It's barely been two weeks since October 21, 2015 happened, a date which holds fairly deep meaning for devotees of the Back to the Future trilogy. Not far from where I live, a town decided to call itself "Hill Valley East" for the anniversary, held an anniversary premiere where members from the cast and crew attended. Lots of fawning over Pepsi Perfects, or Nike Power Lace shoes, or anything else that was ‘commonplace' in 2015 was adored over social media and elsewhere. And why not? For the most part, Back to the Future is a fun three-film series.
Written by Bob Gale (Used Cars) and Robert Zemeckis (Flight), the latter of whom would direct, the premise of the first Back to the Future film is generally simple. A teenager who wants a life better than what he has, stumbles across a method of time travel that his crazy, far older friend, has developed, and thus, goes back in time to not only save his future, but the future of his family and his older friend. That may be an oversimplification, but it is the way the story is told in the first film that was done so remarkably by those who needed to tell it, is what made the first film so special. As Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox (Family Ties) looks at the future with wide eyes and a dropped jaw. His time-traveling scientist friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd, Angels in the Outfield), goes through elaborate means to acquire a DeLorean automobile, to say nothing of the plutonium required to generate the necessary energy needed for time travel. And once the time travel happens, Fox can't believe it, but when he goes to 1955 and meets his then-teenaged parents Lorraine (Lea Thompson, Ping Pong Summer) and George (Crispin Glover, Hot Tub Time Machine), and finds out that Lorraine has a crush on him? Things get a little weird.
We see just enough of what Marty knows to be 1985 in Lorraine and George to know what they will be like when he meets them in 1955. An interesting flip is that when he meets Doc Brown, Brown is just as skeptical of Marty's time-travel claims as he is passionate about them in 1985. Marty quickly earns Doc's trust and works to get the fetching Lorraine and the nerdy George together, despite the feelings of Lorraine towards Marty (bearing in mind, she has no idea who Marty is, as he claims to be "Calvin Klein," the name on Marty's underwear. Thrown into the mix is Biff (Thomas F. Wilson, The Heat), who bullies George in 1955 as he continued to do in 1985 when we first see the McFlys, and Marty has to get Lorraine and George together, fend Biff off and get back to the future, somehow.
If there is a movie that you know backwards and forwards and still have no problem throwing it on the TV, Back to the Future may be it. Along with setting up the past as Zemeckis and Gale do, there is some humor that lets the viewer in on the time travel dynamic, such as when Marty goes into the Hill Valley Diner after traveling back to 1955, or how he convinces George to ask Lorraine to the dance. It's silliness, but silliness that works. If there's one thing in the movie that doesn't, it's Marty doing "Johnny B. Good" on guitar and vocals at the dance. It still grates me, because I think Zemeckis and Gale were potentially a little too greedy cinematically for their own good. It remains a minor gripe, a hair splitter that doesn't impact Back to the Future much, and its legacy as an entertaining and fun film remains.
It's when the thoughts of a sequel turn in movies that tends to tarnish the impact on them, and Back to the Future Part II does that to a degree. The first film ended on a somewhat goofy note, the second film already had the premise set up to go to the future. Doc and Marty along with Jennifer (played in the first film by Claudia Wells, and in the second two films by Elisabeth Shue) go to 2015 so Marty can stop Marty's son from going on a jaunt with Biff's kid Griff that would result in Marty Junior being arrested.
While the viewer remained almost part of the scenery when it came to the 2015 world of Hill Valley, a key component missing from the film seems to be any real meaning in the trip. The first act shifts the action from Marty's kid to trying to stop the alternate 2015 version of Biff from being the accepted one, and it seems like a preventative gesture without any benefit. Sure, Biff is the heel in all three films and we don't want him to do well, but let's be real; Biff's ceiling wasn't that high to begin with. Zemeckis and Gale don't have a lot of heart to make Biff a wholly disturbing character in the second Future film and that, combined with the desire for Marty to destroy the vaunted sports almanac, led to disappointment among many. Heck, even with the knowledge that there was going to be a third film, when I watched the second in the theater as a kid, my thoughts were, "is that it?" The characters from the first film like Thompson are neglected, and Glover (replaced in the last two films due to apparent salary demands) are rendered unimportant in the second film, and it leaves a dynamic for Fox and Lloyd to try and push the story along how they can, leaving a film trilogy already with pacing problems with an underachieving result.
Which brings us up to Back to the Future, Part III. After traveling back to 1955 from 1985, then up to 2015, then back to 1955 (I think), the next logical step was to go to…1885, the days of the Old West and Hill Valley. Doc is in that era, and gives explicit instructions for Marty and 1955 Doc to not come for him to make the timelines copacetic. But when it's learned that Doc will be killed, Marty's forced to go back to the Old West, and Doc is there, and the two attempt to repair the now-damaged DeLorean so Marty can get back home.
The main storyline in the third film is of Doc and his desire to stay in 1885, but more importantly the addition of Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen, The Last Man On Earth) as Doc's love interest in the film. While he helps Marty fix the DeLorean, he gets the chance to show off his feelings in what turns out to be a pleasantly surprising twist of range for Lloyd, whose chemistry with Steenburgen is a treat to watch.
Additionally, another charming component of Part III is that everyone is in on the story. You, me, the characters. They know they want to get the beats from the other films right, so Biff will be covered in manure at some point, for instance. They also know that Marty will probably sort of get home, so they make it a fun two hours to that point, throwing in nods to other Westerns, notably My Darling Clementine among other John Ford films. There had been so much investment by so many people going into the first two films the ending was anticlimactic. Rather than making it so, Zemeckis and Gale gave the ensemble one last moment in the sun in some fashion. If you're going to go out, go out on your own terms, and Part III accomplishes this.
The story is basic and the pacing of the movie is slow (for that matter, it's slow across all three movies), but handling the basic things, immersing the viewer into the eras, modern or retro, while keeping things to simple storytelling elements for Marty, make for enjoyable viewing. Zemeckis observes (smartly) that Marty is sort of the steadiness for all three films, while we see the characters change around him, be it George in the first, Lorraine (or maybe Biff) in the second, and Doc Brown in the third. In a sense Marty is an observer, as we are, and Marty makes for a damn fine observer through a century with multiple timelines. There may be an occasional moment of rust or two, but the machine of Back to the Future remains almost as enjoyable now as the moments when it first emerged onto the public conscience.The Blu-rays:
So, the news of note? The transfers on the 30th Anniversary Trilogy are the same as the 25th Anniversary release. Come on, Universal, this isn't JUST another release, it was the 2015 date from the movie! With that out of the way, I'll take a crack at reviewing the transfers within the vacuum of this set, OK?
With that out of the way, the VC-1 encoded transfers of the 1.85:1 widescreen presentations are not bad.I mean, they aren't going to be full of detail like some other releases, but the colors look natural and film grain is visible, and the discs are devoid of nagging DNR, image banding or haloing that would otherwise deter from viewing the movies. Would probably lean to 4/5 for the first film, and 4.5/5 for the last two, knowing that their technical ceilings on Blu-ray are probably closed to maxed. But again, if you have the previous Blu-ray release, this is a caveat to strongly consider in this new release.Audio:
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless for each of the films, and they're quietly impressive with each installment of the trilogy, as you'd expect. In fact, the sequences in the third act of the third film with the trains may have had the most subwoofer involvement of the bunch, but even still, the soundtracks have dynamic range when called upon, it's just not immersive as you would hope. The trademark opening moment scene of Marty in front of the floor to ceiling amplifier delievers oomph, but not as soul rumbling as you'd hope. If there's a movie of the three that seems to consistently take advantage of the home theater, it may be the second, with lots of noise that involves directional effects and channel panning. Alan Silvestri's score sounds like it was recorded yesterday on the discs, and overall I enjoyed listening to these puppies. Like the video, I would give 4/5 to the first BTTF, and 4.5/5 to the second and third ones.Extras:
Just like the technical details, Universal has ported over the extras from the 25th Anniversary release, and included a new disc of material. Remember U-Control? It's made a mini-return with this release. Packaging wise, it's slimmer than before (progress?), and includes iTunes and Ultraviolet copies as well. Tackling the fourth disc of new material first, "An Inspirational Message from Doc Brown" (:45) and "Doc Brown Saves the World" (9:38) are two new pieces that Lloyd did in character for this disc, the first being a poignant message about the future and life, the second being far more schticky and showing some of the inventions from the second movie and why they aren't around now in real-world 2015. The first is nice, the second is forgettable. Next is "OUTATIME" (22:00), which looks at the effort that went into restoring the DeLorean from the first film, which was brought back for celebrations to mark the anniversary by Universal. It includes interviews with Gale and some of those involved with the effort, and it's a nice look at the restoration, but honestly, if you've seen one show about restoring a car or motorcycle before coming into this disc, you know what you're going to see. "Looking Back To The Future" in a nine-part look at the film (45:42), looking at semi-recent interviews with some stars not in the other material, but covers a lot of the same ground that said material does in initial thoughts on the film, casting, storytelling decisions, and such. The scenes like the Johnny B. Good one are recalled, and the initial and subsequent reactions from the public to the films are discussed. It's a nice piece overall. Two episodes from the Back to the Future cartoon are included, along with two "commercials" for the hoverboard and the Jaws 19 movie, both in the second film, are included (2:34).
From the first film, Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale join up for the first of three Q&A session commentaries for the film, moderated by Laurent de Bouzereau. The track discusses how both parties came to the film, the idea for it and the writing process for the story, and the mechanisms in it they wished to include. They recall moments like picking the DeLorean, or some of the music, like Johnny B. Good. They also cover the initial period with Eric Stoltz in the Marty role, or the general weirdness of Glover in the George role. They also recall working with Spielberg, and their initial memories of the crowd as they slowly bought into the film. It's a nice track to listen to. The second track is with Gale and producer Neil Canton that is more production centric, as they spot auxiliary cast members, original ideas that didn't make the movie, and trivia others may not have known. It's not as active as the Q&A track but it's perfectly fine. Next up are eight deleted scenes (10:44) include an optional commentary track from Bob Gale, but there's nothing all that memorable in the scenes. "Tales From The Future" is a Bouzereau-produced look back at the films, six parts in total, with two on each disc. "In the Beginning" (27:24) is just that, with Gale and Zemeckis discussing the shopping around of the project to studios and includes some of the Stoltz footage and includes interviews with almost all of the major cast save Glover, whose ‘eccentricities' are discussed. "Time to Go" (29:54) looks at some of the shots in the film by Dean Cundey (who was cinematographer on all three films), and this piece includes location and set design information, along with costumes. The promotional efforts for the film are covered as well, along with the film's legacy. Next up, "Keeping Time" (5:43) looks at Silvestri's score sessions and intent for the music.
Several archival features follow, starting with your usual "Making-of" look at the film (14:28), with interviews on-set with the cast and Zemeckis, and the challenge of shooting said cast in young and old form. Production and set design are also shown here. "Making the Trilogy" it its own multi-part look at the films at the time, with "Chapter One" looking at some of the inspirations therein, and deciding on which eras to ‘travel' to and from, and some more casting trivia, like C. Thomas Howell as Marty. "Back to the Future Night" (27:10) is a promotional piece that apparently aired on television with Leslie Nielsen hosting, and was a piece promoting the second film's theatrical release while looking back at the first. There is a Q&A with Fox (10:20) where he discusses juggling the production schedule and working with Lloyd and Zemeckis, amongst several topics. Smaller featurettes follow, starting with a funny outtake reel (2:49) and several makeup tests (2:17) and a stills gallery. Lewis' music video for "Power of Love" is next (6:27), then a teaser trailer for the film (1:24). A promotional short for Fox' charity (6:09) completes things for the first disc.
Moving onto the second film, Zemeckis and Gale recall the origins for the second story and the process, and recall the reception they received from scientists on the time travel aspect of the film. They cover the decision to split a mammoth second script into two separate parts for the trilogy, and worked around casting changes and the production schedule. This was a little shorter than the first, running about an hour, but still OK. The Gale and Canton commentary touches on many of the same things, including the accuracy on some of the predictions, along with hoverboards. It's a little bit of an underwhelming track to listen to. Following that are seven deleted scenes with optional commentary by Gale (5:45), which cover mostly the 2015 McFly family. "Time Flies" (28:37) is the next part of the Tales from The Future feature and it shows the first thoughts on a sequel and how to break up the films, and approaching the back-to-back grind of a production, along with more predictions on 2015 gadgets. "The Physics of Back to the Future" (8:28) looks at the science of the film and what it got right and wrong. The archival features include a "Making Of" look at the film that's pretty quick (6:40), and the second part of "Making the Trilogy" (15:30), which examines the approach to part two and looks back at a spare moment or two of part one, and showing the cast in more old and young makeup. The Behind the Scenes materials start with a blooper (:49) followed by the production design of the second film (2:55) and challenges therein. "Designing the DeLorean" (3:31) is pretty straightforward and there is a storyboard to screen comparison montage (1:29). Test footage of the hoverboard is included (:58), along with how to show the time travel in the film (2:41). The "Evolution of Visual Effects Shots" (5:42) includes discussion from Gale on the ILM process and shows the various pass throughs in scenes, and five stills galleries follow, along with the trailer (2:21).
The third film's Q&A track is the shortest of the three, running about 40 minutes, and they cover the shoot and desire for working on a Western, and cover the big moments in the film. They also share their final thoughts on the trilogy and legacy for it, and talk about the future projects they're working on. Quite a forgettable track. The Gail and Canton commentary is more active, and includes shot recollection and anecdotal information from time to time, and spots influences from other Western films in this one. Of the two commentaries, this was the better one, if you're doing the whole ‘pick a commentary to listen to' thing. A deleted scene (1:18) that is fairly uninspiring follows, along with "Third Time's A Charm" (17:07), part five of the Tales from the Future piece, the casting of Steenburgen, working on Lloyd's story, and how they wanted to end the film. "The Test of Time" (17:00) looks at the impact of the film and the subsequent things like the cartoon and the amusement park ride, and the thoughts on working on set with everyone. The six-part series was nicely done by Bouzereau. The archival features kick off with the making of (7:32), then Chapter 3 of the "Making the Trilogy" series (16:20), which recounts the shooting schedyle and Zemeckis' regrets of not being able to give the second film more attention in the editing room. The appeal of the Western genre is shared, along with the approach to the story in this installment. "The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy" is a Kirk Cameron(!) hosted piece on the secrets in the film, while Cameron leads ‘letters' from fans. This was obviously done around the time when the third film was released, because Kirk Cameron. The behind the scenes material starts with outtakes (1:35) and the self-explanatory "Designing the Town of Hill Valley (1:08) and "Designing the Campaign" (1:18). The ZZ Top "Doubleback" video follows (4:09), along with the trailer (2:18), some "FAQs about the Trilogy" (20:01) done Q&A style in stills form, along with the video from the Back to the Future ride (31:06).Final Thoughts:
There are two ways to look at the 30th Anniversary Release of the Back to the Future trilogy. The first way is the one which looks at the package on its own merits, sees solid to excellent technical presentations and everything but the kitchen sink in terms of supplements, and it's a no-brainer to add to any collection. That's how I rated them, in fact. There is also the very valid way to look at this release, with the hubbub that it received recently on October 21 all over the pop culture landscape, and to see Universal essentially re-label the features and add a new disc, and think everyone should just flock to it. That part is haphazard thinking, and one that Universal should be called out on, because the celebrations were definitely disproportionate to the thinking behind this release.