Movie Trilogies Follow-Up

by Kevin on September 16, 2011

If you haven’t yet listened to the Planet Arbitrary Podcast #27 on Movie Trilogies, please do so, because this article assumes we’ve already made the points we made there.

The problem with movie trilogies is figuring out which of them are legitimately trilogies. The assumption that I was making is that a trilogy should be in some way thematic; it requires more than simply bringing the same characters back and putting them in a new situation. By this definition, Pirates of the Caribbean, Back to the Future, and the original Star Wars trilogy fit the definition. The original Indiana Jones or Transformers movies do not.

But is that fair? The Lord of the Rings comes up frequently as a trilogy because there are three books and, subsequently, three films. However, J. R. R. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single work telling a single story broken into a series of individual parts. And as I mentioned, I tend to view the films in very much that way, watching all three over a short period and treating them as one (very) long film.

In the case of serials like Indiana Jones and horror movies like Halloween and A Nightmare on Elm Street, the sequels appear as simply a new story involving one or more of the original characters. Horror films are legendary for this: the killer/monster didn’t really die, so he’s/it’s back to wreak havoc on another group of unsuspecting teens (or Jamie Lee Curtis). If, say, A Nightmare on Elm Street had (mercifully) stopped at Dream Warriors, we’d probably be calling it “The Freddy Krueger Trilogy.” And while Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was intended as the last part of a trilogy (originally conceived after Raiders of the Lost Ark), the release of Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull makes the concept of a trilogy problematic.

Sequels have become such a staple of modern cinema that at this point it seems a “Part 2” automatically implies a “Part 3.” Before the widespread release of the recent Fright Night remake, bloggers were considering David Tennant’s role as Peter Vincent in a Fright Night 2. It’s becoming more common for a sequel to be green lighted before the public has even had a chance to evaluate the first movie (see: G. I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Iron Man). Aren’t sequels supposed to be earned, at least financially, if not critically?

Filmmakers have used trilogies as a means of telling a story or making an artistic statement, elevating the trilogy above simply making three movies. Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors trilogy and Roberto Rossellini’s war trilogy (showcasing the devastation in Italy and Germany immediately following World War II) are spectacular examples of how a director can present a cinematic trilogy that isn’t simply “two sequels.” Kieślowski, for example, uses each standalone film (Blue, White, and Red) to represent and examine the political ideals of the French Revolution and how those ideals hold up in modern times. None of the films are interconnected in terms of plot or cast, but Kieślowski manages to create a unified piece that holds as a legitimate trilogy.

Similarly, Robert Rodriguez’ Mexico Trilogy — consisting of El Mariachi, Desperado, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico — explore a genre and a setting, using much of the same cast and crew. The character of El Mariachi serves as a protagonist of the trilogy but not its sole focus, as Mexico itself becomes as much a character with motivations carried out by peripheral figures on screen. One can also see this in Sergio Leone’s “Man With No Name” trilogy starring Clint Eastwood; the “Old West” is really the star, and Eastwood is simply a nameless face to put on its story.

These examples point to the idea of the trilogy as a conscious narrative choice: a filmmaker wants to make a particular statement or tell a story, and he or she chooses to do so over three films. Trilogies, then, stand apart from “franchises” (which Joe nails down in the podcast).

That's some good old-fashioned family racism.

Franchises are financial properties. Indiana Jones, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Transformers: these are all franchises that aren’t tied to “three” films, as evidenced by the first two having a fourth movie and the all but inevitable fourth Transformers movie, which I’m sure will grace us in another summer or two. These franchises are similar to movie series that have existed throughout movie history: the Charlie Chan movies, The Pink Panther, the long-running James Bond series. Actors and filmmakers sign contracts to do two or more films about certain characters and those can continue to be made until the well has dried up.

That’s why I think calling Indiana Jones or Transformers trilogies is disingenuous. Excluding the more “artistic” trilogies, these plot-driven trilogies that tell a single story over three films are a hybrid of stories in three acts and franchise deals that keep the actors locked in. After the success of Back to the Future, the cast and crew decided to automatically make two sequels to complete a trilogy; same goes for The Matrix. This isn’t exactly the case with some of the other franchise films.

My point, really, with identifying which movies work as trilogies and which don’t is to understand what happens when a previously concluded “trilogy” — say, Indiana Jones — suddenly releases a fourth installment. Or take Die Hard: all of its sequels (and the original) began their lives as entirely different films until producers decided “Screw it, let’s make it a John McClane movie.” I don’t mean to imply that I have a problem with this, but what happens when a trilogy is no longer a trilogy?

Even more confusing is the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. All three movies sort of formed a trilogy, with the standalone first film awkwardly transitioning into a two-part adventure. Suddenly there’s a fourth movie which breaks continuity that could have been called The Continuing and Totally Unrelated Adventures of Jack Sparrow. Does that disparage the trilogy or not?

Separating trilogies that represent a unique vision by a filmmaker from those that are simply a bunch of sequels is important to really understanding film. While your enjoyment of a movie series or its characters might not be contingent on whether you define it as a trilogy or not, it does help to understand the story as a complete picture, even if one doesn’t really exist.

And if it turns out your favorite movie trilogy isn’t an honest trilogy at all, that’s okay. There’s room in the world of cinema for all kinds of sequels and serials. I just hope that someday when directors decide to make de facto trilogies before a sequel has really been earned, they’ll find a skeptical public that asks to see the proof and votes with their wallets.

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