Back to the Future Trilogy Review
In any other week, in any other month, of any other year – this would have been huge. A major blockbuster series coming to Blu-ray with a plethora of brand new documentaries, and an oft-fan requested Holy Grail of an extra. But in their wisdom, Universal decided to release this set the same week as the best box set of all time – The Alien Anthology. This is absolutely bizarre as in a credit crunch your average film fan is going to struggle to buy both. However, having covered the aforementioned Anthology it is now time to look at the Spielberg / Zemeckis eighties franchise. Is this set worth the money? Is it a worthwhile addition to your collection?
Back To The Future
It was never meant to be the blockbuster it turned out to be. It is difficult for the viewer of today, with endless internet and forum chatter about upcoming releases, to imagine what is was like back in the eighties. But in 1985, a film which had hardly been on anyone’s radar was rushed from post production and into cinemas within six weeks due to record scores in test screenings. Over three months later it was still the number one film in the States and achieving similar success all across the world.
The film, of course, was the original Back to the Future. The film had a troubled beginning. Casting had been difficult. Lea Thompson was originally cast but then due to a pilot pick-up she had to drop out and be replaced. The original main character was to be famously played by Eric Stoltz, but after filming started it was decided that he just wasn’t up to the comedic requirements of the role. He was sacked and replaced by Michael J Fox, the popular star of a TV series at the time – Family Ties. Due to his commitment to that series, he could only shoot his scenes at night, leading to a punishing personal schedule. When he was cast, Thompson was brought back in and cinematic magic was created.
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is your typical teenager. Guitarist, skateboarder, slacker, and occasional attendee at school (but always late) he seems destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a terminal loser. As McFly is told in no uncertain terms by his teacher “No McFly ever amounted to anything!” He sees his Dad George (Crispin Glover) being constantly bullied by Biff Tannen (Thomas F Wilson), whilst his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) feels trapped in her marriage. Marty is friends with local mad Professor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and one day Brown calls McFly with a cryptic message to meet him in the mall car park at 1:15am.
The two meet, and it turns out the Brown has created a time machine. Unfortunately, due to a slight misunderstanding with some Libyan terrorists, Brown is shot and in the act of escaping in the time machine (a refitted Delorean car) McFly is accidentally transported back to 1955, the day Brown first came up with the concept of the time machine.
Once here, McFly accidentally ruins the event that caused his parent’s to fall in love, meaning that he has erased his future self from existence. Instead of falling in love with his father George, Lorraine ends up falling in love with the young Marty. He needs to figure out a way to get back to 1985, whilst simultaneously getting his parents to fall in love. On the way, he manages to create skateboarding and rock and roll and also has to deal with the amorous advances of his own mother.
It is difficult to pin down just why Back to the Future has endured the test of time, but I am going to try and have a go anyway. To me, it is genuinely the film that has something to attract the entire demographic of an audience. It is a science fiction film that has just enough science fiction (the Delorean car) without alienating those that don’t normally like sci-fi. It has an excellent comedic performance by Christopher Lloyd who nailed the eccentric professor down to a tee. It has a sweet romance story where the nerdish loser attracts the beautiful girl, which is played to perfection without ever cloying and becoming over sentimental. It has brilliantly executed set pieces, clever plotting, and believable dialogue. And holding it all together is a superbly likeable performance by Michael J. Fox. This is truly a film that the whole family could sit down and enjoy together, that could be watched as a date movie with both parties getting their own enjoyment out of it. This was a rarity in 1985 and it is still a rarity today, so to this reviewer at least, the success of the first movie really isn’t that much of a mystery after all.
So, we have seen that the story has all the elements to appeal to a cross-generational, cross-sex demographic but of course none of this would work without the cast – and everyone here is at the top of their game. Michael J Fox was a huge star back in the eighties, and if he hadn’t been cruelly been struck by Parkinson’s it is possible that he may have gone on to enjoy a Tom Cruise type of career, switching between blockbusters and more cerebral movies with ease. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, but he shows enough in this movie to make regret the primary emotion when viewing. He manages that rare combination of being likeable and believable in the same moment, and also displays a much underrated comic timing – the lack of this was the problem that actually meant Stoltz was not right for the role. It is tempting, viewing from the distance of time, to believe that he is merely playing himself – but the fact is that the role was the polar opposite to the one he was playing at the time in the TV sitcom Family Ties and that it was actually a shock to the audience at the time that he could play Marty McFly so successfully.
He also displays an excellent chemistry with Christopher Lloyd, who plays Doc. Emmett Brown – a role that was so ingrained into the public consciousness that he was still riffing on it in Piranha 3D earlier this year. Apparently, the level of commitment that Lloyd showed in the role meant that he never went full-out during rehearsals, meaning that his antics sometimes came as a surprise during filming. His performance is quite simply one of the most energetic I have ever seen – he doesn’t let the pace drop for a moment. In some hands, this constant madness may have seemed wearing to the audience, but in Lloyd’s hand it works perfectly. It is a fantastically judged performance, his eyes and body being used to amazing effect to underpin the role.
But it is the supporting roles which really make the picture so successful. The position of the filmmakers was to hire young actors who were able to play the same characters in 1955 as youngsters and 30 years later as adults. Sadly, the increased clarity and resolution of the masters does reveal make-up flaws in the 1985 scenes, but this is not the actor’s fault and they all give nuanced performances. Lea Thompson, in particular, is superb. In 1985 she is a tightly wound, bordering alcoholic, ground down wife who is regretting her choices. Yet in 1955 she is a coquettish and extremely sexy young girl who Marty really struggles to reject (and it’s easy to see why he struggles. She is gorgeous). She pulls off both roles with aplomb. Likewise Crispin Glover as George – the shy young man struggling to build up the confidence to ask Lorraine out, who in 1985 is still being cowed and bullied by Biff. Until the very end of the film where we see him in a completely different light, and it’s here that Glover’s performance really shines. It’s hard to believe it’s the same actor. I have already mentioned Biff, the nemesis of all the main characters in both time frames, and his performance is also superb. He manages to exude a comedic threat which must be a pretty hard trick to pull off. He is just threatening enough without ever being too over the top, and maintaining a comic sheen that fits the film perfectly.
Matching up to these performances is the director Robert Zemeckis. The film may be a comedy / action / science fiction hybrid, but he films it in a very serious way, moving his camera with flair and confidence. You only need to view the opening scene of the movie, or the sweeping shots of the chase through the mall car park to realise how well the film is shot. Back in 1955, the sense of period detail is intense – with the same set being used, but each building subtly redressed. Everything looks shiny and new in 1955, and subtly aged in 1985. The set is kept deliberately small, centering around an old fashioned town square. This means that the audience can very quickly assimilate the layout and feel at home. Switching between the two eras, the audience can quickly realise the often subtle changes that are made.
When all is said and done though, Back to the Future is one of those rare moments of alchemy where what may appear to be a light concoction not only satisfies on first viewing but is clever enough and entertaining enough to stand up to repeat viewings. It is a film that should be in everyone’s collection. It is that rare breed of cinematic perfection that it is almost impossible to criticise. Smart, funny, well-written, well acted, and clever – the film is a must-own.
Back to the Future Part II
It was always inevitable, considering the success of the first part, that there would be a follow-up film. This is especially true when you consider how the first film finishes. It looks as if the makers knew exactly what was coming next, but the reality was that the ending of the first film was never intended to be a launch pad into a sequel. When the makers were pushed to produce a sequel, however, they decided that they would film two parts back-to-back. The films would follow on directly from each other, overlapping each other, so that the three when viewed together made a seamless whole.
Therefore, part 2 sees the Doc arriving back in Marty’s driveway and whisking him and his girlfriend off on a ride into the future. When they get there, they aim to interfere in an event which has long-ranging repercussions for the McFly family. Unfortunately, things don’t go entirely according to plan – and the result of their trip means that the present day 1985 has been changed for the worse. When Marty and the Doc investigate why, they soon realise that the source of the problems actually go all the way back to the day of the enchantment under the sea dance in the original movie. Thus our two heroes have to go back in time to the original movie in an attempt to reverse the changes in the timeline that have occurred. I am aware that this is a pretty nebulous way of describing the plot, but this is deliberate. I have no wish to spoil the story for those who haven’t seen the film.
Way back when these films were first released, and I was a callow youth, Back to the Future Part II was always my favourite one of the trilogy. My younger self loved the sci-fi trappings of the future Hill Valley, the darkness of the alternative 1985 that is subsequently created, and the cleverness of the scenes that revisit 1955. Sadly, when viewing on Blu-ray this film became my least favourite of the trilogy. The trouble is with the film is that it just over-complicates matters. Dealing with three timescales, and two timelines within the confines of one film is ambitious to say the least, and the result means that the viewer never ever feels at home in any one of the environments they are presented with. The success of the first and third film is that the viewer feels comfortable whether they are placed in 1955, 1985, or 1885. Here, the pace is so breakneck that the viewer never gets time to truly drink in the time period they are viewing. This also means that great ideas feel rushed and scenes are never really given time to breathe.
The same is true of the characters. In parts one and three, although Doc and Marty are the main characters, every supporting character is richly drawn and the viewer gets to know them and their foibles. With the second film, though, there are so many different timeline versions of each character that it gets very confusing, and no-one is given enough screen time to adequately support the two leads.
The other part of the film that fails is the alternative 1985 that is created for the middle part of the film. It is actually quite surprising how dark this vision is, and it just doesn’t fit in with the ethos of the trilogy. I normally like films that explore less than perfect universes and scenarios, but seeing this world which Biff Tannen has created just is too dark to fit in with the rest of the films. This is a world where drive-by shootings is treated as comedy and the modern-day me just didn’t find this funny.
It may sound that I am hammering the film, but the reality is that I am not. There are still many things to like here. The way that the original film is revisited is very clever, with characters interacting with themselves via special effects that still hold up today. Just one example of this is the way that Marty is crouched under the car door whilst his mother tries to seduce him inside the car from the original movie. Likewise, despite the lack of sympathetic character development around them Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd still show an amazing chemistry and really seem to be enjoying reprising their roles. They spark off each other wonderfully, and the way they play their characters go a long way towards providing some stability amongst the chaos that it going on around them.
The director is also clearly revelling in revisiting the world, and with a bigger budget he seems to really enjoy playing with the concept. The effects ramp it up a notch from the original, with many innovations being seen – from the hoverboard through to the Delorean itself which now flies. Whilst the pace is clearly faster than the original, there are times when Zemeckis really gets to show his flair with a camera –noticeably in the graveyard scene in the alternative 1985. It is also worth mentioning that the scenes where characters interact indirectly with themselves are very clever and still stand up today, despite the age of the film. Both in the future, and in the past, multiple versions of the same character are in the same scene and these are handled flawlessly.
Sadly, not all the special effects are as clever as this and they tend to be a mixed bag. Some landings of the Delorean, for example where you see it approach from the distance and land in one take, are impressive. Others, where it lands obviously behind a sign, are less impressive. Some of the back projection work is also poor – but there is nothing here as bad as the flames in part one and for viewers of a certain age the effects work will be part of the charm.
But the ultimate question is whether part two only pales when compared to the first film or if it is just a poor film. I think the reality is that it messes with the formula of the first film too much. Of course, the makers were on a hiding to nothing – if they had just stuck to the formula of the first they would have been criticised. However, in an attempt to build on the first they have simply tried to pack too much in. Back to the Future Part 2 is still a very enjoyable film, and as part of a longer trilogy it does just about work. But when taking the three films as a whole, this is certainly the weakest part.
Back to the Future Part III
One of the things that a lot of people don’t realise, and one of the reasons why the films were so successful, is that they are essentially homages to certain film genres. The first one is a tribute to the 1950’s high school romance film, and the second one to science fiction time travel stories. Of course, if you are going to take this approach then you have to be sure that people actually have fond memories of the genre you are paying tribute to, and that they actually want to see a new film set in that era.
Therefore, it could easily be argued that the third film in the Back to the Future trilogy is the bravest move of the lot. Set in the Wild West, in the infancy of Hill valley, this is a loving tribute to the Hollywood western. As a genre, the Western movie had fallen in popularity so far that there had been no serious example of that type of film for a long time. Back to the Future aimed to change that. It also returned to the format that made the original so successful, eschewing the multiple timeline approach and instead settling on telling a simple story and allowing the setting to truly flourish. The aim was also to provide a fitting climax to the story and to end it completely.
Again, the third film seamlessly overlaps the second. Doc and the Delorean have been struck by lightning and have disappeared. The distraught Marty is given hope by a strange letter delivered by Western Union which turns out to be from the Doc himself, who is trapped in 1885. When Marty and the 1955 Doc are repairing the DeLorean for Marty to return to 1985, Marty spots Doc’s tombstone and discovers he was killed by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Biff’s ancestor) just six days after writing the letter. Marty thus repairs the car and heads back to 1885 to rescue the Doc.
When he gets there, he discovers that Doc Brown has rather improbably formed a relationship with Clara Clayton and is looking forward to staying in the period. Marty has to persuade him to leave and come back to the future.
Back to the Future part III very cleverly mirrors the first film, with many scenes being repeated but in old west settings. Viewers can have lots of fun just spotting the homages, and touches of humour. Again, we see the characters we are so familiar with reappearing as different versions of themselves. The already mentioned Buford Tannen, is one example, and Michael J Fox also plays his own 1885 parents who are happily living in their own time. In order to disguise who he is, in a nice nod to the original, Marty calls himself Clint Eastwood here.
As in the first film, there is a romantic sub-plot but this time it is a little more conventional than in the first film. The other difference here, of course, is that this time it’s the Doc that has fallen in love, and it allows Lloyd to really stretch his portrayal of the character, adding a more emotional and human level to his performance which is great to see. The director again is having plenty of fun with the chance to revisit old scenarios in a new location, and really allows his action chops to show through in some of the set pieces. There are many more truly inventive scenes here, including Marty’s first arrival in the era which echoes the first film rather than the second.
Performances are easier to rate this time, with each actor being given time to develop and have fun with his or her character. Fox does especially well, playing several characters and his chemistry with Lloyd is as superb as always. This time the supporting characters are given much more to do, and Steenburgen proves to be a great match for the effervescent Doc, portraying a character who in many ways is well ahead of her time.
The end result is that after the rather leftfield approach of Part II, Back to the Future part III comes across in many ways as the true successor to the classic original. You truly get the sense that the filmmakers are really enjoying portraying the time period, and have great affection for the genre they are paying homage to. This means that the result is an enjoyable Western romp which finishes the trilogy on a high note.