Friday, April 1, 2011

Advanced Product Placement And Temporal Object Theatre: Defeating Bullies In The Back To The Future Trilogy.

The Good: A good idea, Humor, Moments of acting, Themes, DVD extras
The Bad: Repetitive, Belabored for the resolution, Product placements
The Basics: In an ultimately good- if cinematically unremarkable- boxed set, the viewer learns about time travel and the importance of reasonable responses to bullies. Buy Pepsi!

Once upon a time, I saw Back To The Future and years later, I was baby-sitting and I arrived to my job to find my young charge watching the last two minutes of Back To The Future, Part III. Knowing that there were essentially six hours of the series that were coming to a head, I watched intently to see how the whole series was going to conclude. Doc Brown, intrepid time traveler, tells Marty McFly, his protege that it's important to live life to its fullest and essentially be free (this is not, I assure you, ruining the series to know). When I saw this, my thought was "That's a long way to go for such a simple conclusion." Now in possession of Back To The Future - The Complete Trilogy I'm left to evaluate this series not as individual works, but as a complete story.

There are truly great or perfect film trilogies, like Lord Of The Rings (as a trilogy, the extended edition would be a 10 in my book), great trilogies, like the two Star Wars trilogies (as trilogies, the greatness of certain episodes does not overcome the weakness of other episodes), and good/average trilogies. The Back To The Future trilogy falls within the confines of an average trilogy. Available as the boxed set Back To The Future - The Complete Trilogy, the series reveals itself as an interesting and original series plagued by its own repetitive nature and the ultimate simplicity of its message.

Marty McFly, friend and apprentice of local mad scientist Dr. Emmett Brown, finds himself on a time traveling adventure that takes him to the past to interact with his parents, the future to interact with his children and to the distant past to interact with his ancestors. Marty must make sure he comes into existence by hooking up his parents in 1955, keep his children from going to jail in 2015, and rescue Doc Brown from certain death in the Old West. Over the course of his travels, he bonds with Doc Brown, overcomes his reactions to bullies, and encounters various versions and permutations of his family members and their adversaries.

Back To The Future is a number of things and the simplest way to describe it would be as a science fiction comedy that uses time travel to teach Marty McFly two extraordinarily easy lessons. The first lesson - mentioned above - is a fortune cookie response to a series of intriguing events and seems like it ought to be obvious from the beginning. The second lesson (which does have some effect on the first) is much better illustrated: there is a time and place for.

Marty McFly is the son of George McFly, who was picked on as a child, bullied well into his adulthood and spawned a child who is, in turn, delinquent and unremarkable. Marty's interactions with George in 1955 lead George to stand up for himself and overcome his bully oppressor, Biff Tannen. The result of this is that when Marty returns to 1985, reality has been changed such that Biff is a browbeaten loser almost entirely dependent upon the good will of George (as opposed to using George as his lapdog). The series would seem to be saying that violence can be used to overcome violence and the result it that the oppressed can become a more benevolent oppressor.

Fortunately, writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis are not so simplistic in their evaluations and what they want to say. The Back To The Future Trilogy makes an argument for judgment, declaring that young people need to stand up to bullies, but not always responding with violence. George McFly's solution is to punch back, Marty McFly Jr.'s solution (in 2015) is to run away, and ultimately Marty learns in 1885 to simply let go of perceptions other people have and becomes an actualized adult who is not dependent upon the esteem of strangers for validation. This is an honorable, clever message that is well executed by the trilogy when viewed as a single movie.

This is because only when viewed as a single entity is there actual, organic character development. George McFly makes a character leap in Back To The Future and the viewer simply witnesses the transformation that one act of self-expression has when Marty sees him transformed in 1985 from loser to successful author. But in Back To The Future, Part II, none of the characters grow and it is only in Back To The Future, Part III that Marty and Doc overcome their limitations and flaws of the prior two films to actually do something interesting and become characters as opposed to types.

What keeps the trilogy interesting and engaging, then, is the use of setting. Back To The Future - The Complete Trilogy is concerned with four years, encompassing the history of Hill Valley, California by exploring the differences in setting in: 1985, 1955, 2015, and 1885 (in that order). More than simply establishing a story happening over different time periods, the trilogy uses the time travelers Marty and Doc to explore the differences and similarities in people and cultures at various points. So, for example, one of the most amusing moments in the series comes when Doc Brown in 1955 notes that the time machine was bound to break down because a key component was made in Japan, which Marty (from 1985) responds to with the idea that "All the best stuff is from Japan."

Unfortunately, the way that the trilogy makes much of its statements about enduring institutions in America is through obvious, insulting product placement. Watching this trilogy is designed to get the viewer to go out and buy Nike sneakers, drink Pepsi, fill up at Texaco and use Western Union. There a less than subtle advertisements for Toyota trucks and if Delorean was still making cars when this film was produced, you don't get much more of an ad than the cool time machine which is a retrofitted Delorean. There are key points where Nike, Texaco, Pepsi, and Western Union are prominently referenced, shown on screen for long, establishing shots and otherwise become integral to the plot in ways that pull the viewer out of the narrative. So, instead of being a drink that Marty likes to drink, Pepsi becomes a talking point, repeated over and over again when he requests a "Pepsi Free" at a diner and is told by the simple folk of 1955 that he can't get a Pepsi for free. In short, while product placement might be a reality of Hollywood" in this trilogy it is distracting and it's used more as an advertisement throughout than for actually establishing setting.

What does establish the setting is the peripheral ideas surrounding some of the product placements. Ironically, this does not always work in favor of the advertiser. For example, Texaco is present in 1955, 1985, and 2015. Over the years, the viewer is shown how the gas giant becomes less and less service oriented. In 1955 a full crew of workers rushes out to pump the gas, clean the car, and check the oil. In 1985, there is self service. In 2015, for greater prices, a robot simply fills the tank. There's less and less human interaction, less value for the dollar. Director Robert Zemeckis inadvertently sticks it to his sponsor in order to create a viable sense of reality. And, of course, in 1885, there is no Texaco, creating the idea that all institutions have a beginning and insinuating that all of them may end.

While much of the trilogy is motivated strictly by plot events, the characters are interesting and over the course of the series, there are some essential characters to recognize. They are:

Marty McFly - High school senior and assistant to Doc Brown. He is a generally delinquent young man who is the son of the browbeaten George McFly who wants nothing more than to have his father stand up for himself. Through the magic of time travel, Marty gets his wish and he is able to transform his family from losers into movers and shakers. He has a girlfriend, named Jennifer, and he affection for the eccentric scientist Dr. Brown leads him to risk his life to keep his family and existence intact throughout various times,

Dr. Emmett Brown - A quirky scientist living in Hill Valley, California, who has stumbled upon the secrets of time travel. Having devoted thirty years to making his theory a reality, Doc Brown wants to use time travel to better humanity, but finds it makes a mess out of existence instead. Freed of the needs to be productive and commercially successful, Brown finds his greatest joy living a simpler life in the Old West of the U.S.,

Biff Tannen - A bully who once tormented George McFly, Tannen is angry and able until put in his place by George McFly. Ruined and alone, Biff festers, lusting for Lorraine (who George married and spawned Marty with) until he one day recognizes the appearance of the time machine in 2015, leading him to try to exploit time travel to retain his power and influence in the past,

Strickland - Principal of the high school, coming from Hill Valley's tradition of law enforcement. He is involved in the lives of the McFly's and Tannen's throughout the years,

and Lorraine Baines/McFly - Impressed by strength and bravado, Lorraine has a big heart, but her whims become the prize that alters time and reality when she - alternately - falls for Marty, is rescued by George, and (in an alternate 1985) is simply taken as a prize by Biff Tannen.

In the series, these are the essential characters, though George McFly has a lot to do in the first movie and Needles (played by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers) becomes integral in the latter two installments. Tannen, Brown and Marty are the ones who change reality the most and are worthy of the viewers attention.

This means that this trilogy hinges on the acting abilities of three actors at the end of the day. Two out of the three deliver consistently. Actor Thomas F. Wilson makes an auspicious performance as Biff (and Griff) Tannen. Wilson, who was amazing in the deeper role in Freaks And Geeks (reviewed here!) defines himself as an actor of some ability and depth in this series. He comes across easily as the imposing bully at first, but he extends his portrayal to the full use of his body language to age the character and actually makes the character edgy and dangerous well beyond the writing when he plays Biff in an alternate 1985 where Biff basically rules Hill Valley. More than simply a big guy or a dumb heavy, Wilson embodies Biff as a seething man broken after being a bully and festering for sixty years eager for revenge and he does the part well.

Christopher Lloyd is given the chance (eventually) to develop Dr. Emmett Brown beyond a simple reinterpretation of his Reverend Jim character from Taxi. Unlike other outings where he is given the chance to explore his range, Lloyd as Brown is basically a kooky mad scientist for much of the series. When he diverges from that, he becomes a delightful, intriguing character that is played with depth and human emotion one might not expect from Christopher Lloyd. He makes the part interesting, even if his ability to act is only revealed late in the series.

As it is, much of the movie rests on the acting ability of Michael J. Fox. He is fun to watch, though somewhat unremarkable as Marty McFly. Fox, who I like as an actor, does not lend much to the character outside his boyish good looks and his energy and enthusiasm. This is not a criticism of him as an actor rather an acknowledgment that Fox's role in this series is more an example of excellent casting than actual impressive acting. This is more playing to his niche as opposed to truly challenging him. This is not, for example, The American President where Fox played a part dramatically different from any he had played before.

As a side note, the unreliability of guns is wonderful in this trilogy. Guns are constantly jamming in the Back To The Future trilogy. I like that and it works well as a realism and dramatic element more than for a simple comedic moment when it pops up through the trilogy.

Back To The Future - The Complete Trilogy might work better as science fiction than as comedy, as the humor becomes reworked and somewhat old. So, for example, throughout the series Biff Tannen (and his ancestors and descendants) are run into trucks of manure. Rewatching the series, this becomes progressively less funny and more passe.

This boxed set includes almost the entire weight of each movie in bonus features with extensive commentaries, deleted scenes and featurettes (from when it was theatrically released and specially created for this boxed set) on each movie. There is nothing exclusive to this set that is not included on the individual disc releases, making it an equal value to buy the boxed set or the individual films, dependent on how much you like one or two vs. the entire series. This does not, however, include the animated series that followed up on the movie franchise.

So, at the end, the question is, is this worth it? The price value of the boxed set over the individual discs makes it worth it in my mind and the weakest episode ("Part II") works much better in context. So, if you're looking for an enjoyable time that spans six solid hours of entertainment, Back To The Future - The Complete Trilogy fits the bill for entertaining, even if its solutions are a bit simple for adults.

To learn more about the specifics of each movie as a stand alone film, check out my reviews of each film at:
Back To The Future
Back To The Future, Part II
Back To The Future, Part III


For other film reviews, please visit my index page for an organized listing!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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