Back to the Future is one of those movies that feels so effortlessly executed it's easy to overlook what an achievement it is. The film survived script rejections from every studio in town and an infamous recasting, overcame the challenges of juggling a human story with big-budget special effects and became a last-chance triumph for director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale, still limping after the box-office failures of I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1941. Yet it's a movie that fits together so well that it's hard to imagine it turning out any differently. Several years after releasing a trilogy-only box set, Universal has decided to deliver the films individually, but is it worth taking another trip back to the future?
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is your average teenager. He's got dreams of being in a band and a charming girlfriend (Claudia Wells), but his uptight, weak-willed parents (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) are a massive drag. As a friend of the local crackpot, Dr. Emmett L. Brown (Christopher Lloyd), Marty is asked to tape the man's latest experiment, which turns out to be a plutonium-powered DeLorean time machine. When Marty and Doc are attacked by the Libyans (upset that the bomb Doc traded
them for the plutonium is made out of "pinball machine parts"), Marty inadvertently ends up traveling back to the 1950s and endangering his parents' high-school romance. With the help of the Doc Brown of the 1950's, it's up to Marty to put everything back together in time to harness a local lightning bolt to power the time machine back to 1985.
The energy of the Back to the Future is boundless; there isn't a slow spot or wasted moment in the entire movie. Most of the energy comes from Alan Silvestri's sweeping score, a classic in its own right that I'd personally favor over a few of John Williams' famous themes. I'm not sure how many people also notice the expert editing by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt. Memorable sequences like the chase around the Twin Pines Mall parking lot, the clock tower climax, or even smaller moments like George working up the nerve to punch Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) have wonderful timing and excellent visual storytelling thanks to Zemeckis' keen eye. The visual effects are worked in to the combination with ease, always feeling essential to the story.
It's fairly common knowledge that Eric Stoltz was hired and filmed for some time before Zemeckis was forced to fire him, but it's hard to imagine anyone being as right for the film as Michael J. Fox: sarcastic without being smarmy, earnest without being cloying, deft with both comedy and drama, both playing and playing off of it. He's the perfect foil for Christopher Lloyd, whose exaggerated, struck-by-lightning energy contrasts well with Fox's laid-back attitude. As the parents, Glover and Thompson turn in what almost amounts to multiple roles, portraying George and Lorraine McFly both as teenagers in the 1950's, and twice -- very differently -- as adults in the 1980s. Thomas F. Wilson rounds out the cast as Biff, who operates at just the right level of thuggish dimness. You probably won't find anyone who instinctively calls Back to the Future an ensemble piece, but every one of these actors gets their moment to shine.
More than anything, Back to the Future is a celebration. There are no pathos here, just the power of love, and not in a cheesy way. It's clear that Zemeckis and Gale are all about remembering what's great in life: being a teenager, 1950s nostalgia, the Leave it to Beaver days, rock music, science fiction, inventing something amazing in your basement and going on an adventure. This is as much a film for everyone who's ever been young as it is for anyone who's ever gotten old, and that's the thing that's kept it around for more than 20 years (it helps that the film is basically a period piece, and is no more dated now than it was when it came out). It's also crackerjack entertainment, and I'd watch it any day of the week.
Back to the Future comes in a standard-sized DVD case with a hinged tray to hold the two discs. Drew Struzan's classic poster artwork appears on the front cover, with an embossed foil slipcover on top featuring an identical image. Inside, you get a one-sided insert pertaining to Back to the Future: The Ride, and the discs are black with the logo in gray. The first disc menu is designed to look like the Hill Valley clock tower and is easy to navigate, while Disc 2's menu resembles the time machine dashboard and interior.
Since the first disc is identical to the first disc of the three-disc trilogy box set Universal previously released, there are no surprises here. The strongest element on display in this 1.85:1 anamorphically enhanced widescreen image is the color, which is bright and vivid, both indoors and outdoors. Detail is pretty good and film grain is visible. I wouldn't necessarily whip it out as a reference-quality title, but I'd be shocked if the picture left any Back to the Future fans with anything to be desired.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is the order of the day, in both English and French, and it's great. The score is crisp and clear, the dialogue levels are good, and the special effects sequences are a blast. I don't have any complaints about the video, but the audio is even better. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided, as well as Spanish subtitles.
The draw, beyond having the films individually, is second-disc of all new extras. (the sequels have no new extras). Is it worth it?
First up is the preservation of Back to the Future: The Ride, formerly at Universal Studios. It's split into two segments: the "Lobby Monitor" footage (15:04) that you saw while you were in the line and the actual footage of "The Ride" (16:00), although the actual ride only constitutes the last five minutes of the latter. Most of it is better than VHS-quality, except for the actual ride footage, which is slightly clearer (you can admire the exceptional miniature work done for the attraction).
All told, the story is pretty goofy, and both Christopher Lloyd and Thomas F. Wilson ham it up, but it's fun to watch, and the ride portion has a good enough sense of motion you can kind of psyche yourself into the experience. Hopefully when Back to the Future arrives on Blu-Ray, they can hook up some D-BOX Motion Codes to enhance the experience. Mainly, it's nice to see that Universal decided to include this material now that the ride has been dismantled.
"Back to the Future Night" (27:11) is material created to promote Back to the Future Part II during the network television premiere of the original, hosted by Leslie Nielsen. "Cornball" is the word that comes to mind, although Leslie Nielsen fans and nostalgic viewers will probably get a kick out of it. Also, this video features Zemeckis making the infamous joke about hoverboards being real and the toy manufacturers keeping them off the market, which is Back to the Future history in its own right. The factoids presented here, however, are tired and well-documented elsewhere.
"Michael J. Fox Q & A" is not what I thought it was: I expected it to be the same interview you can watch on Disc 1 if you like clicking on icons during the movie. Instead it's actually footage from "Looking Back to the Future" (more on that in a second) that didn't get used on the DVD. It's a good interview, but what amounts to around ten minutes of footage is aggravatingly split into eight parts that all feature the same ten-second intro and outro. Additionally, there's no "Play All" option, so you have to click each topic individually.
Lastly, we have "Looking Back to the Future" (45:51), an independent retrospective that was caught in limbo until Universal bought it, hacked it up and stuck it on this DVD. The actual doc was feature-length, so the chunks concerning the follow-ups didn't make the disc, which is a shame. I can't say how much Universal changed it, because I didn't see it in uncut form, but as presented here, the documentary feels like it's missing its sense of motivation. It's all very pleasant, but never extremely compelling, which is a letdown, since this is the feature I was looking forward to the most. Let's hope Universal reassembles it into complete form for the eventual high definition release.
The rest of the extras are the exact same as the original DVD, the highlight of which is the two audio tracks. The first one is a Q+A with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale recorded at the University of Southern California, which doesn't run for the entire movie (only most of it), but is still more informative, funny and engaging than most commentary tracks I've listened to. The other is a proper commentary with Gale and producer Neil Canton. Gale's dry monotone isn't for everyone, but I found the track to be a worthwhile, entertaining listen. There are also deleted scenes, a few featurettes, trailers and more, but since this is all recycled content I'll let past reviews break it all down in detail. Only fans of the "Power of Love" music video with Christopher Lloyd are out of luck: it was shuffled to disc 2 of the trilogy set due to space constraints, so unless you're buying all three re-releases, you'll have to settle with watching it on YouTube.
In a (mostly) nice touch, the vast majority if not all of the special features on Disc 1 are subtitled in English, French and Spanish for the deaf and hard of hearing. However, the special features on Disc 2 are only subtitled in English and Spanish. What gives?
Back to the Future is one of the best movies of all time, but this DVD release is a weak double-dip. The trilogy set retails for $20 in most places, and yet these individuals are priced at $15 apiece! For the few who don't already own Back to the Future (and there are what, twelve of you?) and refuse, refuse to own the sequels (or must have the new bonus features) AND aren't looking to nab this on Blu-Ray, this release comes (begrudgingly) highly recommended. The rest of us can make like a tree and get outta here -- the new bonuses aren't worth shelling out for all over again when the inevitable high-definition release is probably just around the corner.
Read my reviews of the other two films here and here.
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