With the time circuits off and the dust all settled after Back to the Future Day, everything that needed to be said has probably already been said about Robert Zemeckis’ time travel trilogy. Except not. For all the pomp and circumstance around the 30th anniversary of the original classic, and the iconic what-if scenarios of the second installment, there is a conspicuous absence in the fandom of the adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown. Where is Part III in all of this, the full-on western concluding installment, and why does it get shafted in favor of the inferior movie that came before it? Back to the Future Part III gets no respect even though it’s almost as good as the original.
We’ll tread lightly here, as the 1985 first installment has gone down by some as objectively the greatest thing to happen in cinema history, no questions asked. But let’s be real. The original movie is good, in fact it’s not just good, it’s great. It’s the best kind of mainstream popcorn entertainment that typified the 1980s Spielbergian cinema that defined many a childhood. But just because something is great doesn’t mean that other movies, including those in the same series, can equal it. In terms of sheer emotion, excitement, and downright fun, Part III is as good if not equal to the original, and leaves the first sequel far in the DeLorean’s rearview.
People love the sequel, but not for any real story-based reasons. They remember the flying car, the hoverboard, and the glowing Nikes. That’s basically it. It’s the minutiae, not the entirety of the movie. Most people even forget the second half where Marty goes back into the timeline of the first movie altogether. If anything, Back to the Future Part II perfectly sets up the payoff of the series’ last part despite being a relatively self-contained story. That’s no fluke, they were designed that way. Zemeckis and co-creator Bob Gale made a deal with Universal Pictures at the time to shoot the second and third movies back-to-back, so it’s only natural that the second movie would live in that dreaded Act II limbo of being after the beginning and before the end.
Still, I can’t imagine being an audience member in 1989 and seeing that “To Be Concluded …” played across the screen at the conclusion of the second movie because all you want is more once it’s over. Part III — which was released a short six months later in May 1990 — not only delivers on that, but it also functions as a masterful semi-mirror image of the original.
In both the first and third movies part of the storyline hinges on how to power the DeLorean, there’s a love interest at the center of the drama, a Tannen is the main antagonist, a prominent ‘80s band makes an appearance and contributes to the soundtrack (this time ZZ Top instead of Huey Lewis), a photo of Marty represents the time-traveling exploits of the main characters, and Marty and Doc even exchange their iconic lines. Marty lets out a “Great Scott!” while Doc admits that their wild west situation is “heavy.” These skewed similarities are still distinct enough to separate the films.
Part III also has a marvelous focus. After two movies that dealt with the multi-generational foibles of the McFly family, the third installment focuses on Doc finding love and coming to terms with his own invention. Whereas before it was Marty simply taking advantage of the power of the time machine, in the old west Doc willingly changes the fate of the woman he eventually falls in love with by saving her from her untimely death. Instead of falling off a cliff, Clara Clayton falls into the arms of Doc Brown. Realizing he’s changed time and is okay with it is a feeling that goes against everything he’s taught Marty up to that point.
Doc Brown ultimately accepts that he changed time forever, and can only hope to contain it in the best way he can: by destroying what he’s made. Previously he’d always been selfless when changing time in order to help out his friends, but it affects him deeply once the impetus of time is pointed towards him. He’s willing to take this 19th century dreamer, an equal soul, with him on his time adventures. He chooses to be, for lack of a better word, timeless. It’s a more introspective movie that plays on the lighthearted comedy of the original, and so it resonates more. Like Huey Lewis, you might say it’s all because of the power of love.
The scene where a momentarily heartbroken Doc lets an unsuspecting traveling salesman in a saloon know about the future should also be mentioned because it’s perhaps the best acting in the entire series, maybe of Lloyd’s career. And the scene where he saves Clara again at the end and chooses to stay in 1885 just as the DeLorean successfully makes it back to 1985 with Marty inside is also heartbreaking. It’s another surprisingly earnest moment amid what has been, up to that point, a sci-fi comedy.
Perhaps people can’t look past the western setting, which was the main reason Zemeckis and Gale wanted to make sequels in the first place. Zemeckis said as much in a 2010 interview, explaining “The movie Bob and I really wanted to make was the third one,” he told them. “But to get there, to pay off the Doc Brown character falling in love and going to the West and doing all that Western stuff, the script was 165 pages long. Now, it wouldn’t matter, it would have been a two-and-a-half-hour movie. In those days, that was a problem.” It’s almost as if the second movie was an afterthought. And yet the setting was a major fault for some major critics.
In his review, Roger Ebert said, “This movie’s West is unfortunately a sitcom version that looks exactly as if it were built on a back lot somewhere.” In the New York Times, the always cranky Vincent Canby said, it “looks as if it could be the beginning of a continuing television series.”
Did these reviewers forget that the iconic town square in the original and Part II were also obviously on a back lot somewhere? Maybe the critics of its allegedly chintzy production design didn’t catch the wonderfully meta commentary at play. Marty is dressed up in the faux-western garb that 1950s Hollywood stars would wear in the Golden Age, and the characters in 1885 Hill Valley promptly make fun of him about it. It’s a winking detail by Zemeckis honoring those classics by admitting his movie looks fake even though they’re playing in the same genre.
Back to the Future Part III gets a bad rap, and yet it plays with the same character tropes of the previous two. It’s a hard argument to make that it exceeds the original, but it still gets ignored when it’s probably good enough to stand up to the much-loved first movie. It’s too bad, because as a trilogy they all tell one of the most enjoyable Hollywood popcorn stories ever put to screen, and it ends on a high note. I don’t have a time machine to go back and convince audiences about it in 1990, but I can try to convince people now.