After Hollywood rediscovered the trilogy, with recent franchises like The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, X-Men and Spiderman all proving that in the absence of a pre-planned, overarching narrative, big studios can be counted on to ruin at least one instalment, what was left to do? Answer: the quadrilogy, a word invented, or so it seems, exclusively to market the Alien series boxed DVD set. But rather than plan a four-film epic, the Powers That Be have stumbled on the idea of renewing older, already-proven stories, leading to the creation of Die Hard 4.0, Rambo 4, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and – according to today’s media – Beverly Hills Cop 4.
This is interesting on several levels, not in the least because Bruce Willis (53), Sylvester Stallone (62), Harrison Ford (66) and Eddie Murphy (47) are all reprising roles they first played in their twenties and thirties, although only Karen Allen (57) gets to play the same love interest. Narratively, there’s a strong appeal to these films that echoes our real-life sentiments: the image of the tough, rugged veteran slugging out one last battle is a powerful archetype, especially when balanced against the young, awed sidekick (Indiana Jones’s Shia LaBouf and Die Hard’s Justin Long). Having already accompanied the hero on similar missions, the audience is able to grin knowingly at his chutzpah, an immersive nostalgia quite unattainable in stand-alone flicks and therefore a new part of the film experience.
But why is it happening now? Unlike the traditional trilogy format, this ‘wait twenty years and go again’ approach seems a unique development. The only comparable format is James Bond, but Bond himself has been the same age for most of the twentieth century. Whether the trend arose from opportunity, need or inspiration remains to be seen, but given its obvious success, it seems likely that future films might follow the same course. Depending on Robert Ludlum, 2030 could see the return of Jason Bourne; Christian Bale might play an ageing Batman, as per the comics, or Hugh Jackman a grizzled Wolverine; even Johnny Depp might return as an older, drunker, wilier Captain Sparrow.
Until then, however, audiences are left wondering where Hollywood will turn next. Narnia was meant to sustain Disney for another decade, but unless The Voyage of the Dawntreader compensates spectacularly for Prince Caspian, the idea of an ongoing septrilogy might have to wait. Still, with Guillermo del Toro’s The Hobbit set to follow Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, book adaptations may remain a staple of blockbusters to come. The fact of Eragon’s dismal performance is no insurance against a possible Eldest and Brisingr, nor are other fantasy-trilogy adaptaions beyond the pale; indeed, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will form two separate films in order not to miss anything out, thus rounding out the movie versions to eight. Comics-based movies have also raked in a substantial heap of moolah, and until that well runs dry, the likelihood is that they’ll continue to do so, too.
All of which promises that for as long as Hollywood can keep borrowing, adapting and otherwise big-screening existant literature, there’s no need to fret about where our films are coming from – even if some new series might not end for another thirty years.