Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future Part III (1990, Robert Zemeckis)

Back-To-The-Future-III1

Plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? ‘Perfect – 10 Shonash Ravines out of 10’.) Instead, here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future Part III especially excels. I’ll avoid covering things discussed in the previous two blogs.

1. “10.04pm next Saturday night!”
The scene of the lightning bolt striking the Hill Valley clock tower in 1955 and sending Marty back to his own time is seen again – therefore, uniquely, it appears in all three movies.

2. “It’s Howdy Doody time!”
The 1950s sequence at the start of the film is wonderful. Set at Doc’s house, an abandoned mine, a graveyard, a library and a gaudy drive-in cinema, it has dark, solemn feel about it. It’s raining as the action begins, because it’s still the same night as the thunderstorm from film one. In the scene in Doc’s house, Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox are on fire – their rat-a-tat-tat delivery of the lines is a joy. It’s also so refreshing to see a movie scene between two actors played out in long takes – one shot is 49 seconds, another is 54, another 46. The camera moves discreetly so the point of the drama is always in focus; the editing speeds up if needed, but mostly lets Lloyd and Fox do their thing. There are lots of fun details in the scene too. The fact Marty still has the hoverboard is smuggled in via a bit of slapstick, and the events of the last film are neatly recapped in dialogue. Because it’s the same week of the events of the first movie, Doc’s scale model of Hill Valley is still in place, and Marty fiddles with the Doc’s mind-reading helmet. After the action moves to the mines, Jules Verne is casually mentioned (seeding information for later in the story) while the Doc idly wonders if his life in 1885 will be in the town archives (minutes later, he has to go and have a look).

3. “Clint Eastwood never wore anything like this.”
When he prepares to time-travel to the nineteenth century, Marty dresses in a ridiculous, garish cowboy costume. When he gets to 1885, he needs a pseudonym so picks Western icon Clint Eastwood (who he’d seen briefly on a TV in Part II). This is all part of the movie’s have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the Wild West. It wants to use the real history as a setting, but is more interested in clichés and conventions. The list of stereotypes being plundered for drama and comedy is seemingly endless: Indians and the US Cavalry; cowboys and campfires; duels and dung; horses and hangings; saloons, stagecoaches, shindigs, sheriffs, six-shooters, sipping whiskeys, standoffs and steam trains.

4. “How could you forget a thing like your hat?!”
Soon after arriving in 1885, Marty meets his immigrant ancestors – great-great-grandfather Seamus, great-great-grandmother Maggie and baby William. There are plenty of *very* impressive split-screens to allow Michael J Fox to play both Marty and Seamus in the same shot. Meanwhile, having Lea Thompson play Maggie is a strange decision – partly because of the incestuous implications now inherent in Marty’s family tree, but also because her Irish accent is not the greatest. But it’s a welcome move, because otherwise she wouldn’t be in the film very much.

5. “As mayor of Hill Valley, it gives me great pleasure to dedicate this clock to the people of Hill County!”
The Hill Valley set is another sublime bit of production design, though ‘bit’ is a laughably inadequate word for such an endeavour. Unlike in films one or two where the basic set could be refitted for four different time zones, the Wild West needed a whole new town built. It has the recognisable skeleton of the square we know so well, and the saloon is deliberately in the same location as the 1955 and 2015 cafés. A sign hanging over the street announces that the townsfolk are raising money for their new clocktower – which we then see under construction. Doc and Marty actually attend the clock’s unveiling ceremony. As the Doc says, it’s apt: they were there at the end of its working life too.

6. “It’s a science experiment!”
Doc Brown’s existence in 1885 – he’s been there several months by the time Marty shows up – has a delightful steampunk vibe about it. His workshop has a steam-powered contraption to create ice cubes; he’s built a long-range rifle; and the connection he makes with schoolteacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is based on their mutual love of science. I think it’s residual goodwill from this film that makes me so predisposed to enjoy sci-fi Westerns or ones with some kind of modern twist – both the good ones (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 2010’s True Grit, 2013’s The Lone Ranger) and the clearly awful ones (Wild Wild West, Cowboys & Aliens, Jonah Hex).

7. “Hey, Frisbee! Far out!”
As ever with a Back to the Future film, each viewing brings new details to light. This time, one example was in the scene where Doc and Marty question the train driver about how fast his engine can go. In the background, you can see the town clock being unloaded from a carriage – another instance of the series’s thematic connection to that timepiece. In terms of a whopping great big plot hole, something I didn’t spot for years and years is that Doc and Marty need to steal a train in order to get the DeLorean up to 88mph because they don’t have any petrol… and yet, they never once consider using the fuel from the DeLorean the Doc has recently stashed in a nearby mine.

8. “I adore Jules Verne!”
The third film gives us a simple yet highly effective love story, and also allows the Doc time to shine. The sweet subplot is very well played by Lloyd and Steenburgen, and it gives the middle of the film a reasonably leisurely feel (certainly in comparison to the sugar-rush storytelling of Part II). It’s a nice change of pace. And Clara isn’t a bolted-on complication; she plays a vital role in the plot. In the second half, thinking the Doc has lied to her, she gets on a train to leave Hill Valley. However, she then changes her mind and stops the train – which is handy as it’s the very train that Marty, who’s running late, needs to get back home.

9. “It erased…”
The stuff back in 1985 is fantastic – especially the Doc’s surprise appearance in a flying steam-train time-machine. (Everyone’s spotted how his son Verne points at his cock in the background of a shot, right?)

10. “Everything concerns the law!”
I first saw this film illegally before its UK release. A family I was friends with had somehow got hold of a pirated VHS. To protect their anonymity, I won’t say who they were – let’s just call them the Cowing family of 169 Burscough Street, Ormskirk. So I saw Back to the Future Part III on video before it was available in the cinemas. It was a black-and-white copy, sadly, though that was kind of appropriate for a Western. (It was a special year for seeing films early. That summer, I was on holiday in Spain and one afternoon a local bar showed an illegal copy of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which hadn’t been released in the UK yet, for all the holidaying British kids.)

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