Examining Movie Trilogies

Written by Kevin McCorry

The movie trilogy has become a common phenomenon in modern cinema, primarily because, all too often, three is the maximum number of quality films possible to spawn from a particular story formula. Besides, the notion of three interconnected movies has an integrity that appeals to sophisticated movie-goers, who like an intricately textured, extended epic and the opportunity to make their own connections between events in the trilogy's individual instalments released over a time period of several years.

The wish of film-makers to produce sequels is the prerequisite for a trilogy. There also has to be an established popularity for the first film to warrant financial backing for a first sequel, and likewise in the first sequel's case to spur production of the third film in the trilogy.

Trilogies of many genres seem to have a tendency to pattern themselves thusly. The first film establishes a formula, the second film, in trying to be as different from the first film as possible, stretches the formula significantly, and the third film hearkens back to the first in most of its elements: story plot, characters, setting, or mood. This article will examine this tendency by referring to some of the most popular trilogies in cinema history.

The most famous movie trilogy of all time is, of course, the Star Wars films, three timeless classics that changed the making and marketing of films probably forevermore. Perhaps no trilogy of films is more indicative of the aforementioned tendency than George Lucas' three-movie epic. Star Wars film one, referred-to by avid followers of the trilogy as "A New Hope", opens, following a space battle, on the desert planet of Tatooine, home world of Luke Skywalker, hero of the trilogy. There is the desperation on Luke's part to leave his planet. There is a threat of Imperial aggression by an ostensibly indestructible Death Star. There are urgent efforts by the Rebel Alliance to thwart the evil Empire by the use of stolen top secret plans to the Death Star's construction indicating a weakness in the planet-destroying weapon's layout. And the film climaxes in a successful assault upon the Death Star by Rebel forces, with Luke administering the decisive strike.

Film two in the trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, could not be more unlike its predecessor. Icy, frigid Hoth, the opening planet, is as different from the hot and arid desert of Tatooine as possible. Nowhere is there a Rebel assault on the Empire. Instead, the sinister forces of cosmic darkness personified by Darth Vader and his Imperial troops relentlessly pursue the Rebels, destroying the Rebel base on Hoth, forcing the Rebels to flee in various directions, chasing the Millennium Falcon piloted by Han Solo and containing Princess Leia Organa through a dense field of asteroids, eventually catching Solo and Leia on the Cloud City of Bespin, freezing Solo in carbonite to be brought to Solo's ruthless enemy, Jabba the Hutt, and luring Luke too soon from his Jedi Knight training to confront Vader in an indecisive but spectacularly violent light-sabre duel, in which Luke loses a hand and is forced to acknowledge the horrifying fact of his heritage.

The first Star Wars is a "feel-good" movie, with a conventional happy ending, but The Empire Strikes Back is a dark, mysterious sequel, putting the Rebel forces in dire situations from which they are only partly able to extricate themselves, showing Luke's weaknesses as a hero and a potentially sinister side to his own nature during a "cave" sequence, posing an unresolved mystery involving Vader's parentage of Luke (there is still the possibility that Vader is lying, because Obi-Wan Kenobi did not tell Luke about Vader being Luke's father), and tantalising the audience with reference to some "other" hope beyond Luke.

Return of the Jedi, film three in the trilogy, begins with a return to film one's initial planetary setting, Tatooine, as Luke and his friends act to free Han Solo from the clutches of vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. The Empire is rebuilding its Death Star weapon, another film one element, and the Rebels obtain the design plans which indicate a weakness to the new Death Star. A climactic assault is mounted by the Rebels precisely as happens in film one. Of course, Return of the Jedi, being the concluding film to the trilogy, necessarily diverges from film one by resolving the mysteries of film two in a scene wherein Luke has returned to Dagobah (the jungle planet of film two) to talk to Jedi Master Yoda and the spirit of Kenobi. It brings Luke and Vader together for a final light-sabre confrontation, something that did not happen in film one. And the outcome, the redemption of Luke's father in an act of self-sacrifice, accompanies the destruction of the Death Star, not by Luke this time but by relatively new Rebel Lando Calrissian in the Millennium Falcon. Nevertheless, Return of the Jedi is clearly patterned more after film one in the trilogy than after film two, and has been lambasted in this regard by fans and genre experts. All criticisms aside, the three Star Wars films are an excellent example of how an effective trilogy works, and no doubt this is one of the reasons for the immense popularity of the Star Wars universe.

While the Star Wars trilogy was produced for viewers of all ages, with a rather immaculate technological mise-en-scene and heroes untainted with conspicuous vice, Twentieth Century Fox's other late-1970s space science fiction blockbuster portrays a damp, grimy, and smutty expansion of humankind into space. Ridley Scott's Alien (1979) is an alien-creature-kills-human-crew-one-at-a-time horror thriller with an unexpected heroine, Ellen Ripley, who later appeared in two sequels as the same character, battling more of the same monsters.

The films in the Alien movie series were not produced at what could be called a conventional sequel pace. Rather than being two or three years apart, their making and release was at intervals of six to seven years. And in no case is an Alien film produced with a sequel in mind. Each film ends with a climactic destruction of the malevolent creature or creatures.

The second film in the Ripley trilogy is completely different from the one-alien-in-spaceship premise of film one, in that Ripley teams with a group of high-technology space Marines to investigate a loss of contact at a human colony on the planet where Ripley's crew found the first alien. Aliens (1986) is a relentless action-and-gore-festival with Ripley and her military allies stalked by, but fighting with sophisticated hardware, hoards of aliens in various structures on the planet itself. Ripley meets a plucky young girl and develops a maternalistic rapport as she spares the girl from becoming a human incubator for the ghastly reproducing creature's embryos.

Although the third film, Alien3 (1992), is also planet-bound, the intention was to return to the one-alien premise, hearkening back to the essential story of film one, and confining Ripley and her fellow humans to one, unwieldy layout. Intemperate weather conditions outside confine Ripley and her motley collection of unlikely co-heroes to a penal colony compound. Like with the first film, Ripley and her cohorts in Alien3 have no specialised alien-eradicating weapons. They must rely on fire and wits in their combat against an especially voracious and fast-moving monster. The pet animal element is also integrated into the story of both Alien and Alien3. Jones the cat in the first film is Ripley's fellow survivor of the initial encounter with the ruthless alien organism, but the pet dog of an inmate at the penal colony setting of Alien3 is not so fortunate. It becomes the creature's terminal vessel for gestation, and it is from the dog that the alien in this film has acquired its lightning agility.

Film one is also referenced as Alien3 closes, with a faint replay of Ripley's ending transmission of film one, apparently intended as an ode to Ripley, who has sacrificed herself at film three's climax to prevent an egg-laying alien queen from being born from within her. While film two is necessarily accessed in the story of film three in as much as Ripley must come to terms with the deaths of her friends from Aliens and the android, Bishop, is needed to tell what happened on the Sulaco spaceship on which Ripley and her friends were returning to Earth when they were suddenly jettisoned onto the penal colony, with Ripley the only human survivor of the crash, the clear intent in production of Alien3 was to return to the simplicity of one alien, killing one-by-one the defenceless people in a single, claustrophobic place (the spaceship Nostromo in film one and the penal colony compound in film three).

A equally chilling but rather more Earth-bound trilogy is the three Omen films, another example of the tendency of trilogies to go full circle with the third film hearkening back to the first. These three films spin the frightening yarn of the ascent of the evil Damien Thorn to a position of world-affecting political influence. The first Omen transpires in England, as Robert Thorn, the American ambassador to Great Britain, learns that the child he adopted to substitute for his wife's supposedly stillborn infant, is the son of Satan. Damien: Omen II occurs in America, after Thorn's unsuccessful attempt to kill the Devil child. Thorn's industrialist brother, Richard, has adopted Damien, who is now a teenager with supernatural destructive powers. Film three, The Final Conflict, concerns the adult Damien Thorn's quest for suasion over all nations and his battle against the Second Coming of Christ.

The Final Conflict patterns itself far more after the original Omen than it does after the film that it immediately succeeds. In fact, the second film in the trilogy is only acknowledged in reference by Thorn to Paul Buher, the diabolical helper to the adolescent Damien in film two.

The Final Conflict occurs in Britain, like film one. Damien has been appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain, the position of his adoptive father in The Omen, a connection directly stated by the American President to Thorn: "Your father would be proud of you." Thorn wryly replies, in regard to his true father, "I'm sure he is."

Damien's "familiar" animal of choice in film one is a vicious dog, whereas in film two, the creature in service to evil is a raven. Film three returns to the dog, which has hypnotic power to induce the standing American ambassador to Britain to kill himself. Damien also reminds the audience of the place where Robert Thorn and wife thought they had lost their little boy near a rickety wooden bridge over a rapid London stream.

From evil incarnate to a divinely noble alien saviour, the next trilogy to be examined is the Superman films with Christopher Reeve. Technically, there are four, as there are also now four films in the Alien and Omen movie series, but in both those cases, and indeed in the case of Superman, production of the fourth film was undertaken with an entirely new approach, or with a largely different crew. Superman IV is widely regarded to be nowhere near on par with the three earlier films in the series due to a drastic drop in production values, and it does not have the feel of epic grandeur of its more commercially successful predecessors.

The ambition of the first Superman is evident by the scope of the story, encompassing the destruction of planet Krypton and Clark Kent's upbringing in the prairie town of Smallville, then Superman's first supreme act of heroism by stopping a cataclysmic earthquake triggered by the criminal genius, real-estate-fixated Lex Luthor. Superman II is alike with film one in its sheer size and spectacle, and it surpasses the villainy of Luthor by pitting the Man of Steel against three identically-super-powered renegades from Krypton, who intend to conquer Earth.

For Superman III, the producers chose to return to the Earthly menace of a white-collar criminal with aims of economic domination, hence the Ross Webster character. Clark Kent went back to Smallville, which was unseen and never referred-to in film two, for a high school reunion. There was more emphasis on Kent's small-town oafishness, which was established in film one and not referenced as often in the second film. Generally, Superman III was a pulling back from the extremely fast pacing of Superman II and a return to the somewhat ponderous quality of the initial film. Viewers were disappointed, because Superman II was such an exciting film, and Superman III seemed a comparative bore. But here again is an example of a trilogy with a third film more in tune with film one than with film two.

The James Bond films can scarcely in their total be classified as a trilogy, but the first three entries in the movie series nevertheless are another example of the tendency, discussed in this article, of three films in series to form a full circle, with film three referencing film one in many respects.

The first James Bond film, Dr. No, was titled after the villain's strange name. Most of it occurs on the North American side of the Atlantic Ocean. And James Bond teams with Felix Leiter of the CIA in an investigation of a mysterious, solitary mastermind (though allied to the SPECTRE crime syndicate, No is in every way his own agency of evil). From Russia, With Love, film two, obviously does not bear a solitary villain's name in its title. All of its action is set in Europe, and the antagonists are not directly intent upon some kind of explosive interference with American economic or technological interests, as Dr. No was. However, Goldfinger, the third film, is alike with Dr. No in all of these aspects.

The series of films starring Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau is one of the most successful in comedy cinema history. Again, while not constituting a trilogy in that more than three films were produced, the movie series does, in its first three entries, exhibit the full-circle tendency. Film one, The Pink Panther, concerns Clouseau's effort to prevent a notorious jewel thief from stealing a precious gem, the Pink Panther. The sequel, A Shot in the Dark, involves Clouseau's bumbling investigation of several murders. Then, film three, The Return of the Pink Panther, filmed almost a decade after film two, while reprising such A Shot in the Dark characters as Commissioner Dreyfus and Clouseau's manservant, Cato, is essentially a return to the story plot of film one, Clouseau's battle against an aristocratic jewel burglar who again is under suspicion in a theft of the Pink Panther diamond.

These science fiction/fantasy, horror, action-adventure, and comedy films that were presented in series have a seemingly common quality. Their third film refers backward to the first film for several elements. A compelling tendency on the part of producers of three-or-more-film franchises!

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