Structure: Up In The Air

I have written before why in my view Up In The Air didn’t work for a mainstream audience despite the generous attention the film received around Oscar time last year.

This time we look at the detailed structure in acts and sequences.

Only now, at the time of publication, I realize this is an excellent title for Valentine’s Day (though published one day late).

What I liked the most about this film was the thematic question “do we need to be in a relationship to be happy?”, which is a question all of us sooner or later face. The first time I watched the film, I thought it didn’t give a clear answer but rather handed us a lot of powerful dramatic material to help our consideration of the issue.

Now looking at the analysis, it is clear the writers have a different view: Ryan does change, as his words at the end of Act Two demonstrate.

In any case, I really enjoyed this film – and so did editor Dave Trendall who chose the film for his analysis. As I wrote earlier, my only issue was: I found Up In The Air a big movie with a big theme but the music made it sound small. The simple indie rock score worked perfectly for a film like Juno but here it simply didn’t ‘gel’ for me.

If you have time to read the screenplay, do so. It’s a wonderfully elegant script that reads deceptively easily despite the depth of its subject matter. You can find it through At IMDb you can find a good narrative story outline for this film.

spoilers galore


Sequence A: Ryan’s world – Meeting Alex. (13 mins)

00:00 Random people are telling George how they feel about being fired – and they’re blaming him.
01:00 George Lets Steve go, this is his job… he does what a boss with no balls does; fires people.
02:30 George gets on a plane… warm reminders he’s home.
04:30 Ryan Bingham: what’s in your backpack? How much does your life weigh?
06:30 George gets an invitation for his sister Kara’s wedding. Boss Craig Gregory needs to speak to him.
07:30 Dallas: Ryan and Alex meet for the first time, sparks fly.
08:30 They compare club cards. Ryan wants to get a certain number of miles – it seems they both are turned on by elite status.
10:00 A few more drinks later. These guys connect.
11:00 They go to his room, he can’t get the door to work. They’re in.
11:30 They have got to do this again – they hit up their computers… It’s a date!

Ryan reminds me of the character of Neil (Robert De Niro) in Heat because he too doesn’t want/need any attachments and he can leave his life behind in thirty seconds. So we see Ryan’s flaw: he won’t be able to be happy, let aline settle down with anyone as long as he considers the airplane home. At the end of this first sequence, we realize it might actually work if he finds someone with the same lifestyle and we wonder how Ryan can continue the relationship. Will they just continue seeing each other near airports? Often the first sequence ends with the Inciting Incident but in this film it doesn’t happen until the second sequence. Because the meeting with Alex challenges Ryan’s flaw however, we might call this the ‘Inner Journey’ inciting incident.

Sequence B: You get to come home! Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure. (12 mins)

13:00 Sister Kara wants him to take a photo of them both on his holidays. Isolated? I’m surrounded.
14:30 Omaha: at his flat, neighbor gives him the cardboard cut out of Jim and Julie.
16:00 Introducing Natalie and GLOCAL’s new technology: firing by internet. “You get to come home.”
19:00 Ryan puts Natalie down – in front of the boss. She won’t revolutionize his business!
21:30 Gregory wants Ryan to show her the ropes. He refuses. He wants to be in the boat… alone.
22:30 He packs his suitcase. / Ryan checks in, an awkward Natalie arrives…
24:00 Ryan accepts the call.

When Ryan is told he won’t need to travel any longer (the Inciting Incident/Call to Adventure), his natural habitat is in danger of disappearing. No wonder his immediate reaction is refusal. It’s no coincidence that Ryan is more relaxed and open to helping Natalie when she approaches him in his regular environment: the airport. Ironically, Ryan’s Outer Journey objective is the opposite of the ‘call’ he pretends to accept (i.e. to start firing people via the internet) as his true objective is to keep his job in the air. On the Inner Journey level, the archetypal relationship between Ryan and Natalie is similar to the one we saw in How To Train Your Dragon: the trainee is effectively the hero’s Mentor. Natalie will show Ryan a different way of looking at the world.


Sequence C: Natalie’s first failure is Ryan’s first success. (12 mins)

25:00 ‘Bingo… Asians.’ Ryan mentors Natalie, guiding her through the check-in process.
27:30 St Louis: Ryan gets a Phone call from Alex. They arrange to meet… soon.
28:30 Ryan shows Natalie how to fire, face to face.
32:00 Dinner with Natalie. The miles are the goal – 10,000,000. It’s a number he needs to hit.
34:00 Text chat with Ryan and Woman.
35:00 Ryan and Natalie get a picture with the cardboard cut out at an airport.
36:00 Wichita: Natalie tries to fire a woman: she threatens to jump off the nearest bridge.

After a very traditional first act with two sequences, Ryan’s ‘visible’ objective is implicit: to keep his job ‘in the air’. For this he needs to demonstrate to Natalie that people cannot be laid off via the internet. In this perspective, the first sequence ends in a success for Ryan as Natalie’s approach results in failure. Ryan’s only clear visible goal is to hit the ten million miles.

Sequence D: Ryan is there for Natalie (15 mins)

37:00 Natalie is scared. Ryan calms her: this is what they do, set people adrift.
38:00 Kansas/Tulsa: Des Moine, Miami doing interviews. Natalie and Ryan happy in relationships.
40:00 ‘We are not swans… we’re sharks.’
41:30 Brian leaves Natalie and she breaks down. Alex meets Natalie.
43:30 Natalie and Alex talk about what they really want in a man. Ryan listens.
47:00 Natalie wants to crash the party too. They grab the lanyards, they’re in!
48:00 Party! A corny style office party… good times!
50:00 Ryan gives Alex the key to his place, he might be opening up.
51:00 MID POINT: Passionate kiss. Thinking of emptying the backpack. “I really like you.”

The longest sequence to this point shows us Ryan slowly changing: he is opening up to Alex and entertains the idea of changing his ways. Writers Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner may well have written a feature with an independent feel to it; at the exact mid point there is The Kiss. The first half of the movie is very conventionally structured around four sequences, two in Act One (together 25mins) and two in Act Two (again 25mins).
From here on, things will be different for our Hero Ryan – and the journey will become tougher.

Sequence E: Fallout of a romance – Ryan coming down from life at 35,000ft. (11 mins)

52:30 Transition – back to the Hilton. He wakes up… he feels cheap – ‘i really like you’. She left him.
53:30 Ryan has breakfast with Natalie.
55:00 Big argument with Natalie, he falls into the water to catch the photo and blows it dry.
57:00 DETROIT: Craig tells Natalie to fire the guy in the next room.
58:30 Natalie fires someone using her system. It’s cold. Natalie feels it… it’s harsh.
61:30 Gregory says they can do a few more, everyone – they’re going home. Good job.
63:30 Ryan looks at the wedding invitation, he has to go to Julie’s wedding.

The tone shift: the fun of the first two sequences of Act Two has gone and irony seeps in. Natalie agrees that the remote firing may not be the best way. The closer Ryan gets to keeping his job, the more confused he is about his commitment to this lifestyle. They’re called back and Ryan has no excuses left not to attend his sisters wedding.

Sequence F: Approach to Ryan’s Inmost Cave: his family. (19 mins)

64:30 Moves onto the next stage – gets on the plane to his see his sister.
65:30 Ryan asks Alex to be his +1
66:30 Milwaukee: Ryan introduces Alex to sister Kara.
68:00 Ryan meets Jim. Ryan puts the pictures up… honeymoon wasn’t affordable, can’t travel so why not have pictures?
70:30 Ryan and Jim bond.
71:30 Ryan offers himself to walk her down the aisle – already has Jim’s uncle to do it.
73:00 Ryan and Alex break into the school. A phone call: Jim’s having a meltdown.
74:30 His sister demands Ryan talks Jim around.
75:30 Ryan gives Jim the advice he needs. ‘The important moments in your life… were you alone?’
78:30 Jim goes to see Julie… ‘will you be my co-pilot’… and into The Wedding.
80:30 ‘I’m lonely’ – Alex just smiles.
81:00 Dark night of the soul.

Ryan meets with his sisters Kara and Julie, epitomes of a sedentary lifestyle; Julie is not even going on a honeymoon. At the end of this sequence, Ryan makes two admissions: “life is better with company, with a co-pilot” and “I am lonely”. This signals the completion of his journey and it puts him at the most vulnerable point in the story. But because he has admitted it publicly, he is now ready to move and have his actions reflect this new belief in Act Three.


Sequence H: Threshold sequence (7 mins)

82:00 Omaha: Natalie has her online system – she’s happy! Ryan tries to gets to grips with it.
84:00 Ryan takes whiskey out of the fridge.
85:30 Ryan fails his speech – and gets on the plane
87:30 Ryan turns up at Alex’s house – she has a family. She closes the door on him.

The movie’s climax continues its fine play of irony. Ryan is a changed man so he can no longer deliver his “backpack speech”, praising the virtues of living and traveling light.  He is now strong enough to leave his life of escaping commitment and he puts his money where his mouth is by knocking on Alex’ door.  But she had been a fraude all along. The question now is: will this disappointment make Ryan relapse? The emotional logic of the story says: no. He has lived through his lowest point at the end of Act Two and has grown. So despite the seemingly open ending, this film closes on a positive note.

Sequence I: 10,000,000 million miles… for who? (6 mins)

89:00 On the phone with Alex: He is an escape for her – only a parenthesis.
90:30 10,000,000 miles: Ryan meets pilot, as member of a small club of only 7.
93:00 He transfers his miles to his sisters account so they can circumnavigate the globe.
94:00  Gregory tells him the woman committed suicide… Natalie quit.
95:00 Ryan gives Natalie an amazing reference.
96:30 Redundancy victims about what they’re living for.
97:30 Has Ryan changed? In any case, it looks like he is a better person
99:00 The End.

The aftermath (or Elixir) sequence shows that not only Ryan has changed: the world around him has, too.  He sacrifices his traveling existence while giving his sister the benefit of it. Natalie quits, which means she has gone through her own journey of change while traveling and learning with Ryan.

Structural Analysis: Dave Trendall

Notes: Karel Segers

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