Trilogification and cynicism

When it first came out, I wasn’t a big fan of Back To The Future III.

It’s one of – if not the first thing I ever saw at the cinema. I was 9. I had seen the first two on video and loved them.

When I say “at the cinema”, I’m not being precise. “At the theater” might be more appropriate. It was actually a projector set up at the local community centre in the small country town I lived in. Usually, it was for shows or exhibitions – playing movies was a new thing.

As a kid, I was dissapointed that it was set almost entirely in the old west, and that there wasn’t any futuristic stuff or even any time travelling – the only time travel is from 1955 to 1885, and then the rest of the movie is spent trying to get back to 1985. I was also really disappointed at the destruction of the delorean.

But now, I think it’s a marvellous conclusion to the trilogy.

Yes, it’s a change of pace from parts 1 and 2, which are full of adventure and chases while doc and marty labour to fix the timeline and not destroy the universe in the process. Part 3 consists of the effort to get the time machine working in 1885 – it doesn’t have the same sense of adventure.

Instead, it provides a catharsis and it serves to analyse and evolve the two central characters – doc in his meeting clara, and marty in overcoming his problem with being called chicken. I think that as a kid I didn’t appreciate this, but now, I see it’s the perfect direction to take. Part 3 is where all the poingiant character moments take place, and it has some great ones – Marty choosing not to race needles, seeing Doc’s family. It also has lots of clever little jokes and references. Perhaps my favourite piece of dialogue is when marty says “great scott!”, and doc replies “I know, this is heavy” – it always makes me chuckle.

Parts 2 and 3 also serve as an excellent example of turning a story into the first part of a trilogy – the second part expands on the adventure of the first and sets up some plot points for the third, and the third provides character arcs and a satisfying, final conclusion – at much as I’d love to see Doc and Marty have one more adventure, the story is over. It even goes so far as to proclaim “The End”. There should never be a Back to the future 4.

Further, it expands the mythology of the entire series by showing the history of hill valley and its inhabitants – you get to see the first mcfly born in america, where the stricklan family’s love for discipline comes from, and another tannen. There are also more subtle indicators – the manure cart Mad Dog Tannen is punched into is “A Jones” manure, where the manure truck in 1955 is labelled with “D Jones”.

This brings me to another point about the magnificence of the storytelling in the back to the future trilogy as a whole – attention to detail. It seems to me that screenwriters and directors aren’t paying nearly as much attention to detail these days. For instance, the first scene of part 1 – doc’s lab – contains many subtle foreshadowings, such as the plutonium case / news report, and the article talking about the Brown Mansion, which you’ll see later in the film, burning down and Doc having to sell the family estate. These are tiny subtle details which you might not have noticed when you watched. (Mr Plinkett voice) But your brain did. It serves to make the fictional world more realistic and “full”.

Another part of this is consistency. I was watching part 3 and noticed when they start pushing the delorean along the train tracks that they have a wooden brace filled with tyres to dampen the impact. I thought I had spotted a continuity problem, and I said to myself “It’s 1885! where did they get tyres from?!?”. Then I remembered that they had removed the tyres from the delorean so it could run on train tracks. And on inspection, indeed, there were four tyres, and they were 1955-style whitewall tyres – exactly like the delorean had after its 1955 repairs.

Sometimes I wonder if it’s that filmmakers these days are paying less attention, or that I’m more cynical in my old age. I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but I don’t think there’s really very much cynicism there – there have been some truly great movies produced recently. Cloud Atlas springs immediately to mind – this instantly became one of my all-time favourite movies. So I’m not totally cynical.

I could offer many theories to explain why we don’t seem to be getting the same level of attention to detail any more.

Perhaps it’s that more and more things are done digitally, so the director / screenwriter isn’t dealing with real-world objects and locations anymore, so they’re not able to spot these small details early enough – a director on location dealing with props is perhaps more likely to spot these issues, and it’s definitely easier to add that one line of explanatory dialogue when you’re filming the scene, as opposed to fixing it in post with pickups or ADR, both of which require much more in both time and resources.

Maybe it’s the “George Lucas Effect” – it does seem to be that the bigger names are the ones pushing out duds. Given James Cameron’s record, avatar was sub-par. So was Indy 4. And don’t get me started on prometheus. Maybe it’s that these big names are surrounding themselves with “yes men” who are afraid to point out these inconsistensies. Perhaps it’s the hollywood process – appealing to the lowest common denominator – perhaps even these big names are being subjected to executive or studio meddling.

Perhaps the problem is the properties themselves – it’s always the great franchises that are sequeled into horribleness. Perhaps the problem is that Alien got too big. When that happened, the budget increased. But because of the increased budget the studio wants to sell more tickets. So this classic series which everybody knows and loves, which we’re sequelling because we know it has a huge established fanbase, needs more “mainstream appeal”

There are exceptions – great films still get made – look at primer – those guys paid attention. But I wonder if there’s anything that has been made in the last decade which I will look at with the same fondness in 20 years as I now look at something like BTTF, Spaceballs, or Terminator. There surely will be, but i suspect that the 2000s won’t live up to the 80s and 90s. And Back to the Future is surely a pinnacle of 80s filmmaking.

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