We’ve all had a few years to mull over the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and opinions are mixed. Some people love them and some hate them, but most of us seem to be in the middle, enjoying some things about the movies while feeling an overall dissatisfaction. It is, of course, true that any franchise so deeply loved as Star Wars was going to have a hard time living up to fans’ hopes with its long-awaited return. Not to mention Star Wars fans can be a particularly unpleasable lot. Still, I think a significant part of what made Episodes 7-9 feel lackluster comes from how they handle the structure of their storytelling. In this and a couple future posts, I want to dig into what that means.
The most obvious thing about the narrative structure of The Force Awakens is that it hews very close to the story of A New Hope. We start with a lost droid carrying vital information running into a potential Jedi on a backwater desert planet and end with x-wing fighters blow a giant planet-killing ship out of the sky. In between we get everything from a cantina with its own funky jazz band to rebels sneaking around the corridors of an imperial supership to rescue a captured young woman. Your cruisers can’t repel nostalgia of that magnitude.
There’s a good reason why this story doesn’t work as well as A New Hope. When he first sat down to plan out the Star Wars story, George Lucas played to his strengths, and storytelling is not one of them. For all that we think of Lucas now as the creator of one of the great stories of our time, he has always been a filmmaker first. The story of A New Hope is not particularly original, nor is it trying to be. It knowingly walks the steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The hero’s journey concept is a controversial one, its substance disputed by folklorists and its application embraced by some writers but rejected by others. But rather than delve into Campbell, I want to look at something related but simpler: the three act structure.
The three act structure is a fundamental storytelling tool that can be found in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters. There are lots of different ways of explaining it and, just like the hero’s journey, different people have different interpretations of it, from the very basic to the immensely complex, but here’s a simple version of how it goes.
Act 1: We meet the main character and learn enough about the world they live in to care about them. The main character is faced with a problem that they must solve or there will be consequences.
Act 2: The character attempts to solve the problem but fails. Their attempt fails because they did it in a way that did not require them to change. There may be consequences for their failure, or the potential consequences of failing to solve the larger problem may grow greater.
Act 3: The character accepts that they must change, and with that change they are now able to solve the problem.
Not every story follows this pattern, to be sure, but it underlies a lot of familiar narratives. To take a well-known example, Homer’s Odyssey works along these lines. Act 1: We meet Odysseus and learn about his struggle to get home. We learn about the greedy suitors feasting all day on his meat and wine and see them scheme to kill Telemachus, force Penelope to marry one of them, and finally get their hands on Odysseus’ wealth if he does not get home. Act 2: Odysseus tries to get home, but he runs into obstacles. The worst of his problems comes from the fact that he cannot bear to slip away from the cyclops by calling himself “No one.” Instead, his pride drives him to turn around and shout out his real name, which allows the cyclops to call down Poseidon’s curse on him. It costs Odysseus his crew and ten years of wandering. Act 3: Odysseus finally gets home to Ithaca and accepts that he must disguise himself as a beggar and not give away his identity until he is ready to kill all the suitors and reclaim his home and family.
A New Hope is a textbook example of the three act structure. In Act 1 we meet Luke Skywalker and learn of the importance of bringing R2-D2 and the Death Star technical readouts to the rebels before the Empire can destroy more planets with their new weapon. In At 2, Luke attempts to solve the problem by rescuing Leia and getting the droid back to her, but without letting go of the idea that he’s just a farm boy from the sticks. It costs him his mentor and his last connection to Tatooine as Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to let the Millennium Falcon escape the Death Star. In Act 3, the Death Star threatens the rebel base on Yavin, and Luke finally accepts that he must become more than he was and trust the Force in order to defeat the Empire.
The three act structure works best with a single character at its center so we can watch how they grow and change when faced with a challenge. (It can work with an ensemble, too, though. Take Avengers: In Act 1, we see the problem—Loki steals the cube—and meet the heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, etc. In Act 2, the heroes try to deal with Loki by each doing what they do best; it doesn’t work, Loki gets away, and Coulson dies. In Act 3, the heroes get past their differences, come together as a team, and stop Loki’s fiendish plan.) A New Hope is centered on Luke. Other characters have important moments and experience some growth—especially Han, who chooses to come back and help fight the Death Star rather than fly away with his money—but Luke’s growth into a Jedi is the core of the story.
For all that The Force Awakens does its best to follow along with A New Hope‘s story, it doesn’t have the same focus. Knowing that the Luke-Han-Leia trio was such an important part of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens spends a lot of time setting up Rey, Finn, and Poe as their new counterparts. To the extent that any character’s story provides the narrative line running through The Force Awakens, it is Finn, the mutinous stormtrooper. Finn works well as an audience surrogate character to introduce new and old fans alike to the world of the new trilogy—everything is as new to us as it is to him—but his story does not follow the three act structure. He makes his big choice at the beginning of the film, putting down his blaster and breaking Poe out of the First Order’s lock-up. In the end he chooses to go back to the world he escaped from to rescue Rey, but that is by far the least momentous change his character undergoes. Poe, for his part, is a hot-shot pilot at the start of the movie and still a hot-shot pilot at the end; he has plenty of good moments as a character, but this movie is not about what happens to him.
Rey’s story is the one that tracks most closely with Luke’s (orphan kid from a desert planet meets runaway rebel droid and discovers their Jedi powers), but the movie is not structured around Rey’s journey the same way A New Hope was structured around Luke’s. Rey starts out by running away and looking to others to solve her problem with BB-8, and in the end she comes into her own as a budding Jedi. She has a beautiful moment overcoming her fear and trusting the Force to let her mind-trick her way out of First Order holding, but the story of the movie is not her story. Rey’s growth and her confrontation with Kylo Ren are things that happen in parallel with the larger plot; they are not key to it the way Luke’s story was.
There are plenty of weaknesses in The Force Awakens, from an over-reliance on nostalgia to underbaked worldbuilding, but one of its fundamental problems is that it is so focused on rewriting A New Hope it loses sight of what A New Hope was itself rewriting. What we get in The Force Awakens is a copy of a copy, with all the flaws that come with it.
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