There was a comfort in realizing that Back to the Future III would be set in the Old West after Back to the Future II had just spun everything audiences knew about the series on its head. It was straightforward and familiar, with the focus back on the characters rather than the murky complexities of time travel. More than just the promise of one more ride in the DeLorean with Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the trailer that followed “To Be Concluded” at the end of Back to the Future II felt like the sly wink from a parent having to close a storybook on a dark cliffhanger, promising that everything was going to be okay. The heroes would win, everything would go back to normal, life would be sunshine and daisies. It felt like sweet relief in the theater, with the terrible uncertainty that Doc was even alive instantly smoothed over. It still feels like the start of a new trajectory now, and the first glimmers of the overly earnest filmmaker Robert Zemeckis would become four years later with Forrest Gump.
Except the treacle here is earned, which is to say welcome, as it doesn’t come down entirely to a show of politically disheveled hippie-life regret. The dynamics shift, with Marty’s urgency and dedication to the science of bringing Doc (Christopher Lloyd) back to 1985 conflicting with one of the few instances in modern big cinema of people over 40 falling in love and having it not played for cheap laughs. The film lets Marty and Doc honestly and truly understand each other for the first time in the series, with the former learning to respect what kind of power he’s been playing with up to this point and the latter finally getting an arc worthy of a guy everyone loves, but who’s basically been little more than the voice of exposition all through the series. The film runs through Emmet and Clara’s (Mary Steenburgen) courtship with light speed, and it speaks volumes to the character work done in films prior that it’s hard to really mind. It helps that Steenburgen is such the endearing, genial presence in her time on screen. Clara is the happy ending personified, and she’s a happy ending that Doc deserves, having achieved the impossible already.
In fact, it’s because of this that Back to the Future III belongs to Doc, with Marty increasing impatience against Doc’s own wants as the real antagonist. Obviously, that gloriously ham-fisted death incarnate, Mad Dog Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), factors throughout; Wilson may never get his due credit for how much of these films ride on him being able to inhabit the entire spectrum of evil, from frail mastermind in Back to the Future II to single-minded, gun-slinging bastardry here. But the wonderful irony of closing out the trilogy on this note is watching Marty become the caring but insistent parent kids in 1985 were being carefully groomed by ’80s teen flicks to avoid and rebel against. Youth, technically, wins out again, and almost literally as Doc rides off into the unknown with Clara in his arms on a hovering skateboard. But then, so does maturity, as we symbolically see an old-school western hero wake up an ’80s teen and then make the decision to not do something stupid in an automobile against a gang of stupid teenagers. It’s young and old figuring out they have something to learn from the other. Which, really, was the message of these films since the beginning. And there’s a comfort to ending the trilogy on that familiar note.
Of course, the comfort of Back to the Future III also comes in the form of the familiar beats playing out all over again, echoing across decades: Marty is awakened by some iteration of Lorraine (Lea Thompson) telling him the terrifying truth of what year it is, a Tannen walking into a gathering place to terrorize a McFly, said McFly getting into some mischief, only this time with a potentially fatal consequence. And in between, you have Zemeckis reveling in getting to take his hands to the western genre, and playing around with the tropes like a giddy child. Across the board, it’s a story about finding peace with past, present, and future. Coming off a decade that seemed psychotically obsessed with forgetting the past had happened, that makes the franchise’s final notes all the more hopeful and honest: an old-time vehicle, still capable of doing the utterly impossible, riding off to any number of infinite possibilities.
Follow Justin Clark on Twitter: @justinofclark.