Pacing Star Wars
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been rewatching the Star Wars saga (live-action movies and TV series) in interior chronological order. It blows my mind how much of it there is now. I think I started in November, and I only got to the original movie last weekend, with five movies and two TV series before it and five more movies plus 1 2-season (3 by the time I get there) and 1 one-season series to go. And that’s not even counting the animated stuff. I remember a time when watching all Star Wars content would have meant just watching that one movie.
It had been a long time since I watched the original Star Wars (I still can’t make myself call it A New Hope), and it was interesting seeing it again in the context of all the stuff that’s been added before it, especially the Obi-Wan Kenobi series, as well as Andor and Rogue One (I got a giggle out of thinking that Disney+ could put a “skip recap” button on the opening crawl if you’ve recently watched Rogue One). But the other thing I found interesting on this viewing was the story structure. I usually use this movie as an example when talking about story structure because the beats are so clear and it uses such a simple, fundamental structure (plus, most people are familiar with the story, so I don’t have to worry about spoilers or people not knowing what I’m talking about). But I’d never actually timed out the beats, looking at where they fall in the story. This time I did, and it turns out that while all the beats are very clearly there, they fall in unusual places, so this movie is paced rather unusually.
For one thing, we don’t even meet our hero until nearly 20 minutes into a 2-hour movie. And then it takes a little more time to get his Call to Adventure. He doesn’t accept the call and enter the “new world” of the story, in which he leaves the familiar for the unknown, until about 40 minutes in, close to the halfway point. This is stuff that usually happens within the first half hour or so.
But this is the final, edited movie. The script originally had something different, cutting from the opening space battle to Luke spotting a glint in the sky and then watching the battle through his binoculars. It then cuts back and forth between the stuff happening on the ship (the battle, Darth Vader’s arrival, Leia making the message with R2 and then getting caught, etc.) and Luke rushing to town in his landspeeder to excitedly tell his friends about the space battle he saw and getting mocked for it, then running into his friend who’d gone off to the Academy but was home on a break. His friend said he was going to run off to join the Rebellion and encouraged Luke to take some kind of action. This is the friend he runs into just before the final battle and who dies near the end of the battle. All this is in the novelization that was written from the screenplay before the movie was finished, and it was shot. You can find these scenes on YouTube. Lucas left them out even from the special edition.
That does introduce our hero sooner and show more of his motivation for what happens later, but if it had been left in, it would have delayed the Call to Adventure and the Threshold Crossing even more. Most of the info about Luke and his life that we get in this segment is repeated in his conversation with C3PO in the garage and then with his aunt and uncle at dinner. The only thing that’s sort of left hanging out there is the thing with his friend and why he’s so affected by the death of this one guy in a squadron full of people he barely knows. They added in a bit more of the reunion at the rebel base in the special edition so it’s not totally out of the blue. I think the pacing does work better the way it is, focusing on introducing the world and its greater conflicts before drilling down to the guy who’s going to have to deal with it.
With the Crossing the Threshold moment coming so late, there’s only about 20 minutes for the Tests, Enemies, and Allies segment — arrival in Mos Eisley, the cantina, meeting Han and Chewie, escaping from Tatooine, and the lightsaber training on board the ship. The midpoint of the movie happens when they’re brought on board the Death Star. In Joseph Campbell’s terms, that’s when they go into the belly of the beast, so that tracks.
This means that the last half of the movie is utterly packed with action. We’ve got the prison break, the trash compactor, a lot of running through the Death Star, the Swing across the gap, the lightsaber duel, the escape from the Death Star and space battle, and then the final battle. No wonder the movie leaves you breathless. After all that, you’re exhausted just from watching it. Going back to that idea of the first page selling this book and the last page selling the next one, the last half of this movie probably has a lot to do with its success. You leave with a sense of triumph, like you’ve just had a really good workout and have all those endorphins buzzing through your system.
It does start with a bang, with that iconic opening shot of the small ship pursued by the massive Star Destroyer, but then the first half is mostly worldbuilding and exposition. There are little bursts of lower-stakes action, but there’s still intense tension in just about every scene. You get the feeling of something building, and then the second half provides the catharsis for all that tension.
I may need to reread the novelization to see how Alan Dean Foster handled it in novel form (especially since I’ve met Alan and heard some of his stories about writing that book, which was published under George Lucas’s name).
Now on to The Empire Strikes Back, and I can get a bit misty-eyed at the idea that Rogue Squadron in that movie is an homage to the Rogue One team (even though it was reverse-engineered).