Rules of a Trilogy

(This is a repost of a note on my Facebook profile so that I may actually have content on this blog. I don’t think people read the notes anyway, so a blog post is probably more substantial and worth reading in most people’s eyes.)

The word “trilogy” – or even rarer, “triptych” – was once a carefully guarded, sacred one amongst film series. From Leone’s masterful Dollars Trilogy to the perenially popular Star Wars Original Trilogy (it’s sad that the Prequel Trilogy has so shamed the Star Wars name that the word “Original” is required), a film trilogy usually demanded a great deal of respect.


In this age when summer is dominated not by independent efforts that stand alone but by sequels, series and endless superheroes, Hollywood is often criticized for lack of creativity. In the same breath, the Dollars Trilogy may be praised, or the Star Wars Original Trilogy, or even the Toy Story trilogy. What is the distinction here? Toy Story was a film that stands alone. Toy Story 2, though featuring the same characters and exploring similar themes, stood alone as well and did not mandate knowledge of the first film to enjoy; the third continued the trend. The Dollars Trilogy is actually a set of three unrelated films that all include Clint Eastwood as “The Man With No Name”, a character that Leone maintained was different in each of the three films. Only the Star Wars Original Trilogy has plot strands that connect between films, and even then, the first film was intended to be a stand alone before the massive success led to the produced-in-succession sequels.

Why then are these trilogies not criticized for a lack of creativity? What gives them a creative-lapse pass?

I think that these trilogies are relics of an era long gone, when a trilogy actually meant a trilogy. A trilogy should have a reason for being a trilogy – not simply exhaustion of plot threads or poor performance ruling out the possibility of continuing things. In the case of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi completed the redemption story of Darth Vader, which would come to represent the entire Star Wars saga. In the case of Toy Story, the third film thematically completed the series, with themes of replacement, obsolescence, and loss in the first, second and third films respectively – completing Andy’s growth to adulthood. In the case of the Dollars trilogy, Leone had created a love-letter to westerns (Fistful), a western filled with grit (Few Dollars More), and a satire of westerns (Good, Bad, Ugly). A full set.

Modern trilogies, however, have little of the discretion shown here. Verbinski tried with Pirates, but instead ended up with an adored film and two films that, though produced back to back, were no good and focused on weak characters. Liman and Greengrass tried with Bourne, but the cash cow reared its ugly head and we now have the Bourne Legacy – simply a retread with nothing new to offer idealistically – on the way. Romero decided to continue making “[x] of the Dead” films, providing an entertaining Land of the Dead, and the very weak Diary and Survival of the Dead. Craven and Williamson decided to resurrect Ghostface with Scream 4 (or Scre4m if you prefer), which has met with mixed reception, but has almost universally been declared an unnecessary sequel. Indiana Jones got a fourth film, with once again mixed results (I loved the film, personally, and I felt it was a very welcome addition in its take on 1950s adventure serials – not at all unnecessary, a truly intriguing vision). And even the lacklustre-since-the-first Shrek got a fourth installment.

So what makes a trilogy good these days?

A trilogy needs to have distinct themes with each film. Toy Story did this well – as stated above, replacement, obsolescence and loss. Each film dealt with new themes that, though conveyed through plastic toys, relate to different stages of life, and in many cases in the life of we who grew up with it. Christopher Nolan is doing this with the Dark Knight trilogy. Batman Begins was an exercise in Chaotic Good vs. Lawful Good. The Dark Knight was an exploration of what a hero really is – a symbol or a force? And The Dark Knight Rises promises to wrap up these trends, with what Wally Pfister calls a bookend for the series.

A trilogy needs to have resemblance among its films, but not retread them. The Dollars trilogy did this the best – Clint Eastwood plays a man with no name in each of them, and they are all unconventional westerns of the “spaghetti western” genre. No plot continuation or relation, similar style but each distinct. A modern trilogy that manages to do this well is the Ocean’s trilogy. Eleven is an immensely entertaining heist film. Twelve is an experiment in style over substance (or even coherence). Thirteen is an inversion of Eleven – not a retread, as stylistically it was more like Twelve.

A trilogy needs to offer resolution for the characters involved. Star Wars did this excellently. Luke is introduced to the Rebel forces in A New Hope. In The Empire Strikes Back, he suffers a great defeat at the hands of Vader, putting Han in danger and the future of the Rebels uncertain. In Return of the Jedi, Luke manages to redeem his father, who brings balance to the Force. Character arcs spread over the three films nicely that culminates in a successful resolution – though even less successful ones would fulfill this requirement. The Bourne trilogy – though soon to be expanded, needlessly – does this well. The first film introduces Bourne’s search of identity, ending with his decision to make his own. In the Bourne Supremacy, when this is disrupted, he resumes the search for his past, which ends in the Bourne Ultimatum with his final discovery of the Blackbriar facilities.

This is what a trilogy should be – thematically distinct, stylistically similar yet distinct, and resolute – whole, complete. Hollywood does not do this anymore, and in fact seems to undo it more often than not. I only hope that future directors would uphold these ideas if trilogies are necessary, though I firmly believe that a single film can and ought to do more than three can.


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