OK, this is a good way to start the New Year on a movie blog. Last night I had the chance to see the three films from Robert Zemekis that cemented his position as the most commercial director of the 1980s outside of Steven Spielberg, who of course was a producer on all three films himself. This was a digital presentation at the Egyptian Theater and the house was packed. I saw several attendees wearing down vests and one guy with Griff’s hat on from the second movie. It is now 2015 and that was the year in the future that Marty and Doc went to to try and straighten out Marty’s kids. Unfortunately we don’t have the Hoverboards, Flying cars and self tying shoes predicted in the film, but we do have skype, flatscreen TVs, Google Glass, and more channel choices that someone could watch at the same time than anyone should find necessary.
This will not be a full review on each film but rather just a quick recap and a few comments. These movies are pretty well known and are beloved by millions. The first in the series is one of the great pop entertainment surprises ever. While the follow ups struggle to achieve the same kind of magic as the original, they manage to do the one thing that every consumer of films wants, entertain us.
The original film roared out of no where in 1985 to incredible popular success and made Michael J. Fox an entertainment icon rather than simply a good character on a successful TV show. The cleverness of the concept and it’s execution are hard to match. This film is funny, exciting and it manages to raise our awareness of family history and it’s significance along the way. While Fox is clearly the star, the secret weapon in this film is Christopher Lloyd, who got laughs from an intake of breath and a bug eyed scream. He manages to make some of the slapstick work where so often it does not in modern films. I will also mention that Lea Thompson is best used in this film and she does the “good girl with a bad side” 50s character just perfectly. She is also strikingly attractive in the film.
Four years later, the second film was released at the Thanksgiving holidays. It was a success but came nowhere close to matching the original box office draw of it’s predecessor. Maybe too much time had elapsed or maybe it is the sour tone of the movie. Fox is still great, but the complicated movement between time periods and the inconsistency of some of the rules make it a little sloppy. Having to invent a character fault in Marty, in order to justify the story line is also a bit frustrating. Thomas Wilson as Biff/Griff does a great job in building his malignant character, but because the movie uses him in such cartoony ways and so frequently, the movie feels shrill. Doc Brown gets short shrift in this chapter of the story and Elizabeth Shue, as the new Jennifer, is put to sleep a third of the way into the movie and does not return until the coda of the third film. When I first saw this thirty years ago, it was a bit of a letdown. Last night however, it was pure joy. The future sequences play even more effectively now that we are in 2015 and the suspense bits still work. While I feel as if this is the weakest of the three films, that does not mean it is not a success. There is plenty here to enjoy.
The third chapter was awkwardly set up in the second film, but once it gets started it works just fine and it feels seamless rather than forced. The historical context is fun and the western tropes that are lampooned were amusing. Marty adopts the “Man with No Name” persona, and gives him a name, Clint Eastwood. The fact that Clint was a big star at the time but also the only star who tried to keep Westerns alive during the 80s was a big whoop for film fans. Familiar Western character actors are sprinkled through the film and the gulf between the real west and the movie west is explored just a bit. The addition of Mary Steenburgen to the cast was a nice touch and gives Doc a great conclusion to his story. Watch Wilson copy Lee Marvin from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance” in his portrayal of “Mad Dog Tannen”. He gets the walk, swagger and body movement just right, and in case you missed it, he carries a riding crop in his non-shooting hand. This was a simpler version of the time travel story and it effectively wrapped up the story lines they had created in the second movie. The fact that the two sequels were shot simultaneously saved some money and allowed this film to be released just seven months after the second installment.
A pleasant evening was had by all and I am much more ready to come back to these films than I have been for a while. They really were terrific entertainment even when there are some issues in the time story sequences.