Film Discussion

Back to the Future Part III (1990) – Throwback 30

When the second Back to the Future film ended on its cliffhanger, with a stranded Marty McFly once again stuck in 1955, it left us with not only one hell of a set-up for its third film, but also a teaser trailer for its successor which was already halfway through production, with enough material in the can with which to produce a trailer.

Of course, it was somewhat spoiler-heavy in what it revealed, but it was such a glorious tease of what was to come that it was hard not to be excited for Marty and the Doc’s journey to the Wild West, as well as being our first time hearing Alan Silvestri’s rousing new theme for the film.

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The first two instalments of the series were very much about Marty and his family, with his parents frequently the victims of whatever time travel-related dramas that came about due to Marty and Doc Brown’s adventures. Last time out, Marty had to save his father and the whole of Hill Valley from a nightmarish alternative 1985 that came about due to, of all things, Grey’s Sports Almanac.

With the passing of the actual year 2015 that the first act of Part 2 takes place in, along with its Trump-like portrayal of Biff Tannen in an overlord position, the second film’s status has somewhat risen over the last few years, unwillingly becoming a work of grandiose time travel satire with which we can compare what the film predicted about the current age.

As a result, the third film has somewhat fallen away in people’s thought and memories, as well as estimations, which is a shame, because while the second one has been having its moment in the sun and the zeitgeist, the third film has forever remained the genuinely best sequel of the Back to the Future saga.

What’s most pleasing about it, and what might put modern audiences off a little in watching the series for the first time, is that after a brisk opening act that catches up with Marty and 1955-era Doc Brown and the revelation that Doc will be killed in 1885 where his future self is stuck, the pace of the film slows down once it makes its move to the wild west for something a little more introspective. It doesn’t mean that we don’t get the big finish worthy of the series, because its train-set climax is arguably the best set-piece of the trilogy.

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After spending the first two movies centred on Marty’s story, the third film puts its focus more on Doc and the friendship at the heart of the series. It’s a running joke amongst fans of the trilogy and something that gets a lot of discussion, but one does find themselves wondering how Doc and Marty became friends given that there is a substantial age difference. It’s never even explained if Doc is a friend of the McFly family, or if it was Marty’s trip to 1955 in the first film that resulted in their friendship, yet it’s a friendship that is the beating heart of the three films.

There is a genuinely lovely moment near the start of Back to the Future Part 3 where Doc reads the letter his future self will write to Marty and it’s truly the most bittersweet moment of the series up to this point, with both men clearly finding the letter a deeply emotional experience, but then bittersweet is very much in the air throughout the third film’s running time. Alan Silvestri’s score manages to go from rousing to emotional, and the same goes for the tone. But its portrayal of friendship and the Doc and Marty dynamic increasingly became the series’ beating heart, and with it having done as much as it could do with Marty’s family, the screenplay makes the choice to puts more emotional emphasis on Doc, which makes for a richly rewarding film.

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It dispenses with the twisty nature of time travel for something more akin to the first film. There are moments involving headstones and changing names which play brilliantly with the Back to the Future series formula of playing around with timelines and how they are altered, and there is one hell of a running Clint Eastwood joke that pays off fantastically towards the end, but it’s Gale’s screenplay and how he explores character here that makes such a gem that really ought to be appreciated more.

From Marty and Doc’s friendship to Doc’s sweet romance with Clara (a wonderful Mary Steenburgen) to the usual cavalcade of running jokes and references to previous films, (Mad Dog Tannen, Biff’s great grandfather has his own altercation with manure which should be getting old at this point but actually just gets funnier with each film), the third Back to the Future walks a tightrope of sorts that it manages to stay balanced on.

It’s that element of poignancy at the heart of the film, the knowledge that this is the last one, that gives the final fifteen minutes such a ferocious drive and eventually a sense of happy melancholy.

There is one last plot stand to resolve and that’s Marty and Doc getting home, and the series has that worked out brilliantly. The history of film is littered with great scenes on trains – in fact one of the very first films is of a train pulling into a station – and Back to the Future Part III gives us one of the greatest train sequences ever put to film. There’s only one way to get a gasoline-deprived DeLorean up to 88mph and a train in 1885 is the only way to do it.

It’s the most exciting sequence in the entire trilogy, a grandiose set piece to end the final act of the series on and would almost be enough to just end it there, but it’s the epilogue that leaves the entire trilogy on such a high note that it would be a shame if everyone ever capitulated to making a fourth film.

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Doc and Clara’s train (along with their dog and two children, one of whom behaves oddly if you keep a lookout) hints at an even greater adventure to come, but one that should stay in the imagination of the audience. It’s such a bittersweet cap to leave everything on, with Doc happy, Marty paving his way to a responsible and more hopeful future than the one depicted in Part 2 and a happy life with Jennifer.

It’s the most perfect ending imaginable for these characters and their story and there really ought to be a law to ensure that there is never a fourth film or remake.

Back to the Future Part III was first released in the UK on 11th July 1990.

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