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Back to the Future Part III
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Bob Gale (story by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale)
Stars: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly / Seamus McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Mary Steenburgen (Clara Clayton), Thomas F. Wilson (Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen / Biff Tannen), Lea Thompson (Maggie McFly / Lorraine McFly), Elisabeth Shue (Jennifer Parker), James Tolkan (Chief Marshal James Strickland), Matt Clark (Chester the Bartender), Dub Taylor (Saloon Old-Timer #1), Harry Carey Jr. (Saloon Old-Timer #2), Pat Buttram (Saloon Old-Timer #3)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1990
Country: U.S.
Back to the Future Trilogy Blu-Ray Box Set

Back to the Future Part III Back to the Future Part III, which was shot simultaneously with Part II and released less than a year later, avoids many of the previous sequel’s narrative and logical pitfalls and reengages more successfully with the simple, direct pleasures that made the 1985 original such a hit. Screenwriter Bob Gale (who concocted the interlocking narratives for all three films with director Robert Zemeckis) eschews the overly complex temporal manipulations that defined much of the exhaustively zany action in Part II (which took place in 2015, an alternate version of 1985, and the 1955 we saw in the first movie) in favor of a more direct narrative that ties together the trilogy’s dominant themes and ideas while also playing as a witty and loving homage to that most American of film genres: the Western. (Interestingly, at the time of release the film took a lot of critical punching for this choice, possibly because the Western was just about dead in the late 1980s; time has been much kinder to Part III than Part II.)

The film begins right where Part II left off, with ’80s teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) once again stranded in 1955 after his best friend, the wild-haired inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), was zapped back to 1885 when his DeLoreon time machine was struck by lightning. Marty must then reunite with the Doc Brown of 1955 (who, as it turns out, had just sent the Marty from the first film “back to the future” and is understandably shocked to discover that the “future boy” is back again) to figure out how to get back to 1885 to save Doc from being shot in the back by Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a snarling Wild West ancestor to Biff Tannen, the local bully. Doc in 1885 hid the DeLoreon in an abandoned mine shaft and left instructions for how to repair it with Eisenhower-era parts, and once it is up and running (with amusingly antiquated Studebaker rims and whitewall tires), Marty is sent hurtling back to the nineteenth century to save his friend.

The scene in which Marty goes back to 1885 is indicative of Back to the Future Part III’s general approach to the past, which is to see it strictly through the lens of old movies (an approach that Zemeckis also used in the original, where he employed the tropes of the post-war small town comedy to define the fictional burg of Hill Valley in the 1950s, and Part II, which seems to borrow its ideas about the future from Disney’s Tomorrowland theme park). Marty drives the DeLoreon through a kitschy Old West-themed drive-in movie lot, zapping back in time just before he crashes into a wall painted with Indians that are replaced by actual Indians when he enters 1885. It is also unmistakable that the location used for this and other scenes is Utah’s Monument Valley, which has become an iconic feature of American Westerns, particularly those directed by John Ford. Thus, Marty is not so much launched into the historical past as he is launched into the cinematic past, which Zemeckis constantly emphasizes via shot framings that mimic almost exactly shots from John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). The fact that, given what we have seen of Hill Valley and its adjacent environs, the red-hued deserts of Monument Valley make no geographical sense whatsoever is beside the point; it’s all about self-reflexive familiarity, a trait that is heightened once Marty makes his way into the growing frontier town of Hill Valley and finds the local saloon populated with crotchedy old-timers played by legendary Western stars Dub Taylor, Harry Carey Jr., and Pat Buttram, whose collective filmographies include everything from Gunsmoke to The Wild Bunch (1969).

The driving force of the story is how Marty and Doc will get back to 1985 without any gasoline to power the DeLoreon’s internal combustion engine, a problem that is cleverly solved by pushing it down a straight railroad track with a steam locomotive that, with the proper stuff burning in its chamber, might be able to get the time machine up to the requisite 88 miles per hour. Like the first movie, this carefully calculated plan is infinitely complicated by any number of factors, the least of which is the fact that the track chosen ends in an unfinished bridge, which means that if they don’t reach the proper speed in time, rather than going back to the future they will hurtle into a chasm. Other complications involve Marty getting on the wrong side of Mad Dog and having to live up to a showdown the very morning they are supposed to hijack the train (“Why do we always have to cut these things so close?” Marty asks, a joking reference to the series’ numerous last-second cliffhangers) and Doc becoming romantically involved with Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburger), who represents one of the great Western clichés: the pretty new schoolteacher who has just moved to the frontier from “back East.” Doc and Clara bond over a mutual love of science and science fiction, especially the novels of Jules Verve, whose Victorian-era technological fantasies provide plenty of inspiration for the film’s eclectic production design.

Like Part II, Back to the Future Part III suffers from a few questionable decisions, including having Michael J. Fox play both Marty and one of his distant relatives, a recent Irish immigrant named Seamus whose wife Maggie is played by Lea Thompson, thus conflating various bloodlines in odd ways. Fox looks far too old to be playing a teenager, but at this point his character has little or no adolescent characteristics; all the time travelling seems to have aged him prematurely. These are minor quibbles, however, in a movie that functions with a grand sense of fun and self-reflexive humor. While much of Part II felt labored, with Zemeckis and company trying too hard to top everything they had done in the previous movie, Part III feels more relaxed and confident, even as it mixes and mashes genre tropes and storylines in ambitious ways (Marty’s borrowing of a gunslinger trick from Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars both connects with an otherwise throwaway moment in Part II and also confirms that film’s gleeful confidence in postmodern borrowing). The climactic race down the railway is every bit as good as the original’s suspenseful rush down Main Street, and while the denouement feels slightly haphazard and gets a little too schmaltzy and speechy for its own good, it stills leaves you with a general sense of completion and fulfillment, which is no small task given everything that has happened over the trilogy’s accumulated six hours of screen time and 130 years of time travelling.

Back to the Future Part III Blu-Ray
Back to the Future Part III is available on Blu-Ray in the “Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy” Blu-Ray box set, which also includes Back to the Future (1985) and Back to the Future Part II (1989). Each film is also available in the box set as a downloadable Digital Copy on a second disc.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 surround
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Q&A commentaries with director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale
  • Audio commentaries with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Tales from the Future six-part retrospective documentary
  • “The Physics of Back to the Future” featurette
  • Nuclear Test Site Ending storyboard sequence
  • 16 deleted scenes
  • Michael J. Fox Q&A
  • “Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three” original 2002 DVD documentary
  • “The Making of Back to the Future Part I, II & III” featurettes
  • “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” TV special
  • Behind-the-scenes
  • Outtakes
  • Original makeup tests
  • Production design
  • Storyboarding
  • Designing the DeLorean
  • Designing Time Travel
  • Hoverboard Test
  • Designing Hill Valley
  • Designing the Campaign
  • Back to the Future: The Ride footage
  • Huey Lewis and the News “Power of Love” music video
  • ZZ Top “DoubleBack” music video
  • Photo galleries, including Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials, and Character Portraits
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorUniversal Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 26, 2010

    All three films in the Back to the Future trilogy have been given impressive new 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfers in their original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that look simply wonderful. Granted, the transfers have not given the films the ultra-sharp look of contemporary cinema, but that is probably the best thing you can say about them: They look like they did when first released in 1985, 1989, and 1990, which is to say there is a certain amount of softness to the image that is inherent to both the original cinematography and the heavy reliance on optical effects that naturally degrade the image (although the two sequels do look slightly sharper than the original). The high-definition transfers have all three films looking better than they ever have on home video, and they represent a nice step up from the previously available DVDs (especially Part II and Part III, which were misframed during the transfer in some scenes). Without any noticeable DNR or artificial sharpening the images provide a strong level of detail and nuance, and colors look richer and brighter than ever, particularly in the second two films (notice how vibrant the red dirt is in the Monument Valley scenes in Part III). Black levels look good, with just enough grain to remind us that, yes, these films were shot on celluloid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtracks are likewise impressive, giving Alan Silvestri’s immediately memorable orchestral score an appropriately grand sense of scope and depth (the more I watch these films, the more I realize how absolutely vital his music is to their effectiveness). The various sound effects, from the familiar whirl of the DeLoreon’s engine to the clanging of the clock tower, are immersive and clean. Universal has done an outstanding job in presenting these films, and at this point, I can’t imagine we could ask for them to look or sound better.
    The worst thing you can say about the impressive array of supplementary material included in this multi-disc set is that there is a fair amount of redundancy, but that is to be expected when you have this many supplements covering every element of the films’ conception, production, reception, and eventual legacy. Back to the Future fans should be very pleased with the effort Universal has made in treating the trilogy’s 25th anniversary with great fanfare.

    Let’s start with the new stuff. The big addition is Tales from the Future, a new six-part retrospective documentary that runs more than three hours total and includes interviews with most of the major participants: actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, director Robert Zemeckis, producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, and executive producer Steven Spielberg. There isn’t necessarily a lot of new information here, but it is great to see everyone talking about the film a quarter-century later. The other big deal with this documentary is the fact that it includes a few bits of the fabled Eric Stoltz footage, although it amounts to less than a minute total and has no accompanying sound, which is a bit of a disappointment. I understand why this footage is not being made available in its entirety, but it sure would be cool to see it. Also new is “The Physics of Back To The Future, a featurette in which best-selling physicist (and obvious Back to the Future fan) Dr. Michio Kaku discusses the scientific realities behind time travel as depicted in the films. Another noteworthy addition is a storyboard sequence (with optional commentary by Gale) for the never-filmed originally intended ending of Back to the Future in which Doc and Marty go out to the New Mexico desert to drive the DeLoreon into a test nuclear explosion to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity (thank God it was too expensive and the idea was scrapped). This section also includes outtakes and a few minutes of video make-up tests from the original for old Biff, Doc, and Lorraine. Each film also gets its own new screen-specific commentary with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, which supplements the previously available Q&A commentaries by Zemeckis and Gale, which were recorded after screenings of the films at USC. Blu-Ray technology also allows for the inclusion of U-Control, which offers optional pop-ups items throughout the films: a basic trivia track, a “Setups and Payoffs” feature that shows you how elements throughout the trilogy are interwoven, and a storyboard comparison view.

    The rest of the supplements will be familiar to those who bought the DVD box set back in 2002, but it’s nice to have everything included in one place. So, we get a Q&A with Michael J. Fox, a total of 16 deleted scenes from all three films that have been culled from the cutting room floor and are presented with optional commentary by Gale (the quality of these scenes range from old videotape to very nearly pristine), and a host of shorter featurettes on Production Design, Storyboarding, Designing the DeLorean, Designing Time Travel, Hoverboard Test, Designing Hill Valley, and Designing the Campaign. Also included is the original footage shot for Universal Studio’s now dismantled Back to the Future ride, music videos for Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” and ZZ Top’s “DoubleBack,” extensive photo galleries (Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials and Character Portraits), and theatrical trailers for all three films. It is also nice to have on hand the original 2002 multipart retrospective documentary Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three, as well as vintage making-of featurettes for all three films made during the time of their release. Also of interest (and amusement) is footage from two NBC television specials, “Back to the Future Night” hosted by Leslie Nielsen and “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” hosted by Kirk Cameron, that were aired to help build momentum toward the release of the two sequels.

    Overall Rating: (3)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © Universal Studios Home Entertainment

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