I just read an interesting article that makes the argument that the Bourne trilogy of movies is the best American film trilogy around:
He makes a lot of good points, and I’d be closer to agreeing with him if any individual film in the series were as strong as Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, or The Godfather Part II. Alas, no Bourne film is as strong as any of those films, but he makes a good point that when taken as a whole, the Bourne trilogy stands up well in the sense that each of the three films is strong, whereas both the Star Wars and Godfather trilogies suffer from one poor film each. For me, the Star Wars trilogy essentially ends after The Empire Strikes Back, and I have a version of Return of the Jedi in my head that far surpasses the actual film. As for The Godfather Part III, the less said, the better. It’s a film that can be easily dismissed and forgotten, as the end of The Godfather Part II is perfectly satisfactory on its own. (Before anyone screams The Lord of the Rings, note that the author was careful to qualify his argument by restricting his analysis to American films. The Lord of the Rings was ostensibly financed and is owned by an American film studio, but we all know the films are essentially a Kiwi/British production. I will include it in the following analysis anyway, because it is the quintessential trilogy that sets the standard by which all other trilogies must be compared).
What about Indiana Jones? The second film in that trilogy is incredibly weak, one of the worst films in Steven Spielberg’s illustrious career, and while the third film rebounds nicely, it’s only in comparison to the banal second film. The third film is no match for the original Raiders of the Lost Ark, and plays out much like a TV-movie version of the first film. It’s a good movie, but not great, hence the trilogy really contains only one great film. That’s not enough to qualify as a great trilogy, and I usually watch this series by watching movies one and three, skipping two altogether.
Back to the Future? I have always been mystified by the attraction of some fans to the second and third films in this franchise. Whereas the first Back to the Future was a fresh, inventive and entertaining diversion, the second and third movies seemed to me rather contrived and increasingly formulaic, again playing out as watered-down TV-movie versions of the original movie. They clearly suffer from an advanced case of Sequelitis. No, I don’t consider this a great trilogy at all – it consists of one good, not great, movie. That’s not nearly enough.
The Matrix? Fanboys aside, let’s not be silly. This qualifies as one of the most disappointing movie trilogies of all time, considering how far the drop-off is from the first movie to the second and third. The first film was a terrific science-fiction mind-bender, and a great action movie to boot. It will always have a place on my DVD shelf. But the second and third films are not worth the time it takes to watch them; they are poorly constructed contrivances that reek of silliness, desperation and commercial exploitation. The first film had a somewhat open-ended conclusion, but actually didn’t leave much to build on for the sequels, and the lack of foresight shows. If the Waschowski brothers had really wanted to compose a trilogy from the start, they should not have made a first film that was so nicely self-contained. Closure is simply not conducive to sequels.
The Lord of the Rings is easily the best film trilogy ever made, albeit not exactly an American production. It has a lot going for it, not least of all great consistency between each film, something that I have no doubt is directly related to the fact that the trilogy was filmed simultaneously, like one large film. The continuity is striking, and the production values are triple-A across the board (as opposed to many special-effects laden trilogies, where the first movie was obviously cheaper to make than the followups). Having said that, and I’m sure I’m in the minority here, I personally prefer the intimacy of the first film over the epic scope of the next two films. The first film had me relating to the struggles of our heroes on a very personal level, while the next two films make this struggle increasingly distant due to the sheer scale the main conflict grows to. Perhaps this was unavoidable, but any which way, it doesn’t seriously diminish the series. Each of the three films is a masterpiece in its own right.
The Star Wars and Godfather trilogies both suffer a fatal flaw: one poor film. Not just a film that’s good but not as good as the others, but a flat-out bad film. Worse, in each case it is the third and final film, the film that is supposed to provide climax and closure, the film that is built up to by two superior predecessors. The Godfather trilogy fares better, because the last film is easily ignored, and because the first two films are both genuine American masterpieces, among the best films ever made. It is easy to watch the first two films, and then stop after the conclusion of The Godfather Part II, which provides plenty of closure all on its own. It helps that the third film was made so long after Part II, rendering it even more of an unnecessary afterthought (and in the end, wasn’t it exactly that?). Unfortunately, the Star Wars trilogy does not fare so well. The Empire Strikes Back ends with several cliffhangers, and provides no closure. It is difficult to watch Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, and then simply stop there. But every time I move on to Return of the Jedi, I am sorry I did, and so I find myself more often than not simply trying to be content with what might have been.
Lastly, I should briefly mention the new Star Wars “prequel” trilogy: The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. Quite simply, this pale spiritual imitation of the original trilogy is one of the worst trilogies ever made, all style and little substance. Yes, even Revenge of the Sith, which, while it greatly improved upon the previous two films, is still not a particularly good movie, especially compared to the far superior Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. That is was a great improvement is not saying much – what is it to be better than dreck? Enough said about this trilogy – I’m sorry Lucas ever went back to dip into the well, as he has sullied the entire franchise by adding more bad films to it.
There are more American movie trilogies, but these are the big guns. Which brings us to Bourne. Is is the best trilogy? In my opinion, it is in one sense, and isn’t in another. Aside from Rings, it is the best trilogy in the sense that it has no weak films. In fact, each subsequent movie in the series seems an improvement on the previous, and all the films stand perfectly well on their own. But on the other hand, no single Bourne movie is as great a movie as, say, The Godfather, and no pair of Bourne films stands up to the one-two punch of The Godfather/Part II or Star Wars/Empire.
But if I want to sit down and watch a trilogy that’s going to satisfy me from start to finish, I’m going to choose The Lord of the Rings…or the Bourne trilogy. Frankly, that’s quite an accomplishment in my book.