Thursday, August 09, 2007

I Am Your Density

BACK TO THE FUTURE is that Hollywood rarity: a summer blockbuster with heart. Also wit, charm, character-based humor, and genuine suspense. I've revisited it several times, but the DVD is the first time I've seen it (or the sequels) in their original aspect ratio since I saw them all theatrically. I doubt BACK TO THE FUTURE will ever get old. Its performances and humor are timeless, and its relative paucity of visual effects (writer/producer Bob Gale and writer/director Robert Zemeckis estimate there are only about 35 FX shots in the whole film) means you can't really peg it as an '80s movie that way. The filmmakers seem to have taken great care not to make the movie look trendy, and even though it's set in 1985, it looks as though it could have been made yesterday. Alan Silvestri's tremendous score avoids synth cliches, and even the Huey Lewis songs seem chosen for their bar-band timelessness.

Not to sound prudish, but only a few minor items keep BACK TO THE FUTURE from being a perfect movie. I think there's too much swearing in the movie (though a couple of vulgarities work well as punchlines: "Yes, absolutely, Goddammit, George, swear."). I also think the attempted rape is much too dark for this lighthearted PG fantasy. I understand it takes a seriously heavy event to make George McFly (Crispin Glover) snap, but I think the rape scene is too heavy. And, finally, I would jettison the whole "Johnny B. Goode" scene. Zemeckis almost did this anyway, since it's the only scene in the movie that doesn't advance the plot or provide characterization. I would have dissolved from the crane shot that ends high on George and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) after their kiss into Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) leaving the stage and encountering Lorraine, where she asks him if it's okay that George takes her home. Zemeckis left it in, because preview audiences didn't mind it. And I don't hate it--I think it just eats up running time right when we've wrapped up the George/Lorraine storyline and need to get back to the town square for Marty's return home.

Just the opposite of BACK TO THE FUTURE, it seems, is BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II, which is a well-crafted action/adventure without the sweetness and wit of the original. Gale's amusingly complex screenplay appears to be a gag in and of itself, as various Martys, Doc Browns (all Christopher Lloyd), Biffs, etc. bounce around three different time periods chasing a McGuffin that creates an alternative future where Marty is a loser and Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) a billionaire. Though I guess it's a comedy, there really aren't very many laughs in the picture, as they have been sacrificed for action setpieces and ILM visual effects. The performances, the careful screenwriting and Silvestri's score are strong enough to make the movie watchable, but I think it's easily the least successful creatively of the trilogy. I remember seeing this theatrically and getting excited over its ending, which is the first time I saw a film close with a trailer for its own sequel, even before the closing credits! The 007 movies always promised that "James Bond would return in...", but BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II proved it with actual coming attractions for the Summer 1990 release (only a six-month wait!) of BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III.

PART III is more like it, moving from the hyperkinetic future world of flying cars and neon-laced skyscrapers to the sun and sand of the Old West. 1885, to be exact, where Marty takes the time-traveling DeLorean to save Doc Brown from certain death. Gale and Zemeckis are faithful to both the western and science fiction genres, and I really appreciate the use of so many wonderful old character actors: Matt Clark, Harry Carey Jr., Dub Taylor, Pat Buttram, Richard Dysart, Bill McKinney. And while the concept of a flying train (!) sounds absurd, it plays the central part in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III's memorable finale. Mary Steenburgen, who also appeared in the wonderful romantic SF adventure TIME AFTER TIME, is well-suited to play Doc Brown's romantic interest here. Gale and Zemeckis are careful to follow through on story points and imagery carefully laid out in earlier films, adding some depth to all three movies. Honestly, even though Zemeckis has gone on to a major A-list directing career and an Academy Award, I don't think any of his films since BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III are as good as it is.

I'll be away from the computer for a few days. See ya next week.


J. Brown said...

I have to make a note of how interesting it is that you prefer Part III to Part II. Most people I've talked to have the opposite reaction, disliking III for some reason. I enjoy all of them for the way they blend Sci-Fi, comedy, and action. It's hard to craft a movie that, even after having seen it 50+ times, still effectively puts you on the edge of your seat at the pivotal moments.

Also, I think Mary Steenburgen is possibly the only actress who could have effectively played that part. Her character is absolutely the only person you can imagine falling in love with someone as wacky and semi-unhinged as Doc Brown.

Plus, the DeLorean Kicks Ass.

Unknown said...

I must respectfully disagree here. Parts 2 and 3 are inferior movies. I don't consider Bif trying to take advantage of Lorraine to be too heavy. You wouldn't have the heroic McFly moment at the end if George hadn't been able to save the day.