It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the release of the first Back to the Future in 1985. The mega-hit spawned two sequels a few years later, filmed back to back and released about six months apart at the end of 1989 and the summer of 1990. All three films are now available on Blu-ray in a box set loaded with special features.
The first movie is the best of the trilogy. Even 25 years later it works on all levels. The jokes are still funny, the performances are great, and the story remains relevant. The effects might be a tad outdated, but they hold up surprisingly well. I think what works best about Back to the Future is that the heart of the movie is not about time travel, it’s about self discovery, confidence, and decisions and consequences. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a seemingly confident teenager, who longs to be a rock and roll star (or at least play guitar and sing in a rock group). Marty’s first attempt at pursuing his dream is to audition his band to play at the high school talent show. When they are rejected Marty wilts in self doubt, ready to give up. All that doesn’t have much to do with time travel, but it does establish Marty’s character.
Marty’s friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is a scientist who has never given up on his dreams of inventing something. He finally succeeds in inventing a time machine in a DeLorean car. Doc is about to embark on his time travelling adventures when things go awry and Marty ends up in the time machine, transported back thirty years to 1955. Unable to get back, Marty hunts down the much younger Doc Brown to help him return to 1985. Along the way he inadvertently interrupts the day his parents first met and starts a chain of events that threaten his very existence. While Doc tries to figure out a way to get the time machine to work again, Marty must try to get his mom and dad to meet and fall in love.
Witnessing his parents as teenagers gives Marty insight into his own life. His lack of confidence in himself can also be seen in his father. Marty’s father George McFly (Crispin Glover) is a classic nerd who loves sci-fi and lacks the ability to talk to girls. He’s also constantly bullied by Biff (Thomas Wilson). The adult George McFly Marty knows has given up on all his dreams, is still bullied by Biff, and has no backbone. The teenage George, however, has a few dreams of his own. George wants to be a writer, but like Marty, is afraid of rejection and quickly gives up. Marty’s mom Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is a pretty and popular teenager who, much too Marty’s surprise, smokes, drinks and flirts with boys. The boy she most likes to flirt with is Marty. It’s a bit weird that the mom would have a crush on her future son, but it works for this movie. As Marty learns about his parents he learns about himself, and he thinks about how little decisions can change your life.
The movie is also full of fun. The time machine sequences are exciting, and there are plenty of laughs in Marty’s fish out of water situation. Michael J. Fox is perfect in the role. He is funny and exudes both confidence and insecurity at the same time. Christopher Lloyd embodies Doc Brown, the eccentric scientist who is also the father figure Marty lacks. Crispin Glover is hilarious both as the teenage and adult George. Lea Thompson does a great job as the older Lorraine and is also endearing as the teenager in love. The script is very clever in making all the connections between the past and the future. Back to the Future definitely lives up to its reputation.
The second movie is also very good. It does not have the reputation the first one does, and that’s understandable, but I think it is a very creative and fun movie. The second one visits the future (the now not-so-distant 2015), an alternate 1985, and then heads back to 1955. Doc Brown has just returned from 2015, telling Marty and Jennifer they must go back with him to keep their kids from making decisions that will ruin their lives. While there, Marty unknowingly alters the course of history, again threatening his very existence. At least he threatens the existence he knows. When they return to 1985 they soon discover a very different reality than the one they left. This reality is so intolerable they must travel back to 1955 to right the wrong. There they find themselves witnessing the same events Marty just left. The movie cleverly overlaps itself as they figure out a way to put things on the right path.
The futuristic scenes are pretty fun. There are flying cars, hover boards, self-walking dog leashes, and an ‘80s retro café. We also get to see the future McFly family. Marty and Jennifer have two kids that look exactly like Marty, because it’s Michael J. Fox playing the roles of both kids even his daughter. The second film does introduce an element I have always considered a flaw to the film: Marty cannot tolerate being called a “chicken” or “yellow.” If someone calls him these things he completely loses his mind and challenges them to a duel. This does not fit the character at all. Marty has always come across as level headed and intelligent. This seems to just be a cheap way to manipulate storylines. While I thoroughly enjoy Back to the Future II, it does have one other flaw. It has no ending. The second movie leads directly to the third so it does not have a satisfying resolution. Yes, the immediate storyline is resolved, but it just spins directly into a new one.
That brings us to the third and final movie. In my opinion the third Back to the Future is the weakest of the series. It takes place in 1885 in the Wild West. There are many problems with this film. While the first two are very clever in fitting all the pieces of different timelines together, this one attempts to rehash the same jokes from the first movie. It’s just not very clever at all. It turns out Doc is stuck in 1885 and Marty must go back and rescue him. While there Marty meets his grandparents, as well as other familiar faces from the first two movies. One thing that has always annoyed me is that Lea Thompson plays Marty’s great-grandmother on his father’s side. It really doesn’t make sense, and I don’t see why they couldn’t have cast Lea Thompson as someone else if they really had to have her. It is in this movie that Marty’s complex about being called a “chicken” really comes into play, and to me it doesn’t work at all. I just don’t find Marty’s actions to be true to the character.
I find the third movie a little boring and juvenile. Doc Brown says “great Scott” all the time, Marty constantly uses the word “heavy,” and it’s all a little too much. It also bothers me that Hill Valley, which was not anywhere near the desert in the first two movies, was suddenly placed in the back drop of red rocks and mesas. There are a few funny moments that aren’t rehash, and Mary Steenburgen is a nice addition as Doc’s love interest Clara. Overall the movie is an entertaining family movie, but it lacks the inventiveness of the first two. I guess I think of the third one as being more generic than its predecessors.
The Back to the Future series looks excellent in 1080p high definition. The image quality on these Blu-ray discs is as close to perfect as can be expected. The movies were made before the computer-generated effects era. Because of this, some of the special effects show their age in high definition. The enhanced clarity works against the effects at times, making the seams more obvious. The old age makeup, so prominent during the “futuristic” scenes in the second film, is now almost laughably obvious. Though I’m sure this would be the case just because of improvements made in makeup appliances over the years, it’s still noticeable. None of this reflects negatively on the image quality.
The picture for all three films is basically of equal quality. Because there were several years separating the first film from its sequels, the first one remains slightly more dated. There is a little more graininess to the first film that isn’t present in the sequels. Colors are always bold and brilliant, especially during the first and second movies. The third film, mostly taking place in the Wild West, is less colorful but the red rocks of the American southwest look great. These transfers seem to be free of flaws; clean prints that were transferred cleanly.
Just as visual effects have improved and progressed in the years since Back to the Future, sound design has become more complex. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mixes for the trilogy are very good considering the age of the films. They are not the most stunning Blu-ray surround sound mixes around, but there really isn’t anything to complain about. The dialogue is well balanced with the music and effects, without ever being difficult to hear or understand. The popular Alan Silvestri scores sound great, with sharp, clear brass and plenty of heft to the strings. The sound effects are realistically directional, whether it’s the DeLorean zipping from one side of the screen to the other or the much louder locomotive rumbling along in part three. There isn’t a ton of surround channel audio, but there is more than enough to create a multi-dimensional audio environment.
Spread out over the three Blu-ray discs are a lot of special features. Almost everything from the previous DVD set is included in standard definition. There are a couple of minor omissions that I didn’t even realize until I looked them up. The previous set had a text-based supplement that excerpted portions of the original screenplay. There was also a making-of featurette called “Looking Back to the Future,” which isn’t a big deal since there is a newly produced six-part documentary series on the Blu-ray. “Tales from the Future,” which is in high definition, covers almost every possible aspect of the trilogy and totals approximately two hours. Each of the six parts focuses on a specific aspect. The first part, “In the Beginning,” includes the hyped up footage of Eric Stolz as the original Marty McFly. Unfortunately it’s literally less than one minute of footage (and without audio). It’s nice that the two hours are broken up into six shorter segments, with an average of about twenty minutes each.
Also newly produced is an eight minute featurette called “The Physics of Back to the Future.” It’s a pretty light overview with a physicist who takes a closer look at the scientific theory behind the time travel elements portrayed in the films. “Nuclear Test Site Ending Storyboard Sequence” is a four minute look at the originally planned ending for the first film. Writer Bob Gale provides optional commentary. Both these featurettes are, like the “Tales from the Future” series, in high definition. One additional inclusion is “Back to the Future Night,” which is an archival piece that aired on television when the original film made its network debut. Even though this standard definition featurette is nothing special, it is hosted by Leslie Nielsen. With Nielsen’s recent passing, this adds some sentimental value to the inclusion of the piece.
In addition to the well-produced new featurettes, the Blu-ray allows for a couple alternate ways to the view the films. There is a “Storyboard Comparison” viewing mode that gives a picture-in-picture look at the storyboards for various sequences. Two text-based tracks are available as well. The more conventional of the two is a “Trivia Track” that runs throughout the film. The other is called “Setups and Payoffs,” which points out all the foreshadowing that occurs throughout each of the movies. And then there is all the material carried over from the DVD release, including audio commentaries, deleted scenes for each film, various Q&A sessions, archival featurettes, music videos, and more. It all adds up to a very thorough package of special features.