BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras B+
BD - Image B+ Sound A Extras A
starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover
screenplay by Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
directed by Robert Zemeckis
BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II (1989)
DVD - Image A- Sound B+ Extras B
BD - Image A- Sound A Extras A-
starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson
screenplay by Bob Gale
directed by Robert Zemeckis
BACK TO THE FUTURE PART III (1990)
DVD - Image A Sound A- Extras B
BD - Image A- Sound A Extras A
starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson
screenplay by Bob Gale
directed by Robert Zemeckis
by Bill Chambers GREAT SCOT! SPOILERS AHEAD! It's finally here. As not only a mighty-big fan of Robert Zemeckis's Back to the Future but also a completist (and therefore keen to collect Back to the Future's substandard sequels), I've anticipated the DVD release of Back to the Future: The Complete Trilogy (henceforth BTTF) since the format itself became a reality. Alas, the 3-disc set--from its unsexy blue-and-white cover layout to the cheap menus to a slipshod three-part documentary--is problematic. Don't get me wrong: I'm happy as a clam that the films (remastered in effervescent 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfers--pan-and-scan sold separately--supervised by co-creator Bob Gale with Dolby Digital 5.1 remixes that beef up the re-entry effects especially) look and sound as good as they do and that, for the first time in home video's history, each picture is now being seen as it appeared in theatres (more on that below). But as a BTTF enthusiast, almost every single piece of supplementary material had me arrogantly believing I could've done a better job.
Blessed with a can't-miss (and virtually unrecyclable) premise, Back to the Future stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a quintessential American teenager--sweetheart named Jennifer (Claudia Wells), fledgling garage band, conservative parents--whose best friend just happens to be an Einstein-haired inventor with access to plutonium. Doc Brown (an uncommonly warm Christopher Lloyd) has built a time machine out of a De Lorean, during a demonstration of which Marty is inadvertently whisked back thirty years to 1955. There, Marty encounters his mother (Lea Thompson, cute as all hell) and father (Crispin Glover, in one of his last straight roles) as teenagers, only to disrupt and jeopardize the course of fate when Mom develops an infatuation with her future son instead of her future husband.
Zemeckis is overly critical of the film today, punishing it for being non-immune to the consumerism of the era in which it was made. It's important to distinguish that although Marty's victory is objectified (through, for instance, the acquisition of a luxury 4x4), it's merely to signal the completion of his hero's journey--Marty himself is not working towards any obvious material goals. (If anything should gnaw at Zemeckis, it's his decision to let Marty co-opt the African-American lineage of rock 'n' roll.) We're talking about the cinema's immaculate conception here, with exceptions granted to the blatant devices that render the applied logic of the space-time continuum an easier pill to swallow (such as a photograph that erases its subjects), as well as an ending that, classic cliff-hanger or not, invites all the wrong questions.
Back to the Future had a profound impact on me as a child, the kind that children of the Seventies often associate with a movie that bored me to tears back then: Star Wars. Suffice it to say, I often wonder if I would have gone to film school had I somehow missed seeing BTTF, which is precisely one aspect of its success: it leaves you joyfully asking, "What if?" Note that this version excludes the "To Be Continued" graphic that was tacked on for BTTF's VHS debut, which everyone falsely remembers as part of the theatrical experience.
Saddled with the task of resolving the terrible conclusion to its predecessor, Back to the Future Part II unfortunately has no ace card up its sleeve. Zemeckis says if he'd truly considered the possibility of a sequel, he would have "left the girlfriend out of the car." Let's consider the larger issue: why is Doc in a rush to fix a future occurrence (going so far as to drag Marty away from his new life the morning after he returned from his Fifties excursion) if he's got a time machine? Doc's impatience isn't so much out of character as it is just plain boorish.
One fixates on plot when it comes to BTTF PII because plot is its star. Following a hastily-conceived prelude set in 2015, the film seizes a golden opportunity to revisit the events of Back to the Future from an alternative perspective; BTTF PII is a unique sequel in that it addresses its essential superfluousness by literally leeching off its forebear. Though irreverential of 'part 1' to an ugly degree (I mean, George McFly's homicide (!) drives the action in the second half and bully Biff is a mere psychopath (ditto Principal Strickland (James Tolkan)), to say nothing of a crass gag involving breast implants), it's nonetheless a work of post-modern genius for the duration of the sequence that takes place inside Back to the Future. If this climax weren't adrift in a morass of bad ideas overcompensated for through circuitous dialogue, the film would be in a class with The Godfather Part II and The Empire Strikes Back. Note that this version concludes with a trailer for Back to the Future Part III, excised for BTTF PII's VHS debut.
It took a change of place and, to some extent, genre to rediscover the humanity of Back to the Future. A broader comedy than its prequels, Part III sends Marty to the Old West, 1885 (really the Hollywood western circa Roy Rogers), where he intends to prevent the death of 1985 Doc "over a matter of eighty dollars," as reported by a tombstone unearthed in 1955. With the De Lorean out of gas, Marty and Doc seek other means of propelling the car to a speed of 88 miles per hour, but Doc is conflicted as to whether to return home--life in pre-industrialized America has captured his imagination (he builds giant Rube Goldberg contraptions to execute menial tasks), and a schoolteacher named Clara (Mary Steenburgen) has captured his heart.
Creating a feeling of meta-déjà vu that couldn't be more apt, Steenburgen does Time After Time over again, though she thankfully tones down her performance from that Nicholas Meyer film. Lloyd, meanwhile, mines a vulnerability within himself in his courtship scenes with her that's attractive and far from inappropriate. Dean Cundey's cinematography casts the quirky couple in a cinnamon glow--BTTF PIII is arguably the handsomest of the three movies. It's an agreeable flawed film, in other words: Officially reduced to a commentator for blind audience members ("Damn, I ripped the fuel line," Marty blurts out to a puddle forming beneath the De Lorean), Fox's comic spark is almost out in this go 'round--and don't get me started on Elisabeth Shue (replacing Claudia Wells in the sequels as Marty's gal, she turns in generic work that only aggravates Jennifer's maddening disposability). And it's too bad the filmmakers couldn't resolve their stance on the ethics of time-travel, as the visually-striking epilogue downgrades Doc Brown to a wishy-washy hypocrite.
DVD producer Laurent Bouzereau hosted a Q&A at USC with "the two Bubs"--co-screenwriter Gale and co-screenwriter/director Robert Zemeckis--that's divided into three progressively shorter chunks across the three discs. Clocking in at 99 minutes, the audio-only Q&A specific to 'part one' (though not screen-specific) finds Bouzereau reciting idiotic questions (e.g., "What was your favourite part?") supposedly belonging to the students (if so, why doesn't Bouzereau ever omit the "I" part of the query?). Nevertheless, these conferences are a highlight, with a cranky Bobby Z and a huffy Gale often a contradiction away, it would seem, from fisticuffs. Here they set the record straight regarding their troubles with Crispin Glover, studio head Sid Sheinberg's mandated changes to the screenplay as they barrelled towards the shoot, Eric Stoltz's (mis)casting, the picture's Americana influences, and the reconceived third act. If only the one-man "Chris Farley Show" Bouzereau knew how to ask a follow-up question to save his life.
Michael J. Fox appears in pop-up windows during the film with one of two "enhanced" commentary options switched on. (A stopwatch icon--which always falls at the start of a chapter--cues you to click enter.) As this feature is exclusive to Disc One, Fox's observations (and Boozy's intermittent inquiry) encompass the trilogy, with heavy emphasis on the hectic schedule that saw him shooting "Family Ties" in the daytime and BTTF at night. (The other enhanced commentary is a fashionable "fact-track.") Finally, Gale and co-producer Neil Canton reminisce on a separate yak-track that promises to avoid redundant anecdotes. (Though it succeeds, they're not the greatest raconteurs.) One is taken aback, however, by an off-the-cuff remark of Gale's that he and Zemeckis contributed whole passages of dialogue to Steven Spielberg's hyphenate debut Close Encounters of the Third Kind--unless I'm simply the last to know, Gale just let an enormous cat out of the bag.
"The Making of Back to the Future" (15 mins.) is a classy promo piece from 1985 brimming with backstage footage and animated interviews with Zemeckis, et al. There's even a bit of geekshow in a shot of Crispin Glover getting his middle-age make-up applied. Compared to Bouzereau's "Making the Trilogy: Chapter One" (15 mins.), which segues from his standard refashioned trailer (he lives for filler) into cheerless, overfamiliar discussions with the troika of Zemeckis, Gale, and Fox, Les Mayfield's making-of is a pop masterpiece. Irrespective of superficial content, the biggest problem with Bouzereau's featurettes, particularly here, is their unity to one another and lack thereof to the movie in question. Any monkey with an AVID could stitch talking heads together--when you do a Back to the Future documentary, a certain veneration is all but expected: BTTF's cult of worship hinges on stylistic evocations of the films at hand. (Everything from the BTTF fanzines to www.bttf.com reflects the spirit of the Trilogy.) Le fanboy Bouzereau is the rare French filmmaker without an artistic bone in his body.
Those hoping to see Stoltz in action will have to settle for stray photos sprinkled throughout the disc, as the section of eight deleted scenes are mostly tails of moments that exist in the final cut. The full Darth Vader intrusion is quite mean-spirited (and turns George's subsequent "I overslept" into a punchline by revealing that Marty suffocated him with chloroform!), as is Strickland's refusal to spring George loose from a locked phone booth. (Wiser editing decisions were perhaps never made.) Next we have a 3-minute portion of "Outtakes" (it's advised though not imperative that you watch the deleted scenes in preparation) and three "Original Makeup Tests"--two with audio, one without (in Lloyd's, he curiously yells, "Hello, Helen? Helen!")--for Lloyd, Wilson (in less severe prosthetics than he wore in the film), and, yum, Thompson.
"Production Archives" umbrellas four photo galleries of production stills, candid photos, and conceptual art (mostly De Lorean mock-ups), while an excerpt from the 1981 draft of the script is captivating in its relative awfulness. Therein, Doc is "Professor Brown," Doc's dog Einstein is a chimpanzee named "Shemp," the De Lorean is an abstract tube powered by Coca-Cola, and Doc verbalizes the fallacy of BTTF PII: he insists that going to the past is wrong because you could "alter history"--the future, I'm afraid, is also the past, just not yours. The theatrical teaser trailer ("About thirty years"), cast and crew filmographies and biographies, rental "Recommendations" (for Spielberg titles, all), and intentionally funny promos for Michael J. Fox's Parkinson's research fund round out the platter. ROM users can enjoy web-based Total AXess material as of December 17th, 2002.
Running 55 minutes, the Zemeckis/Gale Q&A for Back to the Future Part II (complete with a self-aggrandizing intro by Bouzereau we already heard on the last disc) tenders a blow-by-blow account of the process that led to the mammoth consecutive undertaking of Back to the Future parts II and III. Despite a half-assed payoff to a promise made on the previous DVD to discuss product placement in BTTF PII, it's a good, candid session, with Zemeckis wishing the picture were tighter. Gale and Canton resume speaking in a second yakker in which they're overly cautious of repeating themselves, constantly referring you to their previous track. (Aside: It's odd and admirable that Universal let their Lew Wasserman story stay in.)
The "Did You Know?" animated fact-track also returns. Closing with Zemeckis's notorious lie that hoverboards are functioning toys suppressed by parents groups, "The Making of Back to the Future Part II" (6 mins.) is otherwise insubstantial. Ditto Bouzereau's "Making the Trilogy: Chapter Two" (15 mins.), which wastes breath recapping the events of Back to the Future and its production. One of seven deleted scenes is the master of the three McFlys played by Fox sharing pizza (see above), shrewdly abridged because, as Gale posits in optional commentary, you wouldn't let the shot drag on if it were not a fancy-schmancy optical illusion. Another gag-reel of "Outtakes" (50 sec.) complements these omissions.
Gale--whose boundless participation in these DVDs, I might add, backfires, as it throws the non-attendance of nearly everybody else from the BTTF team into sharp relief--hosts four been-there/done-that featurettes on "Production Design" (3 mins.), "Storyboarding" (2 mins.), "Designing the De Lorean" (4 mins.), and "Designing Time Travel" (3 mins.), as well as a six-minute montage of the "Evolution of Visual Effects Shots." Like Gale, I am most impressed by a seamless transition from the De Lorean flying to it pulling up the road into a driveway. A silent "Hoverboard Test" (1 min.) wherein the actors are dangled from wires in some desert patch of land, four still galleries filed under "Production Archives," Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love" video, an unappetizing theatrical trailer for BTTF PII, a commercial for Universal theme parks, cast/filmmaker bios/filmos, production notes, and the Spielberg DVD recommendations round out the disc.
The BTTF PIII DVD's Zemeckis/Gale Q&A (complete, yep, with a self-aggrandizing intro by Bouzereau we already heard on the last two discs) is the shortest and weakest of the trio, a wheel-spinning exercise worth hearing only to find out the ultimate fate of the Hill Valley backdrop--eerie stuff. ("Back to the Future: The Ride" is discussed, too.) The Gale/Canton and "Did You Know That" tracks are also running out of steam, if diverting; I had no idea that Monument Valley is not considered part of the United States, or that it's freezing cold there. A slick rundown of the events of the film, "The Making of Back to the Future Part III" (8 mins.), also leaves a lot to be desired, as does Bouzereau's "Making the Trilogy: Chapter Three" (15 mins.). There is but a single deleted scene here--it's a doozy, however: Tannen murders "Marshal" Strickland. Predicting our reaction, Gale agrees that it was too dark by a significant margin.
Roger Rabbit shows up in the 2-minute reel of "Outtakes." Gale resurfaces in "Designing the Town of Hill Valley" (1 min.) and "Designing the Campaign" (1 min.), the latter a shout-out to Drew Struzan, the artist behind the Trilogy's iconic one-sheets. "Production Archives" reopens "Marty McFly's Photo Album" for a third occasion--one of the other three galleries is a cool animated montage of poster concepts (wow, Max Spielberg directed Jaws 19!). ZZ Top's "Doubleback" video, the Kirk Cameron-hosted (i.e., unwatched in my household) "The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy" (20 mins.), a semi-comprehensive trilogy FAQ written by Zemeckis and Gale, BTTF PIII's trailer, a Universal theme parks commercial, cast/filmmaker bios/filmos, production notes, and another recommendations page round out the disc in addition to the package proper. In sum, The Complete Trilogy: Back to the Future is bound to make one man weep and another man sing. Originally published: December 16, 2002.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The supplements on the Blu-ray release of the Back to the Future trilogy are mostly a hodgepodge of material previously available elsewhere, if not on DVD then probably on YouTube (see: the awful "Back to the Future Night", an infomercial for Back to the Future Part II hosted by Leslie Nielsen that prefaced a "special Friday-night airing" of the first film on NBC). I'll provide a complete inventory below, but the point is that the main attraction of this set, other than the HiDef presentation of the trilogy itself, is a 7-part, feature-length HD documentary spread across the three films/platters called Tales from the Future. Rather than dissect the individual segments, better to reflect on them as a whole: For what could become the final, definitive account of the trilogy's production, I'm pleased to report that the highs of the piece--a hilarious Sid Sheinberg anecdote, the brief but potent snippets of Eric Stoltz-as-Marty McFly footage, the presence of Claudia Wells--outweigh its lows--the occasional pointless tangent, the dearth of Stoltz footage, the absence of Elisabeth Shue--and that it does a decent job of balancing the greatest hits, as it were, with fresh data.
Wells, almost unrecognizable as the erstwhile Jennifer Parker, sets the record straight on her departure from the sequels, and additionally reveals that Stoltz's firing led to not merely Fox replacing Stoltz but Wells herself replacing an unnamed actress. Lea Thompson, a more or less ageless beauty, is consistently and curiously pretentious in her interview segments but nevertheless conveys a kind of embarrassed awe at how many notes her younger self scribbled in the margins of her Back to the Future screenplay. Crispin Glover is again a favourite punching bag (which may or may not explain or have resulted from his declining to be interviewed again), with a bemused Fox recalling Glover's insistence on pretending to use a broom in one shot, a gesture he referred to as "a sweep of indignation!" Like Robert Duvall pricing himself out of The Godfather Part III, Glover's outrageous salary demands directly resulted in the fan-fiction that is the first sequel, which makes me want to punch him, by the by; and I frankly didn't need to see the blueprint for the upside-down contraption that was invented to keep audiences from scrutinizing the replacement George McFly's face. Also, Steven Spielberg's enthusiasm for these movies is infectious, but only up to a point (I dig Part III but don't know that the John Ford homages actually bring it up to par with My Darling Clementine), though it's interesting to hear him avow a preference for The Empire Strikes Back in equating the Star Wars trilogy with this one. Meanwhile, I'm grateful for a postscript that has Zemeckis going on the record about the improbability of a fourth instalment, which also reads like a criticism of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Speaking of Indy IV, it seems to have pillaged Back to the Future's original climax for its nuke-the-fridge set-piece, as animated storyboards for the "nuclear test site sequence" attest. If they'd had the money for it, Marty would've raced a mushroom cloud through an atomic test site populated with mannequins and model homes; in optional commentary, Bob Gale is grateful the studio wouldn't bankroll it, since it forced them to get creative. Given that no expense was spared on the sequels (except in the hiring of Glover), I think we all know the moral of that story.
The extras break down as follows (features new to this "25th Anniversary" edition highlighted in blue):
Back to the Future
- Deleted Scenes
- Tales from the Future
-In the Beginning (27 mins., HD)
-Time to Go (30 mins., HD)
-Keeping Time (6 mins., HD)
- Archival Featurettes
-"The Making of Back to the Future" (15 mins., SD)
-"Making the Trilogy: Chapter One" (15 mins., SD)
-"Back to the Future Night" (27 mins., SD)
- Michael J. Fox Q&A
- Behind the Scenes
-Makeup Tests (2 mins., SD)
-Nuclear Test Site Sequence Storyboards (4 mins., HD)
- "Power of Love" music video by Huey Lewis and the News
- Teaser Trailer (SD)
Back to the Future Part II
- Deleted Scenes
- Tales from the Future
-Time Flies (29 mins.)
- "The Physics of Back to the Future with Dr. Michio Kaku" (8 mins., HD)
Kaku, a self-described "theoretical physicist" and disciple of Einstein, praises the trilogy from his specialized point-of-view. Opening with a non-subtle dig at Hot Tub Time Machine, Kaku discusses the "time river" and even touches on the possibility of flying cars and hoverboards--innovations that would require only a superconductor that could maintain room temperature. His tone of voice suggests we're getting there.
- Archival Featurettes
-"The Making of Back to the Future Part II" (6 mins., SD)
-"Making the Trilogy: Chapter Two" (15 mins., SD)
- Behind the Scenes
-"Production Design" (3 mins., SD)
-"Storyboarding" (2 mins., SD)
-"Designing the De Lorean" (4 mins., SD)
-"Designing Time Travel" (3 mins., SD)
-"Hoverboard Test" (1 min., SD)
-"Evolution of Visual Effects Shots" (6 mins., SD)
- Theatrical Trailer (SD)
Back to the Future Part III
- Deleted Scenes
- Tales from the Future
-Third Time's the Charm (29 mins.)
-The Test of Time (17 mins.)
- Archival Featurettes
-"The Making of Back to the Future Part III" (8 mins., SD)
-"Making the Trilogy: Chapter Three" (15 mins., SD)
-"The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy" (20 mins., SD)
- Behind the Scenes
-"Outtakes" (2 mins., SD)
-"Designing the Town of Hill Valley" (1 min., SD)
-"Designing the Campaign" (1 min., SD)
- "Doubleback" music video by ZZ Top
- FAQs About the Trilogy
- Back to the Future: The Ride
Now this is cool: Recently dismantled at Universal's theme parks, the ride lives on, albeit in a completely ineffectual simulacrum of the experience (which was like being shaken in a paint mixer). Except maybe not: the ride itself (16 mins. in toto, 10 of which are preamble involving Biff's theft of a De Lorean) has been encoded for D-BOX playback, so if you have one of those fancy motion chairs I presume this'll jostle you around a bit. (Although I doubt it'll tilt you forward at a 90° angle like the real deal.) The only real drawback: both the ride and the "lobby" footage that played during the 15-minute queue to board are encoded in SD at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and the shot-on-film/finished-on-video quality is quite poor.
- Theatrical Trailer (SD)
Last but not least, Universal's U-CONTROL feature offers three unique pop-up video displays for each film: "Setups & Payoffs," for those who never picked up on stuff like the Twin Pines Mall/Lone Pine Mall gag--though often this track resorts to simple factoids, as if bored; "Storyboard Picture-in-Picture Comparisons," which is, I hope, self-explanatory; and a reconfiguring of the DVD's "Trivia Track."
It's difficult to complain about the A/V presentations of these films--but I'll try. First off, these 1.85:1, 1080p/VC-1 transfers shine like new pennies, and that's a good thing, unquestionably. Still, this isn't quite the Back to the Future I grew up with: colours, contrast, and, most detrimentally, sharpness, are noticeably boosted, as if to better unify the movie aesthetically with its slicker sequels. But while the night scenes have a sleeker, colder look more suited to the neon apocalypse of Part II, it's the edge enhancement that grates by adding a thin drop-shadow to foreground objects and drawing unwanted attention to the seams of the old-age makeup, in particular Christopher Lloyd's. (During Doc's demonstration of the De Lorean's time circuits, it's almost like he's wearing a Halloween mask.) This oversharpening dies down in the harder-focused II and III, which boast a grain structure that's not as noisy. My only real issue with the BD treatment of the second and third films is that, similar to Warner's recent Blu-ray version of Forbidden Planet, shots containing multiple VFX elements have been severely noise-reduced to counteract the degenerative effects of optical compositing. Consequently and ironically, the splitscreens have a glaring obviousness they didn't necessarily before. Too, the more naturalistic lighting of Part III leads to areas of the image getting swallowed up in shadow no less so in HD, although virtually any scene taking place in daylight outdoors is showcase stuff.
The 5.1 DTS-HD MA tracks are unimpeachable by comparison, just beautifully rendered. In Tales from the Future, editor Arthur Schmidt talks about the perverse number of sound effects that went into Back to the Future's climax, and this lossless rendering truly honours the effort. As a bonus, I was finally startled again by that slurp! the plutonium chamber makes, something that hasn't happened to me outside a theatrical showing before. The audio on Part II took me right back to my 70mm, 6-track screening of the film, what with its live-sounding orchestra and licks of sidewall imaging as flying cars zoom past the De Lorean. (As an aside, what's holding up that Hill Valley sign in the sky?) And every moment of the train chase in Part III is aural bliss, a complex, crystal-clear symphony of clangs, clanks, groans, and hisses; with no noticeable rerecording or remixing to speak of, all three mixes defy their age and analog orientation, except maybe in their lightish usage of the LFE channel.
To prevent the requisite pre-menu trailers from growing stale in the months and years to come, these discs access Internet-generated content on startup. I have to admit, that's pretty neat. Not so neat is the awful packaging: no hubs means having to pry the BDs as well as their Digital Copy counterparts out of lipped slots without breaking them. I wanted to call the bomb squad. Originally published: October 25, 2010.