Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson, Elizabeth Shue, Mary Steenburgen
Director:  Robert Zemeckis
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  344 Minutes
Release Date:  December 17, 2002

"So tell me, Future Boy, who's President of the United States in 1985?"

"Ronald Reagan."

"Ronald Reagan?  The ACTOR?!"

Back to the Future ***1/2

The year was 1985.  Michael J. Fox was a young actor who had earned television acclaim for his role on the television sitcom Family Ties.  Christopher Lloyd was a veteran who had earned similar fame for his role on the sitcom Taxi.  Robert Zemeckis was an up and coming director whose film Used Cars was earning a reputation as a cult comedy classic.  And Steven Spielberg was…well, Steven Spielberg.

Those four talents would unite to produce a time travel comic fantasy called Back to the Future.  And Back to the Future would soon become the year's runaway box office smash and one of the decade's most popular and enduring films…and, of course, the start of a trilogy.

I remember being 16 years old and having the time of my life seeing this movie over and over again.  Why?  What was it about this time travel picture that made it stand head and shoulders above the countless other time travel films Hollywood has churned out over the years?

For starters, the premise, which uses science fiction only enough to get us where we need to go.  Marty McFly (Fox) is a typical teenager with rock and roll dreams, a girlfriend, and a family that's a little out there, particularly his nebbish father George (Glover) and his sullen mother Lorraine (Thompson).  His closest friend is the wild eyed scientist Doctor Emmett Brown (Lloyd), whose latest excursion is his greatest…building a time machine out of a DeLorean!

When fate puts Marty behind the wheel, he ends up in 1955…the ultimate fish out of water!  His only hope of getting back to the future is the young Doc Brown, who has to rig the time machine to an upcoming lightning strike in order to give it the power to go back.  Simple enough, but a problem ensues…Marty's presence in the past accidentally prevents his parents' first meeting:  they therefore never fall in love, and never get married, throwing Marty's whole existence into cosmic turmoil!  Can Marty play matchmaker to his teenage parents, avoid the wrath of school bully Biff (Wilson), and make it back to 1985 before his whole future is history?

This movie was and continues to be great fun.  Director and co-writer Robert Zemeckis crafted a unique twist on an old sci-fi standby, and his energy plus his terrific cast made magic.  Fox and Lloyd are a perfect comic duo in any decade; their timing and rhythm give their friendship the perfect positive energy, which helps drive the movie through its remarkable presence.  But also good are Lea Thompson as the epitome of the version of our mothers we don't want to think about existing, and Thomas F. Wilson as the oafish buffoon Biff.  Crispin Glover made his one and only appearance in the role of Marty's father George here, and I would always miss him in the later films.  He has an oddball quality that was just perfect for the part.

Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Marty's rock and roll triumph, which A) showed how good a guitar player Michael J. Fox really was, and B) made “Johnny B. Goode” as cool in the 80s as it was in the 50s.  It's one of the sequences that continues to work.  Not all of them pack the same punch after 17 years.  I wonder if modern young audiences even have a clue what Pepsi-Free was?

No matter.  Back to the Future remains one of the 80s landmark films, and is just as much fun today as it was when it hit screens then.  A sequel was probably inevitable…

Back to the Future Part II **1/2

…and a sequel is what we got, four years later.  Robert Zemeckis and crew actually filmed two sequels simultaneously, designed to round out Marty and Doc's time travel adventures and take them full circle.  Which was fine in retrospect.  At the time, I remember feeling quite cheated at the deliberate cliffhanger ending of Part II!

As the first part ended, the Doc and Marty, along with Marty's girlfriend Jennifer (played by Elizabeth Shue for the remaining films) were headed forward in time in their DeLorean (neatly modified for future travel).  The reason?  Marty has to prevent his future son from making a terrible mistake, which also involves the future offspring of Biff.  Doc wants to get Marty to the right time and place so he can fix the situation, and then get him home, since both have learned how dangerous it can be to know too much about your future.

While there, Marty picks up a sports almanac (awfully thin considering how many years it's supposed to cover), with the thought of making a few bucks back in the present time with a well placed wager here and there.  But when he gets back, he finds his suburban hometown turned into a nightmare.  Crime is rampant, his mother is married to Biff, and his father, George, is in the cemetery!

Turns out Marty's almanac fell in the hands of the aged Biff of the future, who took the DeLorean back to 1955 to put it in the hands of his teenage counterpart.  Now, in 1985, Biff is the richest man in town, and the town is all the worse off for it!

Marty's only hope of restoring the future is to go back once again to 1955 and retrieve the almanac from young Biff before any damage is done.  This leads to the delightful complication of two Martys running around in 1955, and two Doc Browns as well!

The picture leads to a deliberate cliffhanger, forcing fans to await the third installment.  That bit of manipulation aside, I think I, like most audiences, was a little taken aback by the darkness of Part II.  Though it was still a marvel to look at, and imaginative, there was very little fun to be had.  The stakes seemed higher this time around, and the worlds Marty and Doc found themselves in were surprisingly unpleasant given the nature of the first film.

One was only left to hope that it would all work out in the end…

Back to the Future Part III ***

…and in the end, Marty went back even further in time to try to rescue Doc from the Old West when a malfunction with the time machine trapped him there.  Though he makes it there in good shape, the DeLorean rips a fuel line.  How will the pair ever make it back when gasoline won't be invented for decades, and no way to get the car up to the right speed for time travel?

But there is another problem.  Marty returns with the news that Biff's ancestor, Mad Dog (Wilson again), will shoot Doc Brown in a few days' time in a dispute over some money!  Can Marty prevent this tragedy from happening, save his OWN neck from the wrath of Mad Dog, and get back to the future?  And when Doc falls in love with the new local schoolmarm (Steenburgen), will he even WANT to go back?

Part III returns to the fun and magic of the first movie.  Though it's not quite as fresh the third time around, the spirits are higher and the laughs have returned.  Fox and Lloyd continue to work wonders with their chemistry, even though by this picture's year, 1990, it was getting a little weird to keep hearing 1985 referred to as the present date.  And though Zemeckis may have cheated audiences with the ending of Part II, there is no cheat with the finale of the trilogy.  Part III ends triumphantly and appropriately.

In retrospect, watching the three films together as a trilogy is a more satisfying experience than seeing the sequels spaced apart in their original theatrical run.  There is less time to feel the bitterness of Part II before picking up with Part III.  The flow between those films works perfectly when viewed one after the other.

Great characters, fun premises, plenty of time travel and lots of movie magic…it's no wonder fans keep going Back to the Future time and time again.

BONUS TRIVIA: Huey Lewis not only croons “Power of Love” in the first movie, he also makes an appearance as a rather geeky looking teacher…keep an eye out for it!

Video ***1/2

Universal did an impressive job in bringing these movies to DVD…the anamorphic widescreen transfers make the films look brighter and cleaner than any previous home video version I had seen!  Colors are natural looking, and images are generally sharp and clear with no distortions or bleedings.  Even the many night scenes come across with cleanness and integrity…only a few shots here and there seem a tad murky, but nothing distracting.  By the time you get to Part III, rest assured, everything is running on all cylinders.  High marks.

Audio ***

Likewise, the 5.1 mixes for the movies are well done.  The .1 channel and the rear stage are used mostly for special effects sequences, but sometimes you'll hear even simple acoustical tricks like reverb and echo in back of you to open up the listening experience.  The dialogue is mostly on the front stage, and even it is mixed up a little from time to time, using the left and right channels instead of just the center.  The spoken words are clean and clear, but the contrast between the bigger audio sequences and the dialogue oriented ones make the talking sound just a tad thin by comparison.  Dynamic range is fairly strong…when Marty hits his power chord at the beginning of the first movie, it's never sounded so strong!

Features ****

The extras are plentiful, but I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to learn that the rumor of commentary tracks including Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd was only that—a rumor.  All three films contain commentary tracks by co-writer and producer Bob Gale and producer Neil Canton.  They are good and informative listens, but oh, what fun it would have been to listen to the other three!

But the discs aren't completely missing their contributions.  Michael J. Fox discusses his experience on the trilogy in fresh interview footage on disc one, accessible through a special icon that pops up during the movie from time to time for about the first 25 minutes or so (click fast!).  “Making the Trilogy” is spread over all three discs, and contains new interviews with cast and crew for discussions of the movies.  Original production featurettes are also included.  Robert Zemeckis joins Gale for a live Q&A session track for each movie. 

There are also some behind-the-scenes segments involving the special effects from Industrial Light and Magic, designing the DeLorean, make-up, testing the hoverboard, storyboards and production designs, archives including photos, conceptual art, marketing materials and props, and a pair of music videos for Huey Lewis and the News' “Power of Love” and ZZ Top's “Double Back”.  Rounding out are outtakes for each film, deleted scenes, and an “animated anecdotes” feature that allows you to peruse trivia and fun facts while watching the movies.  The third disc also includes a FAQ for the series, where the creators address some of the fans' most pressing questions (mostly about time travel anomalies).  Their answers are pretty good for the most part.


Fans have been looking for the Back to the Future Trilogy on DVD for a long time, and the good news is, it's been worth the wait.  With solid new transfers, remixed sound and a plethora of then and now extras to supplement your viewing experience, you'll be able to feel the power of love over and over again in your own home theatre.  Absolutely recommended.