Back to the Future week at Eightiesology continues with the last of our features on the Back to the Future trilogy. But stay tuned after this as we have a few more BTTF treats left this week!
When Back to the Future Part II ended, we already knew we were getting another sequel so everyone expected a cliffhanger. Perhaps rumormongers (who at the time only had magazines to patrol) knew where that third movie would take place. But most of us were as surprised at where the ride was taking us as Marty McFly himself. By the end of Part II we know that Doc has been accidentally zapped to 1885 and the old west. In fact, the producers stuck a trailer for the third movie onto the end of the movie, which was an extremely rare thing at the time.
When Marty enters the center of Hill Valley for the first time, mirroring his visits to the same city in 1955, 2015 and bizarro 1985, I think that was the day I became a fan of Westerns. Now I recognize how foolish that statement sounds given the wealth of high-quality dramatic westerns throughout Hollywood’s history. And Back to the Future Part III is obviously a whimsical time-traveling tale that winks at that history. But westerns never appealed to me as a kid, that is until Marty McFly rode into town. Not long after BTTF3, the genre saw a revival on all levels: comedic (Silverado), popcorn (Tombstone) and Oscar-winning (The Unforgiven). To this day, Hollywood continues to produce amazing movies set in the old west. The television show Deadwood was easily one of the best dramas created for the tube in the last 20 years. (It also helped redefine the western as we know it today.) It’s rather fascinating that my interest in such movies all came from a fun time-travelling adventure from the very twilight of the ’80s!
The third movie returns to the form of the first with our main character stuck in the past trying to get home. (The second movie was a nice departure with its wanton leaps through time and crazy alternate timeline.) Yet as with all the movies, Part III gets to the point real quick and never dwells too long on the drama. Sure lots of great movies take the time to develop character and discover the nuances of human interaction. But a lot of bad movies pretend that they could even handle that and end up falling flat on their faces. Here, you instantly understand these characters and become instantly intrigued by their decisions and actions.
The movie also shines the spotlight a little more on Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who up until that point had mostly played a crazed mix of Obi Wan Kenobi and Albert Einstein to our everyman protagonist Marty McFly (as played by ’80s uber-icon Michael J. Fox). Here, Doc got to stretch his dramatic legs a little more with his romance to Clara Clayton, providing the first reason for one of the characters to ever want to stay stranded in the future or past. It’s never overplayed and adds a sweet subtext to Doc and Marty’s time travel adventure.
Unfortunately, much of the cultural subtext that was such a huge part of the first movie and a minor part of the second is largely absent here. No grand statements about making the most of your time. No relevant commentaries on our parents’ generation or the future our kids will grow up in. There are fun nods and winks to Hollywood westerns (i.e. the Clint Eastwood gags) but the movie isn’t satirizing westerns or mocking them, it’s The movie’s heart is the punctuation mark on the friendship between Marty and Doc which has traversed from 1985 to 1885.
The movie does climax with one of the trilogy’s greatest moments: the train sequence. The suspense of Doc trying to save Clara and Marty trying to save them both while also praying the Delorean actually makes it plays out wonderfully. It’s an odd mix of science fiction and old Hollywood and possibly the first and only time we’ll ever see a sequence involving a steam train, hoverboard and time traveling DeLorean! BTTF3 also introduces a fun new gadget to the trilogy’s ever growing collection with Doc’s steam train time machine. Almost as cool as the DeLorean, the train is a nice homage to Doc and Clara’s mutual love for Jules Verne and his victorian-era science fiction. (And an early example from the burgeoning steampunk movement.)
The movie and trilogy came to a satisfying end even though our beloved Delorean is destroyed in quite the dramatic fashion. Doc gets his wish but still allows us to dream of all the other places in time we could travel to. Destinations best left to our imagination, at least until an animated series fills in the void. Many complained about the sequels not living up the first movie. Only one of the movies is an absolute classic but the trilogy stacks up admirably with almost any other. And for me personally, the franchise had such a profound effect on my imagination as a child and to this day is such a significant part of my nostalgia for the time period. In some ways, Eightiesology is my time machine to the ’80s, and the Back to the Future trilogy will always be one of my favorite destinations to travel back to.