A recent trailer for Solo, that new Star Wars movie about, uh, Han Solo, ends with a bit of a cliffhanger. A (space) train hurtles along its tracks around a mountain as a battle rages atop it. It comes close to the cliff side and hanging out the train is none other then Chewbacca, and he is heading straight for an outcropping. The Wookie appears destined to certain doom as the trailer ends.
The question of whether Chewie survives became an ironic question in the wake of the trailer’s release. A particularly tongue-in-cheek theory was that the Chewbacca we meet in A New Hope is actually the son/clone of the Chewbacca in Solo. The meaning behind the joke was clear: why is this trailer trying to fake us out with these stakes when we know Chewbacca survives to the Original Trilogy?
So here I am, finding myself talking about stakes again, but it’s late and I’ve spent the whole day on set so I’m allowed to ramble.
Whether or not Chewbacca survives is a bit of a boring question, as there are only two answers and we already know which one is right. Hinging all the tension on something that simple isn’t terribly narratively interesting. But if we know that Chewbacca survives, we can then ask a more productive question: how does Chewie survive? Does Han tug him in? Does Lando grab him? Does a Stormtrooper’s heart grow three sizes? Does he pull himself in?
In some ways, it’s the relief of a spoiler. In a time when so many storytellers like to keep their audience on bated breath by making them ask if these characters will survive, it’s kinda nice to know that “hey, these guys make it out alright.”
Prequels are movies that inherently have seemingly low tension. We know Obi-Wan and Anakin are gonna survive Episodes I-III because, duh. But the interesting question is how does Anakin become a Jedi and then betray them all. That such a loaded question is given such a weak answer may be one of the prequels greatest failings. Think of all the potential “how”s that were answered with, well, Anankin walking into Palpatine’s office at the wrong moment. Not a terribly satisfying answer.
For a better example, maybe look at Monsters University. We know, because of Monsters, Inc. that Sully and Mike are best buds. We know that Mike is not gonna end up as a scarer, but we also know that he’s okay with that. The start of University sees a very excited, hopeful Mike whose heart is set on becoming a scarer. How does he end up where he ends up? It’s a pretty meaty question, seeing as it involves a protagonist’s goal shifting so wildly. University answered it by letting us know that what Mike wants isn’t what he needs. Though where he ends up might be a foregone conclusion, the process of getting there is interesting. Again, if knowing how it ends spoils it, why would a movie be worth rewatching? Why hear a story again?
I realize I’ve spent an inane amount of words talking about a simple beat in the Solo trailer that exists just for that tension you want in a trailer. Chewie probably just pulls himself back in. Heck, the shot may be from another sequence and it’s just cut that way to look dangerous. Solo will probably still work even though we know Han, Chewbacca, and Lando are gonna make it out alright. I wanna know how they make it out — and what happens along the way.