Monday, May 25, 2015

Going Back to the Future ... One More Time

Marty (Michael J. Fox): I'm sorry, Doc. It's all my fault you're stuck back there. I never should have let Biff get to me.

Doc (Christopher Lloyd): Well, there are plenty worse places to be than the Old West. I could've ended up in the Dark Ages. They probably would have burned me at the stake as a heretic or something.

The final installment of the "Back to the Future" trilogy premiered on this day in 1990.

Some people never thought there should be a sequel to the original, let alone a third movie. I didn't particularly mind, as I wrote last year on the 25th anniversary of the premiere of the sequel, mainly because I enjoyed the premise. But, in hindsight, I must admit that the concept had about run its course after three movies. I'm glad they didn't go all "Rocky" — or, God forbid, all "Star Wars" — on us. That could have been messy.

(Still, time travel does have certain things in common with space travel, does it not?)

Beyond that, there were a few things for which I was grateful when I saw the trilogy's final installment.

For one, I was glad the producers of the movie didn't try to return to the future. I think they explored that concept about as much as they could — without actually knowing what the future held, which, of course, was the point of "Back to the Future Part II." Other than that, I can't think of too much in the way of other themes about the future that could be plausibly explored.

It is that very knowledge that we do have about the past that makes the concept of traveling back in history, not forward, so appealing. And the temptation always seems to be to go back to a time when a major event occurred, like the attack on Pearl Harbor, and use the knowledge one brings from the future to change that past.

(It is a theme that was explored in what is probably my favorite episode from the second generation of the Twilight Zone TV series. It was about a visitor from the future who returned to Dallas in November 1963 and altered history by preventing the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Turned out, though, that history requires something of equal value when its predetermined course is altered. Because the assassination had not happened as it was intended, serious storms erupted around the globe and the Soviet premier was assassinated.)

No, I don't think there was any more fertile ground to be plowed in the future. But the past is a different matter. The past is as vast as space, offering countless opportunities. The stuff about the '50s was pretty much exhausted, though, so it was essential to pick a different time, and the old West was as good as any. Marty could interact with his ancestors, Irish immigrants, and the always present inventor of the Time Machine, Doc Brown.

I thought it was good, for example, that Lea Thompson could continue her fine work in the third movie, playing Michael J. Fox's great–great–grandmother after playing his mother in the first two movies. And that lent itself nicely to some clashing–centuries humor. For example:

At one point, at a fund–raising party in the town square, Marty held up a plate that had the word Frisbee written on it. Frisbee, apparently, was the name of the maker of the plate or the business that served whatever had been on the plate, but Marty, of course, associated it with the plastic disc that was such a popular toy in the '70s and '80s. Marty said to his great–great–grandparents, "Hey, Frisbee! Far out!"

"What was the meanin' of that?" Fox, playing his great–great–grandfather, asked after the latter–day Marty had sauntered off.

"It was right in front of him," Thompson's character remarked.

Another thing I liked about the casting was that it featured Mary Steenburgen, an actress with whom I was familiar long before she started appearing on America's movie screens. For a time, she was a student at the central Arkansas college where my father was a religion professor, and she appeared in some campus productions. I think I even saw one once. Hard to remember now. But I knew her name. It was distinctive.

Ten years before she appeared in the final "Back to the Future" movie, Steenburgen won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in "Melvin and Howard." As far as I know, she is the only former student of that college to win an Oscar — probably the only one ever to be nominated for an Oscar.

Personally, I have always thought she was a good actress — even though she hasn't been nominated for an Oscar for any of her performances since.

Film critic Roger Ebert complained that the "looking-glass quality" from the first two movies was absent in the third, and there is something to that. There is also something to his characterization of the pace of the first two movies as "dizzying," a pace that, it seems to me, is inappropriate for a tale set mostly in the Old West — even if it did involve time travel as well.

Ebert didn't care for the sitcom quality of the Old West as presented in "Back to the Future Part III," but he did find one part of it endearing — the romance between Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Clara (Steenburgen).

He found one constant in all three movies: "a sort of bittersweet, elegiac quality involving romance and time."

"In the first movie," Ebert wrote, "McFly went back in time to be certain his parents had their first date. The second involved his own romance. The third involves Doc Brown and Clara. In all of these stories, there is the realization that love depends entirely on time. Lovers like to think their love is eternal.

"But do they ever realize it depends entirely on temporal coincidence, since, if they were not alive at the same time, romance hardly would be feasible?"

Hmmm. The relationship between romance and time travel. Something to ponder on the 25th anniversary of Part III's debut.