After “Back to the Future” (1985), a pitch-perfect comedy, and “Back to the Future Part II” (1989), a thrillingly inventive time-hopper, “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) is tame by comparison. It’s almost entirely set in the Old West of 1885 as Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) devise a method to get the empty-tanked DeLorean up to 88 mph in a world without gasoline.
Writer Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis must love Westerns. I can’t imagine many fans of the first two films were clamoring for nearly two hours of frontier-town hijinks. I would’ve rather seen more stories-within-stories wherein Marty and Doc have to avoid other versions of themselves. Instead, “Part III” wraps up the trilogy by telling the simplest story so far, as if the creators wanted to avoid the headaches.
If you keep your expectations mild, there are charms to be found in this collection of Western tropes. It’s neat to see the early days of Hill Valley, when the clock tower is being built, and that final train sequence (which finds one last use for the 2015 hoverboard!) is thrilling in summer-tentpole fashion.
“Part III” is a less-extreme, less-funny take on what “A Million Ways to Die in the West” would later give us. We see how tough it was to live in this era compared to modern civilized times, from the dirty drinking water to the danger of ticking off the wrong guy and being challenged to a duel.
Fox and Lea Thompson again play multiple roles, as Marty’s ancestors. Whereas Gale used to find big laughs and wild story twists in intergenerational meetings, there’s not much to this one. And Thomas F. Wilson’s turn as Biff Tannen’s gunslinging ancestor is exactly what you think it is: He struts around expressing his hatred of the McFlys and ends up covered in manure.
Hill Valley is one of those small towns that I suppose exist in reality, and certainly in movies, wherein every generation follows in the previous one’s footsteps. So we see that the Tannens are always bullies and the Stricklands are always strict authority figures. James Tolkan’s Strickland is a marshal in 1885 and his descendants will be school principals.
While the “BTTF” saga’s ultimate message is that everyone controls their own future, Marty is the only character who uses his own agency to diverge from his parents’ path. He drags his dad and Biff along with him – the former becoming confident and successful and the latter becoming an eager pushover rather than a bully.
A highlight of “Part III” – because it’s something we hadn’t seen before – is Brown’s love story with Mary Steenburgen’s Clara. By this point in the saga, Doc’s “do what I say, not what I do” approach has been established, so it’s no surprise that he hooks up with schoolteacher Clara even though he knows he’s messing with the space-time continuum. That said, the connection of two Jules Verne nerds in 1885 is rather cute.
But this Western adventure is a long way to go to find out that Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) is fine in a 1985 that’s back to “normal” – something that we were fairly sure about at the end of “Part II,” but which hadn’t been confirmed. Shue became a bigger star later in her career, so when these sequels are watched today, it plays like a fake-out. Jennifer is a storytelling object rather than a person, and any actress could’ve played her.
“Back to the Future Part III” offers little that we couldn’t have predicted upon hearing the premise, and that’s quite a dropoff from the delightfully surprising first two movies. Still, when it reaches the title card that says “The End,” it’s a rare and satisfying experience.
Because this is one of the few creator-owned franchises, we can safely say that the “Back to the Future” trilogy is a complete story and the title won’t be tainted by future remakes or reboots – at least until an offer comes in so big that Zemeckis and Gale can’t resist. If such a thing does happen, hopefully it’ll be far in the future.