Prelude to a Trilogy
On the recent (8/1/13) news that Avatar will spawn three planned sequels, I have to say that, despite my knee-jerk reaction against a "cashing-in" manuever like this, I think this it's a good model for story-telling.



1 + 3

Granted, the success of any film (or series) is all in the execution, but I want to make the case for the "1 + 3" approach instead of simply "1 + 1 + 1 = 3" (e.g., X-Men, Austin Powers, Blade, Men in Black, etc.) or the "1 + 2 = 3"  (e.g., Back to the Future and Pirates of the Caribbean).  It's not that these approaches don't work, because they certainly do.  It's that sometimes the "1 + 3" model is a better fit for the material.

For example, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit (the book; I can't comment on the uncompleted movies as of this writing) was a stand-alone story that served as a prequel to the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy that followed some years later.  If you write a hit movie that opens doors for a more complex follow-up, then you should plan the sequels as a trilogy, not just "two more movies."  The "two more movies" approach worked just fine for Back to the Future.  It didn't as well for Pirates of the Caribbean, though I'm not invested enough in that series to propose that an alternative model (i.e., "1 + 1 + 1" or something other) would have improved it.

However, I've long felt that the "1 + 3" approach would have worked really well for a couple other series that fizzled.  For example:

The Matrix

The first movie was a stand-alone introduction to a very, very interesting world full of possibility.  Instead of being the first part of a trilogy, the 2nd and 3rd movies were back-to-back chapters (with a cliff-hanger even) rather than a true 2nd and 3rd part.  Contrast this with, say, the original Star Wars trilogy which had gaps between each "episode."  Thus you don't really have a Matrix trilogy but rather a "1 + 2" design.  Even the relatively rapid release dates (i.e., less than a year apart) harkened back to the movie serials of the '30s which gave rise to the very term "cliff-hanger."

Among their many flaws in plotting and tone, one of the stand-out disapointments is how the Matrix sequels also introduced a lot of characters without enough screen time to develop them or even integrate them into the story (e.g., the Merovingian and Persephone, the Architect, etc.).  There's the strong suggestion of uneasy alliances without any explanation as to why they exist or the basis for their tension.  Then there's the fact that Agent Smith is not even the Big Boss at the top of it all, so that means there's still an even greater adversary to combat (yet, the emphasis was reversed in the final film, thus the biggest confrontation fizzled).  Reloaded also introduced a lot of philosophy (which, admittedly, I enjoyed) without the space to factor it into the story itself before wrapping up the series.  There really should have been a film between Reloaded and Revolutions (call it... I don't know... Revealed or something!) that would have made the final chapter more than just big fight scenes.

The Star Wars prequels

Everyone agrees The Phantom Menace was a let-down in every way except visually and musically, but I think it's best understood as a small (and not very interesting) story that sets up the Republic-era universe for what follows.  There's a nine-year-gap between "Episode I" and the next film, so in the space of three years (between releases) Anakin jumps from child to teen, and we only have two more episodes left in which to cover his transformation into Vader.  In other words, it's not a trilogy but rather another "1 + 2" configuration.  The first film is primarily about how Anakin fell in with the Jedi, followed by two films about the expansive Clone Wars.  The most salient villain of the entire trilogy doesn't even make it past the first picture, so we move on to Count Dooku instead of building toward what should have been an epic battle with Darth Maul.

Lucas was intent on focusing an entire episode on baby Anakin no matter what anyone said.  Indeed, audience testing before filming began strongly suggested against this.  Had I been a producer, I would have said, "Okay, fine.  Go ahead and make a stand-alone film about Vader's childhood, then make a trilogy about his downfall."  A more gradual and sustained descent over three episodes would have played out much more believably than some scattered foreshadowing, followed by having Anakin grow genuinely evil only in the third act of the final film.  Yes, I know A New Hope is "Episode IV," but even that number was only pasted on when the film was re-released just before Empire Strikes Back premiered.  Phantom Menace really had no business taking time away from what the prequels were supposed to be about: the downfall of Anakin and the rise of Darth Vader.

Conclusion

Again, it's all in the execution, and I know these films had a lot of problems beyond my "two versus three sequels" proposition, but expanding the story by an additional film would have addressed some of their flaws.  The follow-ups to Avatar were originally (i.e., shortly after talk about them began) proposed as "two sequels," and that seemed wrong to me from the outset, like they wanted a trilogy just for the sake of calling it a trilogy.  Either you do a sequel and see if it leads to a "Part III" or you have a big picture in mind from the start that calls for a trilogy.  The "1 + 3" model doesn't pre-suppose a trilogy.  It says, "Go make a movie.  And if that stand-alone movie has established a universe rich enough to deserve an epic story, maybe the best approach isn't to make sequels.  Maybe you get to concentrate on making a solid trilogy.  Think about it."


An afterword: The "split book" sequels

Just to clarify, this idea of four movies instead of three sounds like I'm talking about the "expanding the last book" phenomenon.  It isn't.

My ideas about the "1 + 3" model had its genesis long before the recent spate of series in which the final installment of the source material is expanded into two separate films.  This has been done (or will be in the latter case) with Harry Potter, Twilight, and now the The Hunger Games.  I've only read the last of these to completion, and I'm inclined to agree that splitting it is a good idea in that case.  The last book of the Hunger Games trilogy is thematically much more complex than the action-oriented focus of the first two books.  On top of that, many readers feel like there are even loose in the last book in addition to all the moral ambiguity that will already be difficult to translate to the screen.

This issue is completely unrelated to what I propose above with the "1 + 3" model.  I'm only making mention of it here because these propositions both superficially read like I'm saying "4 movies is a better idea than 3."  It's completely different in the aforementioned cases of the book series because it simply wouldn't work to isolate the first chapter in any of these three series and turn the later installments into a trilogy.




Copyright 2013 Ale[x]plorer
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