The Good: Good acting, Good character development (finally!), Decent enough concept
The Bad: Terrible, repetitive plot, Simple resolution.
The Basics: When Marty McFly returns to the Old West to rescue his friend Doc Brown from certain death, the audience has a nice twist on the Western and a decent ride.
First off, Back To The Future, Part III is almost entirely dependent on seeing Back To The Future (reviewed here!) or, at the very least, Back To The Future, Part II (reviewed here!). It is the last act, it feels like that and it utilizes the conceits and concepts of the first two films on the assumption that the viewer knows and understands them. So, unlike other trilogies that might have perfectly standalone final episodes, this is not one of them. This is not like Revenge of the Sith (reviewed here!) that a viewer could sit down and watch and be missing nothing because the movie is so well-contained. No, this is very much a final act. It is all about wrapping up loose ends and finishing the story. Where the first film was a science fiction comedy, the second a hard science fiction (at best a science fiction drama), the third act is a science fiction western. As with my review of Back To The Future, Part II, this review is for this film as a standalone film. To see how it works as part of the trilogy, see the link at the bottom.
Stranded in 1955 when the time machine Marty McFly was dependent upon for returning to his life in 1985 is inexplicably wrenched back in time, Marty returns to the 1955 version of Dr. Emmett Brown. Fortunately, Doc Brown was thrown into the past when the Delorean time machine disappeared. Knowing when and where to find Marty, Doc wrote him a letter from 1885, giving him the location of the time machine, the directions for repairing it with 1955 technology and the admonishment to not come looking for him in the past.
While 1955 Doc and Marty fix the time machine, Doc Brown looks up records of his past self and discovers that a week after writing the letter to Marty, he was killed by the gunman Mad Dog Tannen. Wishing to honor his own wishes, but feeling that he died in vain, Brown allows Marty to return to 1995 to rescue Doc Brown and return to 1985. Marty makes it back to 1885, but there are complications and he and Doc Brown must overcome the technological limitations to get the time machine to work while avoiding a gunslinger out to kill Doc and now Marty, who is going by the name Clint Eastwood.
Unlike the relationship between Back To The Future and Back To The Future, Part II, Back To The Future, Part III feels like it is in the same spirit, style and flow as Back To The Future, Part II. On the simple production level, this makes perfect sense as the writers and director constructed the two movies together and filmed them back to back. This eliminates problems with recasting and made the movie easier to construct with a sense of continuity.
In short, Back To The Future, Part III eats up the crumbs dropped in Part II. The problem here is that, this is a review of Back To The Future, Part III as a standalone movie. Ignoring the prior two outings, the question becomes, what does this movie do to make itself worthwhile?
The reason Back To The Future, Part III works as a standalone film is that it wisely mortgages Marty McFly and focuses on Dr. Emmett Brown. Doc Brown finds living in 1885 to be a treat, a chance to overcome all of the pressures and obstacles that plagued him through his unsuccessful career and enjoy himself. He allows himself to open up to love, he takes joy in a simpler life and he lets himself be happy without the pressure to succeed at anything. This character twist makes him vital, interesting and engaging.
Marty, then, becomes his sidekick for a change (the role was essentially reversed in the previous outings). Marty becomes Doc's bodyguard and when Mad Dog Tannen turns his attentions from Doc to Marty, the movie is somewhat shaky. Marty grows from being easily baited to developing some sense of judgment. This is a refreshing character change.
And the simple, obvious relationship between Doc Brown and schoolteacher Clara Clayton is Hollywood, predictable and yet still enjoyable to watch. Because of how obvious it is, one would suspect that it has no value. However, seeing Doc Brown as serious and joyless in 1955, it's wonderful to see him alive and human in 1885. The contrast of the eager scientist and the pointless death revealed in 1955 make it a joy to watch Doc Brown alive and interesting, clever and engaged in 1885. In short, the viewer finds themselves rooting for Doc Brown and his obvious romance with Clara. Because the Old West environment is Doc Brown's bailiwick, Back To The Future, Part III is much more his movie.
What makes Back To The Future, Part III worthwhile, outside the characters actually learning and developing, is the acting. Thomas F. Wilson, James Tolkan, and Lea Thompson all return to provide supporting roles. Wilson's Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen is a nice addition to his roles creating the Tannens and he is a convincing enough Western villain. Tolkan's cameo and Thompson's are pleasant enough. Thompson's place is simple enough and works independent of the troubling genetic notion that Marty McFly's great grandparents might be essentially the same stock as his parents.
Mary Steenburgen joins the cast as Clara Clayton. She is a pleasant addition, though her character is a pretty generic love interest type role, with little to develop her beyond that. Steenburgen is different than other roles I've seen her in (honestly, the only thing that comes right to mind that I've seen her in is the short-lived comedy with her off-screen husband Ted Danson, Ink) completely embodying the Western woman in the affectations of the time.
Michael J. Fox continues his role as Marty McFly and here he seems a bit old to be playing an 18 year-old convincingly. Fortunately, his age is never actually disclosed in this movie, making the part a fine role because it is not dependent upon the viewer believing he is a high school student. Fox's big acting moment is when Marty has the epiphany that being baited by Buford is beneath him and that works. Otherwise, this is the same character we've seen and it's not a particularly stellar or original performance.
It is Christopher Lloyd who dominates the acting of Back To The Future, Part III. Like his role as the Klingon Captain Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search For Spock (reviewed here!), Lloyd give a performance distinctly different from those we've seen him in before. He is joyful, smiling and emotionally connected as Doc Brown in 1885. When Brown sees Marty in the past, Lloyd is able to be emotionally expressive in a way his character has not been before. The transition from befuddled character in the 1955 setting to self-assured, knowledgeable and even romantic in the latter two-thirds of the movie makes Lloyd a pleasure to watch. Moreover, for all of the problems with the writing of her character, Mary Steenburgen and Lloyd play off one another with decent on-screen chemistry.
Back To The Future, Part III also creates a theme that makes a lot of sense. It advocates standing up for oneself, but not being a simple tool that can be pushed by anyone and anything. This is an honorable position and it's well developed in the movie. Moreover, understanding it allows Marty McFly to truly grow and develop. Unfortunately, the movie still has some of the jokes from prior installments like Tannen running into manure and a skateboarding scene, but they somehow seem more new than familiar in this setting.
In the end, this is a solid enough movie to make itself worth seeing and it's simply enough to understand all on its own. It is not bogged down in recreating the prior episodes and the characters actually grow. And here the characters motivate the plot, as opposed to vice versa. Marty returns to 1885 to rescue his friend and that's noble.
To see how Back To The Future, Part III works as a part of the greater series, check out my review on Back To The Future - The Complete Series on DVD here!
For other final chapters in science fiction epics, please check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Nemesis
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.