It looked like a dream deal. Instead of just one sequel to Back to the Future — the smash 1985 fantasy that raked in $358 million — how about two sequels, shot back to back and released within six months of each other? The unprecedented double whammy would make film history and, better yet, quite a bundle. Sure the $80 million budget was steep, but it would cost about $15 million more if the films were shot separately. And consider this: Michael J. Fox, who stars as time traveler Marty McFly, is pushing thirty. How much longer could he get away with playing a high-school kid?
Still, for four years, director Robert Zemeckis resisted going back to the well — a sound instinct. He and coscreenwriter Bob Gale had given the first Future a charming, cheeky simplicity. Marty and crazy Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) had traveled in Doc’s time machine — a souped-up DeLorean — back to 1955, when Marty wards off his future mom’s amorous advances and plays matchmaker for her and his future father. There seemed no creative reason to extend a film that worked just fine on its own. Except for the bucks, of course. And so, just in time for the 1989 winter-holiday season, came Back to the Future Part II.
The film was shrill, depressing, convoluted and coldly impersonal, everything the original wasn’t. Marty zooms off to 2015, to find himself a middle-aged wimp with a son and daughter (both played by Fox) in trouble. Trekking back to 1955, he inadvertently allows the bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) to acquire a future sports almanac, enabling Biff to become a billionaire by making bets. Finally landing in 1985, Marty learns that Biff has transformed their hometown of Hill Valley, California, into a violent and polluted urban nightmare. Worse, Biff has married Marty’s mother (Lea Thompson), now sporting breast implants.
Despite plot twists that failed to disguise glaring plot holes, Part II grossed a respectable but hardly resounding $115 million. Something was off, and audiences knew it. Even Future fanatics were offended by the tacky trailer for Part III crudely pasted on the end of Part II. The footage showed Marty and Doc playing cowboy out West and urged audiences to catch the fun in the summer of 1990.
Well, summer is here, but the fun isn’t Part III is a stupefying bore, as white bread and maudlin as Part II was sour and coarse. A talky prologue meant to remind us of what we just saw six months ago is needlessly confounding. (To brush up you can rent the video of Part II, released in conjunction with Part III’ s debut in theaters, though I find the prospect unendurable.) In brief, Doc’s DeLorean had been struck by lightning at the end of Part II, sending him to the year 1885 and stranding Marty in 1955. But Doc likes living in the Old West and wants to stay there; Doc’s only request (he’s left a letter behind) is that Marty find the car, drive it ahead to 1985 and destroy the contraption. That’s when Marty discovers Doc’s tombstone, with an inscription saying that Doc was gunned down on September 7th, 1885. Marty must now go back in time and rescue Doc.
There’s no payoff for this attenuated setup. All the blather is just an excuse to move Marty and Doc into a different setting and fool us into thinking we’re seeing something new. To his credit, Zemeckis (ably aided by cameraman Dean Cundy) pulls off a bracing early shot: Marty speeds through a time warp and ends up burning rubber in Monument Valley, the scene of so many classic John Ford westerns, as Indians and cavalrymen charge on horseback. For a moment, Zemeckis raises hopes for a thrilling adventure.
Instead he delivers a love story of surpassing blandness betwen Doc and schoolmarm Clara Clayton, played by Mary Steenburgen. They’re cute for a while, trading shy smiles and stories about their mutual favorite writer, Jules Verne. But Zemeckis and Gale spend nearly an hour developing this implausible romance. Lloyd is hopeless as a man in the grip of a grand amour, and Steenburgen, try as she might, can’t spark him. Playing possum robs Lloyd of the chance to display his gift for wild eccentricity; he looks somnolent and trapped — expressions audiences at Back to the Future Part III are likely to share.
An unusually sluggish Fox is reduced to a supporting role. When he’s not trying to persuade Doc to leave Clara and come home, he’s acting cowboy tough by telling the locals his name is Clint Eastwood. The joke is mildly amusing until constant repetition renders it grating. To beef up Fox’s screen time, Zemeckis also has him show up — in an appallingly fake mustache — as Seamus McFly, Marty’s great-great-grandfather. Other Future regulars are trotted out for dutiful cameos, including Lea Thompson as Marty’s mom and great-great-grandmother and Thomas F. Wilson as Biffs outlaw ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen. As in Part II, the live-wire presence of Crispin Glover, who made such a vividly quirky impression as Marty’s father in the original, is much missed.
Inspiration leaks out of this jumbo, brightly colored sequel so fast that Part III soon resembles a punctured hot-air balloon. There’s no substance, merely packaging, and the audience ends up buried under the debris. For Zemeckis, whose unique flair for raucous comedy is evident in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Romancing the Stone and the little-seen Used Cars, the last two Future pictures are calamitous setbacks.Part III finds this major talent at his lowest ebb. No amount of explosions, shootouts and speeding locomotives can hide the paucity of ideas. Perhaps the pressure of shooting Part III while in postproduction on Part II accounts for the listlessness. Or maybe it’s just another case of the art of the deal interfering with the art of creation. Either way, the best news in Zemeckis’s film future — and ours — is his promise that there won’t be a Back to the Future Part IV.