Film 2020: Back to the Future Part III

And thus the trilogy concludes, with the admonitory words that Time Travel is a menace, too dangerous to meddle with, the comprehensive destruction of the means by which it can be accomplished, the supposed end to predestination and the appearance of the slickest Time Machine of the entire Trilogy. I’ve got to say that there’s a mixed message or two going on in there.

Part III, which as I said last week was written and, mostly, filmed back-to-back with Part II, is generally regarded as a success which, as the end of the story, is only to be expected. It’s yet another good fun movie, slick and professional, effective and thrilling, but there’s practically nothing of it that isn’t referenced from other films and media.

The film starts with a reprise of the closing moments of Part II, to where Doc Brown faints, then it picks up in a surprisingly slow and draggy introduction. We read more of Doc 1985’s letter, written in 1885 when he has become a blacksmith. He’s concealed the DeLorean for Marty and Doc 1955 to discover it and return Marty to 1985. He tells them explicitly not to ‘rescue’ him: he is happy where he is.

Unfortunately, Marty and Doc 1955 discover an old tombstone, for Emmet Brown, shot in the back by Buford ‘Mad Dog’ Tannen, erected by his beloved Clara. Date of death, six days after Doc’s letter. So Marty goes back to 1885 to warn Doc and take him Back to the Future.

So the third film returns to the same story goal as the first. It also gets to indulge itself by playing Cowboys and Indians.

What is it with this enthusiasm for recreating the Western? It reminded me of the episode ‘Living in Harmony’ of The Prisoner. It was apparently Michael J Fox’s suggestion but everybody wanted in on it. It’s one of the great American film traditions, but hell’s bells, it’s such a cliche! Turning something into a Western, as opposed to setting out to make a Western from the start is an immediate nosedive into the cheap and predictable, and the film doesn’t leave a stone unturned in its pursuit of the inevitable.

Nor can Zemeckis and Gale restrain themselves from more split-screen antics as Marty once again has to play other members of his family, this time his great-great grandfather, the Irish-born Seamus McFly (complete with Lea Thompson, downgraded to a very minor cameo as great-great grandmother Maggie). Given how the McFly family seems to be producing absolutely identical male members down the centuries, one of the McFlys has got to be spreading his genetic material very close to home).

Fox and Christopher Lloyd are still as effective as ever in their double act, but Zemeckis at least breaks the mould by introducing a third player to the act, in the form of Mary Steenburgen as the newly-arriving town schoolmarm, Clara Clayton. She and Doc fall in love instantly when he saves her from falling to her death in a ravine, and he breaks both their hearts when he tells her he’s from the future and is returning there.

Even this isn’t original: Steenburgen was chosen for the part because she’d already played the role before, in the 1979 film Time after Time, where she’d been a 20th century woman falling in love with a 19th century time traveller (H.G. Wells, incidentally) and travelling back to his time. That she’s now playing a 19th century woman falling in love with a 20th century time traveller and planning to travel back to his time makes no significant difference.

And after repeating one of its own tropes (Tannen getting covered in manure) the film sets up another Western cliche for its finale. This one’s taken from Buster Keaton’s The General, the Western train, complete with cow-catcher, supercharged with Doc’s special fuel so that it can push the DeLorean up to 88mph. Except that Clara’s caught the engine, she and Doc are trying to clamber along it, at risk of falling off and all on a tight deadline as the unfinished bridge rapidly nears…

This film really is a manufactured thing, contructed out of other people’s ideas.

Anyway, Marty winds up in 1985, dressed for 1855, in a depowered DeLorean that’s immediately smashed to pieces by a 1985 train: no more Time Machine, exactly as Doc intended to do had he not been left behind with Clara and the hoverboard. Cue a thirty-second cameo from the rest of the family, back to normal (normal here meaning the changed normal of the end of the first normal, not the original normal of the start of that film, instead of the changed changed ‘normal’ of mid Part 2).

Marty goes to collect Jennifer, who’s still asleep on her porch, left out of the story. She’s had a horrible dream… or was it a dream? Marty evidently levels with her because next thing he’s driving her back to the scene, with a rather perfunctory diversion where he’s accused of being chicken over entering into a car race. Marty has, however, learned not to be so stupid, so he doesn’t crash and damage his guitar-playing hand.

And no sooner do they reach the smashed DeLorean than Doc turns up again, having rebuilt the Time Machine as a sleek, polished, all-black Western steam engine, in which he’s travelling with his wife, Clara, and their son Jules and Verne. And, despite the presence of a Time Machine before their very eyes, Doc is insistent that Marty and Jennifer have no future except the one they make: nothing is written, anything can happen.

Nice thought but, after nearly five hours of filming, inconsistent to the max, not to mention intellectually moronic. If time is a continuum along which one can shift their temporal position, the future does not cease to exist simply because you choose not to visit it. Or is this a subtle expression of the Zen philosophy of if a tree falls in a forest and no-one is there to witness it, does it make a noise?

Nah, it’s not subtle.

Nevertheless, despite these multiple flaws, I still enjoyed Back to the Future Part III, but I’m very glad they stopped there: I’d have hated to see a Part IV given the paucity of imagination on dispay here

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