Back to the Future Part III (1990)


Strangely, since this prominently features a 1950s drive-in movie theater for Marty's trip back to 1885, I originally saw Back to the Future III at a drive-in.  Happily it still exists, and has actually flourished a bit due to recent events.  Even at the time I saw it that theater was one of maybe two or three left in the Phoenix area - a place that used to have them so plentiful that one could literally see movies on the screens while driving on the freeway.  

What I remembered most was not the movie in detail, since I was quite bored with it.  What I remember is that I didn't know resting my foot on the brake pedal, even with the engine off, still made the brake lights come on.  So, as usual, instead of enjoying a special outing with my girlfriend at the time, I committed some faux pas that stuck in my head longer than the movie did.  Over the years I've seen bits and parts of it as it has shown up on television, but never sat through it completely in all that time.  As typical with my awkwardness, the first thing that comes to mind is someone knocking on the window about the brake lights while we were engaged in a little light "drive-in activity."

I kind of wish I had paid a bit more attention to the movie. 

Even though there is no attempt to make the 19th century anywhere near as accurate as the first movie tried to make 1955, this is a much better movie than the sequel.  Sure, there are no parallel universes and time paradoxes.  It's just a straightforward movie about Marty trying to save his friend, without any type of grand scheme behind it, and it does a good job of recalling the feel of the first movie without feeling like a retread.

At the end of Back to the Future Part II, the Delorean is struck by lightning and Marty (Michael J. Fox) fears that Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has died.  That is, until he gets a letter through Western Union informing him that the Doc is alive and well in 1885 and is not desiring a rescue.  At the behest of the letter, Marty seeks out the 1955 version of Doc Brown, giving him a bit of a shock, since it is right after Marty was originally sent back to 1985.  It turns out that the older version of Doc hid the Delorean in a cave in 1885 so that Marty could retrieve it in 1955 and, with the younger Doc's help, make his way back to 1985 and destroy it. 

Unfortunately, while retrieving the car they discover Doc Brown's grave - and the fact that he was killed a week after sending the letter, shot in the back by Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), one of Biff's ancestors.  Instead of 1985, Marty heads back to Hill Valley in 1885 to save Doc from being shot.  Along the way he runs into his own ancestors, while Emmett finds himself falling in love with the town's new school teacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen).  Unfortunately, with Marty's arrival, Tannen now has two targets in his sights.

One of the things that stood out in this movie, and it is still as bad as I remember it, was Fox trying to do an Irish accent.  In all honesty, Lea Thompson doesn't do a horrible job at it, but Fox might have benefitted from dubbing an actual Irishman over him, as awkward as it would have looked.  I forgot about the opening scene with the Calvary chasing the Indian tribe, which confused me a bit because the action takes place in a town in California, and from what I understand this was not an issue there at the time, and is one of the few scenes in any of the Back to the Future movies that may make audiences squirm in their seats these days.  

Since this movie was made concurrently with the sequel and released only six months after it doesn't suffer from any character drift, although Marty still has that habit of freaking out whenever someone calls him a chicken or a coward, something that never happened in the original Back to the Future.  It becomes an important part of his development into a different person than the one that was cajoled into making bad decisions that ruined his life in the second film, but it is still not a character trait that he should have been stuck with in the first place.  I do give them kudos for wrapping it up, but it was always unnecessary.  Doc Brown is still brilliant, but still grounded in reality, and of course Fox and Lloyd are still great at the heart of this.

While I found his portrayal of the alternate Biff well done in the second part, I found Thomas F. Wilson to be almost unbearable as Griff, and almost as bad his second go around as the younger version of Biff.  I personally thought letting him go full evil in the alternate 1985 timeline worked, and it works even better as Buford.  It's a parody of the typical Western bad guy, and this time around it is so obviously satire that it fits the role.  While finally there is a real love interest that gets some focus - and Mary Steenburgen is great - Lea Thompson is still shunted into a bit part while Elisabeth Shue spends the whole time sleeping on a porch swing in 1985 before briefly reuniting with Marty at the end.  

After all these years I have been forced to reconsider this movie.  It is somewhat a parody of Western movie tropes while still being a wonderful science fiction comedy that mirrors the first movie without just seeming to repeat it like the last part of Part II did.  It also adds in steampunk elements and, while making fun of Westerns, attempts to slip in authenticity here and there.  While I admire the thought that went into Part II concerning the repercussions of their travels, I enjoy Part III much more as a movie and as a worthwhile sequel to the first.  It has that same feel of wonder while at the same time still being fresh.  It's not a perfect sequel, but it is a solid conclusion that ties up everything from the first two films but still leaves plenty of further adventures to the imagination.  

Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Time: 118 minutes
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
 

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