had to our parents’ generations, left an indelible imprint. So, in a way, everything that any of us does is somehow directly or indirectly affected by the experience of seeing those first three films.”
Will this mysterious film opening next winter reveal Abrams’ own sci-fi giant? Although he didn’t write or direct the upcoming mystery project hitting theatres in mid-January, he certainly knows a good thing when he discovers it, and also how to titillate his audience, not unlike a young George Lucas did back in 1977. Most importantly, he understands how less can be more, and how confusing vignettes can make us hungry, eager, even desperate to see what happens next. Web speculation ran rampant, with several websites purported by online cinema sleuths to be more clues regarding the plot and basis for the film. The shrewd producer has denied most of these sites to be linked to his film, but suggested there ARE clues sprinkled online, including the website www.1-18-8.com. This “Where’s Waldo” approach to marketing may be financially brilliant, making a curious populace do Paramount Pictures’ advertising work for them.
Watching this phenomenon explode from the theater to internet, to all night coffee/cigarette discussions at Denny’s and Comic Book stores around the country, I find myself thinking of a much greater and historic book of narrative snapshots that has captivated generations with frantic fervor: the even greater apocalyptic vision captured in Revelation, written in the first century by John the apostle. Bombarding us with imagery including dragons and devastation, feasts and celebration with a massive arena concert, locusts with human faces and a tattooed, bloody savior, Revelation has been one of the biggest sources of speculation and argument inside and outside the church. Naturally, I think it trumps every other narrative teaser because it’s not fiction it’s an impending actuality, not an upcoming theatrical offering. Unlike Abrams’ trailer, it’s even more titillating because it’s going to happen. and we don’t even know the release date.
“. and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” Revelation 6
The devoted, the curious, and the skeptical all participate in this process. Just as avid followers of the Untitled Abrams’ Project debate the snippets they’ve seen whether one hazy image on the 1-18-08 website contains an inhuman face, or whether the explosion in the trailer is the result of terrorists, aliens, or a Godzilla-sized monster voracious readers of Revelation lose even more sleep, caffeinated and debating if the locusts with human faces in chapter 9 are helicopters, and whether or not the rapture will be like flying up, up and away or vanishing like in a Star Trek transporter. Others are curious but not as rabid, excited but content to see what unfolds, while others may dismiss the entire affair as a bunch of crap and a waste of time. While I think this particular book of the Bible far outweighs a silver-screen story from the creative team who gave us “Alias”, we see the reactions are mirrored, save for magnitude.
Some of my Christian connections lament that the book of Revelation is overly baffling, so confusing, and commonly divisive. but as I watch the best of our modern-day cinema trailers, and the way an auteur like J.J. Abrams can lure us into his storyteller’s web with well-planned intrigue, I think I understand our Master Storyteller just a little bit better. Even in scripture that foretold the coming of Jesus, prophecies are sprinkled throughout the divinely inspired writings. A mention of being hanged on a tree here. a virgin birth there. a birthplace revealed to those who are paying attention. Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection are clear in hindsight, and yet those awaiting the promised Messiah didn’t have a completed picture. As believers before Christ looked to Jesus’ first coming with narrative snapshots but an incomplete picture, Christians look to his second coming in similar fashion.
The Book of Revelation does not pretend to be a play-by-play account of the end of the world. it’s a series of teaser vignettes meant to excite us, to make us anticipate, and ultimately compel us to worship the hero of the story, Jesus. I respect J.J. Abrams for being inspired, but by no means original. Revelation is the ultimate teaser/trailer, God’s incredible viral marketing for the climax of truth and justice, mercy and grace.
“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.” Revelation 20