Shiny Shelf


Back To The Future Trilogy Boxset

By Jim Smith on 08 November 2002

Despite the final instalment properly belonging to the very early 1990s, the Back to The Future trilogy remains perhaps the definitive 1980s franchise: Ghostbusters may have been a marginally better film than the first Back to the Future, but its sequel is pretty dire all round. It’s also hard to deny that Transformers has a bigger fandom or that ThunderCats has a better logo, but as an all-round quality product these six hours of Delorean-related hi-jinks are impossible to beat. This box set allows discerning viewers everywhere to enjoy the film in a way that your dusty old VHS copies just can’t hold a candle to. The mastering is exquisite and the sound has been remastered into 5.1. Under normal circumstances that may have been enough but this edition is laden with so many bells and whistles that it puts many hugely celebrated DVD releases in the shade.

1985’s Back To The Future was, for a time, the biggest grossing box office comedy ever. It isn’t difficult to see why. Bob Gale and (director) Robert Zemeckis’ script is a thoroughly professional piece of writing. With a perfect three-act structure (1985/Getting the parents together/Going back to the future) and scarcely a line wasted, it’s the perfect basis for the moderately budgeted film’s slick but never showy production.

The film isn’t a special effects showcase, although those that are used are pretty special; rather, it’s the production design that’s a real joy. From the down and dirty ‘realistic’ treatment of the then-present to the charming, airy but subtly oppressive recreation of Eisenhower’s America – design and cinematography marry perfectly to ensure that form and content match. The use of music to define era is sublime: Mr Sandman, Poppa Loves Mambo, Earth Angel and Johnny B Goode for the 1950s, a whole heap o’ Huey Lewis and the News for the 1980s. Alan Silverstri’s score could have been written according to (Executive Producer) Steven Spielberg’s demand for his own movies of this period that it feature a theme that ‘they’ll all come out of the theatre whistling’.

On top of these visual and audio treats comes the picture’s biggest asset – its cast. The BTTF cast are all actors rather than stars. Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd were both quite far down the cast lists on popular sitcoms; Lea Thompson, Thom Wilson and Crispin Glover were respected for low-key performances in low-key movies, and known to casting directors for theatre work. The picture would make none of them box office headliners, but they are all consistently superb in exceptionally demanding roles. Not enough is made of Glover and Thompson’s contribution to the film, so that’s something I’ll take time over here. Thompson plays both versions of Lorraine Baines/McFly with great skill. The 1955 version is as fresh, sweet and (despite her protestations to contrary) innocent as her time. The bloated, boozy 80s model is a debased and wretched as the worst aspects of the setting. She then integrates both into the chirpy, contended fortysomething created by her son’s temporal meddling. Crispin Glover works really hard as both the downtrodden 80s George and the victim-in-waiting 50s one. He too skilfully creates a whole new version of the character in one scene in the picture’s final reel.

Lloyd and Fox have been rightly praised for their performances, but it’s worth reiterating that Lloyd is far more subtle and layered than you remember him being, and that Fox, with his tiny stature and breathless enthusiasm comes close to being the perfect juvenile lead.

Far less showy and extravagant than its sequels, Back To The Future isn’t really a SF movie at all, its part of the cycle of 80s pictures looking back with longing on the 50s (Peggy Sue Got Married for instance). It deals with its genre elements with subtly and skill, and explains everything with such clarity that even your grandma could understand it whilst not really listening.

This clarity is carried over – whatever other critics might claim – into Back To The Future Part II. Heck, at one point Doc Brown explains the entire concept to Marty (and the camera) with the aid of a blackboard and chalk. This second instalment is, in all honesty, a near perfect sequel. Neither a rehash of the previous film, nor one that – in trying to avoid such duplication – throws away its predecessor’s appeal. Thematically it covers much the same ground, but expands the first film’s driving logic (self responsibility and the simple idea that ‘if you put your mind to it you accomplish anything’) onto a bigger canvas and adds in a sizeable good vs evil/saving the world aspect to boot.

Part II embraces the first film, and makes it part of something bigger and grander, wrapping it up in such a way that it seems like it was planned all along. It’s heretical (and out of character) for me to say so, but it’s done with far more success here than it is the 1980s Star Wars sequels. So what if during the ride a little of the subtlety (and sense of this being ‘about’ family) is lost, and the humour is broadened perhaps too much? This is more than compensated for by what’s gained, especially in terms of the screenplay’s outlandish confidence in what can be achieved with time travel as a dramatic/comedic conceit.

If the dramatic motion of the first picture was fundamentally circular then by returning all the characters to their points of origin, Part II widens the circle without undoing the first film’s conclusion and robbing us ex post facto of its sense of catharsis. Rather nicely, however, the four year gap in production allows Bobs Gale and Zemeckis to look at the film’s own ‘present’ (1985) with a bit more distance, and in showing a 2015 that’s as nostalgic about the 1980s as their own film is about the 1950s, they recognise their own conceit and then tackle it head on. The cliffhanger ending is an absolute doozy too.

The third instalment is a slightly different kettle of fish; less consistent in terms of its concerns but a more obvious rerun of the first in terms of plot, it’s slightly unsettled by the need for an ‘explanatory’ coda to tie up loose ends, but more than gets by on charm. The Wild West setting is superbly realized, and the train-wreck finale is spectacular stuff. Like Part II it also takes physical actions and motifs from the first picture and reinterprets them. Dumping a member of the Tannen family in a truck full of manure becomes a running joke rather than a re-use of an old idea, playful and confident rather than desperate. There are numerous examples of this; note the number of times Fox staggers and then turns around as he walks across Hill Valley square in a variety of settings or the frequent precise replication of camera angles for thematic purposes. Look at the repeated fights in Hill Valley’s Caf?/Bar or the eternally bullying nature of the Tannens’ relationship with the McFlys. Silvestri’s revised Morricone style fanfare for Part III is the great underrated movie theme of all time as well.

So, those are the movies, what about the special features? Well, as suggested above Universal have done us proud. Unlike a lot of multiple disc sets the Back To The Future trilogy box localizes the special features on the disc as the specific film they relate to. Thus, we get purely Back To The Future related extras alongside the film itself on Disc 1, and Back To The Future Part II extras on Disc 2, etc. Pleasingly – and equally unusually – the sequels are accorded as much respect and coverage as the original. The final result is a three-disc set which doesn’t merely inflate or praise its subject matter, but one which – like all the best DVD special editions – is about the process of making movies. Thus we get discussions of the complexities of shooting II and III back to back over 13 months, and snippets of other drafts of the scripts. We get Bob Gale talking us through abandoned ideas and Robert Zemeckis fretting about editing II for theatrical release at night whilst shooting III during the day.

Disc 1 gives us the original trailer (natch) which is a specially shot in-character sequence starring Fox which doesn’t feature in the movie (one which, on seeing it again, I actually remember seeing at the cinema at the time). More excitingly there’s two documentaries, the first is the initial part of a three part ‘retrospective look’ shot recently, and which includes interviews with messrs Gale, Zemeckis and Fox and the startling revelation that Christopher Lloyd modelled his performance as Doc Brown on legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski. There’s also a candid discussion of initial star Eric Stoltz’s failure in the role of Marty, and the re-casting and re-shooting that resulted. This is illustrated by several photographs of Stoltz in character but – frustratingly – no actual footage. The second documentary is a TV press pack type affair of 1985 vintage, which features – perhaps uniquely – a clean-shaven Steven Spielberg. Weird.

That isn’t even the half of it, though. We also get a gag reel, a Gale/Zemeckis commentary and a stack of deleted scenes. All of these cut sequences are worth seeing, although there’s nothing in any of them which would’ve added to the final picture. (Well, except maybe the sight of the 1950s Doc bribing a policeman – a further example of the many subtle criticisms the 1955 segment of the movie throws at its setting.) There’s also a fascinating sequence of make-up tests, which illustrate various attempts at ageing up Christopher Lloyd, Thom Wilson et al to a point where they could convincingly play the older versions of their characters. On top of this (yes, there’s yet more) there’s several picture galleries, tonnes of production designs and sketches, storyboard to finished-film comparisons and ‘Universal’s Animated Anecdotes’, a switch on/switch off version of the onscreen ‘pop up menus’ pioneered on FOX’s Planet of the Apes 2001 DVD.

Disc 2 gives us yet another contemporary publicity featurette, and the second part of the ‘retrospective look’. This is as candid as the first, with frank comments made by all concerned about Crispin Glover’s non-participation in the sequels. There’s another bunch of photographs and production designs, and a copy of the second movie’s (dumb and frankly overly spoiler-filled) trailer. There’s also another gag reel, another bunch of deleted scenes and another detailed account of the production process.

Disc 3 offers us the third and final part of the epic ‘Making of’, another trailer (this one even more lame), ZZ Top’s promo video for their ‘Doubleback’ tie-in single, more outtakes, more bloopers and yet more storyboards, sketches and designs. If there’s anything remotely relevant to this trilogy of films (the aforementioned Stoltz footage aside) that isn’t included on these discs I’d like to know what it is. Exhaustive, I think, is the word.

This magnificent set is currently available in Australia, and is due in the UK and US towards the end of this year. For anyone interested in importing a copy, the back of the box lists the discs as R2 and R4 compatible and I can report that they play without difficulty on both my multi-region player (whether it’s set to R4 or R2) and my R2 only player as well. Yup, here at shinyshelf.com we check the technology for you.


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