#7 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
After the pained opening and inventing re-imagining that was the second movie in the franchise, Marty and Doc return for their final outing with a more straightforward time travel adventure in line with the first one. From beginning to end, this is much more confident and assured storytelling on the part of Robert Zemeckis, standing on its own far better than the previous film while also giving Doc a surprisingly effective little love story.
Writing the second and third movie together, and filming them back to back, greatly advantaged the third film over the second. The second was saddled with a jokey ending from the first that was never meant to be followed up, but the second movie was designed to actually lead into a specific adventure in the third. In addition, the two Bobs treated the second movie as the opening act to the third movie, introducing character elements and plot points that would resurface and resolve in that final film. Some of that ended up feeling out of place in Part II (like the “chicken” character trait that went unresolved there and the clip from A Fistful of Dollars that seemed completely gratuitous), but they end up working far better in Part III.
So, Marty watched Doc erupt into nothing and disappear in the skies before finding out that he had been sent back in time from 1955 to 1885. Using a seventy year old note written by Doc as a guide, Marty recruits the 1955 version of Doc to help him find the DeLorean that 1885 Doc hid in a mine shaft, get the time machine back up and running, and then goes straight back to 1885 to save Doc from his fate of dying less than a week after he sent the letter.
One of the joys of the franchise is how self-aware the films are about their formula and structure. There are several very specific things that happen in every film, and seeing them repeated in different contexts and variations is amusing. A Tanner saying, “McFly!” in a drinking establishment to Marty, confusing him with another member of his family, the chase through the streets of Hill Valley, the reappearance of characters and their antecedents like Strickland, and the central location of the clocktower provide a familiar base through all three films. Beyond that, in particular the first and third movies tell very similar stories where Marty goes back in time and needs to get help from Doc in order to go back forward in time, and here’s where the variations become interesting.
In the first movie, Doc was the crazy scientist with dreams of grandeur, worries of his own failure, and concern for the space-time continuum. In the third movie, Doc gets lovestruck, and it’s amazing how well it works. Clara Clayton, the new schoolteacher in Hill Valley, arrives in the week that Marty and Doc are organizing their return home, and Doc is immediately smitten. Attractive, a bit older, and in love with both science and Jules Verne, Clara is the one woman in all of space and time, it seems, who could bring out more from Doc than rationality. They’re endearing together, and they provide the emotional bedrock on which the movie’s final half really operates. Marty remains the character with little more than a goal while Doc gains an emotional attachment and arc that moves him into becoming a different person by the end. That’s not to say that Marty doesn’t actually grow in this film, because he does. The “chicken” bit that was leaned on heavily in the future segment of the second movie finally moves beyond a random character trait suddenly inserted into Marty, it actually becomes a place where Marty will examine himself and grow over the film, and it’s handled surprisingly well especially in his interactions with Seamus (both played by Michael J. Fox in a series of increasingly complex composites that must have been a devil to work through in the late 80s and early 90s).
Marty does what he always does in these movies and becomes the focus of ire on the contemporary Tannen, in this case Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. Marty shows up into town wearing a pink and blue cowboy getup that sticks him out like a sore thumb. Attracting Tannen’s attention because of the outfit and his resemblance to Marty’s great-great-grandfather Seamus with whom Tannen has issues, Marty gets shot at, lassoed, and nearly hung until Doc comes to the rescue with a tricked-out rifle. Together, Marty and Doc get to work finding a way to get the DeLorean to get to the necessary eighty-eight miles per hour after Marty accidentally cut the car’s fuel line when he first arrived over rough terrain and in a chase with a local tribe. Eventually, they settle on robbing a train, getting the boiler up to an explosively hot degree, and riding out the extreme speeds until the car can get up to the necessary speed and appear on a bridge that will be built eighteen months after they leave but ninety-nine years before they arrive.
Another of the movies’ joys is how well plotted they are, in particular the first and third. The rules of time travel, the method, and the means are very clearly laid out, but it never feels like a boring exposition dump (part of that is Christopher Lloyd’s constantly manic performance as Doc Brown where even when he’s explaining things, he always seems like he’s about to explode providing a surprising amount of tension). At the same time, the stakes of the effort are really clear. In this case, if the two don’t make it to the train on time, then Mad Dog will kill one or the other. If they don’t get the train up to eighty-eight miles per hour, then the time machine will just fall over into the gorge below. With these very clear practical stakes, it combines especially well with Doc’s emotional stakes. The final movements of his story with Clara feel earned and satisfying.
It seems to be that the general consensus is that the movies descend slightly in quality from one to the next with the first being the best, the second film as second best, and the third dead last. I just can’t agree. The first has a purity of action and narrative that neither of the two quite meet, but the second is, well, as I wrote, the second is a mess. The third, though, is a wonderful adventure that provides a new dimension to Doc and a rather firm close on the franchise at the same time. Reading Roger Ebert’s two and a half star review, he complains that the film decides to take a more romanticized view of the Old West than something like McCabe and Mrs. Miller by Altman, and I just don’t quite get it. The point isn’t to find a new way to tell a story in the Old West, it’s to find a new way to tell a Back to the Future movie. It’s a celebration of the Western genre up to and including visual cues from Once Upon a Time in the West, the presence of Harry Carey Jr, Pat Buttram, and Dub Taylor, and the use of Clint Eastwood as Marty’s moniker. This is Back to the Future in the Old West, and it works as that but also as vehicles for our two central characters.
It’s amusing to think that the entire trilogy takes place over about two weeks of Marty’s life, squeezed into about a day of real time from the start of the first film to the end of the third. Marty sees a lot, experiences a lot, and does actually end up growing and changing, and I think that Part III represents a wonderful way for Marty to complete his time travel adventures. I agree with Bob Gale that there shouldn’t be any more of these movies. I do dread the moment that both he and Zemeckis die because their estates are going to sell the rights as fast as possible and we’re gonna another hit of 80s nostalgia with a Back to the Future remake where the main character teenage has to go back to 1985. Until then, we have the original trilogy that is chockful of high-energy fun.