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Hill Valley’s high noon: Back To The Future Part III (1990) ~ Review

October 28, 2010

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F Wilson, Lea Thompson

Screenplay by: Bob Gale/ Story by: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

US; 118 minutes; Colour; Certificate: PG

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Butch and Sundance; Earp and Holliday; Jesse and Frank James; Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. For sure, there were many great double acts of the Old West, and come 1990 – or should that be 1885 – taking their deserved place on that list too were Marty and The Doc. Wait a tick, Marty and The Doc? As in Marty McFly and ‘Doc’ Emmet Brown of Back To The Future fame? Am I being serious? Damn right I’m being serious; I’m being straight as an arrow unleashed from a Sioux brave’s bow.

In the summer of 1990, the Back To The Future trilogy of films came to a close with its second sequel, Part III. The first flick (absolutely one of the biggest comedies of all-time at the box-office) transported its protagonist, Californian teenager Marty McFly, back to the bobby-soxer-filled 1950s from the skateboarding-furnished 1980s; the second saw Marty jump forward to a fantasy 2015 before travelling back again to the ’50s of the original. Whichever way you sliced it then, this time Marty and his genius pal The Doc had to go further than before, but which way?

Well, given the near future of Part II was maybe handled a little too outlandishly, perhaps best not to go further forward. Easier to recreate believably would be, say, 100 years in the past, wouldn’t it? Not to mention that travelling back 100 years from 1985 California would put filmgoers slap-bang in the middle of the Old West. What a conceit for the trilogy’s finale! No suprise at all then that the filmmakers, the Bobs Zemeckis and Gale, went for it. But could they, did they do it justice? Did BTTFIII turn out to be a calamity jane or a bonanza?

It may be fair to say that the success of many movie trilogies is judged by their first and final flicks – a strong opening and end can overcome an iffy middle (it’s arguably the case for The Lord Of The Rings; certainly not so for the Pirates Of The Caribbean or Scream trilogies, both of which are let down by their third films). And surely, 20 years on, it can’t be a coincidence that the Back To The Future trio of flicks is seen as such a triumph when its final film is such an enduringly watchable and wholly enjoyable exercise in entertainment.

There are many reasons why BTTFIII is so good. Chief among them is probably its script – as so often in movies, and always when it comes to this particular trilogy. Transplanting Marty and the already-there Doc to the Wild West, and setting that up as the film’s selling point, is a genius move. It ensures, instead of the moving back and forth in time of the series’ second flick, that like with the mostly ’50s-set original, the characters have an entire timeframe to discover, move about in and, ultimately, try to escape from – after all, if you’re going back to the Old West, surely you’d short-change the audience if you only spent half-an-hour there?

This also ensures that, in another refreshing break from the frenetic Part II, this flick’s plot and narrative more closely align with Part I‘s. For instance, like in the original, here the DeLorean is again incapacitated, stranding the protagonists in the past and necessitating a clever solution to get them home. Also as in Part I, the mere existence of one of the protagonists is put in doubt; The Doc produces a ludicrously good model-based-experiment of the time-travel climax to come; and a complication arises that may mean that climax doesn’t take place at all. Once more,  this complication is romance – but this time, in a nice BTTF trademark twist, the romantic entanglements don’t concern Marty, the teenager with all the charm and looks (one of the reasons why the BTTF films are so popular has to be that they pleasantly surprised filmgoers by never quite giving them what they expected). Plus, if you want to look at all deeply into the script, there’s something of an exploration into the power of embracing free will over surrendering to fate. A nice touch there amid all the fun.

But what of Part III‘s aforementioned selling-point ‘Back To The Future goes Wild West’? How does that play out? Truly, wonderfully well. The sets, costumes, dialogue and locations (in particular, classic film locale Monument Valley is captured beautifully by cinematographer Dean Cundey) are all spot on, while the western genre parodies come thick and fast and roundly satisfy. Indeed, contrary to the ‘futurised’ gags in BTTFII, this time around the filmmakers and actors all appear to be having as much, not more, fun than the audience. Moreover, in addition to regular leads Fox and Lloyd (the latter enjoying perhaps more focus and depth this time), supporting players drafted in for the 1885 setting deliver the goods – Steenburgen’s Clara Clayton is a lovely, ditzy delight and Wilson’s final Tannen creation, the gunslinger ‘Mad Dog’, makes for a tip-top pantomime villain. Oh, and the steam train-based climax is a genuine tour de force – a fine finale for the film series.

Indeed, in tying up the trilogy then, BTTFIII as a whole encompasses all that’s best about the three flicks – it’s funny, thrilling, surprising, silly, romantic, rompish, charming, cheerful, detailed and tightly-delivered. Yes, all right, it may be just one or two notches down from giving viewers another dose of the original’s utter brilliance, but it perfectly recaptures that movie’s spirit and fun, as well as – via going cowboy – concluding the story started in the second one with (ahem) cowbells on.

And so, folks, finishes the Back To The Future season here at George’s Journal. I hope you’ve learnt a little, enjoyed it and feel it’s been a fair tribute to the seminal original movie turning 25. Speaking of which, let me leave you with this one, final treat – yup, it’s a pic of the major BTTF actors with Robert Zemeckis and Huey Lewis, all looking pleasingly sprightly, at a reunion in New York just two days ago (October 26). See in you in the future… or the past! 

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 29, 2010 10:37 am

    Once again, a lively and informative read there, Georgio.

    A huge fan of the original, I only saw this final installment recently, just before seeing the first re-released BTTF in the cinema.

    I have to say that it doesn’t quite live up to the perfection of the first film, but it is a genuine treat. It has so much fun and universal appeal. I used to cringe slightly at the term “family movie” but I recognise now just what an accomplishment it is to create something that appeals to young and old and that will resonate for the following years as those kids grow into adults. Indeed, these films, and certainly the BTTF trilogy, are our modern fairy tales.

    Thanks again for such a comprehensive and fun-filled look at these great films.

    Dubs.

  2. October 29, 2010 10:37 pm

    Thanks for the kind words and glad you enjoyed the articles so much, dublo.

    Yes, must admit, I’ve never necessarily had anything against ‘family films’ – especially not at a time like Christmas, when I enjoy wallowing in the nostalgia they bring when giving ’em a view on the box – but I think you’re absolutely right, the BTTF movies are the modern epitome of that type of film, if not ‘modern fairy tales’. An interesting way of describing them that. 🙂

    George

  3. bob's your uncle permalink
    October 30, 2010 12:29 pm

    agree a lively tale of a trilogy I must admit I didn’t know much about – you really brought it to life with some of the descriptions – sioux brave bow … can’t believe it’s 25 years old. may check this out.

    • October 30, 2010 5:29 pm

      I urge you to do so, indeed, bob – and glad my scribblings here may’ve persuaded you to in any case… 🙂

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