Triple Threat: Back to the Future

In a decade full of touchstone trilogies, Robert Zemeckis made the most cohesive and fun.

Movies Features Back to the Future
Triple Threat: Back to the Future

A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Maybe that’s why the trilogy is such a satisfying structure for so many epic series or curious corners of cinema history. This year in Triple Threat, Ken Lowe revisits another of cinema’s best trilogies each month, including some unofficial trilogies that have come to define a director, actor, or time in film history. You can follow the series here.

It’s hard to believe this in our current age of intellectual property overload and decades-long film slates, but a lot of film trilogies weren’t originally planned that way. Many times throughout film history, a perfectly good standalone movie hit it big and suddenly had greatness—and all the studio expectations that entails—thrust upon it. This can lead to movies that are uninspired, or at the very least uneven. (We will discuss The Matrix later this year.)

Then there’s Back to the Future, which was not planned as a trilogy despite the way its first installment ends. It was just supposed to be a gag about how ridiculous time travel narratives are, the exact kind of random wackiness that Rick and Morty has parlayed into an entire seven-seasons-and-counting cartoon. As it turns out, though, studio execs and the public just assumed there would be a sequel to Back to the Future, and thus it became a trilogy.

Nobody I’ve ever spoken to claims the second and third installments are better than the first. I’ve heard outright disdain for the third one. I’m (probably) not here to argue either of them are as good. But I will say that taken as a whole, Back to the Future is still the strongest trilogy of films to come out of the same decade that gave film history the latter installments of Star Wars and the first runs of Indiana Jones, Rocky and Rambo movies before nostalgia-mining demanded they all return. Considering its competition and the fact that Robert Zemeckis never actually intended to do it, it’s an amazing accomplishment.

The Movies

Back to the Future rather hastily establishes a friendship between happy-go-lucky teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and reclusive scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). We aren’t sure how they met or why Marty hangs out with him, and if you aren’t Justin Roiland, it doesn’t really matter. Marty is surviving: School is a drag, his family members are a bummer, especially his father George (Crispin Glover in the first movie, then Jeffrey Weissman when the studio wouldn’t meet the former’s demands to appear in the sequels). The elder McFly lets coworker Biff push him around (Tom Wilson, playing only the second most contemptible villain of his prolific career). But Marty at least has his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells, then Elisabeth Shue in the sequels), and a promised date out by the lake. That is, until Biff wrecks his car (this is how thoroughly he bullies Marty’s father). And so, a down on his luck Marty decides to join Doc Brown for his experiment in the parking lot of the mall that evening instead.

The experiment is a time machine—you knew that. It’s worth it to talk about the DeLorean, the series’ time machine and one of film’s Truly Iconic Vehicles, sure to be found in any imaginary fleet of fantasy conveyances alongside the Millennium Falcon or Kaneda’s motorcycle. Because Elon Musk has apparently forgotten this, it’s worth it to go into the history of the DMC DeLorean, an infamous car that really defined the excesses and tackiness of the 1980s. Released in 1981 and shutting down production before 10,000 units had been delivered, the car was already a joke by 1985. In one of the sequels, Doc soberly concludes that any attempt to trade paint with Biff’s ’50s convertible would end with the DeLorean smashed to bits. I feel this element is lost on younger viewers, and it shouldn’t be: Big blocky stainless steel luxury cars are stupid in any decade.

After demonstrating that the DeLorean at least works as a time machine, Doc is going to try to go back in time and study history in person. There’s just one wrinkle: The fuel for this incredible process just happens to be plutonium, which Doc obtained from Libyan terrorists with the promise he would turn it into an atom bomb. They’re not happy he deceived them, and arrive mid-experiment to gun him down. Marty escapes in the DeLorean, but in doing so inadvertently gets the car up to 88 miles per hour—the threshold beyond which the car’s time circuits kick in and it warps through time.

Marty finds himself crash-landed 30 years in the past, in his hometown in 1955. In doing so, he’s upset the space-time continuum by (ulp…) disrupting his parents’ meet cute and accidentally becoming the guy his mom wants to date. With the help of the Doc Brown of 1955 (he looks absolutely no different), Marty must get back to the future before he’s erased from existence. It involves making sure his dad punches out Biff and makes out with his mom at the big dance.

Back to the Future’s premise is simple and its stakes are high without being so melodramatic as to not also be funny. Fox and Lloyd are a perfect comedy duo, with Marty the hapless straight man in the face of Doc’s earnest and enthusiastic obliviousness. It’s impossible not to love them both as the movie reaches a thrilling ending with a literal ticking clock.

Back to the Future Part II picks up where the last left off, deciding to follow up on the previous movie’s fake premise for a sequel: Something’s up with Marty and Jennifer’s kids. The movie re-shoots the ending scene from the last film, then immediately thrusts the characters into the far-off and unknowable future of 2015. Marty must prevent his son from being arrested and screwing up his entire family’s future. His future self is also, we find, easily provoked. It’s a character trait we didn’t really see in the first movie, but it’s somewhat easy to excuse since it provides Marty any opportunity for personal growth at all. He’s mostly just a plucky action kid.

Marty manages to accomplish his time travel mission, but an elderly Biff witnesses it and commandeers the DeLorean long enough to give his 1955 self a sports history book that allows him to literally become Donald Trump. The Biff of the Mirror Universe has turned Marty’s hometown into a crime-ridden cesspit, built a 27-story casino, and bullied Marty’s mother into marrying him after, we learn, murdering Marty’s father. Marty escapes this dark future with Doc and goes back in time to prevent Biff from getting the sports book. It leads to a bunch of madcap scenes in which Marty is reliving the events of the first movie from a different perspective.

It all ends with Marty successful, but at a great cost—a bolt of lightning sends Doc Brown all the way back to 1885. Marty knows this because a Western Union courier shows up a minute later with a 70-year-old letter to tell him so.

Filmed back-to-back with Part III and even ending with a teaser reel for it, Part II constantly foreshadows the trilogy’s conclusion, and so when Part III arrives, it’s fulfilling a promise of setting the movie in the Old West. But I do still wonder how much Zemeckis and the other creators knew before they ever made this a trilogy: The gun Doc wields in the moment before the Libyans shoot him is an old-timey single action revolver, a fitting weapon of choice for a guy with a love of old cowboy history.

After Marty convinces a stunned 1955 Doc that he’s the real deal, they recover the DeLorean from where the 1885 (or… the 1985 really) Doc, who hid it in a mine shaft where Marty, stuck in 1955, can find it. But as they go about repairing it, they make a terrible discovery: Doc died in 1885, shot by Biff’s ancestor, the outlaw Mad Dog Tannen (Wilson again, perfectly embodying the role of somebody who, as Jim Carrey once put it, grows up to get his butt kicked by the Man with No Name).

Marty warps to the past, wrecking the DeLorean’s fuel line in the process and stranding himself in 1885. He does, however, get to meet his Irish immigrant forefathers (his great-great-grandfather Seamus is also played by Fox using elaborate camera trickery, as in the scenes in Part II where multiple actors play multiple characters). And he does meet Doc, who has fully embraced his role as a blacksmith and kooky steampunk inventor. Marty also runs afoul of Mad Dog Tannen, and soon becomes the object of his ire. The good news is that it takes the heat off Doc, but the bad news is that it means Marty’s name begins to appear in the photograph of Doc’s tombstone he took in 1955.

Doc saves a woman from a carriage crash and the two instantly fall in love. Clara (Mary Steenburgen) is an innocent schoolmarm who the movie gives very little to do, but it’s still cute to see the Doc tormented by love.

Back to the Future Part III comes down to a showdown between Marty and Mad Dog, and then a train heist, since the only way to get a DeLorean up to 88 miles an hour in a pre-automobile world is by strapping it to the front end of a train and rocketing it toward a ravine. Part III is not as iconic as the first movie, not as thrilling as the second, but it is a sweet, fun movie that is a great cap to the trilogy. Miss me with insults.

That was a lot of plot, so I have this to say about all three of these movies: They are so tightly written, the storytelling so economical, that you don’t feel any of the exposition pile up. The movies aren’t afraid to leave foreshadowing details in the background, aren’t afraid to stop for a minute so Doc Brown can use a chalkboard to lecture Marty on crucial temporal logistics so that we, the audience, aren’t left behind, and always find ways to make their central conceits make perfect sense. (How the heck could you possibly know the exact moment a lightning bolt struck somewhere 30 years ago? Well, when it strikes a clocktower, the clock stops, so there’s no question!) There are of course loads of time paradoxes in the movies, but they don’t stand out unless you watch these things obsessively, and that is not how you should watch breezy adventure movies like Back to the Future.

Best Entry

I’m not going to mess with you guys. This is an exceptional trilogy, but it only really has one exceptional installment. Nothing in the others tops Michael J. Fox shredding a Chuck Berry song on an electric guitar. Truly cinema’s most rockin’ causality paradox.

Trilogy Trivia

Takeshi Aono, the Japanese voice actor who dubbed Doc Brown in video releases of the Back to the Future films, is also known for voicing the character of Colonel Campbell in the Metal Gear Solid games. In Metal Gear Solid 3, a prequel set decades earlier than other installments in the series, the player has an opportunity to act cheeky and kill off a character who canonically shouldn’t die until quite literally one of the last scenes in the series. Doing so forces a non-standard game over. Rather than the usual message “SNAKE IS DEAD,” the game displays the words “TIME PARADOX.”

Aono, voicing Campbell (who isn’t even in the game) starts shouting at players that they’ve created a time paradox. The effect, for the Japanese viewer, is basically getting shouted at by Doc Brown that you’ve messed up the space-time continuum.

Marathon Potential

Literally the selling point. If you watch the Back to the Future movies all in a row with a group of friends, a pile of pizzas, and some Pepsi Free, you will at least not regret your choice of movies and you will also appreciate a ton of running gags, and a lot of planted details that all pay off.

Join us next month as we take a tour through John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy of The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madness.

Kenneth Lowe isn’t thinking fourth dimensionally. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

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