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I never knew I could write anything so touching.


Back to the Future Part III


Zemeckis takes the pedal off the metal for this self-satisfied finale, content to coast on the western pastiche, the nods to previous episodes and the chemistry between Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen. The longest of the trilogy, Back to the Future Part III certainly feels it, in its indulgent, unhurried fashion, but perhaps most disappointing is that it supplies little in the way of a cogent conundrum that was the driving force of the previous two. Yeah, sure, Doc ends up dead, maybe, but the Bobs already used that last time with George, didn’t they?

Marty: I do my killin’ after breakfast.

Back to the Future Part III isn’t a bad movie, but there’s never the remotest sense that it’s trying very hard. This is the same comedy-western territory as Support Your Local Gunfighter, but it isn’t nearly as sharp and sprightly. There was a mini-renaissance in the genre around this time – Dances with Wolves, the Young Guns, Quigley Down Under, Unforgiven – and while some of those were putting a revisionist foot forward, Back to the Future Part III is determinedly riffing on movie westerns in much the same way the first Back to the Future was riffing on cinema’s version of the ’50s. You’re very consciously on a western set. Marty’s forced into cowboy fancy dress before adopting the name Clint Eastwood and a poncho. The first thing he encounters are “Indians!” followed swiftly by the cavalry. 

Doc Brown: Marty, you’re not thinking fourth dimensionally.

When Back to the Future Part III isn’t yukking at all this, it’s doing its best to exhaust its own self-referentiality. Marty “Great Scotts” and Doc “Heavys”. Marty wakes up to hear his great grandmother talking to him in an OIRISH lilt. She, mystifyingly, looks like Lorraine McFly (the wrong side of the family). Great granddad, perhaps even more oddly, bears a passing resemblance to Eric Stolz (it’s those ginger whiskers, I think). He would have been Crispin Glover, of course, had not Glover either (a) asked for too much money, (b) been forced out for being too opinionated/weird, or (c) opted not to come back because the producers were using the set as a means for preying on children. The fortuitous side of his absence is that all those Marty-Lorraine incest shippers out their can get their fill, several generations removed.

On which subject, Back to the Future Part III’s biggest talking point – well, among a certain observant section of the Internet – in recent years has been the curious and quite alarming gesturing of Doc Brown’s son Verne (Dannel Evans, whose only other listed credit is an episode of Eerie, Indiana the following year… which was Black Hat Joe Dante produced). This occurs when Doc is talking to Marty in the final scene. Verne’s standing behind dad, offering a strange “come hither” gesture before, it appears, pointing to his weiner. What are we to conclude from this? Daddy’s a fiddler? Or the makers are? All aboard the paedo train.

Coming off the back of Crazy Days and Crazy Nights’ blind article, the takeaway would be that the Back to the Future sets absolutely were not ones where any halfway diligent parent would want their offspring hanging out (some have concluded Evans is mimicking the camera operator, “a motion for dolly in and zoom”. Okay, sure. Others that he needed to take a leak, which would be more believable, were it not explained that way on snopes; if snopes tells you something, it invariably means the worst-case scenario they’re denying is the most plausible). On the positive side of all this, it seems Bob Zemeckis can be counted in the ranks of Hollywood White Hats, so whatever may have been going on during the making of these movies, it would be reasonable to assume he wasn’t transgressively involved (what past-life sins he has committed that have led to his movie output of recent years is open to debate, however).

I shan’t be attempting to point out all the time-travel inconsistencies here, except to note it’s remarkable how time rearranged itself around the alt1-1985 Jennifer, who travelled to the alt-2015 and then back to the alt2-1985 as it was “restored” to the alt1-1985 (obviously, Jennifer Prime wasn’t seen after the opening section of the first movie, having forever disappeared from sight at the same time as Marty’s deadbeat family) . And hilarious to imagine the reaction the trilogy would receive now, re Jennifer. She’s effectively fridged, or porched, for two movies, and barely gets a look in during the first.

Mad Dog Tannen: Mighty strong words, runt.

Biff is much better catered for. Indeed, Thomas F Wilson gets arguably the most-fun role here as Bufford Tannen (“hunt you down like a duck”, indeed). His alt1-Biff in the previous movie is difficult to countenance, of course, identified as obsequious to the McFlys (why, does he think George might rise to the challenge of hitting him again, thirty years later?) but Biff-ish to everyone else (“Butthead!”) It doesn’t make sense, but it’s necessary to explain his actions in alt-2015 (he also seems to have no abiding view of the previous day’s flying DeLorean when we see him). One is additionally forced to consider that whole generations of Tannens are the products of violent liaisons, on the evidence of each specimen’s general attitude and comportment.

Steenburgen was previously enamoured of HG Wells in Time after Time, and Clara has a thing for Jules Verne here. Which is a chance to throw in some scientific “fact” about travelling to the Moon in 84 years’ time. Jay Dyer posits that Verne was “one of the grandfathers of science fiction and the notion that technology is key to transcending determinism”. Or becoming god. Dyer considers it is intrinsic to the movie’s structure that they go back to “the dawn of the industrial revolution” (well, okay,  but its dawn was about a hundred years before that, and it was a good forty past its sell-by-date in 1885) “which Doc realises can allow him to find love, as well as transcend the limitations of the cyclical time-constraints of determinism” (that would be Jay’s Luciferian transcendence again, but much as he may harp on, it’s a fair observation). Also notable is that Doc identifies himself as a von Braun, of the ilk of the Nazi rocket scientist and NASA essential staff. So you can’t trust a word he says, basically. 

Old Timer: If you don’t go out there… everybody, everywhere will say “Clint Eastwood is the biggest yellow belly in the West”.

Marty’s story takes a decided back seat, which is probably just as well, given what there is of it revolves around him overcoming the downright appalling “Are you chicken?” character flaw. Fox’s timing is as good as ever, but the surrounding film simply isn’t as sharp. The producers blame Back to the Future Part III’s (relative – while it failed to make the US Top 10 for 1990, it was still sixth for the year globally) box office slump on Part II being marketed as standalone, but that doesn’t really wash, given its attached trailer. It’s more the case that the canvas reeks of must try harder (Part II, while only sixth for the year Stateside, was third worldwide). Gremlins 2: The New Batch failed that summer by thumbing its nose at expectations, but Back to the Future Part III came unstuck through slavishly sticking to a formula.

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