The Lego Movie. Blade Runner 2049. Not normally two films you’d pair up in the same discussion. But both of these movies do something very similar when it comes to their storytelling, and I think it’s profound and has a lot to teach us not just about good storytelling, but about life. So what exactly do these two films have in common? One an animated kids film that made a ton of money, the other a long, dark, sci-fi noir that handed it’s makers a financial loss of potentially eighty million dollars? Is it that their two stars Chris Pratt and Ryan Gosling are the male form perfected? Well, yeah, that’s obvious. But that’s not it. It’s that they subvert the classical hero’s journey narrative.
Does that sound like the kind of thing that intellectual types say to try and impress their friends with their intellectual prowess? Good, because that’s exactly what it is. Only hopefully in about 5 minutes you’ll understand it well enough that you can send that intellectual volley back across the net with a blazing backhand of understanding that is as unexpected as this tennis metaphor.
Throughout ancient mythology and storytelling you’ll find a repetition of the same basic story progression. It contains a common person living in obscurity, who discovers that they are a “chosen one,” often the subject of prophecies, and that it is their destiny to face a series of great trials that uncover their untapped brilliance and ability, and will achieve some great victory that will see the salvation of their people. Some of the most well known versions of this narrative in the ancient world would be the Biblical stories of Moses and Jesus. But it is a structure that has existed throughout the ancient mythologies of Rome and Greece, and the even older cultures of Mesopotamia. Much of this story structure is described in what has come to be known as The Hero’s Journey – a summarising of the consistently repeated story beats throughout ancient mythology, written by Joseph Campbell in his studying of ancient myths and religions. This structure was then popularised by George Lucas, who talked widely about it as an inspiration for the story structure of the original Star Wars. Lucas’s intent was to create a modern mythology for young audiences who had lost their touch with religion and history, so his building on the familiar structures of ancient mythology makes a whole lot of sense, and works brilliantly.
The problem with this was that then a whole bunch of writers took this to mean this is the golden rule for all hero narratives, and that if you just follow the correct series of story beats, you will have a cracking story and make a ton of money. I’m not going to get into a deep discussion about the flaws in that approach, but let’s just say if there’s anyone who tells you good storytelling can be reduced to a 12 step formula, they’re an idiot. Or they just want to sell a ton of books to aspiring screenwriters looking for the golden formula. And the most glaringly obvious reason The Heroes Journey is not meant to be a storytelling guide, is that Joseph Campbell’s work had nothing to do with telling you how stories should be told. But instead it was about the kind of stories we keep telling and discovering what does that mean for us as humans. I would not be the first screenwriting enthusiast to eagerly purchase his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and discover an incredibly complex philosophical and anthropological academic discussion….and literally nothing about how to tell great stories. That’s just not what his goal was, or what he was ever talking about.
Absolutely there are foundational principles and structures around good storytelling, but it is so much more complex and difficult than following a bullet point list. The proof that I’m right, is the sheer number of bad movies you’ve seen. Good storytelling is an incredibly complex undertaking that requires the balancing and connecting of so many different dynamics, especially when it comes to writing for the screen.
So by now you have probably seen more movies than you can count that contain chosen one’s, prophecies, discussions of destiny, and wise mentors opening up a larger world to a young innocent hero whose inherent goodness and brilliance will save the world if only everyone could just realise it. And lets just say that a bunch of them come not even close to attaining the resonance and staying power of mythology. Which is a far too complex way to say that they sucked. Then along comes The Lego Movie. And a movie that everyone expected to just be cynical cash in on an established property, was brilliant, and funny and clever. And also turned out to be one of the most brilliant subversions of this ancient story structure.
What do we get in the opening scene of The Lego Movie? A prophecy, about someone called “The Special” who will “save the realm, and be the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times.” Anyone with awareness of the hero’s journey and who has studied storytelling is at this point laughing. Because so many stories blatantly rip this structure, but try and hide it and be subtle and cool about it, while really not being that at all. But this is deliberately blatant and over the top, and is making a joke of it. But it’s doing this for not just a joke, but also as one of the foundational themes of the film, which we will get to. Genius. Then who do we meet? Emmet. An obscure every day person, with nothing special about them. And again the film overtly and deliberately makes joke after joke about just how ordinary and not special he is, subverting the classical hero set up by making a joke out of it. And what happens with Emmet? He finds himself thrust into a new world, with an old wise mentor figure who will uncover his greatness and train him, leading him to become a hero who will save the world. So far so Star Wars.
But then towards the climax of the film things get really interesting. At the darkest hour when Emmet’s true brilliance is expected to be uncovered and victory obtained, what happens? We find out the prophecy is a lie, an invention. There is no chosen one. There is no special. Emmet is just like everyone else… And this is where things get really exciting.
Now let’s continue in the tradition of many a thriller and leave you hanging by cutting to a completely different scene, and start talking about Blade Runner 2049. But don’t worry, we’re circling back to that Lego Movie moment, and it’ll all come together.
If you haven’t seen Blade Runner 2049 yet and care about spoilers, then stop reading here, and go and watch it. Then come back.
Alright, you’re back? Let’s get cracking. K, played by Ryan Gosling, is a Blade Runner. This means his job is to track down and terminate rogue replicants (synthetic humans.) The thing is that K is a replicant too. And replicants are conditioned to follow every order they are given without question, even to the point of killing themselves. Only something happens to K. He starts to believe that he might be human. And not just any old human, the secret son of a replicant. This is a big deal because replicants can’t have children. At least they never have until now. He starts to believe he could be the first ever replicant to actually be born not manufactured, the child of the first ever replicant to become pregnant. This is something that has the potential to tear apart the entire structure of their world, where humans enslave and brutally mistreat replicants because they are lesser and not human. But if they can now reproduce…what does that mean? Exciting stuff.
So K is a nobody. But not just a nobody, a nobody of the nobodies because his job is to murder his own kind. Obscure, not special at all. And he uncovers a narrative where he starts to believe he could be special. That he could have been born into greatness. That he could change the world. A new world of possibilities is opened up to him, and he ventures into new places he’s never been before. And he meets a wise older man whom he hopes will give him some answers. More subtle than some stories, but the basic chosen one hero ingredients are still there in the set up. Sound a little like Moses to anyone? A secret child is hidden away and raised within a power structure that is enslaving his people, only to one day discover his true identity? And what happens? What comes next is great writing, because when you start playing with familiar mythological structures, audiences come with expectations. They think they know where this story will go on a subconscious level. And when you subvert those expectations, the audience leans forward a little more in their seat.
So just when he thinks he’s finally found who he is, and where he fits, he finds out he’s not the miracle child. He’s not the one who will spark a revolution that will liberate a people. He’s just another replicant. Another manufactured nobody. Just like everyone else…
So The Lego Movie and Blade Runner 2049 both bring us to the same point. Two heroes find out they are not heroes. They aren’t special. They aren’t different. They are just one in a massive crowd. So what happens next?
In The Lego Movie the world is saved. Not by Emmet, but by everyone discovering their own potential. And by a father and son re-uniting. And by Emmet making a real connection with one person who was hurting. Now isn’t that a better story than one special person doing everything and getting all the high-fives and the freeze frame ending before the credits?
In Blade Runner 2049, the world is not saved. But something incredibly beautiful happens. K finds his significance. Not by leading a revolution, and not by being special or better than anyone else. He finds his significance, his humanity, by giving his life to re-unite a father and a daughter. He may not have changed THE world, but he changed their world. And the life fades from his eyes while noticing the beauty of an individual snowflake amongst hundreds falling from the skies. And together they will blanket the dirty man-made concrete of his city with a cleansing, pure, peaceful white. You get the metaphor there right?
Now let’s talk about why this story found in both movies matters, and why it’s better than the classical hero’s narrative.
The traditional hero’s narrative, where a special chosen person saves the entire world because they’re brilliant, and amazing, and “the greatest, most interesting, most important person of all times,” plays right into our immature teenage hopes and dreams. I would say most teenagers believe they could be “the special.” Because most teenagers hold themselves as the absolute centre of the universe. In most cases they’re actually dreaming of fame, the cheap alternative for significance (there’s a whole essay there, but the little word counter on my screen says we are now at 1582 words…so I won’t go there.) But then something happens. We grow up. And somewhere in your thirties you find out you’re probably going to have to reconcile with the idea that you aren’t special, that you aren’t a chosen one, that you are just like everybody else. One person amongst roughly seven billion others on a tiny planet, in an impossibly large universe. And at that point you have a choice, you can either “give up” and become cold and tired and cynical. You can sit back and laugh at those young kids with all their belief, and hope and enthusiasm. Or you can realise that maybe the chosen one narrative is a lie. It’s a lie that flatters your ego, but gives you very little equipment to take you through life. And this is what deep down we’re looking for from stories, we’re looking for lessons and beliefs that will help us navigate this insane experience that is our lives. So are you starting to see why The Lego Movie and Blade Runner 2049 are both saying something incredibly beautiful and important? Especially in a fame saturated age where all people want to be is famous and the best? Because if they’re not, then why do they matter?
These two stories tell us that everyone matters. That the world is changed by each individual discovering their own unique potential that has nothing to do with being the best, or better than everyone else. That belief is a selfish dead end. These stories tell us that one person making one selfless act is the most human, significant, thing we can do. That these kind of simple acts can transform someone from a person who just plods through life following orders (Emmet and K), to a beautiful, complete human being who has significance and is genuinely making a difference.
The simple twist is this: The Hero’s Journey suggests that you are the hero of your story. This isn’t true. You are so dependent on everyone else around you. You are the sum total of thousands of lessons that have been taught to you by others. The fact that you even exist had nothing to do with you. The self-made man is a myth. If you are brilliant, it’s because someone else helped you become that.
So, you aren’t the hero of your story, and probably not the hero of THE story of history. But don’t lose heart, or hope. Because you can be the hero of someone else’s story. And that is something far more beautiful.
Take yourself out of the centre of your own narrative, and you’ll discover the whole world.
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