If you don’t enjoy this movie, you’re not thinking fourth-dimensionally
by Thom Yee
There’s always been a strong argument against a Back to the Future sequel, and it’s an argument that still stands even now, twenty-five years after two sequels came out and both turned out to be at least okay. Beyond its obvious strengths, the original Back to the Future is simply a neat, tidy, and self-contained story, one that, because of its time-travel premise, rewards multiple viewings but also one that, because of its time-travel premise, begins to unravel the more you add to it with further installments. And for those of you who’ve always wondered (or have always misremembered), no, in its original showings it did not end with the famous “To Be Continued…>” title card.
At first blush, Back to the Future seems like a concept rife with franchise potential, built on sporty cars, awkward situations, teenage love, and obviously time travel, and you have to admit there’s certainly more going on there than in, say, a Fast and Furious movie, but the problem lies in billing it a time travel movie when it’s in fact more a “What If…?” movie that uses time travel to allow for that “What If Marty McFly met his parents when they were his age?” Everything that happens and matters in the movie matters because of the relationships between its central characters and an understanding of how our backgrounds and upbringings shape our lives; time travel is simply the mechanism. If it were a movie about time travel, Doc and Marty would be going back and forth all throughout the movie, but in making time travel something only possible with the harnessing of a bolt of lightning (for the necessary one-point-twenty-one jiggawats), the movie forces our heroes to confront realities that will serve to shape their own lives for the better while keeping time travel as a special, rare event. Unlike in Back to the Future Part II.
Right now you might be thinking to yourself “Why did I just read all of that?”, “Does any of it matter?”, and “When are you going to talk about Back to the Future III?”. But it all does matter, because the original Back to the Future isn’t a movie you watch, it’s a movie you feel, and so the question of whether this third installment is successful isn’t “Is Back to the Future Part III a decent movie?” but “Did Back to the Future Part III make me feel anything?”
What’s it about?
After the catastrophic events of the previous film, in which Doc and Marty’s infernal time-travel machinations may or may not have fixed or ruined their future and their present, Marty once again finds himself trapped in 1955 and seeking the young Doc Brown’s help in going back to the future again. Finding out that the older Doc Brown had time travelled to the old West, 1885, after the disappearance of the DeLorean when it was unexpectedly struck by lightning, rather than simply return to his present, Marty sets forth (i.e., back) on rescuing the older Doc when he discovers he is killed only a few months after arriving in 1885 by the villainous Buford Tannen, ancestor of Biff.
I’ve often heard that Back to the Future Part III is many people’s least favourite, and that’s the way I felt for a long time as well. When I was a stupid little kid. For the same reason Back to the Future Part II is a lot of people’s favourite, the third tends to suffer a bit because its Old West setting leaves it stuck in the past, far removed from the contemporary realities of the first movie and even further removed from the fantastic futurism of the second. At the time of the movie’s release, Westerns were at least a decade from their heydays, perhaps more cherished by 1980s movie directors than moviegoers, and an ‘80s teenager like Marty was just barely old enough to appreciate the works of Clint Eastwood. Today, most of us only watch Western movies when they’re directed by Quentin Tarantino, and when a lot of us first saw the Old-West-set preview of the third movie, our hearts sank just a little bit. There’s just something fundamentally disappointing about looking back when the previous movie gave us such a tantalizing glimpse of the future.
That’s the setup for Back to the Future Part III, but if you left your consideration of the movie only to that, you’d miss the greater point that it [largely] manages to achieve. The easy part of a Back to the Future sequel is the time travel, the hard part is finding a reason for the sequels to exist. As satisfying as the first movie managed to be, the classic arc of a lead character usually involves at least some change, and Marty didn’t really change that much after he got back to 1985. On the outside, he changed the fates of his parents, his siblings, and himself for the better, and he gained a greater understanding of who his parents were, but he was still mostly the same character, only now he owned a sweet Toyota Hilux. As has been pointed out in latter-day criticisms of Back to the Future, including by the original George McFly, that’s a dangerously materialistic moral, one that equates goodness and happiness with money and somewhat ignores the value of the strong, caring relationships his family now seems to have.
Rather than leaving us with that message, the sequels present our protagonists with a new problem built on the egotism of Marty, whose future seems somewhat less than what we’d hope for such an endearing main character, and it’s the discovering and solving of that problem that makes this third movie work and makes this sequel story worth. The movie also opens the world up to finally acknowledging Doc Brown as a character in his own right. Rather than the eccentric scientist whose quirky experiments only hint at a deeper, darker madness, we now get to find out that he too is a full-fledged person with hopes and dreams of his own. When you think about Doc’s backstory, getting involved with and stealing from terrorists, believed insane by many in town, his own resources depleted after decades of failed science, it’s an important to realize the story yet to be told for him, especially after seeing the possibility of the character’s involuntary commitment in the dark timeline of the second movie.
Is it any good?
Back to the Future Part III is actually very good in a few different ways and it really lets the series breathe in a way that allows the characters to become more fully realized than they would have been in only one movie. Getting to it, though, just feels a little tiring, and it’s a good example of the fatigue that can creep its way into any story when the original is such a singularly stunning piece on its own.
The movie starts out on a bit of a sombre note, picking up on the conclusion of the second when Marty suddenly comes running back into the frame of the first movie’s triumph as Doc Brown celebrates a job well done after first sending Marty back to 1985. It’s a funny moment and one of the single best uses of the sequels’ choice to revisit scenes from the first, but it also almost instantly deflates the high note that the Doc’s dancing in the streets originally represented, and it’s followed by a sobering realization that our heroes still have a lot of work to do.
Making his way to the Old West to rescue the Doc rather than leaving him to be “Shot in the back by Buford Tannen over a matter of eighty dollars” (did they really used to print violent causes of death on tombstones in the Old West?), Marty quickly finds himself even more a fish out of water in another skateboard-style chase scene, only this time dragged by horses with a rope around his neck before the Doc rescues him. As we saw previously, history has a tendency to repeat itself when it comes to town’s centre chases, each time becoming more and more dangerous for Marty, and it’s a good thing this is the last time he travels to a distant time period as he’s likely to be outright killed if things had kept escalating.
As a little kid when I first watched Part III, I remember being kind of horrified when I saw Marty helplessly dragged across town, changing what was arguably the original movie’s most triumphant set piece for the main character into a grim vision of the character’s possible death. When you’re a little kid, you naturally gravitate toward and pattern your own behavior after the winners of the stories you’re exposed to, and seeing Marty so utterly defeated and unable to help himself may have sort of set the movie off on the wrong foot. What the scene represents, however, is a bit of a passing of the torch from Marty to Doc as main character as much of the rest of the movie concerns itself more with the seemingly mad scientist than it does with Marty himself. That chase combined with the Old West setting and not empathizing with Doc Brown because he’s an old man is why I think a lot of us kids don’t look back on the third with as much fondness as we do the first and second.
In following Doc Brown’s story as the duo later rescue Clara Clayton and, inadvertently, introduce the Doc to this unlikely, time-crossed true love, Part III manages to be a much sweeter movie than the first or second, and that’s something you may only realize watching the movie through a more mature lens. In the first movie, we’re merely told and not so much shown that Marty and Jennifer are in love, but in Part III we get an entire movie to see Doc Brown and Clara’s relationship grow, and it makes the Doc a much more sympathetic, meaningful character. That’s an important part of recognizing the overall story as much more complete and far-reaching than its predecessors. For her part, Mary Steenburgen fits in much more naturally with the cast as Clara than Elisabeth Shue does as the second Jennifer, and it’s a pleasure to have her around for the movie rather than written out (as was Shue’s Jennifer), even if she’s a also a bit of a flighty character in her own right.
Eventually the final confrontation between the McFly and Tannen clans comes to fruition as Marty foolishly accepts a shootout challenge with Buford, having just as quickly made enemies with him as he had with Biff in the last two movies, and it’s a moment that forces Marty to overcome his own demons as he faces his own mortality. It’s this important lesson that finally allows the character to grow and become a better person, and it’s also the moment that gives the series a bigger, more expansive and meaningful thematic conclusion.
I do have one big problem with the movie, though and I don’t feel like it’s a technicality or inconsistency or time-travel-based problem. The first time back in 1955, the younger Doc only got an impression of his future through video tapes and Marty’s own recollections, so it’s not too hard to accept that most things played out more or less the same from the new 1955 through 1985, but this time the younger Doc reads an extensive letter written by his future self chronicling the major events of his final days. He’s also a pretty smart guy who, by now, has had two separate opportunities to work on a time machine based on his then-forming designs on time-travel technology. With this further knowledge, it feels much less likely that things would have stayed on the same timeline, plus this knowledge of his eventual fate diffuses a lot of the tension of the letter that Marty tried to give the Doc to keep him from being killed by the Libyans.
So should I see it?
In the grand scheme of the franchise, Back to the Future Part III is a surprisingly important part of the series and it completes the larger circle only hinted at in the first installment. But that’s the thing, you don’t need to see any of the sequels as badly as you need to see the first one. That’s not this movie’s fault, but it does work to its detriment. If you loved the first movie, however, it would be insane not to watch the sequels, especially if, by now, you’ve already seen the second movie’s cliffhanger ending. It’s easy to recommend Back to the Future III, and it’s easy to recommend the series as a trilogy rather than a single movie, but it’s also just a little too hard not to mention that you might be better off just watching the first.
Thom’s Back to the Future Part III final score
On the Edge
- Marty: “All the best stuff is made in Japan.”
- I still can’t stand seeing those 1950s rims on the DeLorean.
- Never noticed those atom symbols on Marty’s old west shirt before.
- “Must’ve gotten that shirt off a dead Chinee.” As a Chinaman, I’m allowed to laugh at that.
- Still not sure about leaving Jennifer on that porch in the ruined 1985. That kind of feels like abandoning the woman you love to disappear in a doomed timeline.
- I think Marty could’ve won that gun fight if he had taken it seriously.
- Slept with his face on his gun. That can’t be safe.
- “Run for fun, what the hell kind of fun is that?
- What time did the Doc get to the bar after being dumped by Clara? Was everybody at the bar all night listening to the Doc’s stories? For sure at least the bartender was there for a pretty long time. What kind of hours does he keep?