Looking back at Back To The Future Part III

Back To The Future Part III isn't the most popular film in the trilogy. But Simon argues this sci-fi western deserves more love...

I don’t think I’m going out on much of a limb by saying that, in general, Back To The Future Part III is the least talked about film in the trilogy. It shouldn’t be, in my personal view, but it’s the one that generally puts technology on the back burner, introduces a love story, and visually is the most different.

Personally, I’ve never thought the labelling of Back To The Future Part III as the least liked film in the series – as some have – is particular fair, though. My 10-year old would go even further. It’s his favourite of the lot.


So why then do some not warm to it as much? Well, let’s deal with that, before I go onto the film in more detail.

Reason one, I suspect, is the setting. I think that’s the biggie, actually. There’s a reason that movie studios don’t really make westerns so much any more (just open up Disney’s spreadsheet for The Lone Ranger is you want a recent example), and that’s because people don’t tend to go and see them.

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Sure, the odd one every year or so can pull in $50m at the US box office (Kevin Costner’s Open Range was arguably the last really good one to get a wide release), or you might get a breakout hit such as Unforgiven. But traditional westerns are not box office gold, and are an extremely tough sell. Bluntly, most people don’t want to watch them. Especially in a big summer blockbuster. Even though Robert Zemeckis was giving interviews around the time saying he didn’t regard the film as a western, if you’re drawing a Venn diagram here, there’s a sizeable overlap into western territory.

Secondly, again, this is the film that introduces a love story to the Back To The Future saga, and I’d wager that isn’t what some people went along to see either. 

I’m not deliberately swimming against the tide on this one, nor trying to antagonise. But the above two reasons? They’re among the main reasons why I think Part III eclipses Part II. I love that it takes a gamble, that it tries the next logical setting for the film (what would be the point, after all, in going further into the future, or spending too much extra time in 1985?), and that it bothers to evolve the character of the Doc. It’s the one film of the three that arguably promotes Christopher Lloyd’s wonderful Doc to the role of the main character, and he’s admitted many times since that he had a wonderful time making the film. You can tell.

The other reason I love the film, though, is that it also provides as deeply satisfying a round-up to a trilogy as I can remember. It’s all the better because Back To The Future Part IV never happened.

Reasons To Be Happy

The film is, after all, buzzing with references to the other two movies, developing and wrapping up strands that have been carefully layered. On top of that, it has many tips of the hats to the western genre too, which, admittedly, I missed when I first saw it.

I’ve watched a lot of westerns since my teens though, and subsequently, for example, got more out of Zemeckis’s introduction to 1885 Hill Valley, with a shot straight out of Once Upon A Time In The West. And whilst Marty calling his character in 1885 Clint Eastwood (with Eastwood’s permission, it should be noted) is overt, check out the extras in the Hill Valley saloon. Work your way through enough westerns, and there are some familiar faces sat there, drinking away (incidentally, Bob Gale told Starburst magazine in 1990 that “we chose 1885 because if you go back much further in California history, say to the 1700s, there would only be some Indians and maybe a few Spanish guys running around”).

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Look out too for the familiarity of Marty’s first stumble through Main Street, Hill Valley in 1885 (outside of the homage to Sergio Leone). It’s the similar style and feel that we’ve seen right throughout the series, casting Marty as a fish out of water once more, while introducing us to his world.

I should temper things slightly here, though, by discussing what I consider to be the slight narrative cheat in the film. With Back To The Future Part II, it’s Doc with the blackboard that papers over the complexity of the timelines. (Doc doesn’t have a blackboard this time, incidentally, but thoughtfully he builds us a not-to-scale model of the plan to shunt the time machine up to 88mph at the end of the film). With Back To The Future Part III, it’s a bear in a cave (or, for certain shots, an actor in a bear suit) that solves a story hole that the writers soon find themselves in.

In fact, it’s a slightly layered cheat. When Marty goes back in time to 1885 at the start of the film, he parks the DeLorean in a cave. An empty cave, by the looks of it, with no creature inside and nothing disturbed. Perfect. However, what’s this? A leaking fuel line? There, friends, is the device required to strand Marty in the past, so that he can spend the duration of the film working out a way to get back to the future. Again.

In theory, all that needed to happen here was for Marty to quickly find some receptacle from the car, and to catch enough fuel to cut the film’s running time down to 20 minutes flat.

Enter, then, a bloody big bear. A mightily convenient one that seems so out of place in the otherwise tight narrative construct of the film, that it still elicits chuckles two decades later. I don’t mind the bear, but I do feel it’s right to call it the slight cheat that it is.

However, let’s go ultra nerdy for a minute. There’s an argument, after all, that Marty didn’t think the fuel line would be a huge problem. He notices it, but doesn’t seem hugely concerned. Yet there are, surely, two DeLoreans in 1885. There’s the one that Marty has come back with, but there’s also the one that the Doc was in when hit by the lightning in 1955, which sent him back to 1885 himself. The car that he’s since covered and hidden, for Marty to discover 70 years later. He may have drained the car, but he’s unlikely to have left it without any fuel at all. At the very least, it might just have some parts that could help. And as it’s 1985 Doc in 1885 – are you following this? – he’d surely know all of this.

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That’s the beauty of a good time travel movie though. There’s always a nice paradox for, ahem, some pedant on the internet to talk about.

In truth, though, the storytelling of Back To The Future Part III is so strong, that it took several watches before I even thought about raising either of these as issues. And, in hindsight, they don’t really matter. They don’t detract from my enjoyment, and nor do they impinge on what works.

And what really works is getting to spend some quality down with the Doc.

Great Scott

Back To The Future Part III is the film where Marty and the Doc effectively swap roles. Where the love story with Clara allows Doc to be the love-struck teen, and Marty assumes the more paternal role. You see it, subtly, in the dialogue. “Great Scott,” utters Marty at one point. “This is heavy,” replies the Doc, each saying dialogue we’re used to hearing from the other.

It’s one of many indicators that our two lead characters are fulfilling slightly different functions here. And when we learn that the Doc has (again) broken his own rules to save Clara, there’s no doubting as to why emotion has taken precedence over logic for him.

And it all works. The actual love story element with Mary Steenburgen’s terrific Clara doesn’t actually eat up too much screen time at all, and it invests, by its nature, a lot more into the Doc’s character. In fact, Clara takes some time to appear on the scene at all – she’s talked about before we see her, although without it being clear who “beloved” Clara is – and then she’s introduced in a fun, pacey action sequence.

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Incidentally, Mary Steenburgen was always the top choice for Clara, we’ve since been told, but initially was reluctant to take the role on. It was her kids who talked her into it. Wise kids.

Anyway: Zemeckis has made no secret of the fact that he hugely enjoyed being able to shoot out in the open. And save for the part where he was jetting backwards and forwards sorting out Part II (he’s admitted he didn’t sleep much), Zemeckis, along with the cast and crew, generally considered Part III the most relaxed of the films to actually shoot. It could have been different had the original plan been followed, though.

As director of photography Dean Cundey recalls, “originally it was one script – that it was going to be one sequel. And the script was too long, but as they tried trimming it and cutting, and rearranging, but it always meddled with the story and the various points it had to link”.

As it turns out, the decision to do the split gave the space to both fully explore doing a western (an idea that was first suggested for the original movie), and to give Clara and Doc a good story.

Full credit to Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen for their work here too. Their chemistry is strong, and Lloyd in particular is a joy. Unsurprisingly, it’s his favourite of the films too. “That’s the one I enjoyed doing most”, he told us a year or two back. “I loved the first, because that’s first discovery of the whole story. But the third one! It’s a western, so you get to ride the horses. There were the scenes on the steam engine where I’m actually hanging off the sides of it, and it’s actually going along and propelling itself. There’s risk involved, and I wasn’t strapped to it, so had to hold on to it. And then I had a romance! So it was such a departure from the others”.

He’s right.

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That said, screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale are wisely economical with the relationship between Clara and the Doc, making sure to give the latter a paradox of his own to play with: how can such a logical, science-driven man fall in love at first sight? It’s something that leads the Doc to challenge many of his beliefs and assumptions, and kickstarts the thinking that leads to a time machine in a train at the film’s denouement.


This all alters the film in another pivotal way, too, beyond the initial swapping of Marty and Doc’s positions. The Doc has been the moral conscience of the series to date, being a strict enforcer of the ethics of time travel. But with his head turned, he can’t fulfil that role here.

Enter, then, Seamus McFly, played once more by Michael J Fox. It’s a small role that fulfils a necessary narrative function. As with Part II, Fox has to act against himself (with the high definition transfer of the film highlighting slight lighting differences if you want to be ultra, ultra picky), and the most ambitious moment technically is one that feel the most relaxed: where Marty and Seamus are walking alongside each other, having a chat. Dead Ringers had brought two Jeremy Irons to the screen, having a conversation with each other. Back To The Future Part III made it look more natural than it ever had, without having to ground the camera.

Director Robert Zemeckis is a renowned technical innovator of course, and he would move on to make Death Becomes Her after this, and then Forrest Gump, a film where he deployed special effects and wizardry on everyday scenes, often without us noticing. I’d argue the roots of his thinking are right here, though. How many of us sat back and watched Seamus and Marty having a natter, and even began to consider how hard it would have been to do? Some of us were still on ZX Spectrums at the time.

The Finale

But back to the story, which is a lot closer to the feel and tone of the first film than the second. Its structure is certainly the same. The time machine gets stranded in the past, there’s a romance at the heart of it, and the big finale has to get Marty back to the future once more. Yet, it builds plenty onto those foundations.

We finally see Marty rid himself of the need to react whenever he’s called chicken (or yellow, in this case). It’s still not my favourite device in the films, to be fair (not aided by the fact that it wasn’t really even hinted at as a character flaw of Marty’s in the original, appreciating that Marty evolved since then), and it’s Seamus ultimately who’s put in there to fight it. Still, to make the epilogue work, and to allow Marty to survive his shootout with Buford Tannen, it had to happen.

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I have to admit, too, that I think Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen is brilliant (Mad Dog, incidentally, comes from the videogame Wild Gunmen, which Marty plays in Café 80s in Back To The Future Part II). Throughout the series, Thomas F Wilson as the assorted Tannens provides a foe worthy of the name, as well as having to sit in assorted piles of manure (his sort-of autobiography is worth digging out, incidentally).

Here, he’s having a blast. His dim-witted, sharp-shooting gunslinger arguably has an even nastier edge than the rich Biff in Back To The Future Part II, and he’s the most sinister Tannen we meet. He’s like a stormtrooper who can shoot straight, and you’re never in much doubt that he’d shoot you in the back. That, though, is where the work laying down narrative hints in the second film pays off, as the clues to how Marty will ultimately defeat him are there.

There’s less Tannen in this film, though (which arguably increases his impact), and the film as a whole has a brighter, lighter feel to it. The production design is terrific once more, too, and Alan Silvestri delivers yet another superb musical score.

Also, I’d argue, the end set piece is the best that the trilogy delivers outside of the original’s lightning strike on the Clock Tower. Perhaps, again, a high definition transfer does demonstrate the age of the special effects, especially when Doc escapes the train on the hoverboard. But I love the spectacle of the big stream train pushing the DeLorean, and it’s a genuinely exciting final action sequence, not least when the train blows the last of the Doc’s special concoctions and soars towards the magical 88. That most of this is done practically, out in the open, makes it feel even more special.

It also makes good of the explanation at the start of the film from the Doc that Marty must think “fourth dimensionally”. It’s casually introduced, when Marty is driving the time machine towards the drive-in movie screen in 1955. Yet, it proves pivotal when he eventually returns to 1985, and the car finds the extra train track that it needs.

Train Time

I’m not going to argue that Back To The Future Part III is a perfect film, because it’s not shy of a few problems. But it is a strong one, and it bothers to put together an epilogue that comfortably pulls together the remaining narrative strands from the trilogy in an effective way. It’s true to the story and it ends it properly. We finally see Marty avoid his accident, for instance, changing his life forever. And Zemeckis and Gale save us one last surprise, with the brand new time machine at the end (which does look a bit dated, to be fair) complete with the Doc’s two kids, one of which – as you can see in the following YouTube clip – is making strange gestures. Just thought you’d like to know that, if you didn’t already.

Back To The Future Part III is, for me, a lovely film, a compelling and exciting blockbuster movie that, in some quarters at least, has been unfairly underappreciated. If you fall into that camp, I’d urge you to look again. I genuinely struggle to come up with a more convincing, rounded and compelling end to a blockbuster trilogy (yep, even from Mr Nolan), that didn’t involve layering on lots of endings on its way to the end credits.

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As a standalone film, it’s strong. As the end part of a trilogy? It’s hard to think how it could have been better. A real treat, and a very rewatchable one, too.

See also: Looking back at Back To The Future Part II

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