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MindFood: Rediscovering 'Back to the Future'

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Oct 19, 2010 | 4:44am EDT

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Back to the FutureSince the Web has been geeking out about it in anticipation for weeks now, I'm sure you're well aware that the Back to the Future trilogy is only a week away from being released in a brand-new, completely remastered 25th anniversary Blu-ray (and DVD) package. (That's Oct. 26 for anyone who isn't staring at a calendar.) Having now had a chance to pore through its frankly immodest feature set, I can say with absolute certainty that this is a must-have set for anyone who has even a passing interest in the BTTF series. Not only do all three films look stunning with their high-definition transfers, but the amount of special features on this set -- both new and old -- is just awesome.

One of the best features on the set is the "Tales From the Future" six-part documentary retrospective on the series. It's entirely new to this 25th anniversary set and it is comprised of candid reflections on the series from everyone who was involved with it, no matter how large or small their role was in the production. Anyone who sits down to marathon all three films simply won't be able to resist watching each part of this series along the way, which is precisely how I went about (re)watching these classic sci-fi comedy/adventure/family films. The effect it had on me was -- I'm almost embarrassed to admit -- more profound than I would have imagined.

Like anyone my age, I grew up with Back to the Future. The films have been a part of my popular culture for the entirety of my life, so I'm hardly a stranger to them. It'd be impossible to calculate just how many times I've been flipping through the channels only to land on one of the films and find it hard to turn off. That said,it has been a few years since I'd dedicated any time to watching the trio from beginning to end in earnest, so I wasn't quite quoting every line of the films the way I would have as a teenager. Watching all three combined with "Tales From the Future" was like rediscovering the films all over again for the very first time.

The first thing that struck me was just how astute Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis' script is. When you're a kid you're just along for the ride, but as an adult -- particularly one who writes about movies for a living -- you can't help but analyze the structure of it. And I don't say this often, but it truly is a perfect script. Everything about it is perfectly proportioned. Its DNA is comprised of a whole host of genre chromosomes, but they all come together to form this genetically flawless hybrid of adventure blockbuster, coming-of-age-story and sci-fi goodness. It's such a wonderful script that it just radiates inspiration.

Back to the FutureThat's why it's such a fascinating surprise to hear Gale and Zemeckis explain how no one wanted to make their little time-travel movie, that studios didn't get it, and that if they didn't get it, it meant that kids wouldn't get it. It's the typical Hollywood scenario of major studios being too shortsighted to realize that they had a golden goose on their hands, which in and of itself is not shocking. What is surprising about it, however, is how many changes the creative duo made along the way, why they made those changes and whether they were ultimately happy with them. The final product comes across as so meticulously engineered that it just doesn't compute that it originally had, say, a completely different ending. It's refreshing to hear tales of Zemeckis, Gale and producer Steven Spielberg thumbing their nose at the establishment whilst still being wise enough to realize practical budget limitations.

And it's that little thought process that makes watching Part II such ... an interesting experience. As a kid, I loved it. How could you not? It's got hoverboards and holograms and flying cars. As an adult? Not so much. It reeks of the symptoms of Sequelitis: opulence, indulgence and too much fan service. All of the futurism involved is amusing at first, but it eventually just gets too far out of sync with the mindset that made the original film so, well, original.

It's not a bad film by any means. It does a ton of interesting things, but the overall movie is just too excessive (Michael J. Fox playing basically his entire family, the slavish devotion to evoking obvious "Hey, remember this gag from the first movie? Now it's in the future!" kind of reactions). It's no surprise, then, to hear Zemeckis explain in Part II's "Tales" segments that the futurism -- the one element of the movie that no doubt defines it for fans -- is actually what interested him least about making it. He didn't care about flying cars or hoverboards, and it shows. But when he decides to get back to the story, things take a turn for the better.

It had actually slipped my mind that Part II and III were filmed back-to-back, so it was a nice treat to see the teaser trailer for the latter attached at the end of the former with the promise that it was "To Be Concluded" in 1990. Which makes me wonder: With all of the concurrent franchise production that goes on these days, why does no one bother to do this anymore? We still wait months and months for new footage and teasers to come out. Why not give a little back to the fans right away?

As for Part III, I once again had a change of opinion on it. Growing up, I always thought that the series weakened as it went along, but the closer is definitely stronger than the yawn in the middle. The script does away with showing off spectacle and gags and gets back to its core principles that made the first film so outstanding. It all boils down to the relationship between Marty and Doc, only this time around Doc is the one who plays the bumbling adventurer in time while Marty is stuck with the responsibility of preserving the future. It's a nice role reversal and it really makes for some legitimately heart-heavy sequences as both Marty and Doc -- more so the latter -- try to come to terms with mortality and finally having a fixed place (and fate) in time.

Back to the Future Part IIIOf course, the concluding segments of "Tales" reveal why that was the case: Everyone was growing and maturing, and more serious material was the natural evolution of growing old. It doesn't ever lose its rambunctious and infectious spirit, mind you, but it is a more cautioned and introspective script than you can expect to find in most, if not all, blockbusters.

It's this last bit that actually stings a little. Back to the Future is such an anomaly in the world of Hollywood blockbusters, a fact that is only reinforced by hearing the cast and crew explain why that is the case. Perhaps most revealing of all is to learn Zemeckis' mindset post-BTTF. That the series' phenomenal success essentially gave him free reign to make any films he wanted at any studio he wanted, but that once a filmmaker has reached that state it becomes increasingly hard to determine whether your ideas are good or if producers are simply saying yes to you because you're a box office tycoon.

It's not a stretch to see that just talking about the series, that revisiting it with such depth for the first time in decades, has rekindled a passion behind Zemeckis' eyes. I've been a fan of the director's work throughout his career (Contact is my favorite film of all time), but even I can admit that he often innovates when he might be better served sticking to the basics. He doesn't say as much in the interviews, but you can see the spark grow in him. I already love this new Blu-ray set simply because I love this trilogy, but if its creation planted the seed for Zemeckis to get back into live-action filmmaking, I might just have to get on bended knee and propose to whoever oversaw this amazingly comprehensive anniversary release.

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