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 popular film of the trilogy.
Personally, I’ve never thought that particularly fair, for reasons I’m going to come to, but I don’t feel in the majority on this one. And there are two reasons, I’ve concluded, why most people haven’t quite warmed to it in the manner they have the other films in the series.
The first, and I suspect this is the biggie, is the setting. There’s a reason that movie studios don’t make westerns, as a rule, any more, and that’s because people don’t tend to go and see them. Sure, the odd one every year or so can pull in $50m at the US box office, or you might get a breakout hit such as Unforgiven. But 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.
Secondly, this is the film that introduces a love story to the Back To The Future saga, and I’d wager that isn’t what most 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?), and that it bothers to evolve the character of the Doc. And I love that it also provides as deeply satisfying a round-up to a trilogy as I can remember.
And there are plenty more reasons to commend it than just those.
The film is, after all, buzzing with references to the other two movies as well, and it has many tips of the hats to the western genre too, which, admittedly, I missed when I first saw it. Granted, Fox calling his character in 1885 Clint Eastwood (with Eastwood’s permission, it should be noted) is overt and easy to spot. But 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.
Look out too for the familiarity of Marty’s first stumble through Main Street, Hill Valley in 1885 (which subtlety pays homage to Once Upon A Time In The West). 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.
However, it didn’t take a genius to suggest that 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.
That aside, what I subsequently find interesting about Back To The Future Part III is that it’s ultimately the Doc’s film. It’s the one where he and Marty, effectively, swap roles, where the love story allows Doc to be the love-struck teen, and Marty assumes the more paternal role. You see it, subtlely, 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 it works. The actual love story element, rewatching the film, doesn’t 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, played by Mary Steenburgen, takes some time to appear on the scene, and then she’s introduced in a fun, pacey action sequence. The chemistry between Christopher Lloyd and Steenburgen is strong, too, and it basically puts the character of the Doc front and centre for a lot more of the film.
Screenwriters Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale are wisely economic with the burgeoning relationship between Clara and the Doc, though, giving 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 denouement of the film.
This all alters the film in another pivotal way, too. 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.
Interestingly, on a technical point, I found that it also highlighted an issue that I brought up when I looked at the Blu-ray of Back To The Future Part II (there’s a link to that piece at the bottom). Namely, that it highlights lighting differences when Fox has to act against himself.
It crops up a couple of times in Back To The Future Part III, but the most obvious is the walk-and-talk scene at the town festival between Marty and Seamus. Marty is lit in a slightly different way, and I found you could really tell. However, what interested me most about that scene was that I can’t remember seeing one quite like it before.
We might take for granted now that the camera can be moving around while the same actor plays different characters on screen at the same time. However, I can’t remember seeing it in any film before this one. I’m talking specifically about the camera following Seamus and Marty as they have their conversation, which would strike me as a brutally difficult scene to co-ordinate.
Robert Zemeckis would go on to direct Forrest Gump, a film where he deployed special effects and wizardry on very 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 that scene and began to even consider how hard it would have been to do?
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.
Firstly, 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), 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.
I have 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.
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. Granted, 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.
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.
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. 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 written off. If you fall into that camp, I’d urge you to look again, and the newly released Blu-ray offers a welcome opportunity to do so. Because I genuinely struggle to come up with a more convincing, rounded and compelling end to a blockbuster trilogy, that didn’t involve layering on lots of endings on its way to the end credits.
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.
The Back To The Future trilogy arrives on Blu-ray on 25th October.