BOURNE LEGACY TRAILER: No Bourne, No Ludlam, No Sequel, No Prequel

The new Bourne Legacy, slated for Aug. 10th release is not based on the book of the same name by Eric Van Lustbader, “official” heir to Robert Ludlam‘s novelistic career; it does not feature the character Jason Bourne; it does not star Matt Damon, but rather Jeremy Remmer as Aaron Cross, a new CIA agent in the “universe based on Robert Ludlam’s novels.” (Wikipedia) It is not a sequel, nor a prequel, but rather a lateral move, exploring other strands of the “Treadstone” program.

As I hope to have indicated, the marketers of this film face a variety of challenges given the broad and enthusiastic fan-base for the first three Bourne films who may, not-unreasonably, be expecting development of a plotline and character with whom they were well-acquainted and deeply invested. (Did I also mention that this film has a different director than the ones starring Mr. Damon?) The problem, it seems to me, is how to transfer the desire and expectation of the Bourne/Ludlam audience from the pleasures of known source material featuring a familiar character played by a beloved and bona-fide movie-star to the generic pleasures of a similar and associated world, featuring a new character played by a distinguished but less well known actor.

Let’s review the trailer in terms of the story it tells and sells to see how–or whether–Universal’s marketing team and the trailermakers it hired accomplish their objectives.

At 1:54, the trailer is composed of two acts. The first is structured as a series of questions and interrogations through which an initially disoriented and physically damaged Cross (Renner) is identified, healed and prepared for his role as a CIA assassin. In the second act, Cross breaks out of the clinic/facility in which Act I appears to have taken place (whether this is true to the film story, I am unable to say) and demonstrates the success of his training, determination and skill. Our knowledge of the film and its character is conveyed through assertions by those I presume to be his CIA handlers/scientists/managers. The trailer concludes with action shots of Cross in the wilderness fending off capture, prior to the title design and release date card.

In this second act, a copy card (the only one in the trailer) tells us that “THERE WAS NEVER JUST ONE.” An off-screen voice notes that “Jason Bourne was just the tip of the iceberg,” followed by handler/trainer Ed Norton who explains that “he’s an Outcome agent” to an exasperated senior official. A female manager specifies that “It’s Treadstone without the inconsistency,” before sharing her astonishment that “we’ve never seen evaluations like these.”

Admittedly, much of this explanation requires familiarity with the series of films or movies (Treadstone, Outcome, Evaluations, Bourne, etc.), but even the casual movie goer will understand the generic cues indicating state security, secret programs, rogue agents and, perhaps, rogue agencies. From the trailer, even the unitiated can deduce that Cross, a product of a secret program, has gone off the reservation and now constitutes a threat to those responsible for his selection and training.

With respect to how the trailer rises to its various marketing challenges, Graphic Design and Copy do the heavy lifting. Design, which typically plays a supporting role, is foregrounded through a split screen (or as I call it “strip” screen) approach to revealing visual information that is more than merely “cool;” it expressly implies a model of interpretation. It’s not until 1:07 that we see a full-screen shot. Prior to that, only fractions of the screen are disclosed through an optical effects process that operates left to right, right to left, up and down and down and up to reveal fragments of faces and parts of shots. We are seeing/receiving only partial story information, character detail and context.

After the profile reveal of Renner, now healed of his initial bruises and lesions and transformed into a resolute, confident killer out of the disoriented, damaged raw material he once was, the screen blackens by a shutter effect: the strips into which the screen is divided narrow as if window blinds are being angled down. The result it to darken and mystify, to block the light of disclosure, the disinfecting sunshine of knowledge.  Of course, this is a film of intrigue after all, a murky world where neither the hero nor the audience fully understand events, circumstances or consequences until the end, if then.

The copy line– which I’ve noticed on teaser posters around town (LA) featuring no visual elements besides white lettering on a black background– is insistently plural in meaning. There was never just one Agent (of the Jason Bourne variety and Treadstone program). There was never just one book. There was never just one series of films. There was never just one author, director, or star. Although the first explanation is most salient, the others hover in the background, given the indeterminacy of the noun “one.”

Indeed, it’s a brilliant line, since it confronts the obvious weakness of the series reboot and converts it into a strength. Operation Treadstone always contemplated other agents in the Bourne mold. Cross is Bourne’s legacy: “Treadstone without the inconsistency,” as described verbatim in film dialogue. Secret programs are multiple and compartmentalized in order to maximize their viability and likelihood of success. Ludlam’s world is wider and more complicated than even his devoted reader will have imagined, which perhaps explains why Lustbader was obliged to continue his books.

So then, given this clever, reasonable and pursuasive explanation for why we have a new character, new star, new plot, etc., in a series with an old and venerable name, what are the selling points that might induce a Bourne fan or a Bourne virgin to see the Bourne Legacy? Well, obviously, the genre: a spy thriller with a Byzantine plot and likely surprises, both for the protagonist as well as the audience. This is the Ludlam brand and from the trailer, it appears to be maintained and extended.

The film features a quality cast of Oscar caliber players, including Joan Allen, Ed Norton, Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Albert Finney and David Straitharn, none of whom are named as such, but all of whom are recognizable as “that star” or “that actor.”

And, the Bourne Legacy offers action, violence and suspense, on a big budget with high production values.

In the title sequence, which comes after a full screen shot of Cross firing at an airplane is reduced by the strip-screen process to just his eye, we see layers of white letters onto which scenes of the film are superimposed flying through the air and compressing into the solid, white letters of the title. It’s yet another visual reminder of the thematic matrix of the series and the books on which it is based: fragments, pieces, layers and perspectives kaleidoscoping, combining and being “read” or “interpreted” in order for anything approaching order, story and understanding to emerge.

Have the marketers met their challenge? Even if audiences yearn from Mr. Damon, Mr. Greengrass and Mr. Ludlam, none of whom are involved here, I think the trailer heralds cinematic pleasures and story complications that will reward and agreeably confound fans of the inscrutable Bourne world. But do see the trailer for yourselves.

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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