Back to the Future Part III (Universal Pictures)

It was nearly a decade ago that comedian Patton Oswald declared, “We’re on the brink of Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” Fast forward ten years, though, and what do we have? Well, pretty much everything that ever was is available somewhere, but if you’re like most people and are too broke/stubborn to pay for every streaming service under the sun and too noble/lazy to pirate, you’re more likely to settle for what you can watch rather than hunt down exactly what you want to.

This conundrum results in some uniquely modern frustrations if you do want to watch something in particular. Case in point, we had a family movie night way back in 2018 where we watched Back to the Future on some premium cable channel or another. This naturally put us in the mood to watch the sequels. Nothing doing: you could pay to rent Part II, but I already pay for so many streaming services…surely it’ll show up somewhere eventually, right? I kept my eye on the all-streaming-service search engines (first, CanIWatch.It, and after that died, ReelGood) for over a year and Back to the Future Part II never showed up anywhere. Finally, it dawned on me to check with the good folks at the St. Louis Public Library, who had a copy to borrow on DVD. This was late last fall, which was just in time for Part III—and only Part III, for god knows what reason—to show up on Netflix. We finally got around to watching Part III this month, just in time for Netflix to announce that finally all three movies would be available in one place starting next month.

The original poster for “Back to the Future Part III,” painted by Drew Struzan. Click to enlarge.

It’s madness how hard it was to watch all three of these movies, particularly because, while most sequels are at least somewhat beholden to their predecessors, Back to the Future Part III largely falls apart without Part II. The 1985 original Back to the Future remains one of the most perfectly constructed screenplays ever penned, with screenwriters Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis (who also directed) crafting a script where there isn’t a single event in the movie that doesn’t move the plot forward, including so many bits that seem superfluous only to dovetail together later in the movie. The movie’s premise is elegant in its simplicity yet pleasantly complicated in its execution: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) accidentally travels back in time from 1985 to 1955 and teams up with a younger version of the time machine’s inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to get back to his own time…only he mistakenly ruins his parents’ (Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson) first encounter and if he can’t get them to fall in love, they’ll never get married and he’ll cease to exist. Back to the Future made a lot of money, so naturally the studio wanted to make more and greenlit two sequels. Gale and Zemeckis wrote both movies and then filmed them back-to-back, releasing them in 1989 and 1990. While it’s a fair assumption on movies based on an established book series, it’s an uncommon opportunity to enter into writing a second film in an original series knowing you’ll also get a third. Gale and Zemeckis used this chance to make two films that operated not as two separate movies, but as a singular work that expands their world and yet dovetails together as a pair as well as the original did on its own.

The plot gets a little messier here, but the quick version: in Part II, Doc and Marty head forward in time to 2015, then back in time to 1955, screw things up, and return to a warped version of 1985 where Marty’s dad’s bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) has been turned into Donald Trump. (No, really.) That problem fixed, Part II ends (and Part III) opens with Marty having found out that Doc accidentally ended up not in 1985, but in 1885, back when their hometown of Hill Valley, Calif., was the Wild West. Marty learns that Doc is murdered shortly after his arrival by Biff’s ancestor “Mad Dog” Tannen (also Wilson) and so he runs back to 1885 to rescue him.

Like most sequels, Parts II and III spend much of their screentime making callbacks to the past glories of the original film. But the elements of Part I that are referenced are spread out between II and III—some parallels occur in all three films, while some are only in one sequel or the other, and others are setup in II only to be paid off in III.

Because of this, Part III doesn’t hold up particularly well as its own movie. It opens in media res with the fallout of Part II, and ends with a sequence that ties up the still-loose ends from Part II that Part III otherwise ignores entirely. In between, though, is a relatively entertaining move in its own rights. What sets Part III apart is that other than Doc and Marty, the rest of the characters we meet are new—even when they’re simply obligatory Wild West variations of the originals. Wilson is still definitely playing a Tannen as Mad Dog, but his grime-covered face and grittier attitude makes him a wholly different, slightly more threatening take on the series’ resident hothead. Redoing his trick from Part II, Fox again plays two characters within the same scenes, this time doubling up as both Marty and as one of Marty’s ancestors, Seamus McFly (with a not-too-shabby Scottish accent, even). The established female characters get particularly short shrift—Thompson pops in for a few brief spots as Seamus’ wife Maggie, while Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) is absent for the entire 1885 excursion. Instead, Doc gets the romantic subplot when he falls hard for schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). Eventually, all the loose ends—both new ones and those still dangling from Part II—get wrapped up in a neat little bow.

Part III careens from incredulous moment to incredulous moment, but it still keeps your attention because Doc and Marty are such strong characters, Lloyd and Fox are so likeable in the roles and push their hardest to sell the craziness, and the tight deadline they have to save Doc’s life and get back to 1985 adds enough tension to propel the plot forward. (That arbitrarily tight deadline also makes the leaps and bounds of the Clara-Doc romance a pretty big stretch; it’s something you have to just accept, though, otherwise the whole thing falls apart.) It’s this simplicity of purpose that makes Part III an ever-so-slightly-more enjoyable viewing experience than Part II, whose multiple time jumps and multiple timelines get a tad unnecessarily convoluted at times. That, and there’s the added benefit of the definitive ending that comes with being the last of the series. Part III can’t quite hold a candle to the first one either, though, because what was fresh and original the first time becomes hokey when it’s just a slightly tweaked Western retread of the same jokes. The original Back to the Future is a great movie, full stop, and while Part III doesn’t quite hit those heights, it still at least wraps up the story as a very good one. | Jason Green

If you are reading this in 2020, you can stream Back to the Future Part III on Netflix and can stream the other two parts next week. If you are reading this from the future, find where you can stream it today at ReelGood.com.

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