Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part VIII: Tempus quiescit


Back to the Future takes a vacation in the Old West, which doesn't seem like it should be the summing up of a box office-shattering, pop culture-redefining trilogy, and guess what?  It really isn'tbut there we have it, and there's no changing it now.  And yet it's still an awful lot of fun on its own lessened terms, and that doesn't just count for something; it's damned near the whole ball of wax.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly and Seamus McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Mary Steenburgen (Clara Clayton), and Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen and Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen)

Spoiler alert: severe

Instead, the concluding chapter of the Back to the Future trilogy would concern itself exclusively with what SF writers, I'm afraid, actually invented time travel for—namely, dicking around in period dress, and (not to make too awful of a pun out of it) killing time.
Yeah, but I make that sound like such a bad thing, don't I?  Well, as far it goes, it's true: plainly, Back to the Future Part III exists mostly to elevate the franchise to a trilogy (they were big at the time) and to justify the great twist ending of Back to the Future Part II.  Any further rationale behind its production can only be summed up in the phrase, "Universal believed they would make more money if they split the sequel to Back to the Future into two parts."  (Of course, Part III made the least money of the series, possibly due to its hilariously revealing trailer, played at the end of Part II—and which thoughtfully kept audiences from the necessity of actually paying to see how the story ended.)

Anyway, if Part II was a sequel that interrogated the very act of making sequels while offering an amazing new story of its own, Part III is—in many, many respects—just one more arbitrary adventure, feeling more like an episode of an ongoing television show than it does a film that really demanded that its story be told.  You can practically hear the announcer: "Where in history have Marty and the Doc wound up this time?  Tune in and find out!"  Obviously, I did.  I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Even as a kid I recognized the dampened ambition.  Thus, in combination with my childhood indifference to Westerns, I long ago pigeonholed Part III as the one that was merely okay.  It was the one where they went back in time and found a cartoonish, stagebound recreation of a specific era that the filmmakers clearly had a lot more fondness for than I did, in which they recapitulated the events of the first film with few real surprises, and stayed there stewing for two whole hours, at the last offering a satisfying ending that still wasn't entirely worthy of what came before.  For whatever it's worth, even back then I understood that it was also the one that was the most internally consistent.  Of course, that's mainly because Marty and Doc don't really do very much time-traveling.  (Technically, there's in fact more time-traveling here than in the first one; yet it feels like there's less.)

As a result, while I've seen BttF and Part II at least two dozen times apiece (almost always in quick succession), I've probably seen Part III only twice or three times—and the last time I did, it was definitely on VHS.

But retrospectives like these are at their most valuable when they surprise you, and turn what you think you already knew for sure into something you got wrong.  And what surprised me the most when I screened Part III this time is that even though everything I wrote about it earlier is pretty much undeniable (and even unanswerable), "dicking around in period dress and killing time" has rarely been more entertaining.  It is still, easily, my least favorite—but, then, when the other two are outright masterpieces (masterpieces with issues, but masterpieces nonetheless), that is, at worst, praising with faint damnation.  I could count the number of time travel comedies that are better than Part III on one hand—and that's including two fingers for its series predecessors, too.  So: if Part III abandons the more engaging substance of the first two BttF films, and even if it does so with a thoroughness that makes you wonder if Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale actually recognized what was awesome about their franchise in the first place, it nonetheless (and absolutely) retains the first two films' spirit—not to mention the enduring goofiness of their creators' inimitable style.

As you'll recall from Part II, an errant bolt of lightning has sent the flying DeLorean—and Doc Brown within it—back into the past, and stranded Marty McFly in 1955.  But a letter arrives, courtesy Western Union, as Marty stands shivering in the rain—and it tells him that Doc is alive and happy in 1885, and the DeLorean (though damaged) has been preserved in an abandoned mine shaft.  Marty need only find the Doc Brown of 1955 (again), recover the DeLorean, and, with 1955 Doc's help, repair it.  After that he can at last make his way back home, to 1985.  Yet in the midst of their preparations, Marty makes a discovery—a tombstone with Emmett Brown's name on it, dated no more than a week after he penned his letter.  Despite Doc's warning to leave him to his own devices in the past, Marty endeavors to make one more trip back in time and rescue his friend.

Upon his arrival, Marty immediately runs afoul of the dangerous denizens of the Old West: Indians; bears; a pair of his ancestors whose appearance suggests that the disposition for incestuous sexual attraction in his genetic line might not have arisen spontaneously with Lorraine Baines; and, most disconcertingly of all, the gunfighter Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, ancestor of his archnemesis Biff, predestined slayer of Doc Brown, and the most fearsome iteration of the Tannens' penchant for violence yet.  Only by Doc's lucky intervention does Marty survive a lynching, but that countdown to death is still ticking away for our heroes—and things get even worse when they find the hole in the DeLorean's fuel tank that's transformed their time machine into a hunk of stainless steel that's not going anywhere in time, or in space, unless they can find some other way to get the car up to 88mph that does not involve its own engine.  It's around this time that Doc falls in love with the newly arrived schoolteacher, Clara Clayton—and this complicates matters all the more.

So, yes, it really is Back to the Future all over again, down to some very specific details (which I prefer to interpret as "enjoyable callback gags").  But this time it's BttF, only without the dumb time paradoxes and truly aggressive oedipalism that made BttF so unique, or the meta-ingenuity that made Part II so brilliant, or the social commentary that drove so many of the laughs in both.  Indeed, one of the common complaints about Part III is that its vision of 1885 is so patently artificial.  It's a fair criticism that overlooks the obvious: you could fit the amount of "realism" in the franchise's depiction of 2015, 1955, and all three of its 1985s into a thimble.  Every era previously depicted had never been anything more, nor anything less, than a meticulously-designed terrarium, built to showcase the stereotyped images and sounds that the Two Bobs and their production designers Lawrence Paull and Rick Carter had decided defined their respective eras.  (Incidentally, however: Part III's recasting of Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love" as the theme song of immaturity and mediocrity?  That's pretty fantastic, and it's one way you can tell that Part III was itself made in 1990, and not 1985.)

In any event, 1885 is scarcely different in this regard.  The only real divergence is that 1885 is simply far more indebted to the sanitized recreations of Old Hollywood; whereas the movies had only informed BttF's other pop cultural fantasias in part, rather than in full.  Still, I'm not unsympathetic to the complaint: when most of the other eras in BttF managed to make some kind of half-satirical point, 1885 begins and ends with "the Old West was quaint, but also somewhat violent," and being disappointed in that is a somewhat natural reaction.

Still, it's a very pleasant Old West diorama that Carter's built here, and an ideal stage for the most overtly and determinedly comedic of the three BttF pictures; the other two, live-action cartoons themselves, still don't quite hit the cracked animation-inflected logic that obtains in Part III—and they certainly aren't as committed to reference jokes.  On the plus side, the reference jokes either tend to be subtle (and do I appreciate the climactic train scene as a metaphor for how the movie magic of the present is always dependent upon the foundation of glories past, such as The General?  I sure do!).  When those reference aren't subtle, though, at least they're deployed within the universe of the film—specifically, as a weapon that our heroes have brought from the future back into the past.  That's how the gunfight of Part III is both a funny parody of A Fistful of Dollars—not least because Marty's been going by the name "Clint Eastwood" ever since he woke up in his great-great-grandfather Seamus' house—and a satisfying resolution that flows entirely naturally from the series' premise, because Marty's first instinct probably would be to reenact the Man With No Name's clever ruse, secure in his knowledge that Mad Dog is not too likely to be familiar with the works of Sergio Leone.

Meanwhile, the greatest sin of Part III is also its greatest strength: with a vast complacency, it banks everything the franchise still has on the hope that we have actually grown to care deeply about Marty and Doc.  Lucky for Zemeckis and Gale, and lucky for their movie, we have.  We don't question Marty's commitment to rescuing his friend; somehow, we even give a shit about Doc's romantic entanglements with Clara (though it certainly helps that, while hardly less broad than anything else in this trilogy, it's played with some surprising tenderness by Christopher Lloyd and Mary Steenburgen); we even almost manage to care about the character arc that the Two Bobs began to lay on top of Marty in the last film, wherein he had suddenly developed an irascible temper and the compulsion to prove, by whatever means necessary (no matter how foolish), that he was no "chicken."  (On this latter count, Part III doesn't even bother recapping; thus, if you saw this film all by itself, well, it might be your own fault for walking cold into a movie called "Part III," but God alone knows how you could possibly decode Marty's triumph over his fated lameness.)

Part III would probably be a pretty swell movie just based on the goodwill engendered by its predecessors, and by the effortless appeal of its leading duo—fortunately, while I'm quite sure Gale taxed himself hardly all as he finished his movie's actual screenplay (as far as I can determine, Gale virtually retired after finishing the trilogy), Part III does not coast in terms of technique.  Cinematographer Dean Cundey's back once more, and still in fine form, playing reasonably artfully with shadow (as is his wont), and clearly still enjoying the hell out of those new motion-controlled cameras that allowed Part II's unprecedented doubling effects—and, if Part III doesn't reach the same giddy heights, well, there was hardly anything in the script that would've permitted it.  As for Zemeckis himself, the whole film remains infused with his unique energy—his zaniness, if you will, and I do hope you will, since there shall be no review of one of his films prior to Contact where that phrase shall not be used.  Meanwhile, the final action sequence, a train hijacking (or, as Doc amusingly describes it, "a science experiment") might well be the franchise's very best, expertly cross-cutting until all three of our principals have come together in a scene that milks the inherent tension of hanging onto an exploding train for everything that this scenario could possibly be worth.

That's Part III, then: a big comedown from the pinnacle of Part II, but awfully fun on its own, delivering one last adventure, arbitrary or not, for our two beloved heroes.  So, if it isn't a work of genius, it's still a work of committed entertainers, who weren't about to let their film's generic, arguably even lazy conception hold them back from making something that remains, in its own way, a certain value of "actually pretty Goddamned great."

Score:  8/10

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