For the 25th Double Feature I wanted to do something a bit fun and different. I wanted to go with one of my favorite movies of all time, but when I chose, the first film, I decided to go a little nuts. So today, I’m doing a triple feature.
This week’s films are:
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future (1985)
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future Part II (1989)
Robert Zemeckis – Back To The Future Part III (1991)
That’s right, we’re covering the Back To The Future trilogy today. I’ve never covered a series of films before, so it will be an interesting experiment. My notes for this post took up 6000 words, so there’s a lot to talk about, but I’m going to change around the standard structure a bit. I’m also going to tone down some of the plot discussion that I normally do because these films are so well known, but also because the film is really complex.
So let’s get into it.
Back To The Future (1985)
Back To The Future is the story of Marty McFly, a high school student who hangs around a local scientist named Doctor Emmett Brown. Marty has a normal life, normal dreams, and normal fears. But then Doc Brown reveals to him that he’s built a time machine. When testing goes wrong, Marty finds himself stranded in 1955 where he inadvertently interferes with his parent’s first meeting. With only the 1955 version of Doc Brown to rely on, Marty has to find a way to get his parents back together while also ensuring that he doesn’t miss his one shot to get back to the future.
Back To The Future stars Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover. Directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale. I mention all these names because this has become the thing that almost all of these people are known for. And that’s because this is one of the all-time classic films. It has captured the imagination of millions of people in the 32 years since it was made.
Why? Because Back To The Future is an essentially perfect movie. The casting and acting are perfect, especially for actors who are playing old and young versions of themselves. The writing is perfect, the music is perfect, and the editing is perfect. Which means the man at the top, the director did a perfect job.
This is a complex movie. Describing it in text would make me sound insane. But it all makes sense on screen. Let’s look at one particular sequence, the scene where Marty arrives at the Twin Pines mall to help Doc with his experiment. In this scene we learn about Doc’s invention of the time machine. We see Doc introduce it, Marty react to it, Doc proves that it works, and set up a lot of information we need for the rest of the movie.
The set up is simple. Doc wants Marty to film his latest experiment in a mall parking lot late at night. It’s been clear from the start of the film that Doc Brown isn’t a reputable scientist. He’s presented as more of a tinkerer and inventor than a professional scientist. He reveals the time machine, the classic Delorean that we’re all familiar with.
The film has to do a job here. It has to explain all of the time travel rules while maintaining the reality of the world. The entire scene is exposition in one form or another. We’ve talked about exposition before, and how when done poorly it can sound like a lecture rather than a conversation.
The film solves this issue by doing two things. The first is that they use Marty as an interested observer. This is a classic technique that a lot of media uses. If you have one character that doesn’t know anything, then they can ask all the awkward questions that the audience is wondering. The other thing the film does is that it literally makes the scene about explaining the technology. Marty is given a video camera and told to record the experiment. Doc Brown is documenting the experiment in the scene. So he has license to explain every single detail and it doesn’t seem out of place to the audience. It’s a really clever structure that gives us everything we need to know.
This is done both through exposition, and some action, with Doc testing the time machine with his dog in the car, and successfully completing the experiment. So we as the audience knows that the machine actually works. He then explains in detail how it works, describing the time circuits, how they’re turned on, and how they’re activated. It’s a tutorial for both the audience, and for Marty who will need it later. We even know exactly how fast he needs to go to activate the machine: 88 mph.
Once all that information is out, Doc explains how it is fueled: with plutonium. He has a store of it, stolen for him by Libyan terrorists. But this becomes a problem, as the Libyans arrive after they discover the bomb he gave them isn’t functional. After packing the car for his first trip into the future, the Libyans attack and Doc is killed. Marty has nowhere to go but into the car to attempt to drive away.
This scene is one of the best edited scenes in the film. When coupled with all the information we just received, the audience is way ahead of the story. Doc has previously set the destination date to November 5th, 1955, because that is the day he invented time travel. As Marty shifts the car into higher gears, he inadvertently hits the switch activating the time circuits several times, turning them on and off. Going faster and faster, then slowing down to turn, then speeding up again.
The editing in this sequence is a master class on the subject. Every shot answers the next question the audience has. “Is he getting close to 88mph?” “Are the time circuits turned on?” “Where is he going if the time machine activates?”
We never once are confused about what is happening, and what’s about to happen. Finally, what we all expected comes to pass, Marty crosses 88 mph and is taken to the past, setting up the rest of the film.
So much of what the audience saw in the first 30 minutes of screen time seems like filler, but it all turns out to be essential to the story. When Marty has an idle chat with his girlfriend and is accosted by someone asking for money to fix the clock tower, he gets the info he needs about a lightning bolt striking the clock tower on a specific day at a specific time. When he sits at dinner with his family, we learn all sorts of information about his parent’s past including how they met, and where things might have gone wrong. We meet Biff, the bully that his father has dealt with his entire life. And we meet Marty’s siblings, who are essential to tracking how much danger Marty’s future is in.
The subplots about Marty interacting with his parents are classic as well. I think it’s very relateable to wonder what your parents were like when they were your age. Marty discovers that his parents weren’t that much different from him. His father was creative, and had dreams that fell by the wayside. His mother was wild, always looking for new ways to get into trouble. Marty is shocked by their behavior and spends most of the film trying to act like their parents. It’s a fun role reversal.
The film ends with Marty safe back in 1985, discovering that everyone’s lives are improved because of his influence. His father is successful, his mother is happy, and his own life is improved too. He manages to rescue Doc from the terrorists by telling Doc about the future, and Doc rides off into the future.
But at the very end of the film, Doc returns from the future in strange clothes. The Delorean is upgraded, now using something called Mr. Fusion for fuel, which uses trash to convert into fuel. Doc tells Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer that they must come back to the future with him to help their kids. Marty and Jennifer get into the car with him and prepare to go to the future. Doc has one more trick up his sleeve. Instead of driving away, the Delorean lifts off, flying into the camera, ending the film.
The film is exhilarating, funny, and unforgettable.
So how are the sequels?
Back To The Future Part II (1989)
After the massive success of the first film, sequels were inevitable. In fact, many people clearly remember seeing a “To Be Continued” tagline before the closing credits begin. However, this was not there on the original release, but was added for the home video release.
This series was somewhat unique at the time though, as Back To The Future parts 2 and 3 were produced and shot back to back. This became more common later, particularly with the Lord of the Rings films, but it was somewhat unique at the time. What it means for the film is that Part 2 can includes some very accurate foreshadowing, and we get that here, seeing some references to the old west, the setting for the third film.
This film begins where the last left off, in Marty’s driveway. Doc appears telling Marty he must return to the future with him, so that he can help his kids. He takes along Jennifer, who happens to be standing there when he gives the message. Jennifer is played by a different actress in this film, the only major change to the cast. In the original film, she was played by Claudia Black, but in Parts 2 and 3, she’s played by Elisabeth Shue, who would go on to a lot of success, but wasn’t a star at the time.
Doc takes Marty and Jennifer into the future and immediately finds a way to reduce her impact on the story. From interviews with the creators, it was clear that they never intended Jennifer to travel through time with the main characters. But they ended the first film(not knowing that they would have a sequel), with a big memorable finale that left the audience excited about the story. But the story never really had much to do with Jennifer, and her presence is more of a distraction.
Unfortunately, that exciting ending to the first film put the first part of the second film on rails which didn’t give Zemeckis and Gale the flexibility they needed to explore other aspects of the story. Any sequel had to work off that final scene, meaning that it was always going to involve 1) Doc, Marty and Jennifer going into the future, 2) the future children of Marty and Jennifer.
Because of that, the first 30 minutes of the film feels a bit out of place. The filmmakers vision of the future is one of the most memorable aspects here, as we see things like the Cubs winning the world series in 2015(they actually won in 2016), flying cars, weather being controlled, holographic movie theaters, and diners with 80s nostalgia themes. But the story just isn’t very good, and causes problems with characters motivations.
For example, Doc spends most of the first movie admonishing Marty for trying to tell him about the future, thereby making changes to it. But in this film, Doc is going out of his way to try to change future events just to keep an old friend’s son out of jail. It’s not like his son’s arrest causes a massive catastrophe. He’s just changing the future for the most minor of gains. But in the same film, in the same scene, Doc is again admonishing Marty for trying to change the future by taking back a sports almanac detailing sports scores. The double standard here for Doc makes it hard to take his point seriously.
Luckily, the film improves dramatically once the setup is complete. Doc makes Marty throw away the almanac, but it is retrieved by an old version of Biff, who Marty has run into. While Marty and Doc are trying to retrieve Jennifer, who has been taken to her 2015 home by the police, Biff manages to steal the time machine, return to 1955, and give the almanac to his younger self. He returns it before arousing suspicion, and then wanders off in pain. We assume that he might be disappearing because he’s changed the past so drastically.
When Marty and Doc return to 1985, they find a massively changed world. Hill Valley looks like a war zone. Burning cars litter the streets, police lines are everywhere. Marty goes to the town square and finally finds the cause. Biff is now the most powerful man in Hill Valley, and maybe the country. There is a massive casino there owned by Biff. Marty also discovers that in this 1985 his father is dead, and his mother has married Biff. It’s a nightmare world.
Doc finds Marty and explains that they must be in an alternate future, created by Biff when he took the Almanac to his 1955 self. I go into this much detail because something bothered me about the film that I hadn’t noticed before. My question was: How did Biff get back to the same 2015 when he gave himself the almanac in 1955? When he gave himself that almanac he created an alternate 1985, and presumably an alternate 2015. When he returned to the future, he should have returned to this alternate 2015, or simply disappeared in 1955. Either way, there would have been no way for him to return the time machine to the 2015 that Marty and Doc currently occupy, thus stranding them. It’s a major plot hole that I never noticed before. It doesn’t ruin the movie for me, but it definitely reveals some of the issues that the film has as the story gets more complex.
Doc and Marty return to 1955 to keep Biff from delivering the almanac, and we then get to see a lot of scenes from the first film from different perspectives, and things get more intense with two versions of Marty and Doc wandering around, trying to avoid each other.
The film ends with Marty and Doc succeeding in destroying the almanac, but it’s the night of the famous storm that took down the clock tower, and the Delorean is struck by lightning. It disappears into the past with Doc still in it, and Marty on the ground. In some clever storytelling, Doc has a letter delivered to Marty from Western Union from 1885. Marty discovers that Doc is alive, but he is stranded in 1955. He realizes that he needs help from 1955 Doc and runs to the town square where he left in the first film, and encounters Doc who passes out from the shock of seeing Marty return.
And then we’re off to the final film in the trilogy.
Back To The Future Part III (1991)
Back To The Future III starts exactly where the last one ended, with Marty returning to Doc in the town square to ask for his help, just after Doc has sent the earlier Marty back to 1985. Doc goes into shock, passing out, and Marty takes him back home. From the letter Marty received from 1885 Doc, he knows that Doc is having a good life, and that while he can’t repair the time machine in 1885, he has left the time machine in a secluded cave where it should remain undisturbed until 1955, when it can be repaired and take Marty back to his own time.
But when Marty and 1955 Doc find the time machine, Marty stumbles across a familiar grave. That of Doc Brown. He was shot and killed just a week after sending the letter. Marty decides that Doc’s wishes aren’t really valid anymore, since he didn’t know how short his subsequent life would be. He decides to go back and rescue Doc.
However, when he returns to 1885, he breaks a fuel line driving over the rough terrain. Without gasoline the car won’t be able to make it to 88mph. 1885 Doc says that it’s impossible to get any gasoline for another 20-30 years. Another plot hole here though, as gasoline was around at the time and being produced as a byproduct of kerosene production, just no one had any use for it. Seems like that a scientist as knowledgeable as Doc Brown would have known how simple it is to distill gasoline from crude oil, or find someone who was distilling kerosene and take their gasoline away for them.
Anyway, after trying some various technologies, they decide a train is their only chance to push the car up to 88mph. The plan is set. But of course there are complications. For one, the doom that killed Doc is still coming. Doc got into an argument with Buford Tannen, the ancestor of Biff, and Buford plans to kill him. Meanwhile, a new schoolteacher comes into town named Clara Clayton, played by Mary Steenburgen. Doc’s tombstone mentions ‘his beloved Clara’. It seems Doc is fated to fall in love. He and Marty both fight it, but it seems Doc and Clara are on a collision course.
The film plays out like a fairly standard western. There are conflicts with the black hat villain, town festivals, and a tender love story. In the end, they manage to put their plan into action, but not before Clara chases them down. Doc must exit the DeLorean to rescue Clara, and Marty is sent back to 1985, rolling down a set of modern train tracks. Throughout this film and the previous film, Doc has been talking about destroying the time machine. He finally gets his wish as a train comes through, hitting the DeLorean, and destroying it completely.
Marty believes he will never see Doc again, but as he’s showing Jennifer the pieces of the DeLorean, they are blown back by a sonic boom, and a train engine appears out of nowhere. Doc has built a new steampunk time machine and is traveling around again. This time he has Clara with him, and their two children, Jules, and Verne.
Doc tells Marty and Jennifer that their future isn’t written yet, so whatever they do, make it a good one.
As I mentioned, I think Back To The Future is an essentially perfect film. But what about the other two?
The other two films make some missteps for sure. For one, both films focus on a bizarre subplot wherein Marty suddenly will fight anyone who calls him ‘chicken’. In the first film, Marty stands up for what’s right because it’s the right thing to do. But in parts 2 and 3, all of a sudden he only stands up for himself when people use a really lame insult on him. He’s perfectly controllable with this phrase. It’s really out of place, and really hurts the character.
It’s nice that the third film explored a western theme, and it’s done well. But unfortunately it doesn’t feel much like a Back to the Future film. In other films in the series, we see a mixture of different time periods. In the first film, we split our time between 1985 and 1955. In the second film, we see 1985, 2015, and 1955. But in this film, we’re only in 1955 for a short time, then spend the rest of the film in 1885 before a brief epilogue in 1985. It feels like a very different balance.
In addition, the focus of each story is very different. The first film is Marty’s story, it’s about him learning about his parent’s in their youth. The second film is a bit of a morality play, about the danger of being selfish in the face of larger forces. But it’s more Biff’s story than anyone elses. The third film is Doc’s story entirely. Marty has a subplot involving learning about when to fight and when to let things go, but it’s not as significant as Doc’s story.
Because of that, Back to the Future III feels less like a continuation and more like a spin-off. This doesn’t make it a bad film, but it becomes something very different, which makes for a poor comparison to the original film.
I would say that while 2 and 3 are decent, but somewhat flawed films, they can’t possibly reach the heights that the first film did. But what film could?
The Triple Feature
So this was the longest streak of films I’ve done for this blog. Because the films were familiar and light, it wasn’t too much of a challenge, but I doubt I’ll do three in a row again for quite awhile. But watching a single story for 6 hours is an interesting experience. I’m sure I’ve done it before, though I can’t name a specific instance when that happened. This time I was also able to really hone in on the things that bothered me about the later films after watching them all in sequence. For example, I had never realized how out of place the future sequence in the first film felt until now. The filmmakers were so locked into everything that Doc said at the end of the first film, and they did their best to make it all work, but the film improves greatly once the story is set in motion and Doc and Marty return to 1985.
School is starting again this week. I’ve got very different responsibilities now than in the past. I don’t have any classes to take, though I’ll be attending a few classes for research. I expect to keep the blog going on a regular, once a week pace, but it might have to get cut down to every other week occasionally. I’m not really sure yet. We’ll see.
So, next week’s films. I want to get back to more foreign films, rather than films I’m really familiar with, so I’m going to do a kind of weird pairing. The films for next week are:
Jacques Demy – The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg (1964)
Hayao Miyazaki – Nausicaa: Valley Of The Wind (1984)
I haven’t seen either of these films before, and the Miyazaki is one of the few he’s made that I haven’t seen. But it should be a good time.
See you next week.