Friday, August 20, 2010

A Moment of Reflection

The Trilogy is dead.
Long live the Trilogy.
 An introspective look at what makes a trilogy and what exactly happened to them.

Please note that the following article may contain spoilers for certain films.


Film trilogies are a strange beast. There are so many different types of trilogies and so many different ways to approach making one. On the one hand you have the intended trilogies such as The Lord of the Rings and for the most part the original Star Wars films. They were conceived from the outset to have a beginning, a middle and an end (Star Wars is up for debate on that point anymore however). Then there are the trilogies that are spawned due to popularity which for the most part have proven to be pretty lack luster. Sure there are the exceptions such as the Back to the Future trilogy and well...that's about it actually. So, what is it that makes a good trilogy and why have they all but disappeared? Read on...

Let's take a good close look at one of the most well known trilogies that actually started this idea of continuing a story through multiple films with an absolute end. The grand daddy of all trilogies is of course the Star Wars saga. That includes only the original films in the series, the second trilogy will be touched upon later. Now, what was it about those three films that worked so well? Besides the obviousness of each films individual quality, there is that underlying feeling that each of the three parts were thought out in advance. That is most evident in how each film flows into one another.

Each film played up and helped define the three act structure that most other trilogies would later be held up to. Now, Star Wars was most certainly not responsible for how the three act theory works, but it most definitely popularized it in such a way that when anyone refers to how a trilogy structure works, that original trilogy is used as a sort of blue print. Take the animated television series Avatar: The Last Airbender, the three season arc that was developed shares many similarities to how things were structured in the original Star Wars trilogy.

The beginning of the iconic film trilogy.

You must set up your world and introduce us to the main characters and conflicts that will help define what the trilogy will encompass with the first act. The second act then provides secondary obstacles that may take the form of other characters or plot lines that the main protagonist characters must over come. The third act is the climax or resolution to everything that came before it where your protagonist has learned and grown and must now face or meet their destiny head-on. This basic three act arc is the very basis for how a trilogy works and is also what makes them so compelling to watch or read.

One other series of films that is actually older and arguably more prestigious than the "Holy Trinity" is The Godfather trilogy. The only reason I don't consider those three films to be the beginning of the film trilogy standard is because the third and final film took 16 years to come out and  it wasn't really a trilogy until the early nineties hit. Despite that though, it too follows closely to the archetype that the trilogy works with. You have the Corleone family saga where you see their rise and ultimate fall in the course of the three films. Regardless of your feelings on the third film, it did bring that trilogy to a close with a definite end for the characters we had followed from beginning to end.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy is another series of films that absolutely nails this structure, even more so than the Star Wars trilogy. By the end of The Fellowship of the Rings you have had an extraordinary adventure with characters that you have come to care about through the different conflicts that each has confronted. Each character has grown slightly or matured by the end of that first film, but not so much in that they have no where left to go. The Two Towers and Return of the King put everyone through the ringer (pun very much intended) by the end of it all and each had completed their own personal journeys as well as the one grand journey they set out on in the first place.

The last great film trilogy...?

The main character Frodo starts the first film as a carefree hobbit who's only troubles in life are taking care of his uncle and tending to their agricultural needs. By the end of the first film he no longer has that gleeful smile which signifies a change in his character. The second film chronicles his losing battle fighting the urges that the ring brings on to him and the third film has him finally confront what has been building in him ever since he first put on that ring in the first film and dealing with it whether he is ready or not.

Now, that is how a true trilogy should work and those are some examples from some of the most beloved trilogies there are. There are also trilogies that worked where there was never expected to be any follow ups to the original, however those cases are few and far between. A fairly good example of a trilogy born from success would be the Back to the Future trilogy. When watching the first film it is readily evident that the film makers had either no real intention in making a sequel or never thought they would, even though the ending of the film directly contradicts that thought. I pose this question to anyone that thinks they had planned a sequel in advance...why did it take four years to finally make and release a sequel to one of the biggest box office bread winners ever?

The answer is quite simple, they had no idea what they had on their hands with the original film at the time. Once it went on to make a truck load of money the inevitable sequels were already being dreamed up. The saving grace though was that everyone involved somehow pulled it off and made not one but two sequels that felt like a natural progression from the ending point of the original film. The producers on the commentary track for Back to the Future 2 actually pointed out how they painted themselves into a corner at the end of the first film. When creating the storyline for the second film, the entire first act of that film was them trying to dig themselves out of the hole they dug. It was a miracle that they did it so flawlessly.

If only every trilogy put together at the last second
could be this well made and this much fun.

Then you have the films that tried that same approach and have uniformly failed on every level. The first mock trilogy and the greatest offender of all is the Matrix trilogy. If you re-watch the first film it is right there in front of you by the time Neo flies off screen. The three act structure was in place fully for that first film, the world and characters were introduced, the obstacles were put into place, and the hero had his redemption by the end of the film. They literally had no where else to go with any of the characters simply because they had all reached their final place in the story.

The sequels for that film and the sequels to the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy all stank of everyone trying to make an extra buck, which would be fine if they had an idea worth pursuing. These have become the new trilogies anymore, if the movie is successful enough they will green light two more to go into production and figure out what to do then. The only trilogy in the past decade to warrant being called a true trilogy would be The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that was more of an anomaly due to Peter Jackson and how he works as opposed to anything else.

So, trilogies have become deceased by today's standards...even trilogies most of us have grown up with have been tainted in one way or another, some worse than others. Why is that exactly? Take the Indiana Jones trilogy series...what was once a grand three part trilogy of films has thus been ended by adding a fourth inferior film to the treasure chest. Other offenders would be the Die Hard series or the Alien series to a lesser extent. Of course the big offender is the almighty and colossal artistic failure known as the Star Wars prequels.

How great would it be to have another Indiana Jones movie...?

Turns out...not so great.

You will notice that I have started to have to use the term "series" in place of trilogy for many of these films. There is nothing wrong with a series of films, especially if their aim is higher and broader than your basic trilogy. Some of the most famous and well known series such as the Star Trek and James Bond films never really went after that three act recipe (although parts 2, 3, and 4 was a sort of mini-trilogy in the Star Trek frame work). The issue I take with a trilogy that becomes a series is that it usually takes away the finality that the third film gives us. Not everything is meant to go on forever, no matter how much we love it.

The Aliens series is a perfect example of a series of three films that not only did not need a fourth film, but almost required not having one. You have your main protagonist from each film die at the end of the third film in an act of selflessness to finally stop for good what she had been fighting over the course of three films. Despite that third film's flaws it did close the book on that series really well and gave us a bittersweet ending. Then you have the fourth film come out of nowhere and literally bring her back from the dead...what?

There are also the harmless efforts to keep a series of films alive that seemingly never were a trilogy by the standard definition to begin with but continued on just to give us more of what we wanted. The Die Hard series while being a standard setter for the action movie genre also served as documentation of Bruce Willis's loss of hair more so than ever putting that character through any sort of catharsis. The Lethal Weapon series is in the same boat, but somehow it is one of, if not the only trilogy to have a fourth film that actually tied up loose ends and end the series properly. These examples are not and never were meant to be true trilogies, it was just their intent to give us more of what we wanted, and for the most part they delivered.

The only series to give us a fourth film that actually worked.
 
The most dreaded fourth film however came in the form of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. I will say right now that I kind of enjoyed the movie for what it was, but unfortunately it was the film that ended the superior reign of one of the most iconic hero figures ever. While most everyone has their favorite and least favorite of the original trilogy, most everyone is in agreement that the fourth film, as much as we all desperately wanted it, should have never been made. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will thankfully live on with that other turd left to fester on it's own in some dark corner of George Lucas's dungeon of bad ideas.

Let's take a moment to think about what exactly is happening here though...not only have the true film trilogies all but vanished but now Hollywood is taking our childhood trilogies away from us as well. Have you ever got into a conversation with someone about the Star Wars films and had to qualify yourself by saying the "prequels" or "original trilogy" (as I already have earlier in this column)? How about talking to someone about how amazing the Indiana Jones trilogy is but having to mention "oh but stay away from the fourth one". It's not so much that these films have walked all over our memories of these beloved trilogies, but that you now have to add a grain of salt into the mix whenever you speak of them.

These are not the only travesties befalling us, oh no. We must now be on the lookout for other trilogies getting the fourth film treatment, some not held in that high of regard, but true trilogies none the less. You have the now in production Fury Road, a sequel to the Mad Max trilogy that really nobody asked for. Love them or hate them, the Scream trilogy also has a definite end and even referred to itself as a trilogy in the third and "final" film...be on the lookout for Scream 4 early next year. Oh, and be sure to catch the fourth in the trilogy, The Bourne Legacy coming to a theater near you in 2012 as well.

Someone has taken their love for trilogies one step too far.

Now someone has taken their love for money a step further.

What has happened? Why are there no longer any true trilogies? Are there no people left in the Hollywood system to cherish the idea of a three act, three part structure? Clearly the answer to all those questions is that no one has any fresh or interesting ideas anymore and they must tap the well to keep them alive. Sure, we as fans of a particular series will always have some slight glimmer of hope, no matter how misplaced it may be, that we might get something good in the end. I also believe that most film makers approach a property with the intention to make something good and worthwhile (George Lucas being the large exception here) but one would think they would take a little more time and care with the handling of such delicate properties.

I would be remiss though not to mention the lone bright spot of hopefulness in the midst of all this negativity I have towards the future of the iconic and holy trilogy. Even though we don't have our perfect super hero trilogy yet, many have tried, all have failed. The X-Men trilogy got very close, but let's face it, that third movie was a disaster. Same goes for the Spider-Man trilogy, even with the awesomeness of the second film that third one was one of the biggest let downs in recent history. So, what is this bright light at the end of the tunnel you might ask? Ironically that bright light may just end up being The Dark Knight...

Christopher Nolan is on the verge of making the first ever perfect super hero movie trilogy. Perfect in the sense that I mentioned earlier with the three act structure, how you perceive each films quality is a different subject altogether. In the first film he set up all the main characters, their struggles, and the world they live in. The second film had the main protagonist get tested to his greatest extent and ended with him in a very dark place. The third film will conceivably be Batman's redemption piece...the part of the story where he will overcome everything that has come before him and rise to his true potential. Whether or not that is what happens it is our last great hope for not only a classic super hero trilogy, but a return to form to the trilogy formula of old and I for one hope he pulls it off.

Could this finally be our perfect super hero trilogy...?

Now, I know that there are a ton of other series or trilogies that were not mentioned here and that was not out of spite or because I forgot about them (yes, I do believe that the Harry Potter series could be one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time and most likely never replicated again). But, my intention with this article was to inform and bring people up to speed on the current state of a type of film series that I long for and don't get any more. My one hope with this is that I get at least one other person out there that agrees or at the very least understands my point of view and where I am coming from. If I have done that, then this was not in vain.

With that being said though, I want my trilogies back, I miss them. I miss being able to sit down and watch Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, & Return of the Jedi without having the seed that was planted at the back of my head about the horrible films that "came before them". There was a pureness to that and it is forever gone and I for one will miss it forever. Here is my closing thought for you on where I stand on the subject of whether or not a trilogy should ever be tampered with....Did I want to see more Star Wars movies? Hell yes...but did I want them to suck the everlasting life out of the original films as well as my will to live? HELL NO!

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