Let’s Talk Trilogies

I saw The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey about a week ago and it’s caused me to think about how this second Tolkien trilogy (which will consist of An Unexpected Journey, The Desolation of Smaug, and There and Back Again) will compare to the first Lord of the Rings trilogy. I really enjoyed The Hobbit, but I didn’t love it as much as Jackson’s others. So while I’m sure the next two films will be exciting as well, I’m not certain that they’ll be able to top their predecessors.

Of course, all of these thoughts of trilogies led me to a question that I’ve often asked myself and that most cinephiles encounter at some point: What is the best movie trilogy? There are answers that automatically come to mind such as the original Star Wars trilogy and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but before coming to a conclusion, one should consider what a perfect trilogy is. Are the movies to be judged independently or as one whole? For example, I consider each of the Godfather films to be worth watching, but The Godfather: Part III doesn’t connect seamlessly with the first two films. Furthermore, I love the Matrix trilogy and find that, as a whole, it is endlessly fascinating, but honestly, I’ve always been a little underwhelmed by the brainless action of Matrix Revolutions. So I think the ideal trilogy finds ground somewhere in the middle of those two examples: All three films are of excellent individual quality and entertainment and at the same time, they blend seamlessly into one epic cinematic experience.

Writing a post on great trilogies obviously requires titles to be named for consideration, so in addition to providing a long list of notables at the bottom, I’m also going to try to name my “Greatest Trilogy Ever” pick.

Out of the trilogies that I’ve seen in their entirety, my top five would look like this (in alphabetical order):

The Dark Knight Trilogy (Nolan)
The Godfather Trilogy (Coppola)
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Jackson)
The Matrix Trilogy (Wachowski)
The Original Star Wars Trilogy (Lucas)

Now I’m going to tackle each of these series one by one, dissecting what makes them great, what flaws they have, and how each film fares individually. In order to be more specific with my ratings, I’ve used a base rating of 5 instead of 4.

The Dark Knight Trilogy
Batman Begins: 4/5
The Dark Knight: 4.5/5
The Dark Knight Rises: 4.5/5
There are flaws in each of these films, as Nolan’s critics have been sure to point out, but this is still a great trilogy and in the canon of comic book movies, the Dark Knight trilogy is undeniably king. The films mesh together into a fine series, though Batman Begins has a little bit of a different look than the following two pictures. Plot holes have left some audiences less than satisfied, but individually, I find that each of the movies are outstanding.

The Godfather Trilogy
The Godfather: 5/5
The Godfather: Part II: 4.5/5
The Godfather: Part III: 4/5
Coppola’s classic series is one of the most beloved trilogies in cinema. The first Godfather is nearly perfect and some would argue that Part II, which is commonly called the “greatest sequel of all-time,” is even better. However, the third part, at least in my eyes, keeps the series from becoming flawless. Perhaps it’s because it was made quite a few years after the other two and the film employs almost an entirely new cast of characters that makes The Godfather: Part III a minor disappointment. Because Part III is so different, the trilogy doesn’t quite connect like I would like it to, nonetheless, The Godfather is still an all-time great.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy
The Fellowship of the Ring: 4.5/5
The Two Towers: 5/5
Return of the King: 5/5
Peter Jackson’s epic Tolkien adaptations were shot all at once, so that probably contributes to the incredible way that the three films weave together. When it comes to becoming one cohesive story, I doubt that a better trilogy has been made. They would play very well when shown back to back to back, but unfortunately, their runtimes are overwhelming. Individually, the movies are all excellent pieces of fantasy filmmaking though one might not want to watch The Two Towers without the beginning or the ending.

The Matrix Trilogy
The Matrix: 4/5
Matrix Reloaded: 4.5/5
Matrix Revolutions 3.5/5
Like The Lord of the Rings, I find that this pioneering sci-fi action series is best when viewed as one giant story. As much as I like this trilogy, I don’t think the first and final parts of this trilogy are necessarily great films. I consider the series’s strong point to be Reloaded, but watching the middle of a trilogy isn’t one of my favorite things to do. Nonetheless, the Wachowskis had a great idea here and I enjoy revisiting what they came up with.

The Original Star Wars Trilogy
Star Wars: 5/5
The Empire Strikes Back: 5/5
The Return of the Jedi: 4.5/5
I loved these movies as a child, so I’m not sure I will never be able to accurately critique them. Watching them years later though, I’m struck more than ever by their originality and timelessness. They aren’t flawless, but they are all unique and each has it’s own signature moments. In addition, these films play well in a single viewing. They’re epic and entertaining without the three-hour runtimes of Lord of the Rings.

After this overview, I think that George Lucas’ original Star Wars trilogy most closely matches my definition of the “Greatest Movie Trilogy of All-Time.” Each of the films has its own personality, a reasonable runtime, and they all add up to an unforgettable result.

There are trilogies that I haven’t mentioned, either because I haven’t seen them or I didn’t pick them for my top five. Here’s a list of other ‘notable’ trilogies that one might consider for the title:

The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (I-III) (Lucas)
The Back to the Future Trilogy (Zemeckis)
The Toy Story Trilogy (Lasseter/Lasseter/Unkrich)
The Bourne Trilogy (Liman/Greengrass/Greengrass)
The Indiana Jones Trilogy (Spielberg)
The Dollars Trilogy (Leone)
The Ocean’s Trilogy (Soderbergh)
The Evil Dead Trilogy (Raimi)
The Alien Trilogy (Scott/Cameron/Fincher)
The Pirates of the Caribbean Trilogy (Verbinski)
The Die Hard Trilogy (McTiernan/Harlin/McTiernan)
The Spider-Man Trilogy (Raimi)
The Scream Trilogy (Craven)
The X-Men Trilogy (Singer/Singer/Ratner)
The Terminator Trilogy (Cameron/Cameron/Mostow)
The Mad Max Trilogy (Miller)
The Austin Powers Trilogy (Roach)
The Mariachi Trilogy (Rodriguez)
The Trilogy of the Dead (Romero)
The Mission: Impossible Trilogy (De Palma/Woo/Abrams)
The Jurassic Park Trilogy (Spielberg/Spielberg/Johnston)
The Hannibal Lecter Trilogy (Demme/Scott/Ratner)
The Blade Trilogy (Norrington/Del Toro/Goyer)
The Mummy Trilogy (Sommers/Sommers/Cohen)
The Ageism/Dream Trilogy (Gilliam)

But that’s not all! Here are some acclaimed foreign-language trilogies to consider:

The Samurai Trilogy (Inagaki)
The Apu Trilogy (Ray)
The Three Colors Trilogy (Kieslowski)
The Vengeance Trilogy (Park)
The Millennium Trilogy (Oplev/Alfredson/Alfredson)
The Trilogy of Faith (Bergman)
The Trilogy of Life (Pasolini)
The Dr. Mabuse Trilogy (Lang)
Antonioni’s ModernityTrilogy (Antonioni)
Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini)
The Human Condition Trilogy (Kobayashi)
Jean Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy (Cocteau)
Andrzej Wajda’s War Trilogy (Wajda)
The Quatsi Trilogy (Reggio)

So what do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my definition of a great trilogy? What’s your pick for the prize? Do you have a top five? Also, do you think the Hobbit movies will be worth all the hype?

10 responses to “Let’s Talk Trilogies

  1. I would probably consider The Godfather trilogy to be the best one, even with the third movie. My second favorite is the Dollars trilogy.

    I’m planning on seeing the Three Colors trilogy for the first time soon. I’ve been waiting to see that for a while. Nice post.

    • Yeah, The Godfather is great, I just don’t think Part III measures up to the other two. I haven’t seen the entire Dollars trilogy, but I really should plan on seeing them sometime soon… I also haven’t seen the Three Colors trilogy either… I guess I need to get to it! Thanks!

  2. Really interesting article. Especially around if a trilogy should be assessed as a whole or individual films. Obviously at the time they kind of have to be assessed individually, but as time passes, you can look at them as a single story. Though again, some trilogies such as the Pasolini one and the Three Colours, don’t necessarily tell a single story, they are connected by thematic concerns. Which is endlessly interesting, but makes it difficult to consider them in terms of being ‘one film’.

    I think that The Dark Knight trilogy is the best in that regard of telling a single story arc close to perfectly. Whilst the third film has its flaws, I think it is utterly perfect in terms of finishing off the arc of Bale’s Batman.

    I also absolutely love the Back to the Future trilogy. All three are awesome individually and the character journeys of the two main characters work so well across all three films.

    • That’s very true, some trilogies are connected by “thematic elements rather than a story. And that makes me wonder how those trilogies should be judged: based either on the definition here or a different one. Because the connections within those trilogies are sometimes less obvious, a different one might be appropriate. Great thought! The Dark Knight and Back to Future Trilogies are both good picks. Thanks!

  3. Godfather III shouldn’t even be bothered being seen next to the other two. In terms of all three movies being strong, Lord of the Rings is probably the best out of your top 5. And there’s a glaring lack of Jurassic Park here!

    • Lord of the Rings is great and I also like Jurassic Park too! Can’t believe that I left that out of the list (though it wouldn’t be in my top five anyway). Thanks for commenting and pointing that out!

  4. Some of your unmentioned trilogies are no longer trilogies – Indiana Jones, Bourne, Die Hard, Alien, Terminator, & Mission Impossible. Where does ‘Trilogy’ end and ‘spin-off’ or ‘expanded universe’ begin? Die Hard, Indy & Mission Impossible were very much pitched as continuations; making them quadrilogies. Can we as the audience choose how to interpret the franchise? I do, but The ‘James Bond’ model seems the way of Hollywood now. Like you I separate Star Wars IV – VI from the prequels. I don’t consider Terminator Salvation part of the core trilogy. You’ve provoked my thoughts…

    • Interesting thoughts. With most of those examples, the fourth film was made years after the rest of the trilogy. When I talk about the Indiana Jones trilogy, I refer to the ones made in the eighties, probably because they were the ones who showed us who Indiana Jones was whereas the fourth one just seems like a tribute to the old Indy. I’ve found very few of these continuations that have added much to the franchise, so I just usually ignore them in the overall scope of things. Perhaps we’re going to have to call them the “Original Mission: Impossible Trilogy” and the “Original Bourne Trilogy” as we do with Star Wars by the time it’s all over.

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