Back to the Future Part III is significantly better than many ’90s kids let on.
Shot back-to-back with its more commercially successful (and often meme’d) predecessor, Back to the Future Part II (1989), this underrated entry in director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale’s franchise may have been considered an underwhelming conclusion to the time-traveling franchise, but the film has only gotten better with age in the 30 years since it was released May 25, 1990.
What it lacks in hoverboards and flying DeLoreans, Back to the Future Part III makes up for by having a surplus of that which the fan-favorite BTTF II lacks: character-first genre storytelling, with big emotional stakes and character arcs that satisfyingly pay off five years’ worth of adventures with “slacker” Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his eccentric pal, time machine inventor Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The latter takes center stage in this sequel, which picks up where Part II left off by having Marty reach back in time to the Wild West — Hill Valley 1885 — to save Doc from being murdered “over a matter of 80 dollars” at the hands of ruthless outlaw “Mad Dog” Tannen (Biff’s ancestor, played once again by Biff himself, Thomas F. Wilson). By mooring the story to the franchise’s beating heart — the dynamic between Marty and Doc — BTTF III seems to be course-correcting for the criticisms leveled at its predecessor’s convoluted, more plot-driven story. (Though saddling middle-aged Doc with a love story did dampen the film’s appeal to the teen audience comprising its Amblin-y, four-quadrant demographic.)
In doing so, the threequel takes a risky gamble to tell this story as a Western first, time-traveling summer blockbuster second.
Prior to the third installment, Zemeckis, Gale and the rest of the talented filmmakers responsible for bringing the franchise to life created the expectation that these movies would be sci-fi mixed with a period piece. Back to the Future Part III is mostly a Western, minus its more sci-fi bookends. And Zemeckis and Gale clearly want to make a Western; their fandom for the genre and excitement for bringing their spin on it is as palpable as it was when they tried to subvert expectations with their first attempt at a time-travel story. By setting out to make a Western first that happens to have sci-fi characters in it, you can see why audiences were soft of the film at the box office. Part III is the lowest earner in the franchise, with $87.7 million domestically (Part II, released six months earlier, earned $118.4 million domestically).
It lacked the marketing hook of Hill Valley’s futuristic setting (self-lacing sneakers!) and alternate realities, with Marty Forrest Gump-ing through key moments from the first film. As appealing as that eye candy is, it’s all plot mechanics. It lacks the heart and relatable stakes audiences felt when watching a young teenager break the laws of physics in the past to fix both his and his parents’ future.
Parts II and III are two flip sides of the same coin. Whereas Back to the Future II plays out as an entertaining summer matinee/cautionary tale, predicated on its main character literally dropping in and out of tentpole moments from his first film without compromising them, Part III abandons that for a much more “simple” approach with respect to why the filmmakers started this journey at all. The threequel affords Zemeckis a chance to be both free of what came before and push it forward with the characters that made the series so successful to begin with. That’s a delicate and risky needle to thread, one that the production makes feel effortless.
It also feels the most emotionally satisfying and character-driven adventures of the series, thanks to the romance between Doc and a woman he doesn’t know yet — one history says will be his true love — Clara (Mary Steenburgen). More successful than Marty and Jennifer’s surface-level only love, Part III firmly invests us in Doc and Clara’s love story as Marty takes on more of the Doc role in the first film by gathering the means necessary to bring Marty out of the past and back to 1985.
Their two stories intersect in as engrossing a fashion as they did when Doc was hanging from the clock tower in the first film as Marty literally raced against time to get home via the DeLorean. Here, the two hang from and climb over a steam engine, the only vehicle in this time period capable of achieving the 88 mph necessary to go all timey-wimey and help get Marty what he needs to take his derelict DeLorean back to the future. (What the climax lacks in a consistent level of white-knuckling tension, like the third act did in BTTF, it makes up for with practical stunt work and model effects. That’s a real train, with real people, racing atop it.)
All of the Back to the Future films feel like monuments to practical effects work, a lost art in the CG-a-thon state of current blockbuster filmmaking. But there’s an extra special feel to the tangibleness BTTF exhibits, which resonates all the more with its emotionally satisfying (but thematically disappointing) coda. After returning to his proper timeline, after hearing Doc Brown repeatedly regret ever making a time machine to begin with, Marty re-enters his life with Jennifer but without Doc. It’s bittersweet that Marty and Doc’s adventures together conclude with them separated by the very time and space they explored. With a strong dose of irony, it’s a train — this time from 1985 — that takes out the DeLorean when it’s stalled on railroad tracks. An invention capable of breaking the laws physics is now a broken husk of scrap metal. Just as we think Marty can finally move on and live firmly in the present after spending so much time on either side of it, flashety-flash — Doc Brown returns. This time in a flying, time-traveling locomotive (yup) with Clara and their family. Doc got his happy ending; a man once out of time finding his place in a time period he always admired but was born far too late to live in. But he shows up one last time to give fans, and his relationship, a sense of closure. Even though the means in which he uses to do so he has spent three movies lamenting.
Despite that thematic bump, Back to the Future Part III is a Swiss watch of a script. A seamless piece of plotting whose structure clicks into place like safe tumblers, as it pays off five years’ worth of character arcs that may not have felt fully satisfying to audiences then, but more than delivers now. To pull it off by combining the oil-and-water of genres together, science fiction and Westerns, is almost as miraculous a feat as the one that came when Doc Brown hit his head and came up with the Flux Capacitor. Thirty years later, audiences don’t need a time machine (or roads) to appreciate just how well this film holds up as the rare threequel that sticks the landing.