E. B. White once wrote, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” Analyzing trilogies seems to the same. The entire point is to enjoy them. Still, given the many sins to be found in film, there are worse things than movie trilogies but few have become more prominent or unavoidable. In terms of definitions, a trilogy only means three “individual” (animated, live-action, etc.) films are tied together which leaves a lot of room in seeing something as a trilogy.
Currently, negative reviews over trilogies highlight how easily and predictably they start off well but soon degenerate at a rapid pace. Then, too, there cases where once was good enough and added treatments are not welcome. David Lynch’s Dune thankfully has not become a trilogy though it sits there waiting to be given birth. In rare cases, yes, a trilogy may be badly called for. Alan Moore’s Watchmen (originally having twelve issues) could easily fill six movies but three would be perfect. Tempting the fates, My Cousin Vinny would be interesting as a part of a larger trilogy.
Not that trilogies are totally new and original. The auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar, Ingmar Bergman, John Ford, Krzysztof Kieślowski, and Lars Von Trier have always given us trilogies. But the trilogy clearly owes more to the attentions given by the more popular filmmakers that have utilized it. Michael Bay, Wes Craven, George Lucas, George A. Romero, Kevin Smith, Seijun Suzuki, and the Wachowski brothers come to mind as the more well known creators of trilogy. And, by a wide margin, Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy is the most recognizable if not best. Among blockbusters, that distinction is probably held by Steven Spielberg’s Back to the Future trilogy.
Even though Robert Zemeckis (though Zemeckis should be singled out for, at least, actually directing the entire trilogy), Spielberg’s fingerprints are pretty much all over the thing. And, admittedly, it towers over comparable blockbuster trilogies like Alvin and the Chipmunks, Barbershop, The Butterfly Effect, Candyman, Iron Man, Jurassic Park, Lethal Weapon, Men in Black, Madagascar, Mighty Ducks, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spy Kids, Starship Troopers, and the Karate Kid trilogy. The trilogies in those cases have been mixed at best.
There are the trilogies we’ve all sadly forgotten. Penelope Spheeris and her The Decline of Western Civilization trilogy has few champions today. So, too, John Carpenter’s apocalypse trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, In the Mouth of Madness) has inspired only a single remake – very clearly unaware it is part of a larger project.
Filmmaking sometimes even produces trilogies fighting one another. Sam Raimi has two
trilogies (Evil Dead trilogy versus the Spider-Man trilogy) he’s known for. Tarantino films often are unofficial trilogies since references to various characters keep intersecting and crossing one another even in movies he didn’t, technically make. The same can be said for M. Night Shyamalan’s films. Despite the thematic disunities of his work, the films can be arguably seen as trilogies.
Many fans think that David Fincher has a serial killer trilogy (Se7en, Zodiac, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) even though even film studies doesn’t recognize it – yet. (Though a more apt name for Fincher might be Men with Huge Problems trilogy given Fight Club and The Game). David Lynch’s trios (just take Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire) can be considered genuine trilogies although the actual connections them are difficult to spot for those not addicted to all things Lynch.
Scorsese films can often be easily grouped as trilogies. There is his, indisputable, return again and again to the gangster genre. But the actual composition of the said trilogy changes. Most would nominate Goodfellas, Casino, and Mean Streets as constituting the trilogy he will most be known for. Others prefer to see Goodfellas, Casino, and Gangs of New York as the gangster trilogy. In the case of Mean Streets (originally called Season of the Witch), Scorsese intended it to be the start of a J. R. trilogy but it never happened. Goodfellas, Casino, and Mean Streets often receive pride of place due to Robert De Niro. But if we include him then the trilogy is really composed of Taxi Driver, Casino, and Goodfellas.
In short, trilogies seem to be what we make of them. They even come about when the filmmaker didn’t want them. Danish film director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy is only a trilogy by chance. He was broke and was forced to create two additional entries despite an explicit vow to leave the original alone. In other cases, people don’t seem to recognize when a trilogy is being made. Roman Polanski consciously created an “apartment” trilogy (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant) but they have been skipped over for his Satanic films, explaining Rosemary’s popularity.
Terry Gilliam wants people to see Time Bandits, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as a trilogy (the so-called Trilogy of Imagination). He even considers The Fisher King, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to be a trilogy of Americana. But Gilliam even by auteur standards is extreme. Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick ought to have trilogies contained in them but the dynamic duo is difficult to classify by almost any standard.
Given Hitchcock’s fifty films, a trilogy can easily be constructed but just about anything could given the huge entries to play with. (Hitchcock cameos alone could be a film.) Kubrick has far less films but some of the war films (Paths Of Glory, Dr. Strangelove, Full Metal Jacket) seem to fit the trilogy bill. In fact, single films of like Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket which some argue contains three narrative segments can be seen as a self-contained trilogy. Certainly, Eyes Wide Shut felt almost as long as any trilogy.
Then there are the many tricky cases. Tolkien, for instance, never intended his books to be seen as a “trilogy” but were published and adapted in that fashion. Though now Peter Jackson’s trilogy is treated as setting the standard for how trilogies should be handled. Should we treat Indiana Jones as a trilogy or Underworld despite the added entries? Should X-Men: First Class be dismissed because it is the fourth use of the X-Men characters despite receiving better reviews than the third part of the official trilogy? Nor can it be said that trilogies always obey the law of diminishing returns. The third of the Karate Kid trilogy may be the best of the three. In the case of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, the second is considered the best, at least, currently so trilogies either peak early or late.
The Die Hard trilogy is a genuine trilogy and the later fourth and fifth entries are so radically different in terms of style and look they seem separate from the earlier ones. But what rules can be used to demarcate when a trilogy begins or ends? Even a good rule of thumb like using the continuation of stories with the main characters as a benchmark is problematic. True, San Francisco Police Inspector Harry Callahan or John McClane often appeared alongside their signature stars but was that a good thing? The Bourne trilogy that most people know is not the first attempt of bringing Bourne to live action. The earlier television adaptation apparently is too weak to even compete.
If characters serve as the official marker then even an icon like Hannibal Lecter both is and isn’t in a trilogy. Counting Anthony Hopkins is problematic. After all, ought praise for The Silence of the Lambs come at the expense of Manhunter? And trilogy as a concept has to be stretched for cases like Mission: Impossible, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Star Trek where entries have long exceeded the minimal three-film rule. Trilog-ology is no exact science but given their current status is likely to develop.
Whatever else one can say trilogies, they certainly have never conformed to any set pattern and continue to defy easy categorization. Maybe this explains their revival. That and the Bruce Campbell cameos.