On The Last Jedi’s four-act theme of “failure”

Lost amidst the hand-wringing, meltdowns and other fandom hysteria surrounding The Last Jedi is how different the film was in comparison to Star Wars movies before it. Everyone is focused on debating the decisions regarding Luke’s character or Finn’s storyline (both fair points to argue about), or how the movie did nothing to address Carrie Fisher’s death (which is completely unfair since she died after the movie was finished) but there is another aspect of the movie that is worth discussion, and that’s the movie’s unusual four-part structure and its strong commitment to a singular “theme” in its story.

It’s one of those subtle differences that’s not immediately apparent. Other changes like the use of flashback or the sparse number of camera wipes are more noticeable, but the way the movie’s story is laid out is entirely different from the seven “saga” movies before it, in that it follows a four-act structure instead of the more common three-act layout.

Almost every story follows a three-act construct.

You introduce the story in act one, carry out the plot in act two, and then tie it together and bring it to a conclusion in act three. Act one is where the hero is thrust into the adventure, act two is the adventure, and act three is where the hero wins the adventure. Often, aspiring writers will be told to take their second act and make it twice as long as the other two, with some kind of a twist or sudden story-turn happening halfway through the second act, but it’s still just a twist within the layout of the second part of the story; there’s still just three points of story to consider.

For example, in A New Hope:

ACT ONE: Luke resists the call to be a hero, but is thrust into the role when his farm is destroyed.

ACT TWO: Luke stumbles his way through being a hero but manages to rescue Leia.

ACT THREE: Luke destroys the Death Star, fulfilling his role as a hero.

Things are a little different in The Empire Strikes Back, since that was meant to be a cliffhanger with a downer ending. But still, there is a theme and three major story elements built around that theme.

ACT ONE: The heroes are defeated on Hoth and forced to separate.

ACT TWO: Now split up, Luke trains to avoid being defeated next time, while Leia and Han flee to avoid further defeat.

ACT THREE: Luke fights Vader but despite his training, is defeated. Leia and Han likewise are defeated with Han falling captive to Boba Fett.

Even movies that failed to convey an effective theme still adhered to a three-act format. In Return of the Jedi, three major things happen, even though there’s no strong storytelling “theme” to link those three things:

ACT ONE: Luke saves Han.

ACT TWO: Luke saves Leia.

ACT THREE: Luke saves Vader.

This isn’t a revolutionary analysis. As said, almost every story follows a basic, three-act outline. What’s interesting is how The Last Jedi (and writer/director Rian Johnson) eschews this for a four-act story. Like The Empire Strikes Back it too has a downbeat theme. ESB was all about “dealing with defeat.” TLJ is all about “well-intentioned failure.”

You can see that theme play out with Finn and Rose’s storyline, as they go off in search for the one-and-a-million guy who can save the day for the heroes. A lot of criticism is leveled against this subplot, calling it a shaggy-dog story. And that’s fair, but I’d argue it was also intentional and befitting the theme. Finn and Rose mean well but utterly fail. They’re bailed out by virtue of DJ, but their original mission was a spectacular bust, despite their good intentions.

The theme of “well-intentioned failure” is even more clear when you consider the subplot involving Poe and Admiral Holdo. Poe organizes a well-intentioned mutiny, having balked at the new Resistance Leader’s management style, believing her to be weak. Holdo, who actually has a plan for survival, has her own well-intentioned mistake when she prejudges and dismisses Poe as a hotshot pilot who can’t be trusted with classified information. Both of their mistakes are grounded in good intentions, but they clash in a perfect storm of disaster.

But let’s keep the focus on Luke and Rey, easily the movie’s most controversial aspect.

ACT ONE: Rey and Luke clash on Ach-To as the Jedi Master refuses to train the would-be apprentice. Why? Past failures have broken him. The inciting moment that finally pushes Luke to give Rey a chance is, fittingly, a reminder from R2 about the first “girl in need” that came into his life.

ACT TWO: Luke’s “lessons” are little more than rants about why he has grown so bitter against Jedi dogma. Rey, who finds little use for Luke’s teachings, does find help from an unlikely place: Kylo Ren. Luke’s refusal to properly train the Force prodigy came from a good place as far as he was concerned (he didn’t want to screw up again and create another monster), but it pushed his potential apprentice into the arms of the very monster he previously created. Once again: Well-intentioned failures.

ACT THREE: Rey and Luke have one last argument, ending up in an impromptu fight. Rey leaves, desiring to bring Kylo back to the light. Luke sets out to burn the sacred Jedi texts in one last “done with it all” action. Thankfully, he gets a lesson of his own from his old master. Yoda points out to him that failure is the best teacher a master can have and that he should not let his failure with Kylo lead to failing Rey as well.  Speaking of, Rey has her own lesson to learn and she will learn it with failure as well, as she not only does not turn Kylo back to the light, she ends up helping him become the new Supreme Chancellor.

That’s where the third act ends, but the movie isn’t done.

ACT FOUR: Kylo and the First Order are ready to wipe out Rey, Leia and the whole Resistance, but Luke “returns” to save the day. Rey has her heroic part to play too, but the movie isn’t called “The Next Jedi,” after all; it’s “The Last Jedi,” in reference to Luke. He, having learned from Yoda (and who better to teach this lesson) that hiding away and wallowing in your misery is no way to turn the tide, returns to action one last time to give the heroes time to escape. He makes peace with his failures and succeeds in reminding Kylo why he’s still the master.

*****

In my opinion, Rian Johnson has crafted a beautiful movie with The Last Jedi. Is it perfect? No, but its mistakes are secondary to its good intentions. Rarely does a popcorn movie commit so fully to its theme (rarely do popcorn movies even bother with a theme). I suppose it’s fitting then that The Last Jedi is well-intentioned in its mistakes, since so many of the movie’s characters are too. But unlike many of the movie’s characters, The Last Jedi is not a failure.

If you wrote it off after one showing last December, give it another chance; as I’ve said many times now, it improves with every viewing.

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On The Last Jedi’s four-act theme of “failure”

On The Last Jedi’s four-act theme of “failure”