J.J. Abrams’ sequel to Return of the Jedi (1983) has been certified fresh, as the saying goes, by RottenTomatoes.com. Despite this, some critics have taken it for granted that the latest episode of the Star Wars saga is little more than a “plagiarism” of the original films, to cite this L.A. Times piece.
This claim is fairly easy to debunk. Media scholar Jonathan Gray does so in fine fashion here. In this post, I’d like to throw my support behind Gray’s position, by showing that The Force Awakens deviates from the formula set out by the original films.
In so doing, I may ruffle a few feathers. For in defending Abrams’ film as a unique contribution, I intend to challenge received wisdom about the ending of Empire Strikes Back (1981), which, in my view, tends to be misunderstood and mislabeled as a cliffhanger.
To cut to the chase, then: The Forces Awakens is unique among the Star Wars films because of its script. The final 7 minutes of the film offers the viewer both a very truncated fifth act and the series’ first candidate for a full-fledged cliffhanger ending.
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The original movies end with either a strong sense of closure, with a celebration of victory by the Rebels over the Empire (A New Hope (1977) and Return of the Jedi), or with scenes that mix anticipation for what the next episode will bring with a feeling of hope, reassurance and, yes, on some level, conclusion as it relates to the film’s narrative arc (Empire Strikes Back).
Let me emphasize the point: as I read it, Empire Strikes Back does not end with a classic cliffhanger. As Scott Higgins argues in Matinee Melodrama: Playing with Formula in the Sound Serial (forthcoming in February), the legacy of the sound serial cliffhanger—like the moment at the very end of The Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), Chapter 2, when our hero, unconscious on a conveyer belt, seems destined to face the guillotine—tends to be seen not at the end of feature-length action films like You Only Live Twice (1967) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) but rather in the narration of action set pieces that take place within the plot.
The same might be said of Empire Strikes Back. Think of the moment early in the film when Luke (Mark Hamill) is attacked by the wampa on the icy planet of Hoth. Luke is knocked off his tauntaun, his tauntaun is killed, and he is dragged away to the wampa’s cave. Screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan and director Irvin Kerscher structure the event so that specific narrative questions pertaining to Luke’s fate remain unanswered (at least, for a short period) and the emotional payoff is held in abeyance. Luke may well have met his fate, we speculate. The impression we have is of a creature that strikes quickly and mercilessly. But Luke is being hauled off somewhere—is he really dead?
The action is abruptly interrupted—an embedded cliffhanger! A diagonal wipe takes us to a simultaneous event back at the Rebel base, where Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is informed of Luke’s disappearance, and sets out in pursuit.
When we resume the Luke plotline, we quickly learn that our initial impression of his situation was incorrect—a classic switcheroo of the kind found in the sound serial cliffhanger. Our hero was not killed by the wampa’s blow, nor was he in immediate danger. Luke regains consciousness, hanging by the feet. The wampa had preserved him for later consumption. Luke escapes the predicament by way of a deus ex machina. In a happy coincidence, his trusty lightsaber has fallen nearby. He uses the Force to recover it, and this, just in time to cut himself from the ceiling of the cave and fend off the approaching wampa.
Consider why this sequence of events has the feel of a cliffhanger. We have a specific plot event that is cut off midstream. We begin with Luke apparently meeting his doom, or about to meet his doom, at the hands of a wampa (A). The sequence is staged and shot so as to heighten its shock potential (the wampa catches Luke and the viewer off-guard, suddenly popping into the frame to mount its grisly assault). The film denies the event closure—final proof that Luke is dead or in any condition to fight himself free. If this were a sound era serial, the viewer would have to wait one week for next episode. Truncating the experience, Empire Strikes Back provides us with answers after just a few minutes of screen time. But in between scenes that pose the overarching question (will Luke survive?) and provide the answer, the film plays up the narrative question and emotional open-endedness associated with its embedded cliffhanger by having us sympathize with Han Solo, who is in shock that no one back at the base is even attempting to solve the riddle of Luke’s tardiness and disappearance. Finally, we return to Luke (A’) and learn of something of a bait-and-switch. Luke is very much alive and the situation isn’t nearly as hopeless as we had been led to believe by the embedded cliffhanger.
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If all of this—a single interrupted event, questions raised at the tail end of a sequence (or an episode), emotional payoffs held off, the clear and distinct feeling of a lack of closure, a shocking experience or new revelation, the switcheroo when the event resumes—all tend to be found in the classic cliffhanger, then I would argue that The Force Awakens ends with one and Empire Strikes Back does not. And this is precisely what makes the former a unique contribution, not only to the Star Wars film series, but to the contemporary blockbuster, where cliffhangers are rare indeed (the end of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013), when we cut to black as the vengeful dragon flies toward the lake-town he intends to destroy, is perhaps the best example).
Empire Strikes Back ends not with a clear sense of a lack of closure but with a mixture of closure and open-endedness. The film comes to a close on a somewhat ambivalent note. On the one hand, Darth Vader clearly calls off his chase for Luke, one that had governed the entire film. He is literally shown walking away. Moreover, our heroes, in the final moment, strike a group pose (thus coming to rest). In this way, the film cues the viewer to recall the closure felt during the pose structure at the tail end of A New Hope (fig.4).
But, on the other, the pose struck by Luke, Leia (Carrie Fisher), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) at the end of Empire Strikes Back is incomplete (fig.5). There are characters that we (and these characters) care about who are conspicuously absent. Han isn’t there to stand with them. His fate is uncertain, to be decided by Jabba the Hut. And Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is missing, too, as he sets out, with Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), to save Han.
In addition, a sense of open-endedness—of unfinished business—is created with the use of the Han-Leia love theme. At the end of Empire Strikes Back, their theme comes to a crescendo on the soundtrack, thus confirming that these final moments are about them to a large extent, and the question of whether their romance is doomed. Whether Leia will end up alone, having lost her true love.
Of course, the film’s ending is not entirely about Han and Leia. As I say, it’s mixed. It’s also about Luke and the fact that he had escaped Vader and acquired a new hand—which suggests that despite the trauma he had experienced, he is a survivor, and there’s hope for the future of the Jedi order.
In fact, although the music theme evokes the Han-Leia romance, it has a broader function at the end of Empire Strikes Back. It captures the emotional tenor of the sequence as a whole, which is a feeling of unease mixed with a feeling of hope. A closeup of a concerned Leia reveals her anxiety about Han (fig.6). This anxiety doesn’t come to rest in Empire Strikes Back. We as viewers continue to feel it—and to feel for Leia—as the episode concludes. The emotion of anxiety is open-ended. But this emotion is tempered by the impression that all will be well. Luke has weathered Vader’s pursuit, and moments after we see Leia’s anxious face, we cut to Chewy aboard the Millennium Falcon. He lets out a friendly roar, which brings a smile to Leia’s face (fig. 7), creating a more upbeat mood.
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Recall the standard I am applying here to the classic cliffhanger. Empire Strikes Back’s ending creates a mixed experience. It ties up the current episode while also creating anticipation for events in the next one (Return of the Jedi). It’s almost as if the filmmakers judged that a classic cliffhanger, ending with a single, incomplete narrative event, would have been too risky—would have risked alienating viewers who would felt cheated by the prospect of having to wait not one week but three years for the cliffhanger to be resolved. So, they split the difference between the sound serial cliffhanger and classical Hollywood closure.
What would a classic cliffhanger at the end of Empire Strikes Back have looked like? The film would have come to a close with something like this. Han is being put into the carbonate shaft, the smoke fills the room, and we cut to black and the film’s credits, leaving the question of whether he survived. Or perhaps this: Darth Vader and the Empire continue to chase Leia and Luke, cornering them and we cut to black, leaving the question of how they would escape this predicament.
Classic sound serial cliffhangers tend to involve a protagonist in peril. But a cliffhanger can also focus on an open-ended narrative event that is mixed in with a big revelation or a shocking turn of events, which what we have in The Force Awakens. This film has something that no other Star Wars film has: a cliffhanger that punctuates the end of an abbreviated 5th act.
The plot of The Force Awakens comes to rest with a very brief final act, which takes place after the destruction of the StarKiller base and the confrontation between the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey Solo (Daisy Ridley). During their confrontation, she is reminded (by Ren) of the Force. She closes her eyes and seems (this is speculative) to remember the training she had received (from Luke?) as a young girl.
This event—Rey’s “awakening”—is the final turning point in the plot and triggers the final 7-minute act. (I have addressed the role of turning points and other aspects of plot structure in a previous post). In the closing moments, Rey takes on Leia’s goal (stated in the opening crawl title) of finding Luke and enlisting his help in the Resistance’s battle against the First Order.
The act is abbreviated in two senses. First, as Kristin Thompson has shown, the act of the conventional mainstream film usually lasts between 20 and 30 minutes of screen time, and therefore includes many more scenes and dramatic developments than are presented here. Second, it closes with a cliffhanger.
The Force Awakens certainly does not present us with a classic cliffhanger of the kind we see in the Captain Marvel serial (or The Desolation of Smaug, for that matter). But it shares with the classic cliffhanger many more features than does the ending of Empire Strikes Back.
Like Empire Strikes Back, The Force Awakens comes to some closure. Rey completes Leia’s mission, finishing the journey to find Luke. When Rey finally tracks down Luke at the First Jedi Temple (achieving the goal described in the first minute of the movie), the movie ends, answering some broad narrative questions (will the Resistance find Luke?).
But it also poses new questions—what’s next now that he’s been found? and will he join the Resistance? What’s more, the broad, new questions the film ends with, in contrast to Empire Strikes Back, are tethered to new revelations—the dramatic presentation of a previously unknown facts—as well as a precise, incomplete action or event.
How so? To begin with, consider the revelations here—turns of events that for young and old fans alike create memorable surprises or reveal new information leading into Episode VIII (to be released in May 2017). Here is how the final sequence is described in the script leaked online just a few days ago:
EXT. AHCH-TO ISLAND – STONE STRUCTURES – DAY
Rey arrives at a clearing. Small, modest, primitive stone structures. But no one around. Rey walks past them, sees, senses no one.
And then she stops. Feels something. She turns. Standing forty feet away from her, his back to us, is a MAN, in a CLOAK AND ROBE.
Rey stares, knowing exactly who it is. But she just stares for what seems like forever. Until he finally TURNS, SLOWLY, to her. Pulls back his hood.
IT IS LUKE SKYWALKER.
Older now, white hair, bearded. He looks at Rey. A kindness in his eyes, but there’s something tortured, too. He doesn’t need to ask her who she is, or what she is doing here. His look says it all.
In response, Rey pulls something from the pack. LUKE’S LIGHTSABER.
And she holds it out to him. An offer. A plea. The galaxy’s only hope.
HOLD ON LUKE SKYWALKER’S INCREDIBLE FACE, amazed and conflicted at what he sees, as our MUSIC BUILDS, the promise of an adventure, just beginning…
The finished film renders these events faithfully, revealing for the first time to veteran fans of the franchise the existence of the First Jedi Temple and a glimpse, with extravagant moving camera (helicopter) shots, of what it looks like. For a younger generation, like my 8-year old nephew, who is passionate about the franchise but too young to follow leaked or promotional materials online, the shock here consisted in the revelation of Luke. The dramatic turn-around and pulling back of his cowl, followed by the sight of Luke as an elderly Obi-Wan Kenobi-like figure, set his young mind ablaze with ideas, with speculations about what would transpired next.
But more important for my case that The Force Awakens offers a cliffhanger is the incomplete act strategically situated at the every end of the film. Rey extends her hand outward and in it an offering: Luke’s lightsaber. We cut to overhead shots, the camera swirls around the two figures in clockwise fashion. The moment is held, we feel the anticipation build—will he extend his hand and receive it from her?
The film goes to credits with this specific question about this specific incomplete event (and its attendant revelations) left open. All of this feels very different from the Lucas films, and I would say, brings the movies closer to the Clone Wars TV show (2008-2014), which consistently relies on classic serial techniques. What we have, unlike any of the original films, is a film that creates the expectation that the next episode (VIII) will begin right where we ended.
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Thus, the premise that The Force Awakens is just derivative of the original movies simply does not hold.
July 18, 2016–update. My claim that Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) ends with a cliffhanger appears to have been confirmed in a July 17th edition of Variety, where the director of Episode VIII, Rian Johnson, tells us that, “This [Episode VIII] is going to start right where the last one left off… It was a break from tradition.”