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Blu-ray Review: Back to the Future – 25th Anniversary Trilogy

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For people of my generation it is virtually impossible to forget what happened at 1:15am on October 26, 1985 at the Twin Pines Mall in the town of Hill Valley.  There are, in fact, few moments quite as momentous as that one.  Oh sure, November 5, 1955 was pretty important what with that being the date that the Flux Capacitor was invented, but 1:15am October 26, 1985 is when Marty McFly arrived at the mall and soon after saw the Libyans shoot Doctor Emmet Brown. In short, October 26, 1985 is the date that Marty McFly revved the DeLorean up to 88mph and found himself in 1955.  And, as with many of my contemporaries, I know exactly where I was the first time I saw it happen.

From the moment the first Back to the Future ended until the sequel arrived in 1989, I could not wait to find out what happened to Marty, Jennifer, and Doc Brown.  When I did finally see Marty’s next time travelling adventure and all the havoc that the sports almanac wreaked, I was not disappointed.  Nor was I disappointed when Marty found himself in the Old West for the third installment.  The Back to the Future trilogy may have a few hokey moments (like the aborted drag race in the third and the slightly too long attempt to get the almanac back in the second), but now that both Star Wars and Indiana Jones have been extended beyond their original three movie runs, Back to the Future is unquestionably the best filmic trilogy of my youth.

For the uninitiated few, the trilogy chronicles the adventures of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doctor Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd) as they – singly, together, and sometimes with others in tow – travel both forwards and backwards in time within the town of Hill Valley.  It all starts out simply enough, with Brown inventing a time machine out of a DeLorean, but he fails to get to try it out himself as some of his unbeknownst-to-them investors/Libyan terrorists catch up with Brown and demand their plutonium back (the time machine requires 1.21 gigawatts of energy to function and he generates that energy via a nuclear reaction).   It is Marty who ends up travelling in time in his attempt to escape the Libyans and it is there where the film truly gets going.

Despite their sci-fi trappings, all three films are really about family and learning to do the right thing.  No matter what era Marty and Doc travel to, almost all the plots revolve around Marty and his family.  In 1955, he meets his future parents, George McFly (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson).  In 2015 he meets his kids (played by Fox), and in 1885 he meets his great-great grandfather (Fox again) and great-great-grandmother (Thompson again).  He not only helps them out in these meetings, but they help him as well.

For all the fun time travel, crazy notions about how to get Marty back to the present (1985), and technical wizardry the films employ, what makes them so relatable still today is this notion of family they espouse.  In the Back to the Future world there is nothing greater than finding true love, fighting for one’s family, and finding the courage to be who you really are.  The message is simple and while Robert Zemeckis’ direction of the three films keeps things light, fast, and free, the message is an unmistakable one.  The films show that there will always bullies like Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the main antagonist, and his family, but that simply by standing up to them and doing what you know is right you’ll almost always walk away a winner.

There are many people out there who will be quick to state that the second movie in the trilogy is an incredible disappointment, made to only truly appeal to the youngest people in the audience and abandoning everyone else.  The argument stems from the movie’s vastly increased use of time travel, far too technologically advanced vision of 2015 (it is now only five years away and our world much more resembles Hill Valley in 1985 than in 2015), and the revisiting of the climactic 1955 scenes from the first movie.  While the facts used to build the argument are undoubtedly true, the conclusions are not.  It is in the second film when Marty begins to realize just how badly his life will go if he doesn’t change his ways.  Additionally, in the end, everything went so well with time travel in the first film that Marty’s desire to influence his own future as he attempts to do in the second is a natural outgrowth of his success.  It is the second film that teaches Marty just how badly things can go with time travel.  The film unquestionably has a different sensibility than the first and the third, but that is more attributable to it being the only one that goes to the future than anything else.

The second film is also notable in that two of the roles from the first film were recast for it.  Gone in the second (and third) is Claudia Wells who played Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend, with Elisabeth Shue taking her part.  Also gone is Crispin Glover (though he can be seen in archival footage), with Jeffrey Weissman playing George in 2015.  Both of these changes are, if you’re not watching all the movies back-to-back, carried off brilliantly, with Shue’s Jennifer particularly looking like that of Well’s. 

While the Back to the Future trilogy was released to DVD a few years ago, this new Blu-ray version is still well worth purchasing.  It has been restored for this release, and the visuals are quite good.  You won’t be able to find any dirt or scratches anywhere in the three films, the colors – particularly in the 2015 segments where everything is brighter – are rich, and the detail is impressive.  In fact, the detail may be slightly better than what one would hope for with Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson most definitely appearing as though they are wearing copious amounts of makeup in their 1985 sequences (and the first time we see the time machine disappear at Marty and Doc’s feet it looks more fake than ever).  The problem doesn’t lie in the restoration – the increased clarity shows off the issues more than we have seen before, but the problems stem from the time when the effects and makeup were done.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack will not fail to please.  The dialogue is clean and the now classic Alan Silvestri score excellent.  The surrounds are well used; there is no hiss, pop, or crackle; and the overall mix is good. 

The previously released DVDs featured an extensive set of bonus features and many of them are included here.  There are a plethora of previously released deleted scenes, behind the scenes featurettes, trailers, photo galleries, a couple of music videos, feature commentaries with producers Bob Gale (Gale also wrote all three screenplays, the first one with Zemeckis) and Neil Canton, a talk with Zemeckis and Gale, and another with Michael J. Fox.  Then there’s the new stuff, and some of that is really quite good.  Leading the charge is a six-part documentary with the cast and crew of the trilogy.  There are also storyboards for the film’s original ending; a piece where Michio Kaku (Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible) delves into the physics the film is based on); and U-Control tracks where you can watch storyboard comparisons, see trivia, and one which will show you when something is said or seen in the film that will play an important part later (that one is called “Setups & Payoffs”).  And, as if that wasn’t enough, the set also comes with digital copies of the film.

Watching the trilogy again now, years after its original release, one can’t help be struck by the fact that the films impart as much fun today as they ever did.  Filled with great performances by the both the leads and ancillary characters (I would be remiss if I did not mention James Tolkan’s excellent performance in all three and Mary Steenburgen’s appearance in the third), moments that have become classics, and excellent music, the Back to the Future trilogy is a wondrous bit of filmmaking.  Despite the time travel and science fiction trappings, it never loses sight of the small family tale at its core and in scene after scene never fails to deliver a smile, a laugh, or a little bit of heart. 

Go ahead, buy the trilogy and rev that Blu-ray player up to 88mph, you won’t regret it.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.