Last week I talked about the Three Act Structure within the sitcom, I mentioned how it changed due to TV’s format. In this post, I will address the three act structure yet again but this time I will be using it to analyze films. In today’s post I will dissect a film into each act, showing how the story progresses in each, what commonly is the length of each act and I will also make emphasis on the plot points that move the story for one act into the other. The movie I will use for my example is one of my favorite films of all time and a landmark of modern cinema (hey this is my blog I’m entitled to my opinion if you don’t think so, set up your own blog and write about, who cares) this is of course the 1999 smash-hit The Matrix.
This is the beginning. We get familiar with the world, where we are, where the story is going to take place. If we are watching a science fiction film, we learn or we see that we are in space, Mars or perhaps an alternate timeline. Furthermore films usually start by introducing us to our main characters, we meet our protagonist and we get to see him in his “Ordinary World,” this is the protagonist’s normal world, before being affected by the Major Dramatic Question that starts his journey. This will serve as a contrast as to how in the end the journey changed him. In terms of length we could say that the first act typically lasts around 30 minutes. Its end is marked by the hero’s first decision to act towards resolving the dramatic question, often this means that the protagonist packs his bags and chooses to tackle the problems head on.
In The Matrix at the very beginning of Act I we are introduced to most of the characters. The film opens with a chase involving Trinity, and the Agents.
After the action sequence we meet our central character Neo along with the Dramatic Question, What is the Matrix? We go trough our main character’s workplace, we learn a little bit about him mostly through other characters and so we shape this persona.
So we now know the question driving the narrative and we have established who our hero is and his inner psychology however there is a character of the outmost importance for the progression of the narrative that is slowly introduced throughout the act, of course I’m referring to Morpheus. First we see a glimpse of him at the computer screen. Then we hear mentions of him, we listen to his voice on the cellphone until we at last meet him. Now this character is important not just because as we will see later he explains the story to Neo and the audience, but because he aids Neo into taking the first step into his adventure. He offers him the truth, the answer to the major question, however Neo has to make the choice, and so he presents him with the red pill and the blue pill. Red pill will take him to answer what the matrix is? the blue pill will leave him in his ordinary world undisturbed. It is this “Pill scenario” that Morpheus presents that obligates Neo to make the first choice, advancing the story into the next act and providing us with our first plot point which completely complicates our story world we had developed.
After Neo takes the red pill he awakens in this very strange land that we hadn’t seen before in the film. It is cold, scary and unknown. He faces a machine that you’re not sure if it’s going to help him get out of his situation or kill him. He plunges down through a tunnel to what could be certain death but thankfully he is rescued and brought about a ship in where we see Trinity and Morpheus but they are different. After this point we are no longer in the world of the first act, this is not our hero’s ordinary world in fact this is not even remotely close to the time where we started clearly we are not in the 20th century anymore. At this point the narrative is more complicated and it will get even more complicated in the next act as we learn what this new world is, what the matrix is and what the Agents are up to.
In almost every movie, the second act is the bulk of the story. Commonly the longest part of a movie and usually introduces secondary characters, it complicates the hero’s journey by adding one obstacle after the other. The stakes get higher and higher. At this point our goal oriented protagonist goes through a series of challenges in order to resolve the major dramatic question however as he advances he learns that it is not as easy as he thought it would be. Now the function of these difficulties or obstacles is primarily to prepare the character for the final confrontation, we need to see if he will have what it takes to resolve his situation and end up triumphant. So in other words this part of the film in the classical three act structure constitutes a bunch of tests, in which we sometimes see our protagonist fail or has at least difficulty in overcoming these obstacles and the more he suffers in common Hollywood terms the more we sympathize and we identify with the characters and the louder we will cheer when at the end he overcomes every obstacle no matter how hard and he resolves the dramatic question.
In our kung-fu sci-fi extravagant example, the second act constitutes a complication of the journey, a series of tests for Neo and we meet the enemies, allies and Judas. However in this particular film there is a shift at this point as I will point out that the major dramatic question changes slightly and another more urgent question presses on our characters.
After Neo wakes up in the real world, Morpheus explains to him the nature of the world, he answers What the Matrix is. At this point we now have resolved that main dramatic question however it did not do anything for our main characters except complicate his existence even more (same thing for first time viewers). The truth for Neo wasn’t as easy to swallow as that red pill, nevertheless knowing that the real word is harsh he will continue his journey as Morpheus posits the next driving question. He explains to Neo the prophecy and hits him with a ton of bricks when he confesses to him that he has blind faith that Neo is the one, the savior or future messiah.
Neo does not believe it and as the audience we kind of doubt it too. I mean in the first act we saw just how regular, common, and weak Neo is. Morpheus puts Neo through rigorous tests on where he learns each time more about the artificiality of The Matrix world. There is a martial arts test, then we have the jumping test etc… in addition he is also walked through a training session in which he is taught to distinguish those who want to harm the human rebels, these are the Agents we met in the previous part of the film.
At this point there existence is explained and their purpose, but not only them but also the Agent’s counterpart in the real world. We meet the sentinels at exactly the same time. But after all this knowledge our hero needs to fall and fall big time
for him to able to rise victorious and this is exactly what’s going to happen to Neo next.
Neo visits the Oracle and his own belief is confirmed, she tells him that he is not the one and to make matters worse, she explains to Neo that a life or death situation is near in which he will need to decide if Morpheus lives or dies. Such an important choice and we can cleverly assume that is our next turning point.
Furthermore as Neo (crushed by the news) and his crew are going to exit the Matrix, they are entrapped by the Agents and Morpheus is captured. The rest of the crew that escapes get to die one by one by the hands of the Judas in this outfit, of course I’m referring to Cypher.
Eventually he gets his due and Trinity and Neo exit the Matrix unharmed however everything is at its darkest. More than half of their crew is dead and their leader has been captured. It is in this dark climate that our hero makes his most important choice. Neo decides to go against the odds and try to rescue Morpheus. This decision pits him against certain death and it is this decision our second plot point which moves us from the second act towards the third act and the exciting Climax where we will find out if Neo will rescue Morpheus.
In the third and last act, generally the protagonist comes face to face with the antagonist or antagonistic forces that keep him from realizing the goal he set out to attain at the end of act one. In this act rarely do we meet new characters, there are exceptions but usually at this point the focus of the story turns to the main character’s final conflict, the climax, where he either resolves the major dramatic question. Often the third act runs in about 30 minutes similarly to the first act. After the climax the narrative then slows down and shows the aftermath of the hero’s journey, the things he changed in his world and the overall consequences of his decisions.
In the third act of our example Neo and Trinity shoot their way into rescuing Morpheus. At various points of the rescue all three characters hang on the edge of their life providing excitement to the audience as we follow our main characters through their most difficult obstacles. Neo acrobatically dodges bullets in “bullet time” barely saving his life. Morpheus almost falls into certain death when he is shot as he jumps to salvation. Trinity faces death as well as she escapes the exploding helicopter.
There the question posed by the second plot point was answered. Neo survived and in fact rescued Morpheus but the excitement is far from over. After Morpheus and Trinity exit the matrix Neo fights off Agent Smith for his life. Neo has a chance to run but he decides to confront the Agent.
After a lengthy and should I say it, kick-ass fight, Neo beats Agent Smith, but as soon as Agent Smith perishes a new one emerges. Neo this time runs.
The chase ends when Neo is shot to death by Agent Smith, at the same time in the real world Morpheus and Trinity prepare for a squid attack. And it is at this point where the central dramatic question posed by Morpheus in the second act is resolved. Trinity after witnessing Neo’s death, confesses to Neo’s corpse (in the real world) that she loves him and that the Oracle told her that she was going to fall in love with the one, so he can’t be dead. In the matrix just as the Agents are walking away from Neo’s body our hero rises from the ashes reborn and with a new sense for his surroundings. This answers the dramatic question that yes, Neo is most definitely the one.
Neo is able to stop bullets, fight off Agents with one hand and defeat them easily, in fact at this point the Agents run from him. Neo exits the matrix just in time for the squid attack, he wakes up, kisses Trinity and now there is no doubt that Neo is the one. After this long and exciting climax the next brief scene closes in on Neo arch and shows the ultimate transformation. Neo dictates his manifesto towards the machine over the phone, hangs up and if we contrast him with the Neo we saw in Act one and two this one is different. His outfit is cooler, he’s wearing sunglasses like the rest of the crew was. His clothing is simple, dark tones, yet he wears an open long coat that flaps in the wind like a cape as he flies towards the camera in the end.
The three act structure is the most common narrative structure that we can find in films. Most plot are constructed this way, you can substitute The Matrix in this analysis and you will find that most movies follow this pattern. In the first act we are introduced to the main characters and establish the dramatic problem that needs to be resolved, in the second act things get more complicated for our characters that are trying to resolve the problem and in the third act the action reaches its zenith where our characters make the ultimate decision that will lead them to resolve the dramatic question and provide much excitement for viewers.
On a fun side note -
Enter the Fart Matrix: http://www.youtube.com/user/Ray6792#p/u/7/Ss76xct9JiY