Friday, November 13, 2015

Review: "Back to the Future Part III"

If only Ronald Reagan had accepted the role of the 1885 Hill Valley mayor instead of turning it down. That would have gone along well with the references in the other two films. The filmmakers regretted that, Reagan regretted that, and audiences regretted that. Of course, audiences had more problems with this movie than that….

Okay, let me get this out of the way.

So. Doc. You accidentally changed history by saving a woman who was supposed to die and are now in love with her?

Six simple words.

Every time traveler needs a companion.
Take her to the future with you! No problem! Heck, she even volunteered to follow you wherever you were going when you said goodbye! But I guess Doc was all torn up about further damaging the time line or whatever. Which I’ll rant about in a little bit, too.

Originally, parts II and III were originally going to be a single film before it was expanded into two. But when you get right down to it, Part III has too much plot to combine with Part II into a single film, but it really doesn’t have enough plot to stand on its own. This is one of the reasons why the focus shifts from Marty to Doc.

With Crispin Glover out of the question, they cut out a subplot about Seamus McFly (who was going to have been played by Glover) falling in love with Maggie the barmaid. Unfortunately, this means that Marty has nothing to do, apart from learning to control his temper. So for the first time in the series, Doc becomes the focal point and catalyst for most of the film. Once Marty goes back in time, it’s all about Doc.

Thanks to the events of the second film, Doc is a man who values the well-being of the time stream. So they gave him a reason to want to bend the rules: Clara Clayton.

Insert Tchaikovsky's love theme from Romeo and Juliet here.
If you don't know, Google it. Trust me, you've heard the song before.
Like the first film, this is a love story. Unlike the first film, wacky matchmaking hijinks have been replaced with meet-cutes and slowly growing feelings. Not necessarily a bad thing, but not what people had come to expect from the series.

So let’s talk about Clara. She’s a “meanwhile plot” incarnate. I don’t know if there’s another word for this, but pretty much everything having to do with her isn’t… well, important. What’s truly “important” to the overall story is the process of fixing the DeLorean and going back to the future. Which actually goes off without a hitch. So basically, we’re watching Doc Brown court Clara in his spare time. No immediate urgency; he’ll finish working on the DeLorean with time to spare.

It’s like, imagine if you were watching a movie about an FBI agent, right? And the crazy villain calls him at 5:00 every day to reveal a clue regarding another crime that the agents has two hours to solve.  Pretty tense stuff, right? Except that the movie focuses on the puzzle he’s putting together at 2:15 while he waits for the bad guy to call. Unless you’re actually invested in whether or not he finishes that puzzle, you’re just sitting around, waiting for the interesting bit. Well, unless you’re genuinely interested in Doc’s romantic subplot, this movie has little in the way of plot to offer you. Once Clara comes along, she just fills time between the plot twists, which are few and far between.

And that’s why this movie doesn’t really fit in with the others. Not necessarily because it’s a Western, but because the film periodically becomes a romantic comedy for long stretches.

Ironically, this film’s lack of connection to the other films is partnered up with the problem of it being too connected to the previous film. See, the biggest strength of the first film (as I’ve explained) is that it has one of the tightest scripts in film history. Nearly every point brought up in the film has some sort of payoff. The second one, while not as tightly-scripted, has a similar thing going on. But this film is filled with payoff from the second movie. And really, that’s where it falls apart.

Fighting Mad Dog Tannen is foreshadowed with the history lesson in Biff’s casino. Using the boiler plate as a bulletproof vest was taken straight from a Clint Eastwood movie Biff was watching. Doc falling in love was a call-back to his line about dismantling the time machine and taking time to learn about women. And even though it was cut out of the final film, the death of Marshal Strickland serves as a link to when 1985-A Strickland was caught in a drive-by shooting. But unless you’re watching the second and third films back-to-back, it’s easy to miss the thin threads tying everything together.

And the film’s themes suffer for the same reason. It’s all resolution. It’s a third act expanded into a single movie. And finally, this movie commits the sin of resolving Doc Brown’s entire subplot off screen. I’ll get to that when I talk about Doc Brown. Until then… no, you know what? I’ll just skip to that bit.

Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd)

He spent both decades as well as his entire family fortune inventing a time machine. Though he started off a little cavalier when using it, he came to regret inventing it after Biff used it for evil. And once he realized that he himself had changed the future by saving Clara, it seems as though he had reached his lowest point, wishing only that he could destroy his greatest creation. Then he fell in love with a woman who he would stay in the past for, living out his life in peace and quiet, away from most historical advancements.

Then he thought, “Screw that, I’m inventing a time-train!”

I mean, you could probably figure out his motivations for changing his mind, rationalize it, et cetera. But there’s a little problem. It's not in the movie.

I mean, he goes from “I wish I’d never invented that thing” to “I made a flying time-train! History ahoy!” with no onscreen impetus. Did they forget to resolve that? Again, after two well-written films, I can’t believe that snuck through the cracks.

But on the other hand, Christopher Lloyd gets to venture out into some new territory for the franchise by having his character fall in love. And honestly, it’s pretty charming.

If Doc Brown's smile doesn't warm your heart... well, you're probably more interested in the sci-fi than the romance.
Yeah, I’ll admit it. I don’t actually dislike their romance subplot. Christopher Brown gives a surprisingly subtle performance. When Clara’s gone, he talks about the folly of love at first sight and how he can’t afford to form emotional attachments to anyone in the past, but that just vanishes whenever Clara’s around. His genuine happiness at just being around her is what really sells the romance for me when, as I mentioned above, the subplot had pretty much everything working against it.

Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen)
South Pacific is one of my dad’s favorite musicals of all time. I can’t stand it. Among other reasons, I just can’t find the love story between a young woman and an older man believable. And yet, I find it perfectly fine here. Perhaps it’s because Doc Brown got de-aged last film, but I think it has a lot to do with no only Lloyd’s acting, but also Steenburgen’s.

The original geek girl.
Doc and Clara have a slowly-building relationship (even though their love is at first sight) that feels not only natural, but actually pretty sweet. Of course, it helps that they previously acted opposite each other in an earlier Western (even though Jack Nicholson got the girl in that one). Not to mention that she did the whole “falling in love with a time traveler” thing in Time After Time, even though she was the one from the 20th century in that one.

So while her role as the MacGuffin to influence Doc’s decisions and desires could have been written better, the genuinely sweet performance and excellent chemistry kind of makes the character and the romance work. Not bad for an actress who only took the role because her kids basically begged her to.

As a fun fact, Clara Clayton is based on Clara Clemens, the daughter of Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain. Apparently, she was on a sleigh ride with her future husband when a flying newspaper freaked the horse out, sending it running off wildly. Luckily, her hubby-to-be halted the horse before it went off a cliff.

Sound familiar?

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox)
He learns his lesson about being hotheaded when his duel forces him to confront his own mortality. And actually, his newfound control over his impulsiveness ties in to his characterization in the first movie. Remember, he had been late for school for a whole week. Marty McFly was never a guy who planned for the future. But now, after going there and back again, perhaps he is.

Other than the encounters with Mad Dog that lead to this change, not much happens to him once he reaches the Old West, though. A far cry from when he was in the center of the action for the last two films.

Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson)
Wilson based his performance on Lee Marvin as Liberty Valence in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. But what comes across better onscreen is what Bob Gale described; Buford is “Biff’s worst intentions realized.” Imagine a world where Biff didn’t even have to hide behind basic decency. Yeah, that sounds like Buford Tannen. And while Buford Tannen is less of a complex character than the other Tannens (even bordering on being a one-note buffoon), Wilson struts his stuff by performing his horse riding stunts himself. And he even learned how to lasso up Michael J. Fox for that scene. Credit where it’s due; even when his performance isn’t as deep as usual, he makes up for it in technical skill.

Seamus & Maggie McFly (Michael J. Fox & Lea Thompson)
There was really no reason to include them, but I’m glad they were included. Seamus offering Marty advice mirrors Marty doing the same for George. But beyond that, it simply wouldn’t have felt like a Back to the Future film without some other McFlys around.

Still, Michael J. Fox’s Oirish accent is pretty bad. I’d have asked the Unshaved Mouse his opinion on it, but I don’t want him to know that I found my way out of that shark.

Jennifer Parker (Elizabeth Shue)
She was here, too. Wasted character. Moving on.

Alan Silvestri’s score is largely just the score for the past films, but with a decidedly “Western” sound to them, with fiddles, banjos, et cetera. It’s actually a lot of fun to listen to and works well to connect the film’s tone, so to speak, with the other two.

Also, frickin’ ZZ Top. ‘Nuff said.

Westerns naturally use mostly practical effects, and this one’s no different. Setting the film apart from the other two yet again, there are very few sci-fi elements actually present. So most of the effects are things like blowing up scale model trains, or simply giving the film a slight sepia tone to create an atmosphere. Honestly, because there are few special effects to age at all (let alone badly), this film probably holds up better than either of the others, visually speaking.

So here’s another fun fact. The set used for the 1885 Hill Valley burnt down after, you guessed it, getting struck by lightning in 1996. Spoopy.

Best Actor: Christopher Lloyd
While Buford Tannen is relatively shallow compared to Biff’s various incarnations, Doc Brown manages to grow as a character in rather unexpected ways, made believable by Christopher Lloyd’s warmth and boyishness.

Best Character: “Mad Dog” Tannen
While the role might not be as deep, it’s still a lot of fun to watch him interact with Marty.

Best Line(s)
Marty McFly:
“Great Scott!”
Doc Brown: “I know, this is heavy.”

Final Thoughts
Definitely depends on the viewer's opinion of the Doc/Clara romance. Personally, I don't mind it. So for me, this one ties with the second movie. Not as good as the first one, but it still has enough good bits to keep you entertained.

Still, I think this movie might have benefited from going that extra mile with Doc's 1885 steampunk contraptions. That could have been a lot of fun.

Then again, perhaps not.
All in all, I'd say that this is one of the best sci-fi/Western films ever made. Better than Wild Wild West, better than Cowboys and Aliens, and better than... well, does Serenity technically count as sci-fi/Western? I know Firefly does, but a lot of the Western trappings were lost in the transition to... never mind, I'm getting off track.

At the very least, I'd say give this movie a watch if you're sitting down to watch the other two. I mean, you might as well complete the story, right?

Speaking of completing the story, a week from tomorrow, I'll be taking a look at the trilogy as a whole. Character arcs, plot developments, and if you're really lucky, I might even have a fully mapped-out timeline for you all. Or maybe I'll just include a link to another site, if I find out that someone beat me to it.

Whether it takes you eight days to get there, or if you take a shortcut with a time machine...

See you then!


  1. A favourite webcomic creator of mine is doing an adaptation/fan comic parody of the two sequels, It's been really good so far.

    You know, I like to think that Doc said to Marty that if Jules and Verne grow to be half as good a man as Marty is, he would know he and Clara were good parents. Marty would then give Doc a big hug.

    1. The style looks familiar. I'll have to check, but I think he's also the guy who did "The Ten Doctors," which is probably my favorite Doctor Who fan work.

      And as for Jules and Verne... well, I've got a theory as to what happened to the Browns....

    2. Well, mostly Doc. But them by implication.