WARNING!!: Spoilers ahead!!
With Back to the Future part II being a hit at the box office, even if it hadn’t managed to capture the people’s imagination as much as its predecessor had, or being universally praised by the critics, for that matter; the responsibility was on the filmmakers to finish off the trilogy in a way that it would win back the hearts of those fans the sequel had lost. Doing that proved to be easier than expected, as the final entry in the series went back to familiar territory and tropes, even if it took place in a totally new time period.
The journey concludes
The movie picks up where part II left off, with the DeLorean time machine being hit by a bolt of lightning, sending “Doc” accidentally back in time to the year 1885. Immediately after, a letter is delivered to Marty by a Postman who claims they’ve had the letter for 70 years with precise instructions to be delivered to him at this exact location and this exact time. In the letter, “Doc” explains that the bolt of lightning sent him back to 1885, that he’s been living there for a while, and that he’s happy. Marty runs back to find 1955’s “Doc”, moments after his older self has been sent back to 1985. “Doc” is shocked to find him there and passes out. Marty takes him to the house, and when ”Doc” wakes up, he gives him the letter where everything is explained; he tells Marty that he hid the DeLorean for Marty to find in an old mine, with instructions to his 1955 ”counterpart” on how to repair it, and once it’s done, for Marty to go back to 1985 and don’t go back for him. While unearthing the DeLorean from the mine, Marty discovers a tombstone with ”Doc,s” name on it. They discover that ”Doc” was shot in the back for an outlaw by the name of Bufford ”Mad Dog” Tannen. Marty decides to go back to 1885 and rescue Doc, but upon arriving he accidentally rips the car’s fuel line. He finds Doc, tells him about the tombstone, and also about the fuel line. Doc tells him that without any fuel to feed the combustion engine, the car won’t be able to reach 88mph to break the time barrier. Together they try to find a way to make the time vehicle reach 88mph, which presents itself in the form of a steam locomotive. With a solution at hand, now it’s only a matter of waiting for the next train to come to town. But as fate would have it, things won’t be as easy as that, as Doc has unexpectedly fallen in love with the new local school teacher, and Bufford Tannen is bent-on putting a bullet in ”Doc’s” back before the week is out….
A new family member
The whole of the cast were more than happy to continue playing the characters for the third movie, but now with a few added twists; Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox himself played Maggie and Seamus McFly, the first McFlys to settle in America, fresh off the boat from Ireland. Both sporting a rather dodgy Irish accent, they have fun with the roles, with Fox once again demonstrating his wide acting range and excellent comedic timing playing more than one character in the same movie.
With the two previous movies having had Marty and his family as the main focus, it was time to give ”Doc” his dues. The filmmakers had, what I think was the rather nice idea of having ”Doc” Brown fall in love for the first time in his life, and with a like-minded spirit in the form of local school teacher Clara Clayton. For this role, the filmmakers only ever had one actress in mind; Mary Steenburgen. Gale has admitted on interviews that had she rejected the role, they would’ve been at a loss as who to cast. Luckily for them, she said yes; mainly because her children were great fans of the first movie, and begged her to accept the role. Her casting proved to be serendipitous as she and Lloyd had previously worked together, and had fantastic chemistry. Her and ”Doc’s” love story is one of the best and most touching things in the movie. Thomas F. Wilson has a blast as the dangerous, but buffoony Bufford Tannen. Of all the characters he played throughout the trilogy, this surely had to be the one he had the most fun with. His lines of dialogue, and especially his delivery are spot on, and hilariously funny. James Tolkan makes another appearance, this time as Sheriff Strickland, and this time with a long hairpiece. A few interesting cameos are sprinkled throughout the movie, like Director of Photography Dean Cundey, who fittingly plays the cameraman who takes the picture of ”Doc” and Marty standing right next to the newly constructed clock that will be placed on top of the yet to be finished Hill Valley courthouse. Other interesting cameos are those of Rock band ZZ Top, who were also among Zemeckis’s favourite bands, and play the song ”Doubleback” for the final credits. They play the parts of the local country band who, with their long hair and beards, didn’t need any additional makeup to fit right in. When they were asked to write a song for the movie, they immediately accepted as they were huge fans of Back to the Future. In fact, they had so much fun on set, they even mingled with the local bands and performed with them on stage in between takes. They also play a westernized variation of their title song that doesn’t sound half bad.
Getting back on the proverbial horse
With Principal Photography for part II already wrapped, the filmmakers didn’t have time to rest on their laurels, and immediately had to start working on the third and last film. A four-week break period for both cast and crew after wrapping on part II ensued, and then everybody would have to saddle up, get back on the horse, and ride the final home stretch. The analogy is more than appropriate given the location where the final part of their massive back to back shoot would take place; an old Western town on the outskirts of Sonora, California, which had been used over the years for multiple Western movies and TV shows. The crew took over the entire town, and stayed there for the duration of the shoot. It was a happy time for everybody, as they got to experience something that most of them had never experienced before, and the atmosphere was clearly more relaxed. Relaxed to everybody but the filmmakers.
The filmmakers still had to deliver part II in Theaters in time, while working on part III. That meant that Bob Gale had to stay in Burbank, California, with Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas supervising the final cut and sound mix on part II, while Zemeckis was on set in Sonora shooting part III. It was a hectic and exhausting schedule that lasted for the better part of five weeks, with Zemeckis shooting from early in the morning to late in the evening, driving to the local airport, jumping on a jet, flying to Burbank, grabbing some dinner before going into the editing room, stay there until late at night, back to the hotel to catch a few hours of sleep, going back to the airport in the early hours of the day, and flying back to Sonora to repeat the process all over again. Because of this extremely busy schedule, Zemeckis has always lamented the fact that he just didn’t have enough time to sit down with part II in the editing room, and that’s why, still to this day, he considers BTTF part II one of his rougher movies from an editorial standpoint. Had he had the TV satellite connection technology that Peter Jackson would take full advantage of years later for his back to back shoot of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which allowed Jackson to supervise several shooting units all over New Zealand, while being able to supervise the editing and sound mixing process of the different movies being done in London, things might’ve turned out different for part II. As it stands, I think part II is a very solid movie in its own right, and it was a massive achievement what the Bobs managed to pull off given the tools they had at their disposal at the time, and further testament to the Bobs resilience and commitment to get the very best versions of their work out there. The Bobs had always been great admirers of the Western genre, so it was kind of inevitable that going back in time to the Old West would be a path they choose to go down to when dealing with time travel.
The filmmakers took full advantage of the landscape and vistas in and around the western town, even going as far as building a brand new Drive-in right in the middle of Monument Valley for the scene in which Marty travels back to the year 1885. This was, in fact the one time that Zemeckis lamented the fact not to have chosen to shoot in scope, as it would have greatly benefited the picture to show off the landscapes and vistas in as wide a format as possible. Zemeckis had at first chosen to shoot in 1.85.1, because the first movie didn’t really have any great vistas to speak of, to show off, so they decided to keep a low visual profile, also to save money. Alas, in the interest of keeping a consistent look throughout all three movies, he decided to stick with the 1.85.1 aspect ratio, or open matted as it is commonly known in the industry. They also used a running steam locomotive that was part of the local museum’s exhibit for the final action set piece of the movie in which Marty and ”Doc” hijack the steam locomotive to push the DeLorean, so it can reach 88mph and jump into the future. So it was that the local steam engine locomotive 131, with a little help from the Art department, became locomotive number 3. It was an extremely difficult and laborious sequence to shoot, with the use of multiple stunt doubles for the actors and lots of visual trickery to make it look like the train was steaming ahead, when in reality most of the shots were done in reverse with the DeLorean being pushed by a vehicle backwards when Michael J. Fox was inside the actual vehicle. All of this was done for insurance purposes, even if some of the actors like Christopher Lloyd were overly entuthiastic about doing some of their own stunts. He actually, along with Mary Steenburgen, proved to be one of the members from the cast to be the quickest to adapt to life in the Old West. He already was a good horse rider, but proved to be equally adept at shooting a rifle. His steampunk-like designed scope rifle, is one of the most detailed and eye-catching props of the entire movie. Steenburgen was already quite good at riding a horse by the time she came on set, as she’d frequently practiced it as a child, and was really comfortable around steam engines, as her father had worked as a train conductor for many years. She enjoyed all the challenges that the action set pieces provided, and like Christopher Lloyd, tried to do as many of her own stunts as she could. Thomas Wilson, on the other hand, hard though he tried, could never quite master horse riding. The actor had a very hard time at it, but through his enthusiasm and hard work, and especially his brilliant performance as Bufford Tannen, he sells the illusion. Michael J. Fox also practiced hard with his shooting and quickly learned how to handle a gun. The actor, in numerous interviews over the years, has often bemoaned the fact that he learned numerous skills for all these movies like riding a skateboard, playing the guitar, riding a horse and shooting, only to forget them all years later. Michael J. Fox’s time while working on these pictures, while enjoyable, was also a trying one. On the first movie, he’d had to keep a very busy shooting schedule while jumping back and forth between the TV series Family Ties, and whatever spare time he could spend on the Universal backlot to deliver the movie on time, but it also proved to be a life-changing period for him shooting the sequels as he’d got married, had a child, and his father had passed away, all in the midst of shooting. To achieve the effect in which the locomotive runs off the unfinished bridge, and crashes at the bottom of the ravine, they used a large model, built a set of rails and an unfinished miniature bridge for the radio controlled locomotive to ride over. The effect is so well done, you can’t really tell whether it’s a real train or not. That’s how far the ILM crew would go to make things look as real as they possibly could. A real feat in engeneering and craftsmanship. There was one last big trick the ILM guys had up their sleeve; the steam locomotive turned into a hoverconverted time machine. The Special Effects crew actually built the main body of the locomotive to life size, and with as much detail in the inside, but especially on the outside, as they could muster for close ups. For the long establishing shots of the locomotive/time machine taking flight, the Visual effects crew took over, creating a blend of old school techniques and state-of-the-art visual effects that match to perfection.
In addition to enlisting ZZ Top to write the song, Alan Silvestri came back to finish off the trilogy in grand fashion. He truly does cap off the series on a high note, with a Western score in the best tradition of Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone. The homages are evident throughout, but he gives the music his own personal voice without being too referential. It’s his best score for the entire trilogy, and among his best ever composed scores overall.
The man behind the one-sheet
There are many things iconic about the Back to the Future trilogy, but chief among them is the magnificent poster artwork by Drew Struzan. Struzan was already a big name in the Industry by the time he was considered to design and draw the poster for the first Back to the Future movie. Many designs were tried, one more elaborate than the one before, but the filmmakers always kept going back to the idea that they wanted to keep the design as simple as possible. Struzan has never been exactly sure who to credit for coming up for the final design, it might have been Bob Gale, as he was the one who suggested to have an image of Marty McFly looking at his watch in disbelief, while coming out of the DeLorean, with a set trail of flames in the background. It was so simple, but it described the main concept behind the movie so well, the producers immediately took a liking to it. Due to the little time that Michael J. Fox had to spare while being on the set of the first movie, Struzan resorted to having to draw Fox using some photos the on-set photographer had taken of Fox posing. The low level of detail on the pictures was so bad that Struzan ended up modeling Fox’s character on the one-sheet after him. Things got considerably better for the sequels, with Struzan getting both Fox and Lloyd to pose for him while he drew them. Struzan thought it would be a neat idea to use the numerical motive of having as many people on the one-sheet, as to match the sequel’s number; so part II had both Marty and ”Doc”, while in part III, Steenburgen got to be part of the equation as she had a very important role in the story. For part III, Struzan himself went to the Sonora set, to have the actors pose for him for the poster, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that Michael J. Fox was a long-time admirer of his work. Unfortunately, Steenburgen wasn’t available to pose for him on the day, but agreed to do it later on, all by herself. To avoid having to draw the poster all over again, he simply cut out her part of the drawing and fitted her in the main one-sheet. Struzan would go on to do stellar work for George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and many other famous directors, but his work for the Back to the Future trilogy will always remain a watermark when it comes to movie-poster excellence.
Critical and Financial reception
As had been the case six months before, part III was eagerly awaited by fans all over the world. There were lines of people around the block at the cinemas, two days in advance to be the first fortunate ones to see the last chapter. The level of hype surrounding the whole affair was electric, and unlike on the previous movie, people were not disappointed. The movie was universally loved by both fans and critics, even those who had been so negative about part II. Strangely enough, and in spite of the level of anticipation, the movie made less money than part II, which in turn had already fallen short of making the same amount of money at the box office as the first movie. So, how good is part III, and more importantly, does it still hold up?
The movie is very enjoyable, and it’s a fitting closing chapter to the trilogy. Unfortunately for me, it fails to deliver the same level of excitement that part II did. Don’t get me wrong, it is still a very solid and entertaining movie in its own right, but it suffers from sequel fatigue. Or rather, a lack of fresh ideas brought to the table. It does sort of feel, in a way, as a retread of the first movie, but in the Old West instead of the 1950s. Now is Doc having to deal with problems of the heart this time around, just like Marty had on the first movie, they have to get creative and come up with a plan to go back to 1985, just like on the first movie, devising a plan to harness the energy from a bolt of lightning to travel through time, they now have to use a locomotive to get up to 88mph to achieve the same result, and just as in the first movie, their plan is fraught with mishaps. It does tend to get a bit repetitive, just like Return of the Jedi, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were kind of retreads of Star Wars, George Lucas (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark, Steven Spielberg (1981). That doesn’t mean that, like those films, they’re not highly entertaining movies; because they are. Very much so. Just like part III is. The dynamic between the characters is great, the production values are top notch, and some of the dialogue and situations, even though they are constant reminders of the first movie, are cleverly turned around to try and make them feel fresh, while at the same time having a sense of familiarity to them. The scene in which Clara comes over to ”Doc’s” barn to visit him, and Marty and Doc hastily have to cover up the time machine, after they’ve been going over the plan of stealing the locomotive, and using it to push the DeLorean with a carefully constructed model, is the exact reverse of the same scene that takes place between Marty, ”Doc”, and Lorraine in the first movie. Only now the roles are switched around, and is Marty acting ackwardly around ”Doc”, while the couple is unable to keep their eyes off each other. All the actors are clearly having fun with their respective roles with Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox doing hilariously funny turns as Marty’s Irish ancestors. The scene in which baby William, Marty’s great-grandfather pees on him is priceless, or Marty’s Moonwalking dance in the Saloon; these are the kind of comedic moments that keep the movie alive and all of these scenes having been cleverly set up on the previous movie. Mary Steenburgen is a welcome addition to the cast, given the character of Clara both a naivety and toughness that are endearing, but who really excells here is Thomas Wilson as Bufford Tannen, in his best, to me, role in the trilogy. And he had many. His turn as ”Mad Dog” Tannen manages to be both funny, but menacing at the same time. He steals the scenes he’s in.
What few action set pieces there are, are brilliant, but the locomotive hijack sequence at the end of the movie, and its heart-pounding rhythm, which climaxes on the locomotive crashing at the bottom of the ravine, is perfectly staged, shot and edited, just like the clock tower sequence on the first movie was.
Alan Silvestri delivers his best soundtrack for the entire trilogy, with ZZ Top’s track ”Doubleback” rounding things off nicely, even if their song doesn’t quite have the same impact as ”Power of Love”, and ”Back in time”did. The last scene in the movie with the now hoverconverted locomotive time machine flying towards camera is the perfect way to finish the trilogy, acting as a mirror to the first Back to the Future final scene, coming indeed full circle. So, as you can see, and in spite of a few nitpicks, the movie has plenty of things to enjoy, and will have you leaving with a big smile on your face. Overall as individual movies, the Back to the Future flicks are top-notch entertainment, but as a trilogy, they are the best examples on how to set up and execute the perfect movie trilogy, even if they were never intended to be that in the first place. If you’ve never seen Back to the Future, and it’s hard to believe you’ve escaped its mediatic influence all these years, you owe it to yourself to do it at least once in your life. My personal recommendation is that they are seen back to back, as you’ll get the most enjoyment out of them that way. They are perfectly scripted and shot to fit into one another, and you can’t possibly watch one, without wanting to watch the rest. I’m clearly being bias here, as the first movie happens to be my favourite movie of all time, and the trilogy as a whole, takes the top spot, nudging the original Star Wars trilogy off the top spot by the tiniest of margins. These are movies that I constantly revisit, at least twice a year, and sometimes even more. They’re that great. Can’t say enough good things about them. They have a very special place in my heart, and I can wholeheartedly recommend these any time of the week, or the day. So, sit back, enjoy, and let yourself be transported back in time with the most amazing time travel movies ever made.
Thanks for reading.