The SmarK DVD Rant for The Back to the Future Trilogy

bttf | bttf2 | bttf3

[Note from time-traveling Scott in 2009:  This is a repost and update of my original rant on the trilogy from 2002, which has been recently re-released by Universal in single-disc sets.  I’m assuming that since it was written 7 years ago, a good chunk of my readership won’t have read the original anyway]

Time travel stories give me a headache.


I mean, yes, as a Star Trek geek, the concept of time travel and the implications therein are fascinating to me, but really 90% of them suffer from the same fatal flaw: The logical leaps of faith required to accept ANYTHING going on in the movie are generally too great to give you more than a five-minute scene before the audience is left grasping for their abacuses to figure out how the hell the stuff described could be going on. Thus you get long-winded exposition about time currents and changing the timeline and paradoxes and all sorts of stuff that’s really exciting to a bunch of theoretical physicists having a party on a Wednesday night and eating Chex Mix, but tends to leave everyone else in the dust. But maybe it’s just me.

See, the line of reasoning should not be “How can we write a good story around time travel?”, the reasoning should be “How can we write time travel around a good story?” Time travel, like all egghead pursuits, is pretty dull stuff without some imagination behind it. Thus, Back to the Future. Well, the first one, at least.

Robert Zemeckis spent the better part of five years pitching just such a time travel story to every studio in Hollywood and getting turned down by all of them. Maybe he should have built a time machine and brought back the newspaper listing the opening weekend receipts. However, in 1985, Back to the Future was released and exploded onto the pop culture scene, with oddly enough its longest-lasting contribution to the language of slang being “Hello? McFly?” as a way to indicate that the other person is rather stupidly missing the big picture. And you thought it would be that Pepsi Free joke.

The DVD release was promised from the very first day of the format’s birth in 1997, and continued to be promised by Universal on a regular basis for a period of four years, until it became kind of a sick running joke on their fans. Finally, in early 2002, the real deal was officially announced, putting an end to years of misery for fans starved for the movies. And now, 7 years later, they’ve finally released them in single-movie editions, because apparently that was such a difficult idea that it took them all those years to think of doing it. So what follows is my original review of the trilogy box set, updated with the new bonus features. Video and audio remain the same as the original release (in fact, the second and third movies are the same DISCS as the original set), so we’ll skip them, with the exception of noting that the mis-framing issues from the original release have been corrected here.

The Film

Back to the Future is a trilogy of time-travel fantasies, covering three distinct takes on the genre. The first one is a sweet look at how nostalgia can disguise the fact that people are essentially the same from generation to generation. The second one is an overly ambitious, soulless set piece about the consequences of mucking around with the past that is still tremendously entertaining if you can ignore the plot. The third one is a tribute to Spaghetti Westerns and Jules Verne with the time travel elements tacked on as a McGuffin. Honestly, I love all three, but the second and third are not exactly vital elements of the puzzle and the world is not necessarily a better place because Zemeckis chose to make them.

Back to the Future:

Still my favorite of the trilogy because of one reason: Crispin Glover. He’s a flake (in real life and storyline terms) but no one else had the manic energy and yet the total inhibition required to pull off George McFly. Once they killed him off in the second movie for contractual reasons, it was like one of the pieces of the puzzle was missing. The story has some of the weirdest elements ever in a Hollywood release, but it’s written so tightly and with such wonderment that it’s all easily accepted without hesitation by the audience. This is a movie that people instantly GOT. For instance, Marty (played brilliantly by Michael J. Fox, pre-disease) travels back 30 years in a DeLorean that has been modified into a time machine using parts found in a garage (and Plutonium), where he meets the woman who will become his mother, who in turn instantly falls in love with him. He is thus presented with two major problems right off the bat: The immediate, practical problem (how to return to 1985 in a world with no Plutonium to power the time machine) and the metaphysical problem (how to ensure his parents’ eventual union, so that he can be born and thus exist). Of course, you immediately have a paradox there: He HAS to succeed, otherwise he never would have been around to travel to the past in the first place. However, if he doesn’t travel to the past, his parents have no obstacle to falling in love, and thus he WILL exist again. But if he exists again, he travels to the past again, and on we go until there’s a rift in the time-space continuum that threatens the very nature of the universe. But that’s a worst case scenario. And that brings me back to my original point about the essential problem with time travel movies: If you think about them for more than 3 seconds, you go insane. So the filmmakers wisely chose to largely duck the whole issue by having Marty fading out of existence in tune with how bad the situation was getting, thus turning him into a human Paradox-O-Meter™ for those in the crowd who needed REALLY simple visual aids to realize what was at stake. And instead of focusing on the rather silly time travel concept as a serious plot point, they simply turned it into another gag by having the time vehicle be housed in a DeLorean. Of course, when you watch it these days, it’s not really a gag, because no one knows what the hell a DeLorean is and why it’s so funny that Doc Brown would choose to build a time machine in one of them.

And speaking of gags that no longer work, a word on product placement in this movie, if I may. For you budding young directors out there, this movie is a prime example of why building jokes around products that are hip at the time of production is a huge mistake. Take this little exchange, for example:

“I’ll have a Tab.”

“Tab? You have to order something first.”

“Just give me a Pepsi Free.”

“Free? You want something here, you have to pay for it.”

Oh, the hilarity that ensued in 1985. Of course, even five years later when Tab Cola was wiped from the shelves of America by Diet Coke and Pepsi Free was little more than a bad-tasting memory, the whole thing was suddenly a cringe-inducing anachronism and a lesson of why the marketing people should be rounded up and shot. In fact, there’s probably those among you reading this review who are asking yourselves right now “What the hell is Pepsi Free, anyway?” The answer of course is “Caffeine-free Pepsi”, and if THAT doesn’t make your eyes bug out with disgust, there was also “Diet Pepsi Free”, which was lacking both sugar and caffeine and tasted roughly like tap water.

[note from 2009: Since my original review, Pepsi has since REINTRODUCED caffeine-free Diet Pepsi, thus showing that all bad ideas will come around to haunt us over and over.]

Product placement in this movie brings new meaning to the term “Running rampant”, with everything from Pepsi to Texaco to Bud Light getting a piece of the screen time as the actors make sure to linger on whatever canned good or corporate logo is in their line of sight for that shot. By the second movie it’s transformed into a running gag, but for those who rolled their eyes when Dennis Rodman hid behind a Coke machine in “Double Team”, be prepared to shoot your TV whenever Pepsi products are prominently displayed here.

But I digress.

The heart of the story is not the time travel nonsense, but Marty’s rather tricky Oedipal dilemma, as he pushes his (future) father out of the path of a car and takes the bump himself, which leads to him getting nursed back to health by his (future) mother, who quickly develops Florence Nightingale syndrome and falls in love with him. Marty is then put into the rather tricky situation of teaching his father to be a man and stand up to the school bully (Biff, a minor character at best in the first movie) and win the love of the woman who is his density…er…destiny. THAT’S why the movie works. That Marty has to run the car through main street and time it with a lightning bolt while a contrived tree branch may prevent Doc Brown from hooking up the power line and providing the 1.21 “jigowatts” (which is likely a mangling of “gigawatts” in the days before we knew what a “gigabyte” was and thus knew how to pronounce it) of energy necessary for the operation of the Flux Capacitor is, at best, a minor point there only to provide a more exciting climax. However, when I saw the movie in 1985 in the theatre, the loudest cheer came when George McFly puts Biff out with one punch, so what is exciting for one may be different for others. Everything about the movie crackles with life and energy: Marty engages in a skateboard v. car chase with Biff’s gang of thugs, stops to play “Johnny B Goode” at the school dance, and even the visual gags are a reward for the viewer (Marty departs from “Twin Pines Mall”, runs over one of the original pine trees in 1955, and returns to “Lone Pine Mall” at the end of the movie).

And then, 4 years later, came the sequel…

Back to the Future Part II

Now, I liked this movie a lot and I still do, but it’s fatally flawed on many levels. Whereas the first movie crackled with life and energy, this one fizzles with greed and a shocking lack of anything to say. Compare the gags: In the first movie, Marty hijacks a soapbox racer and invents the skateboard. In the second movie, he hijacks a futuristic soapbox racer and invents the hoverboard. Except everyone already has hoverboards, so it’s not so much funny as it is a repetition of the previous gag. The basic plot premise is also weaker than the first movie. Instead of a human drama, we get a bizarre brain-twisting problem of Biff stealing a sports almanac and giving it to his younger self to trigger an alternate future where all of America is now Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots. The script then has to grind to a halt and have Doc Brown actually stop and use a blackboard to explain the plot because it’s so complicated and needlessly double-backed on itself. Despite all these incredibly annoying plot holes (and I’m talking holes big enough to drive a DeLorean through here, two of them right off the bat — why was Jennifer needed in the car, and why do they exist in the future if they left 1985 with Doc?) this is a movie that entertains by brute force, throwing so many time travel gags, inside references to the previous movie, and jokes about Marty getting beat up that you can’t help but be entertained from start to finish. Make no mistake, this is a fundamentally bad movie, but it’s so balls-out with compensation for the weak script that it goes all the way around again and becomes entertaining despite itself. And since the whole movie is centered around various combinations of Biff, Marty and Doc Brown interacting with each other, you at least get actors capable of making the most out of what they’re given. And don’t blink or you’ll miss Elijah Wood griping at Marty about having to play a videogame with your HANDS. The ending of the movie left many feeling ripped off, because rather than resolving anything, it sends Doc back into 1885, thus setting up the concluding movie…

Back to the Future Part III

This one features a much lighter tone and much less time travel, although some of the gags have been pounded into the ground so much by this time that there’s no saving them. Biff’s ancestor falling into manure, for instance, is played out. The plot here is a bit simpler to handle: Marty (from 1985, in 1955) tracks down Doc Brown (from 1955, in 1955) to help him locate the DeLorean, which was buried by Doc Brown (from 1985, in 1885) in a mineshaft after being sent back in time via an errant lightning bolt in 1955. However, Doc leaves instructions not to rescue him, because he’s happy there. These instructions are complicated by the discovery of Doc’s tombstone (thus setting up another paradox: how does one live if one died 80 years before?) which indicates his death a week after the instructions are written. So naturally Marty goes charging back into the past to save him, and this time the roles are reversed as the love story revolves around Doc Brown knocking boots with a schoolteacher while Marty lectures him on the perils of interfering with the natural course of things. Along the way we meet yet another incarnation of Biff, and it all leads to a showdown at high noon with a finish stolen from a Clint Eastwood movie. Of course, since Marty uses it in 1885 and A Fistful of Dollars; was released much later, you could argue that Marty could have millions with a copyright infringement lawsuit, but then you get into all sorts of ugly temporal legalities involving retroactive patents. My own personal theory is that time travel will never be invented because legal fees resulting from people going back to the ’60s, shooting Kennedy, and then suing Oliver Stone for misrepresentation will be too much of a strain on the economy. Either that or things will turn ugly when someone goes back 20 years, kills their own father, and then dies of boredom listening to a bunch of Internet geeks whining about how that’s supposed to be impossible. Anyway, they all live happily ever after, blah blah blah, the end.

Hackneyed time travel jokes aside, I have seen all three movies literally hundreds of times and for a good reason: They’re all still just as good today as they were when they were first released. Something about the movies appeals to the inner geek in all of us, and for those who AREN’T into the time travel, the first and third movies offer really wonderful human drama to casual fans and a sense of light-hearted humor and sweetness that’s missing from a lot of sci-fi offerings. The second one is for fans only, but if you’re a fan, there’s a lot of stuff for you.

Bonus Features

OK, so as mentioned this is an updated version of the original rant, and the features are a tad updated here as well. Carried over from the original 2002 release, you get…

– Scene specific audio commentary on all three movies with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton. Pretty dry stuff, but informative nonetheless.

– Q&A sessions with Bob & Bob that are used as second commentaries for all three movies. Not so much informative but filled with fun stories and lively discussion from Zemeckis. The sessions for the second and third movies are much shorter than the first one, and even the first one only runs 90 minutes of the movie. Would have been better served as a video standalone extra, but still cool.

– “Pop-up” style text commentaries that are becoming all the rage these days. Normally I love these, but this one was pretty redundant and filled with most of the same info covered by the audio commentaries and supplements.

– And in case you hadn’t watched the first movie enough times, you can watch it again with a “Follow the White Rabbit” type feature that brings up a Michael J. Fox extended interview clip at key points in the movie. Again, nothing that hasn’t been covered elsewhere here, but Michael’s a cool guy to listen to.

– A three-part documentary spread across the three discs, divided into the first, second and third movies (oddly enough). Great stuff here, as Bob & Bob save all the good shit for these. Oh, and the first one has still photos of Eric Stoltz playing Marty.

– The original documentaries produced for all three movies when they came out. Your usual behind-the-scenes stuff.

– The “Secrets of Back to the Future” documentary hosted by Kirk Cameron, which was originally included as the fourth tape in the VHS box set that I still own to this day. [Note from 2009: I no longer own any VHS tapes, sorry.]

– Numerous featurettes relating to specific elements of each movie.

– Deleted scenes (scant as they are) and brief outtakes that are HILARIOUS while they last.

– A FAQ for the Trilogy, covering all the time travel internet geek questions about paradoxes and mistakes and the like. An awesome feature, to be sure.

– The usual trailers and production notes.

Now, while the second and third movies add nothing except yet another retrospective feature called "Making the Trilogy", the first movie has a whole second disc of material to add. In this case you get…

– The entire "Back to the Future: The Ride" video collection, totaling about 30 minutes of cheesy full-screen footage with Biff Tannen trying to steal the DeLorean or something.

– "Looking Back To The Future", ANOTHER documentary about the making of the first movie, this one running 45 minutes. You know, I love this movie as much as the next guy, but I only need to hear about how they really wanted Michael J. Fox but had to settle for Eric Stoltz once, thanks.

– "Back to the Future Night" is a 30 minute TV special shown before the release of the second movie, featuring Leslie Nielsen and offering up the usual array of interviews and clips.

– And finally, a standalone version of the Q&A with Michael J Fox that runs throughout the movie.

The Pulse

So the question is, which one should you buy? Frankly, I’m a little mystified that they bothered to re-release it again, especially on DVD instead of Blu Ray. The original trilogy release, with fixed video, is still widely available and way cheaper — you can generally pick it up new for $20 without much trouble, and the content is pretty much the same. I suppose that if you want to just buy the first movie alone without the others it might be worth paying $15 for it and getting the extra content, but if you already have the trilogy this would be a total waste of money.

So if you don’t have any of them and don’t mind dropping $40 on them, buy these new versions. If you want a cheaper version that’s got almost all the same extras, buy the original 2002 release. If you bought one of the faulty original trilogies and have never upgraded, I guess buy the new releases because you can justify it with the new extras, small as they are. If you’ve already got the fixed version of the original trilogy, this won’t be worth your time to upgrade.


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