Great Scott! The genre-hopping of Back To The Future Part III
Mark Harrison | On 19, Dec 2017
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, Thomas F. Wilson, Lea Thompson
Watch Back to the Future Part III online in the UK: Amazon Prime / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
What’s remarkable about the third Back To The Future film is that it’s also the last one. Even as it provides the template that could have powered the franchise into (likely diminishing) returns throughout the 1990s – Back To The Future but a Western could easily have led to Back To The Future but a war movie, or Back To The Future but a space opera – Part III is far more focused on wrapping up the story.
It’s a suitable choice of genre. The franchise teetered into a new decade with its third instalment, but it was one in which Westerns like Unforgiven and Dances with Wolves would reconstruct the one true American film genre. As a finale, Back To The Future Part III is about endings too.
Picking up directly from Part II’s cliffhanger, Marty (Michael J Fox) decides to go back to the Old West and rescue Doc (Christopher Lloyd) from 1885, against his express wishes, after discovering that his friend winds up being shot to death by no-good outlaw Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Once there, the two struggle to get back to the future from a pre-gasoline Hill Valley, where Mad Dog is on their tail and beautiful schoolteacher Clara (Mary Steenburgen) captures Doc’s affections.
Travelling to the Old West was inspired by Fox’s answer to the question of what period in history he would most like to visit, during the filming of the first film, but there’s a rich seam of story in the choice of genre. It’s well documented that there’s plenty of generic crossover between Westerns and American science fiction, but Robert Zemeckis et al. invert it here, by putting Back To The Future’s tropes in a frontier setting, rather than taking a frontier attitude into space, or into the future.
The anachronistic comedy of Part I is a big driver once again, and Alan Silvestri’s wonderful score takes on a flavour of The Magnificent Seven to top off the Clint Eastwood references and Monument Valley locations. Likewise, Doc and Clara bond over a love of Jules Verne’s early science fiction works, and the romantic element makes a welcome return after it was sorely lacking in Part II, with Lloyd flapping over whether to follow his head or his heart.
The Western element injects some real jeopardy into the story. If Marty had got stranded forever in any other period visited through the series so far, he’d be alright, but the early society of Hill Valley is far less advanced in terms of medicine, technology and especially the commercialism that contextualised previous jaunts. Even Doc Brown, who uses his intelligence to adapt to life in 1885, has a death sentence on his head as Mad Dog (Wilson, on even more disgusting form than before) snaps at his heels.
This culminates in the Fistful Of Dollars-inspired shootout between Marty and Mad Dog (beautifully tee’d up in Part II, when Biff watches it in his hot tub in alt-1985) and the audacious train sequence, crossing a blockbuster finale with a typically quite inexpensive genre. It’s stunning that this third instalment comes off as well as it does, with Zemeckis editing Part II at night and shooting this one during the day. But the genre grounds the high-flying sci-fi that overtook its predecessor and gives the main characters a suitable swansong.
The result is a wholly satisfying finale to one of cinema’s great trilogies, in which the shift in genre is the making of it. Watched consecutively with the others, the long-running jokes (especially the one about Marty groggily thinking he had a bad dream) become a little worn by repetition, but the graceful progression from set-ups to pay-offs, in this film, and in all three, is what makes it the funniest time-travelling sci-fi romantic comedy Western ever made.
Back to the Future Part III is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.