I've spent most of the last year and a half feeling an odd sympathy for George Lucas. I mentioned it in the acknowledgments of Orson Welles of Mars, but prequels are hard business. Trying to conjure real stakes out of the ether while the fate of your characters has long since been written is not a simple thing. I think I did okay with the challenge. If you start ignoring the rules of the space-time continuum, you can kill anybody with impunity. Multiple times*. Don't take my word for it. Find out for yourself here.
Unfortunately, I never knew how easy I had it.
Prequels are hard, but there is another type of story that has repeatedly made mincemeat out of storytellers great and small. The trilogy finale is the waterloo for so many. As I continue work on the third book in the Orson series I can't help but wonder if I am typing my way into my own private quagmire. Here are just a few examples of objectively great movie series that ended up leaving a funny aftertaste.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
I know writing unkind words about the Original Trilogy these days is sacculturous**, but before my buddy George unleashed The Phantom Menace, many considered Episode VI the nadir of the series. Ewoks were often marched around as a chief sign of the film's uneven qualities. Had the great bearded and flannelled one stopped there, we might have viewed Jedi as the dull thud of a great film series. As it stood, it was only a portent of things to come. This, of course, was all before Lucas replaced the unbridled joy of the celebration song with a Gungan refrain and a cameo from Hayden Christensen.
What's the lesson to be found in Jedi for other trilogies? Don't give in to your worst instincts.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade*** (1989)
There are only two absolute truths in the Indiana Jones series. First, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) is nearly perfect. Yes, Indiana Jones has nothing to do with the progress of the plot, but if that ruins the movie for you, then you're broken. Deal with it. Second, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is significantly less than perfect. If you disagree with that assessment, well... I don't know what to do with you anymore.
Some might say that Temple of Doom (1984) is the inferior of the pre-Labeouf entries. Mrs. Spielberg is shrill. The thugee cult isn't...super culturually sensitive. Monkey brains. I get it. However, Temple of Doom is a shamelessly different movie than Raiders. Aside from the reversal of Indy's shooting of the swordsmen, there is not one beat that is similar between the two films. Temple starts, not with a giant rolling boulder, but a musical number. "Anything Goes," indeed.
Last Crusade , aside from Sean Connery relishing playing the greatest nerd of the twentieth century, is merely a house built on the greatness of Raiders. Nazis. Marcus Brody. That moment when there's a painting of the Ark of the Covenant in the Venetian catacombs. I'm really sorry, George. Things were getting out of control for you far before you met Ewan McGregor.
What's the lesson in Last Crusade ? Don't go back to the well.
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
An aggressive letdown from the superlative second entry in the Nolan trilogy, Rises suffers from several problems that aren't necessarily the fault of the filmmakers. For my money, Heath Ledger's Joker is left alive at the end of The Dark Knight (2008) with an intention to bring him back for the inevitable sequel. Imagine Cillian Murphy's cameo as the Scarecrow if it had been played by one of the most iconic screen villains of all time. In that case, one could even have imagined the role expanded to introduce some much needed terror and chaos into Bane's lawless Gotham.
Beyond this minor quibble, the film is overcrowded. In its nearly three hour run-time, Nolan tried to distill several notable comic storylines into one movie. Elements from Year One, Knightfall, No Man's Land, and The Dark Knight Returns all make appearances. Trouble is that is two and a half years’ worth of comics jammed into one movie. None of the storylines are able to breathe, and many conflict with one another. Batman has to quit being Batman twice during the course of the movie in order for any of the events to approach cogency. It also doesn't help matters that the entire third act hinges on Batman trying to get rid of a particularly pesky bomb. It all sounds so familiar...
What's the lesson to learn from Rises? Don't try to jam everything into your finale. Make sure the basic plot of the story doesn't need anything more than thirty back issues to explain it.
Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Yes. I know. In the past, if someone suggested to me that any part of Robert Zemeckis' time travel epic was anything less than perfection, I would activate hissy fit mode. The only thing that would calm me down? A viewing of Back to the Future Part III.
Here's the confession part of the blog: I get it. The western motif is largely out of left field. The whole "nobody calls me chicken" runner through the sequels isn't really character development. It's a character trait that disappears when it stands in the way of a happy ending.
Then there is the Jules Verne Train. That's its name. Look it up. Throughout the whole series, one of the main struggles Doc Brown and Marty McFly have is keeping the DeLorean time machine in working order. No "easily" accessible plutonium in the 1950's. No combustion engine in 1885. However, when the happy ending demands it, Doc Brown is able to make a fully-functioning, steam-powered time machine off screen. I always thought the final minutes of Part III would have worked better if Joe Flaherty showed up at the wreck of the DeLorean**** with another Western Union telegram from the distant past. Doc Brown could have given the same message with the same soaring score, and every rule established in those movies didn't have to fly out the window. I guess if they had done that, then people would have wondered what happened to Doc Brown's dog, Einstein. Damned if you do, damned if you don't, I suppose.
I feel so dirty admitting all of that.
What's the lesson from Back to the Future Part III? Sometimes you absolutely stick the landing! No... Time to cut loose from the denial. The real lesson is: Don't ignore the rules of your world, even if you feel like that is the only way your saga can have a happy ending.
The Godfather Part III
The lesson: Just don't.
I try to make a rule of not being negative in these blog posts. I would even venture to say that I like the above examples, but can acknowledge their pitfalls. Except for Godfather III... I mean, come on Coppola, even if you got Winona Ryder to play Pacino's daughter, it still would have been three hours of muddled Vatican intrigue punctuated by Michael Corleone dying out of nowhere years after the movie took place*****.
But what about those good part three's out there? I had to comb the depths of IMDB just to find a few examples.
Those will come next week. In the meantime, what trilogy cappers fell on their face for you? Which ones even managed to tarnish the memories of the preceding movies? Let me know in the comments.
*Now there's a pair of sentences only a writer can get away with.
**A word I just created fusing sacrilegious and cultural. I’m not terribly fond of it.
***Sorry again, George.