The Magic Number: Trilogies and Mainstream Movies

With its UK release mere days away, Before Midnight (pictured), the second sequel to Richard Linklater’s 1995 Indie romance Before Sunrise, has already garnered enough praise and critical adoration to suggest that it is a contender for film of the year. If the critics are to be believed then it appears that Midnight, which rejoins middle-aged lovers Jesse and Céline eighteen years after a chance encounter on a train in Vienna first brought them together, may be one of those rare examples of a sequel that surpasses its source material. More remarkable though, it appears that it forms the final piece, started by Sunrise and its equally praised predecessor Before Sunset, in the even rarer example of a perfect trilogy.

Perfect trilogies, in which each film in the series can be considered a classic in its own right, are notoriously hard to get right and those that exist are few and far between. Classic examples of the perfect trilogy include the The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars and recent additions of these films include the Toy Story, Dark Knight and the Matt Damon helmed Bourne trilogies. But why are they are so hard to come by and what is it about the trilogy that filmmakers find so hard to master?

The Sequel Problem

The problem is that sequels themselves are difficult to do well. Films that predominantly get sequels are often commercial and critical successes and the films that follow on from them are loaded with a weight of expectation and an existing audience eager for a new and improved version of their favourite film. It’s a tricky line to walk: stick to the formula too much and you’ll bore your audience; stray too far away and you risk alienating the audience you originally made. On top of this is the preconception that the film will be formulaic and a cynical cash in on a successful product riding on the wave of public demand. Audiences and critics alike demand to be challenged and any film that doesn’t satisfy these criteria will surely suffer a backlash.

It is often the third part in a series which is most likely to determine the success of the trilogy for not only does it face the same problem as the first sequel, but it must also live up to expectations made by the sequel itself. The Godfather Part III is perhaps the most quoted example of a film that disrupts the flow of a trilogy. Though the film itself is a respectable piece of cinema, and nowhere near as bad as its detractors make it out to be, it falls under the shadow of two universally admired Oscar winning films with their own weighty expectations.

It is also expected to break new ground, an almost impossible task for films that follow on from films that were ground-breaking themselves. Terminator 2: Judgement Day, with its innovative special effects, impressive set pieces and a clever reversal of the hero/villain roles established in the first film, left very little for its successor T3: Rise of the Machines to improve upon resulting in a film that could only be a lacklustre action flick in comparison. Attempts to differ from the original films’ framework in order to create something original may also lead to it losing what made the original so special. A good example would be Alien3 which confused many expecting a continuation of the mainstream, series’ crossover of horror and science fiction only to be confront with a dark and, at times, disturbing drama that bordered on art house territory.

The Major Third

So why does Before Midnight succeed where countless others have failed? Perhaps the most important aspect of the third part in a series is how well it manages to conclude a story that has been in progression over a number of years. Of great significance is the development of characters over this period. In order for a single film’s story to be effective, its characters must embark on a rites of passage and end in a different place (spiritually, physically and/or emotionally) than where they originated from and the audience’s expectations are raised in a trilogy due to the amount of time that has passed between each instalment.

A trilogy like the The Lord of the Rings works because each film purposefully leads on to the next with each character only reaching the end of their rites of passage at the conclusion of the final film. Obviously, a film originally intended as a standalone story where a sequel is determined only after its initial success places a challenge on the filmmakers as its story reached its natural conclusion at the end of its first chapter. In order to extend this film into a series, filmmakers must discover new ways for their characters to develop beyond their initial rites of passage and address the main issues at the heart of their story.

Not only does Before Midnight find a way to continue the story of Jesse and Céline after the initial conclusion of Before Sunrise, but it also re-addresses the themes of this first film and shows the ways in which time has altered their own feelings for the world and for each other. In that Sunrise was about the freedom and possibilities of youth and the cursory nature of human experience, Midnight addresses the bitterness and boredom of old age and the monotony of prolonged companionship. The breakdown in Jesse and Céline’s relationship may not be the happy ending that audiences desire, but it is a realistic reflection of human relationships that transcends its predecessor’s fairy-tale premise. The addition of Before Midnight thus gives the series a new meaning turning it into a meditation on love, age and togetherness that exceeds the expectations of each standalone film.

Bang on the Money

Trilogies are commonplace in today’s cinematic market especially in Hollywood releases where mass production and box office returns are the name of the game. The last six months have seen the release of the third and final chapters in the successful Iron Man and The Hangover franchises whilst sequels to other franchises, such as Die Hard, Star Trek and The Fast and the Furious, have been some of the most profitable films this year. Whilst the majority of these films have received mixed to average reviews, Before Midnight shows the possibilities that sequels and trilogies have to improve upon their predecessors. It may be a hard line to walk, but, if done right, trilogies can add the final touch needed to make the perfect story.

Written by Chris Shackleton, a Leeds based blogger with an interest in film, music and television. Currently moonlighting as a Michael Cera lookalike. Find more of his writing on his blog: