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Marty and Doc are "Westward, ho!" in "Back to the Future Part III"

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Back to the Future Part III

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Released on May 25, 1990, “Back to the Future Part III” starts where the previous movie ends, with Marty (who is stuck in 1955 after a jaunt to 2015) receiving a message from his time machine-inventing friend Doc Brown, who is now living in the Old West, circa 1885.

In the note, Doc tells Marty that he is alive and well and happy in 1885, that the DeLorean is hidden away in a mine shaft just outside of town, and that Marty should not attempt to make a trip to 1885 to return Doc back to the future. He just wants Marty to return to his 1985 timeline and end the time travel adventures there.

But when Marty discovers that Biff Tannen’s ancestor, “Mad Dog” Tanner, will kill Doc six days after the date on the letter, he decides to go on a rescue mission. He enlists the 1955 version of Doc to help him repair the damaged DeLorean.

After buying a cowboy costume and conceiving what he thinks is a straightforward plan (zip back to 1885, save Doc from Mad Dog, then go forward in time to 1985), Marty takes the DeLorean to the local drive-in, revs it up till it reaches the 88 mph speed required for time travel, and off he goes back to the Old West.

Of course, things go awry as soon as Marty and the time machine materialize in the past. The DeLorean is damaged as a result of its arrival in the middle of a Cavalry-versus-Native Americans engagement, and Marty must assume an alias (“Clint Eastwood”) in order to make his way to the town where Doc Brown is living and working as the local blacksmith.

As in the previous two installments, Marty meets various relatives, including his great-grandparents (Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson) and his grandfather, who is just a baby in 1885. He also meets Marshal James Strickland, forebear of his high school nemesis, Dean Strickland (James Tolkan).

Eventually, Marty will cross paths with the murderous “Mad Dog” Tannen, who is planning to kill Doc, and inevitably ends up in Tannen’s enemies list as well.

Meanwhile, Doc Brown falls in love with the town’s new schoolteacher, Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). They bond over their mutual admiration for French author Jules Verne, and it doesn’t hurt that Doc and Marty saved Clara’s life during a mishap with a runaway carriage.

My Take: Although “Back to the Future Part III” inevitably deals with time travel, paradoxes, and other story elements from the previous films, it’s mostly about Marty, Doc, and Clara in a sanitized, TV sitcom version of the Old West.

This, of course, is not a slam against the movie. “Back to the Future,” after all, is not a drama about time travel, but a comic riff on the oft-used sci-fi plot device and all its paradoxes.

What makes “Back to the Future Part III’ stand slightly apart from the other two chapters is that it spends much of its running time in 1885. As a result, the main (or A) storyline is more of a spoof of a once-popular movie genre, with the time travel element relegated to the B-storyline.

Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: Then let's finish it, right now!

Buford's Gang Member #1: Uh, not now, Buford. Uh, Marshal's got our guns.

Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: Like I said, we'll finish this tomorrow.

Buford's Gang Member #2: Tomorrow, we're robbin' the Pine City Stage.

Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: What about Monday? Are we doin' anything Monday?

Buford's Gang Member #1: Uh, no, Monday'd be fine. You can kill him on Monday.

Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: I'll be back this way on Monday! We'll settle this then... right there... out in the street... in front of the Palace Saloon!

Marty McFly: Yeah, right. When? High noon?

Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen: Noon? I do my killin' before breakfast! Seven o'clock!

Marty McFly: Eight o'clock. I do my killin' after breakfast!

Gale and Zemeckis leave no Western-movie cliché unturned. There’s a cavalry versus Native Americans sequence, scenes set in a seedy saloon, a High Noon shootout subplot, and the “pretty schoolmarm” who is new in town. Played for laughs rather than for an accurate recreation of 1885 California, the cowboy story is enjoyable if rather predictable at times.

As in the other installments, the ensemble led by Fox, Lloyd, Thompson, and Wilson delivers nice performances. By now, they know their characters inside and out, and they play them so well that we can enjoy “Back to the Future Part III” and overlook its dependence on clichés and fish-out-of-water jokes.

Though “Back to the Future Part III” isn’t as clever or original as the original 1985 movie, it is still a warm-hearted movie about human relationships. The friendship between Marty and Doc is the glue that holds this trilogy together, and the chemistry between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd is both affecting and genuine.

Another emotional thread that runs through the trilogy is its focus on love stories. In the first chapter, the focus was on getting Marty’s parents to meet and fall in love in a disrupted 1955 timeline. In the second, the core romance was between Marty and Jennifer (Elizabeth Shue, who appears briefly at the end of Part III).

In “Back to the Future Part III” the love story is between Doc Brown and Clara Clayton, two geeks separated only by the barrier of time and united by the effects of Doc’s chronology-altering DeLorean. It’s a predictable love story, to be sure, full of romantic comedy ups, downs, and misunderstandings, but the performances of Lloyd and guest star Mary Steenburgen are good enough to make this movie watchable, even memorable.

2009 DVD Edition Specifications

  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1)
  • Subtitles: Spanish
  • Dubbed: French
  • Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Universal Studios
  • DVD Release Date: February 10, 2009
  • Run Time: 118 minutes

Back to the Future Trilogy 2011 Blu-ray Specs

  • Format: Blu-ray, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, Dubbed, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1), French (DTS 5.1), Spanish (DTS 5.1)
  • Subtitles: French, Spanish
  • Dubbed: French, Spanish
  • Subtitles for the Hearing Impaired: English
  • Region: All Regions
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
  • Number of discs: 3
  • Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
  • Studio: Universal Studios
  • DVD Release Date: August 30, 2011
  • Run Time: 343 minutes
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