Retro Review – Back to the Future Part III
Now that Future Day is upon us I’m bringing my Back to the Future retrospective to a close with Back to the Future Part III. This is the most divisive one of the trilogy. It’s more or less unanimously agreed that the first two films are great but with this one there is some debate. I’m not a huge fan of Westerns and never have been so when I was younger I didn’t really like this one very much. As I’ve gotten older I’ve grown to appreciate it more and can now comfortably say that I like it. It’s not as good as the other two but it’s a good end to the trilogy.
As I said in my review of the second film, the sequels were filmed together and together form two halves of a single story which arguably means that neither of them can possibly stand alone as they need the other film to make sense. I have never really seen it that way and think that both films stand pretty well on their own. There is a cliffhanger that starts in Part II and is resolved in Part III but other than that the two films are very distinct.
This film picks up right where the second one left off with Marty stuck in 1955 after the DeLorean sent Doc Brown back to the year 1955. Marty is with 1955 Doc Brown in the hope of him being able to help return him to his own time. It sounds pretty complicated when written down like this but it’s easy enough to follow.
Doc Brown has left instructions in his letter to Marty to help him get back to his own time. The DeLorean has been stuck in a cave outside of town, schematics on how to repair the time circuits with 1955 components have been left for his 1955 counterpart to use and a heartfelt goodbye to his friend is also included in the letter. It’s a really touching sentiment that sums up their friendship perfectly. I like that the film addresses how overly sentimental it is in a way that’s amusing and matches the characters perfectly. It’s sort of an awkward macho bro moment between nerds. You really have to see it to understand what I’m talking about.
Marty alters his plans to return to 1985 when he discovers that the Doc was killed shortly after the letter was dated. Marty can’t let that happen so decides to go back to 1885 to retrieve his friend. After everything that Doc Brown has done for him it’s time for Marty to return the favour.
The overall story is actually a really simple one and mirrors the first one in many ways without feeling like a retread. After the science fiction heavy second film this outing is more focused on character. The problem of figuring out how to return to 1985 without the resources to do is the same as the first film and the other complications working alongside that is also very similar.
I like how the problem is that the fuel line was ruptured and that there is simply no gasoline so that the car can be driven up to 88 miles per hour. Several things are tried such as pulling it with horses and fuelling it with whiskey but nothing works leading them to use a train to push it to the required speed. It’s all simple and easy to follow without getting in the way of the character driven parts of the narrative.
The first two films had Marty as the focus but this film is all Doc Brown. We see him more sedate than he ever has been and all it takes is the love of a good woman. Doc Brown gets a love interest here in the form of Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). She is a school teacher who is really far ahead of her time in ways that make her a perfect match for the Doc. She loves Jules Verne stories, astronomy and is fascinated by science in general. The beauty of time travel means that in 1885 Jules Verne is a relatively new author, certainly compared to the classic status his stories enjoy in 1985 so the Doc gets to see an appreciation for the stories that didn’t come as a result of growing up in a world where they are deeply rooted in culture.
Despite the clear difference in age they are a good match for each other as they connect on an intellectual level. Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen have really good chemistry and there’s a visible sense of affection to every scene they share together. I also get the impression that the Doc is ready for settling down and enjoying life for a change which makes him better suited to consider a future with Clara in the past. I’ll just use any opportunity to play around with this terminology.
I’ve always thought that Clara and the Doc’s relationship is similar to Captain Kirk and Edith Keeler in the famous Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever”. In that episode Kirk is displaced in time and meets a woman who he has a connection with due to how progressive her thinking is. They are on the same wavelength and are understandably attracted to each other. It’s a very similar situation with Doc Brown and Clara in this film. I wonder if that episode served as the influence for this part of the story.
Other than his love life a lot of the scenes he shares with Marty are more about him than anything else. In 1955 and 1885 there are so many facts shared about the Doc that allow the audience to get a sense of the person he is. Not that the other films slouched in this regard but Doc Brown feels far more well rounded in this film where Marty gets to take a bit of a back seat having had two films of focus placed on him.
It works really well as Doc Brown is a great character who only gets better in this film. There’s so much more to him than his genius level intellect and a wide range of eccentricities. Appropriately Christopher Lloyd dials back his performance to match the deeper insight into his character. Some of his best acting in the trilogy comes when he has to break Clara’s heart because he’s leaving to return to his own time lest he be murdered. Everything from the tone of his speech to the facial expressions is captured perfectly by Lloyd and it shows a vulnerable side to Doc Brown not previously seen.
He isn’t completely neutered and still has more than his share of “mad scientist” moments that feel more rewarding because there’s more to him than there previously has been My favourite of these is the massive elaborate contraption he builds just so he can get a single ice cube into his ice tea. I’ve always wondered if that’s all the machine was capable of because if so then it’s such a waste of time. There are other cool flourishes like his apparent invention of the long range rifle.
His friendship with Marty is better than ever having had two films to properly develop before this one. Their interactions feel organic and Marty gets the chance to become the mentor figure with his experience in affairs of the heart. There’s a perfect moment when they swap catchphrases. It feels strange to see Michael J. Fox say “great scott!” and the Doc use the word “heavy”. It’s such an oddball thing that the film only gets away with due to a rich well developed friendship between these characters.
There are some great running gags between the two of them as Marty’s lack of a solid grasp on the concept of thinking 4 Dimensionally is mentioned more than once and the Doc asking for the crudity of his immensely detailed model to be excused due to lack of time. It’s just a joy to see these two characters share scenes and this film continues the trend perfectly.
Despite this being the Doc’s film Marty isn’t left in the dust in this film by any means. He gets to meet his ancestor Seamus McFly who looks just like him. He’s married to a woman named Maggie who looks just like his mother. The McFly gene pool must be very shallow if everyone ends up looking exactly the same. Also, are the McFly family actually related to Lorraine’s family if Maggie McFly looks just like her? The mind boggles it really does. Of course they were just reusing actors to play their own relatives as is a common practice in fiction but I can’t help but wonder.
Seamus is an honourable guy who doesn’t hesitate to help Marty when he’s clearly in trouble much to the chagrin of his wife who is wary of strangers. He only appears sporadically throughout the film but his presence is felt and he is clearly part of the community.
The villain of the piece is another member of the Tannen family. Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen is also played by Thomas F. Wilson -another shallow gene pool- and is the most unstable member of the family yet. He is an intimidating and murderously violent individual who will take any opportunity to threaten pretty much anyone that comes his way.
There are some amusing anecdotes about his character when Marty and the Doc are reading up on the history of Hill Valley. Apparently Tannen claims to have killed a lot of people but records on him aren’t extensive because he shot the guy writing him. Even in 1885 the Tannen family are so stupid that one of them can’t establish themselves as a murdered due to killing the wrong person.
As villains go he’s a solid part of the story without overpowering it. He’s a significant part of a larger tapestry and generally exists to add a time limit to the Doc and Marty escaping 1885. Whenever he shows up he’s an equal mix of irritating and dangerous. His unpredictablilty makes for some interesting scenes as he could end up doing anything.
His eventual defeat is really cleverly done as the classic Western trope of a showdown in the middle of the town is given a fun twist. Inspired by Clint Eastwood’s plan in A Fistfull of Dollars Marty wears a metal plate on his chest so that the bullet hits that instead of him. It’s a good job that Tannen didn’t aim for his head or he would have really been in trouble. The look on Tannen’s face as he has been fooled is priceless and it’s satisfying to see him declawed in front of everyone as they make it very clear that they are no longer afraid of him.
Marty using the alias Clint Eastwood in 1885 is a nice touch as well since he is famous for doing Westerns and popular enough so that Marty will have heard of him. Interestingly when his name is first mentioned there are posters for Revenge of the Creature and Tarantula; two films that were released in 1955 and are some of the first roles played by Eastwood when nobody knew his name. It’s a nice touch to have these obscure films referenced in such a way.
The train sequence is another master-class in suspense and tension from a director who does these things very well. There’s so much going on to keep track of yet it all fits together seamlessly. It has the perfect combination of peril, a ticking clock, complications and the relief that comes with success.
I feel compelled to mention one niggle associated with this sequence that is never addressed. It makes sense that they can’t use the other DeLorean that the Doc has left in the cave for Marty to find in 1955 because without it Marty couldn’t be there in the first place but I wonder why nobody suggested taking the gasoline from it. My guess is that it’s out of gas at that point but it’s a question that could be asked.
The ending of this film is just great. Marty gets a resolution to the arc of being unable to accept being called chicken when he chooses not to enter into the drag race that caused his downfall. He doesn’t know that he has avoided a catastrophic personal mistake but the fact that his pride almost got him killed in 1885 seems to be a powerful motivator for him to get over it.
Seeing the DeLorean destroyed by a passing train is a really sombre moment that is treated as if it’s the death of a major character which of course it is. That car took on a life of its own over the three films and should be treated with dignity even when it was destroyed. One thing that bothered me about it is why the train didn’t stop when the driver noticed that he ploughed right through a car on the track.
There isn’t a lot of time spent mourning as the Doc turns up again in a time travelling train with Clara and his two sons Jules and Verne in tow. The train is really cool and has a great exit that pays homage to the first time the DeLorean flew at the end of Back to the Future as well as implying that there are more adventures to be had.
Of course there aren’t -unless you count the animated series that I don’t remember very well and a Telltale game that I haven’t played- but the trilogy leaves off on a positive note. The Doc passes on the knowledge that the future isn’t written and people are free to write their own destinies. This sums up the theme that carries through all of the film. Each film gives examples of how mistakes can be fixed and things can be changed which is a very hopeful message to bear in mind.