Movie Review | Back to the Future Part III
Movie summary: Learning about the death of Doc Brown in 1885, Marty travels back in time to save him. But when the fuel tank on the time machine is punctured, the two must figure out a way to escape the Old West before Emmett is murdered. (IMDb)
After the back-and-forth of Part II, it's pleasing that Back to the Future Part III has a much more simple story like the original and the prime goal of getting Marty (Michael J Fox) back to the future. The timeline is still a little wonky (which I'll explain further down) and Marty is relegated to second fiddle at points, but it's still a nice ending to the story.
One very nice thing that the movie does at the start is to explain things to the audience. It seems a little strange in this internet age we live in to spend time bringing people up to speed with the previous instalment, but it was very likely at the time that a lot of audiences wouldn't have seen Back to the Future Part II since its original cinematic release and would need the reminder.
And bear in mind that this movie has 'Part III' in the title - if you watched this movie without seeing the other two first (why would a person do this?), you'd expect to not get some things because of that. Yet, we get a sequence with Marty - stuck once again in 1955 - effectively recapping everything to that time's Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and it works because he needs to be brought up to speed even if the audience doesn't.
It's then back to 1885, where the movie spends the majority of the time and thankfully so - it means more time can be spent on the characters rather than the plot, and how far they've come since the first movie. There is one slight difference this time though: Back to the Future Part III is definitely Doc Brown's movie and not Marty McFly's.
The main relationship is the romantic one that blossoms between Doc and Clara (no, not that Doctor and Clara!), with Marty only really having the objective of getting back to 1985 and overcoming his own personal issues. There's nothing particularly wrong with this set-up, but it can feel strange at times when you've spent two movies with Marty as the undeniable lead of the story.
There's not too much more to say about the plot thanks to its welcome simplicity other than the complication of Buford 'Mad Dog' Tannen. He's definitely the most dangerous antagonist of the trilogy thanks to his willingness to kill, but he doesn't hide nor does he excuse his villainy - he doesn't try and hide what he does behind the shield of being a white guy, he just wants to kill whoever annoys him and get away with it.
Oh, and as for the mention above of the timelines still not quite working? Clara's timeline doesn't mesh too well unless you make an exception that is never explained in the movie. Confused? Here goes: Marty says Clayton Ravine was named after a teacher who fell to their death and he remembers this because all Hill Valley students have had teachers they wished would fall into a ravine.
Except... Doc saves her life because he and Marty are inspecting the railroad that ends at the ravine but should be a bridge in 1985 and allow them to use a steam train to get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour and let it travel back to the future. If they hadn't been there, she would've died and the ravine would be named appropriately. Or would it?
Earlier in the movie, the mayor asks Doc to pick up the new teacher, Clara (Mary Steenburgen), from the railway station. If Marty hadn't travelled back in time, Doc would've met her and taken her home, again preventing her from dying and the ravine being named after her. We know this because the tombstone Marty discovers in 1955 showing Doc was murdered and prompting him to head back to 1885 also shows that Doc and "his beloved Clara" were in some kind of romantic relationship.
The only way it could still be called Clayton Ravine without Marty's presence in 1885 is if she still managed to somehow end up falling in at some point after Doc's death at the hands of Tannen. Well, I say only way, but there is another and this is the exception I was talking about: it's conceivable that the name of the ravine had changed before Marty ever went back and he hadn't noticed yet.
Except the whole set-up for Marty reuniting with Jennifer back in 1985 revolves around the timeline changing around them, so Marty shouldn't remember it was ever called Clayton Ravine because, technically, it never was. At the end, Jennifer seems to still remember visiting 2015, so maybe the memories of time travellers are exempt from time changing around them, even if the films never come close to stating this?
This might seem like nit-picking, but it's actually relevant to the goals of the characters and, as such, can't be dismissed so easily. I will say that it's more the bunkum reasoning of time travel from Part II that's the issue rather than Part II causing this problem. Personally, I'll take the theory that Clara died in the ravine after Doc died as it avoids all this mess caused by Part II.
Back to the movie as a whole, I love the change in musical style into something more appropriate for the Western setting. Then again, my favourite sequence in the whole movie is when Marty first enters the saloon and there's no music at all - it's unsettling as hell, but that discomfort works perfectly to put you into Marty's shoes as being so removed from his own time that he might as well be in a foreign country.
But that extends to the rest of the movie, which knowingly plays with expectations audiences might have of a Western movie with characters who know how to subvert them thanks to their knowledge of the future - including helping Marty save his own life in a gunfight late on. With it being the third movie in the series, it's a fantastic blend of elements familiar from the previous two films and the familiarity of Westerns to create something new and unpredictable.
Unfortunately, the treatment of women still isn't too great for such a popular series. Clara is little more than a love interest for Doc and, as a result, a plot device to complicate getting back to the future. Even when she displays agency of her own to go after Doc and tell him that she loves him, she ends up in danger and it requires a personal sacrifice from Doc to save the damsel in distress.
Then there's the weird use of Lea Thompson as Maggie McFly, which only seems to be so they could fit the actress in Cloud Atlas-style to show the same people being brought together in different lives. Either that or the McFly's and Baines' inbred quite a bit over the next century which is why their descendants look so damn similar to them...
Back to the Future Part III is a satisfying enough end to the trilogy, even if it still can't come close the level of the first movie. It still improves on the previous movie though, by focusing on the characters of Marty and Doc, and their relationship with each other, over wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff. It does rely on a lot of well-trodden Western narrative devices, but always knowingly and is constantly entertaining.