Friday, December 18, 2015

Back to the Future Part III

In honor of Trophy Unlocked’s fifth anniversary, we have decided to finish off the trilogy of re-reviews of the Back to the Future film series with a look at Part III. This movie was originally released in 1990, just one year after its more iconic predecessor, but filmed at the same time as Part II; both movies were then edited and released separately. Previously I had stated that Part II wasn’t as good as Part I, but still somewhat enjoyable. However, I couldn’t find myself feeling the same way with Part III.

Back to the Future Part III begins exactly where Part II left off: 1955 Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) had just sent Marty McFly from Part I (Michael J. Fox) back to 1985, but Marty shows up again almost immediately and tells Doc that he’s back from the future. The shock of this moment causes Doc Brown to faint. Doc Brown later wakes up in his house and Marty shows him the letter he had received from 1885 Doc Brown to prove that the events of Part II occurred. By following the instructions in the letter, Doc and Marty recover the DeLorean damaged during Part II in an abandoned mine so they can repair it and send Marty back to 1985, where the time machine is to be destroyed. However, Marty discovers a nearby tombstone that shows Doc Brown as having died within a week after the letter from 1885 was originally sent and 1955 Doc Brown helps to send Marty back to 1885 to prevent his temporal counterpart from receiving a fatal gunshot.

The tombstone which kicks off the plot.

While the story of Part II ended up being sillier than Part I, it seems that Part III manages to come up short even compared to the previous installment. For the most part, it seems to be going through the motions, resulting in an overall weaker story through even more repetition which, in some ways, mirrors the first movie. To wit: Marty goes back in time to prevent Doc Brown’s death and wakes up in a McFly residence after going unconscious somehow; Marty runs into a Tannen who later gets covered in manure; Doc and Marty come up with a plan to send Marty back to the future despite not having a proper fuel source and it pays off at the last possible millisecond. There are other little things as well, like constantly looking at a photograph to determine success with altering the timeline or Marty donning a fake name to blend in with the past and not screw up his ancestry, as well as the movie ending with the exact same shot from Part I, but with a train instead.

There are some elements which keep the movie from feeling completely like a carbon copy of the first installment, but they do little to alleviate how underwhelming it is. The most notable would be the introduction of Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), who serves as a love interest for Doc Brown and was the one who originally erected the tombstone discovered by Marty in 1955. While not a bad addition to the cast, she sadly doesn’t have much characterization apart from supposedly being a schoolteacher and sharing a love of Jules Verne with Doc Brown.

Of course, there are some questions that bugged me a little as I was watching the movie regarding certain bits of time travel logic. “Thinking fourth dimensionally” has been shown to be important to using the DeLorean, but as far as I know, this is the first time Doc ever mentioned it. If it really was that important, why wasn’t it mentioned to Marty in the previous movies? I guess it was at least a little more straightforward than Part II in any case. As for the “time train” at the end of the movie, why did Doc Brown make it in the first place if he was so hung up on time travel being far too dangerous after what happened with the DeLorean? Also, how was he even able to make it in the first place when he said that suitable replacement parts wouldn’t be available until 1947, 62 years after 1885? Was there a second DeLorean floating around when Marty showed up that Doc cannibalized and the movie couldn’t be bothered to tell us about? Outside of the time travel, why did Doc and Marty actually test out pulling the DeLorean with horses when they easily dismissed other means of acceleration later? It seems they just wanted that shot to be in the film somehow and just went for it.

How is Doc Brown able to do this in the old west?

It is interesting that they attempted to integrate the Western genre, more specifically the Spaghetti Western, into Back to the Future, complete with all of the trappings. Unfortunately, that only makes the execution more lackluster, as it feels rather silly to watch, especially when there’s a performance by ZZ Top in the movie where they play an original song. At the same time, the movie seems to have the problem of trying to be a prequel to every joke in Part I, including, but not limited to, Tannens being bad with colloquialisms, the origin of Principal Strickland’s heavy discipline and, naturally, the manure scene. This only bogs down the plot further, as these jokes start to feel a little old.

On the topic of the comedic aspect, I still thought Part III was funny, but not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as Parts I and II. Repetitions aside, the character interactions are still enjoyable and there are a couple funny science jokes here and there. Unfortunately, the franchise also veered a little more into the lowbrow humor this time around by having Marty’s great-grandfather, a baby in 1885, urinate on him. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but the scene could easily have been done without that joke. The same could be said for when Marty dodges a stagecoach and accidentally steps in a pile of horse manure while still wearing his Nikes. Again, the scene could still have occurred without resorting to the cheap laugh.

With all of that said, the movie is still well-acted for the most part. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd still have amazing onscreen chemistry as Marty McFly and Doc Brown respectively, which serves as a primary motivator to keep watching. Christopher Lloyd gets credit especially for being able to convincingly portray different versions of Doc Brown with different memories and worldviews. Michael J. Fox also gets the opportunity to finish off Marty’s character development from the previous movie and show the lesson that you shouldn’t let others get under your skin, as forced at it may have been into the story. Thomas F. Wilson is also good at being able to perform yet another Tannen, but with a more murderous personality.

Christopher Lloyd (left) and Michael J. Fox (right) are the best part of the movie.

Then there’s Mary Steenburgen as Clara Clayton and Elisabeth Shue returning as Jennifer Parker. Steenburgen shows some clear talent and she does have a good amount of screen time to show it off, but Clara unfortunately suffers from a lack of solid characterization. Elisabeth Shue has almost the opposite problem, with almost no time until the last 15 minutes or so to show off her acting skills and the movie being obviously unsure of what to do with Jennifer in the end.

I also found the special effects to be quite good. The DeLorean’s time travel effects are still great to look at, as are Doc’s Rube Goldberg machines. However, there are times where the green screen effects are a little obvious. Perhaps this is because of how far we’ve come with special effects these days, but this also results in the “time train” coming toward the screen at the last moment of the movie look far less convincing than the flying DeLorean at the end of Part I.

Before I conclude, I would like to mention some interesting trivia about Part III. One of the most notable incidents occurred behind the scenes. While filming the scene where Buford Tannen tries to hang Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox was nearly hanged for real, as his hands had slipped from under the noose while trying film shots where the actor’s face is visible. At first the crew thought it was good acting, but when it was noticed that he had passed out, he was taken down from the noose and resuscitated.

On a minor, but interesting, note, Ronald Reagan nearly played a minor role in Part III as mayor of 1885 Hill Valley. A former actor, he had actually been a fan of the films, enough to quote the original movie in one of his speeches. Robert Zemeckis thought it would be funny to have him in the movie and contacted Lew Wesserman, Reagan’s former agent, to contact him about the part. Though Reagan had actually considered the offer, he ultimately turned it down.

Then there are the connections between the movie and Clint Eastwood, apart from Marty assuming his name in 1885. The location where Part III was shot was actually the same one used to film Pale Rider (1985), starring Clint Eastwood (humorously enough, Back to the Future Part I outperformed Pale Rider at the box office). During the latter half of the movie, Marty is also seen wearing an outfit similar to what Clint Eastwood had been wearing in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The scene where Marty is shot by Buford Tannen is also ripped from A Fistful of Dollars, where it is discovered that he had been protected by a cast iron plate on his chest. Observant viewers will notice that this was foreshadowed as early as Back to the Future Part II, where the aforementioned scene from A Fistful of Dollars, although different, is being viewed by 1985-A Biff Tannen.

The scene from A Fistful of Dollars as seen in Back to the Future Part II.

Overall, Back to the Future Part III is the weakest entry in the trilogy. The story is nearly a carbon copy of the original, the characters are a little underwhelming apart from Doc and Marty and the humor isn’t up to par with previous entries. Plus, the Western elements don’t seem to gel quite well with the rest of the film. This is alleviated somewhat by decent special effects, but that doesn’t completely save it, as even then errors can be spotted more easily by modern audiences. Its only purpose for existing is to round out the (largely unnecessary) trilogy created through the success of the original. It may be enjoyable by hardcore Back to the Future fans, but those seeking a good Sci-fi comedy or Spaghetti Western may find it underwhelming. Personally, I’d just stick with the original.

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