You'd have to search far and wide to find someone unfamiliar with the Back to the Future trilogy, as this successful franchise has earned plenty of fans during the past few decades. Co-written by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, these time-traveling adventures have scored high marks with critics and audiences alike---and even though some installments are more satisfying than others, there's something to enjoy during each of these three outings. The trilogy has spawned an animated series, a handful of video games, a themed amusement part attraction and, of course, a mountain of film-related merchandise, cementing Back to the Future as a true icon in American film history.
The first adventure sent Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) back to 1955 for a surprise encounter with younger family members, then back to the present with the help of his soon-to-be friend, inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). After Marty's return, Doc arrived from a trip to 2015 to warn Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue, taking over for Claudia Wells) about their future family's fate. After attempting to correct their problems in 2015, an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson) snuck off in the DeLorean with a souvenir to make his younger, 1955 self rich and powerful. Thusly, Marty, Doc and Jennifer's home year of 1985 was transformed into a dark, crime-ridden dystopia, so they had to return to 1955 again to set things right. Aside from a few slight bumps along the way, Part II proved to be an entertaining follow-up to the original---and as the final scenes of the sequel (and the tacked-on teaser) suggested, our third and final BTTF adventure would be arriving soon.
Roughly one year later, Back to the Future Part III (1990) took our heroes into the Wild West (Hill Valley circa 1885, to be exact)...but our story begins in 1955. We quickly learn that Doc, having written a letter to Marty from 1885, would be killed the following week---and despite a few initial reservations, Marty decides to travel back to save his friend. The more things change, though, the more they remain the same: a member of the Tannen family tree ("Mad Dog", again played by Wilson) is stirring up trouble, Doc's still puttering around with his inventions and the McFly family is just trying to survive. The main difference this time around is that Back to the Future Part III focuses more on Doc Brown's character: he's fallen in love with the lovely Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen), a schoolteacher with a like-minded interest in science and Jules Verne. With Marty's knowledge of Doc's impending fate, a return trip to the present is inevitable...but with Doc's newfound companion (and a few "technical difficulties", of course), things quickly become complicated.
During most of its 118-minute running time, Back to the Future Part III offers a rowdy and enjoyable adventure. I'd imagine that younger audiences at the time didn't appreciate the love story between an older couple (my younger self included), but the film has aged fairly well during the last two decades. Western-themed stories just weren't very common when Back to the Future Part III was released, but you'd hardly know it by the film's enthusiasm, cinematography and attention to detail. Performances are terrific all around; while Steenburgen isn't given a great deal to work with at first, she fits right in by the end of our story. As expected, the franchise's reputation for excellent special effects is maintained here, though the atmosphere doesn't call for them nearly as often. All things considered, it offers a strong dose of action, adventure and comedy...and it's probably more enjoyable than most fans remember.
My one major gripe with the film, which has been with me from the very first viewing, is that it doesn't have a very effective conclusion. Back to the Future Part III simply falls off the rails (pardon the pun) during the last 15 minutes, from the predictable "chicken" car race to Doc and Clara's return in their vigorously-modified locomotive. Doc's earlier decision to finally destroy his time machine is completely thrown out the window, creating an over-the-top happy ending that almost promises another sequel. Thankfully, our story ends there...but since the film does so much right along the way, it's mildly disappointing to see our franchise end on such a weak note. This certainly doesn't ruin the entire experience, but it makes one wish the writers could go back in time and tighten up the conclusion.
Originally released as part of a three-disc "Trilogy" boxed set in 2002, Back to the Future Part III is now available as an individual title. Unfortunately, it's identical to the earlier version (aside from the packaging, of course), so those looking for an upgrade will have to keep waiting. On the bright side, this is still a perfectly well-rounded effort, featuring a solid technical presentation and plenty of bonus content to dig through. It's also worth noting that the other two installments are available separately---so even though they don't offer substantial upgrades, fans are free to pick and choose. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Video & Audio Quality
NOTE: The technical presentation of this release is identical to that of the "Trilogy" boxed set.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Back to the Future Part III looks very good from start to finish. The dry, almost sepia-toned palette of 1885 is handled nicely, while the 1985 sequences appear bright and colorful. Image detail is solid, light film grain is present and black levels are fairly consistent. I'd image that a newly-struck transfer would improve the overall image slightly, but there's little to complain about here. Blu-Ray owners, on the other hand, should be roundly disappointed: Universal has made no announcement regarding the trilogy's high-def debut, so you'll have to keep waiting.
The audio presentation fares equally well, as Back to the Future Part III features a lively Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix (also available in a French dub). One wonders why a more down-to-earth 2.0 Stereo mix wasn't included as well, but the surround track is rather tastefully done. Dialogue is crisp and clear, the film's music cues rarely fight for attention and a robust atmosphere is maintained. English SDH captions and Spanish subtitles are included during the main feature and most of the extras. It's odd that all of the bonus content hasn't been subtitled (especially the deleted scenes), but this is still a decent effort by Universal.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the animated menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 118-minute main feature has been divided into 20 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase; also included is a matching foil-enhanced slipcover, which retains the film's theatrical poster design.
NOTE: The bonus features on this release are identical to those found on the "Trilogy" boxed set.
All of the original bonus features return here, leading off with a feature-length Audio Commentary by producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton. This track proves to be slightly repetitive at times, but it's certainly worth a listen for fans of the film. On a related note is a Q&A with Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, moderated by Laurent Bouzereau and recorded live at the University of Southern California. This audio-only session plays during the main feature, though it concludes with nearly 90 minutes to spare. The movie-paired extras conclude with "Did You Know That? - Universal Animated Anecdotes", which are subtitle-based factoids that pop up periodically.
Also returning is a handful of general Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes, including "The Making of Back to the Future Part III (7:31), "Making the Trilogy: Chapter Three" (16:19, below left), a basic look at the production (2:55) and a slideshow of Storyboards (1:41). Next up is a rather tragic Deleted Scene (1:14) and a few amusing Outtakes (1:36), as well as a pair of more specific Production Featurettes, which include "Designing Hill Valley" (1:08) and "Designing the Campaign" (2:05); the latter features a number of unused poster concepts, as well as the iconic final design by Drew Struzan. On a similar note is an additional Production Gallery, which includes original sketches, repeated poster concepts and plenty of behind-the-scenes photos.
Our next returning extra is "The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy" (20:40, below right), in which host Kirk Cameron answers a sack full of fan mail. On a similar note is "FAQs about the Trilogy", which presents a similar set of questions and answers in a text-based format. Closing things out is a Music Video for ZZ Top's "Doubleback" (4:08), Production Notes, a few Filmographies and the original Theatrical Trailer (2:18)...and, of course, a selection of DVD-Rom Content. All bonus features are presented in letterboxed, 16x9 widescreen and 1.33:1 formats, while most of the featurettes include optional English captions and Spanish subtitles.
It's taken seven years for Universal to revisit Back to the Future Part III on DVD, and history has shown us that they did it right the first time. So right, in fact, that this release is identical to the "Trilogy" disc...aside from the packaging, of course. The film itself offers a nice contrast to the first two and concludes the BTTF saga with style, though the final 15 minutes are weak and anti-climactic. For obvious reasons, this one-disc release is aimed squarely at those that missed out on the boxed set---but unless you've been living under a rock, you should still be able to find it for $20 or less. This is a very tough sell to all but the most ardent packaging collectors...and in all honesty, it's barely worth half of its asking price at this point. Skip It and track down the boxed set instead.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.