Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Films of 1990: Back to the Future Part III (1990)

Back to the Future Part III (1990) has always been my least favorite film of the Robert Zemeckis time-travel trilogy. 

Although entirely amiable, the film abjectly lacks the mind-bending, satirical quality of Part II (1989), as well as the sheer freshness of the 1985 original. 

In every way, then, this third film is the metaphorical Return of the Jedi (1983) of this trilogy, to continue the Star Wars comparisons I have deployed in my other BTTF reviews. 

If not gone, the thrill seems at least diminished in Back to the Future Part III. 

Yet on a re-watch of Back to the Future Part III last week, I  must confess that I felt something different too. The film remains my least favorite of the three, but I can also detect that it possesses virtues worth championing. 

In terms of diagramming the Marty/Doc friendship, for example, Back to the Future Part III is certainly tops. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd seem to spend more time on-screen together in this sequel than they did in the previous entries, and it's a good match. Viewers get a  real sense for Marty and Doc's friendship, and why it matters to each character.

Additionally, the film’s final set-piece -- involving a runaway train, the time-traveling DeLorean and a half-constructed bridge to nowhere -- is not only suspenseful, but technically-brilliant to boot. This unexpectedly exciting action sequence grants the third act a sense of drive and excitement largely missing from the rest of the picture. Zemeckis possesses a keen understanding and mastery of film grammar and cutting, and he rises once more to the occasion, giving this third film a rip-roaring climax.

Also, I would be intellectually dishonest if I didn’t note that, upon the film’s ending, I felt a lump in my throat. 

Watching that magical, time-traveling DeLorean get pulped on the train tracks is a remarkably emotional moment, as is Marty’s realization that he will never see his friend, Doc Brown, again. 

Somehow, in my memory, I had managed to underplay the importance of such moments, and so I hope to correct that here, today. Back to the Future Part III may not reach the heights of greatness that its predecessors did.  But it is a good film.

Back to the Future Part III also adequately wraps up the story of the previous films, namely Marty’s troublesome future (involving a car accident) and the film even re-states -- through yet another town square chase involving a Tannen and a McFly -- the franchise’s central message about different generations experiencing the same events. 

So while I still prefer the first two films in the saga, I can nonetheless state that Back to the Future Part III  captures well the “heart” of the trilogy, and brings the narrative to a close with both thrills and pathos. 

“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy!”

Trapped in 1955, Marty McFly (Fox) learns that his friend from 1985, Doc Brown (Lloyd) was sent back to 1885 by a freak lightning strike.  

There, in the early days of Hill Valley, Doc opened up a shop in town as a blacksmith, and hid the time-traveling DeLorean in a mine…realizing that one day it could be fixed and could send Marty back to his present.

But the 1955 Doc Brown and Marty learn that the blacksmith of Hill Valley didn’t live a long and fruitful life in the Old West. Instead, Brown was killed by one of Biff’s (Thomas Wilson) ancestors, Buford Tannen, over a dispute involving eighty dollars.

With the DeLorean repaired, Marty goes back in time to 1885 to save his friend. 

There, in the past, Doc finds love with a spinster school teacher, Clara (Mary Steenburgen), and Marty must face his own fear of being called “chicken;” the very fear that will destroy his future.

“It’s the future or bust.”

Back to the Future Part III is the first film in the saga that, for much of its run, doesn’t seem to want to run at all.

Much of the film involves the  love affair between Doc and Clara, and while that story is indeed sweet and gentle, it doesn’t create a lot of tension or conflict in the story.  

Similarly, Marty’s encounter with the McFlys of the Old West -- Maggie and Seamus -- doesn’t add much either.  

For the first time in the saga, Michael J. Fox playing “different” McFlys doesn’t pay off either in terms of comedy or drama.  

I suppose, at this point, it’s an expectation for him to don funny clothes, or put on an accent, but these moments play more like a box checking exercise than a legitimate or dramatic function of the screenplay. 

The sequel also finds trouble, I believe, from one key law of movie sequels in general, which states that follow-up story-lines must be more complex, and feature a multiplication of dangers. 

Back to the Future Part II lived up to this notion, bending itself around the original film and spinning out new ideas, and alternate universes.  

Back to the Future Part III, set in the Old West, feels straight-forward and simple to the degree that, in some way, interest in the saga is actually diminished.

The film makes up for this deficit, finally. 

The last act, which features Marty, Doc and Clara on a constantly accelerating train, is masterfully vetted. The tension builds, spikes, and finally crescendos beautifully.  The outdoor locale, the special effects (involving a last minute rescue with a hover board), and the stunts really succeed. In this scene, and its post-script in 1985, Back to the Future Part III seems to come bursting back to life, and remember the reasons why we watch these films in the first place.  

The Back to the Future movies are about time, but they are also about, oddly, racing against time.  The final train chase certainly recaptures the anarchic, anything-can-happen glory of the earlier two films in a palpable way. One missed train, one fumbled moment, and the future is unwritten!

Yet the film’s real virtue involves its handling of the Marty/Doc friendship. 

They know and love each other so much at this point that they have begun to talk like one another. There’s a great moment mid-way through the film where, without comment, Marty and Doc change catchphrases. Marty says “Great Scott,” and Doc deadpans “heavy.” This simple verbal gimmick, this simple twists, suggests that each personality has internalized some aspect of the friend to a great degree.  

Similarly, Marty’s sadness at never seeing Doc again, and Doc’s fear that Buford Tannen has killed Marty, are well-played and touching.  Indeed, the whole time-travel journey comes about this time because Marty is not content to let Doc die in the past. To use another franchise metaphor, Marty embarks on a "search for Spock," to recover a lost, beloved friend.

Much of the Back to the Future trilogy thrives on the chemistry created by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd as these two central characters, and Back to the Future Part III features some of the best, most heartfelt exchanges between Doc and Marty, so that's a welcome quality to put in the film's "plus" column.

I’m not exactly certain quite how to put this, but here’s the core difference between Back to the Future Part II and Part III as I see it.  

The first sequel is about ideas, about a single event “rippling” and changing the time-line, and then the attempt to correct that catastrophic change. Part II is science fiction at the genre's best, in a sense, exploring futurism, alternate realities, and even, to some degree, the concept of paradox. 

Back to the Future III, by contrast, is a sweet story that relies on our affection for Marty and Doc Brown.  

In 1990, seeing Back to the Future Part III, I missed the sense of confident imagination so evident in the earlier entries.  Yet today, in 2015, I'm okay with Back to the Future Part III’s more laid back, gentle approach to the material. I still don’t prefer it, but I am okay with it. I think it works well enough, at least in terms of bringing the franchise to closure.

More than that, it’s a perfect movie moment, I feel, when Doc meets Marty for the last time in that Jules Verne, steam-punk contraption, and reminds him -- and by proxy, the audience too -- that the future isn’t written, so we must all write the best one we can.  

That is a beautiful moment that crystallizes the message of the picture and the trilogy, and reminds us each to be the hero in our particular adventure or “time.”  It’s a poignant moment because Marty’s time travel days are done, and yet he will still travel to the future, and still make choices about his behavior every single day.  

Just like the rest of us will.

Frankly, I don’t know that the series could choose a better or more touching note to close on. 

But I still hate seeing that De Lorean get shattered into a million pieces. For a lot of us, that vehicle has earned a special place in the Valhalla of sci-fi movie vehicles. It has been our carriage to adventures tragic, comic, exciting and emotional. The time train, though wonderful in conception and execution, doesn’t quite capture the sense of whimsy and familiarity we now associate with the DeLorean.  When the DeLorean is destroyed, we recognize -- as viewers -- that the saga is really at an end.

So Back to the Future Part III is less driven, less inspired, and less imaginative, in a lot of ways, than its two predecessors were.  And yet it succeeds nonetheless in bringing a sense of closure to the franchise by focusing not on velocity or acceleration, but on the characters we have come to love. 

As a young buck, demanding and expecting much from such a tent-pole film, I felt disappointed by the film's approach.  Today as an older and hopefully wiser viewer, I appreciate the focus on people instead of pyrotechnics or even high concepts.

How can I explain this change in perception? 

I think in 1990 I just wasn’t -- to quote Doc Brown -- “thinking fourth-dimensionally.” 

I wanted thrills and chills and big ideas. But today, I appreciate the heart and the poignancy of the last film in the Back to the Future trilogy a bit more.


  1. Anonymous1:04 PM

    Having seen these as a child, I postponed re-watching them in fear that they might seem stupid and infantile films. When I finally watched the trilogy, I found it thoroughly enjoyable. The third part is different but as you say, we learn to appreciate the human side of these movies. If I remember correctly, it was you who wrote that Part III is a passable western movie in itself, and I must agree.


  2. Strange, I actually disagree with you a bit on this one. Both my wife and I really like this film a bit more than Part 2. Some of it may be the use of the old west, which was really a genre that you didn't see much at all in films during the 1980s (Silverado being the only real exception). Part of it was seeing Doc get a little more development as a character. As you said, he gets to interact with Marty quite a bit more in this movie and I think his romance with Clara brings out a further dimension to the character.

    One thing I really liked was "Mad Dog" as the antagonist. I always feel that the Biff we see in "Back to the Future" is not the same Biff we see in Part 2. It really feels like they ramped him up from a Bully to a psychopath. In part 3 we get around that with a totally different ancestor, and one (like Griff) who could be completely nuts because we don't have a preconceived notion of his personality.

    All three films are a treat to revisit, and hold a special place in my heart that is for sure. I once wondered what would happen in Hollywood attempted to remake them. I gave myself nightmares after that... so I don't recommend it.

    Thanks for putting these up John, it was a blast to the past (and the future) to read them!

  3. It seems that around the early 90s, the Western started making a comeback in America, and I always saw Part III as a prime example. Do you think the the fall of the Berlin Wall and Bush's "New World Order" played a role in why movies started to revisit the Western genre? Thanks John, I enjoyed reading these reviews.

  4. Wonderful review, but I'm going to have to disagree on the point that Marty's meeting of Seamus and Maggie adds nothing to the plot. It's from Seamus that we learn of his brother Martin McFly, who was stabbed in a bar fight while trying to prove he wasn't "chicken."

    Marty comes to realize that he not only shares this trait, but also the name of this ancestor. There's also a hint in Michael J. Fox's performance which ties this third film to his Uncle "Jailbird" Joey from the first film, as Marty realizes that he might be heading in that direction as well. It's never stated directly, but I made the connection when while watching.

    I don't think Marty would have come to these conclusions on his own. Meeting his ancestors leads to the final, pivotal event in the film, when he rejects being called a "chicken" and backs away from that challenge for perhaps the first time in his life.

  5. I KNOW this is an unpopular view, but BTTF III is the best film of the lot. It is certainly the sweetest, as well as the most exciting. The jokes are more subtle (look at Marty's 1950s 'western' outfit -- complete with atomic symbols) and the pace more human. Also ... I love westerns more than any other genre, so I'm prejudiced....