Universal // 1985 // 116 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // February 23rd, 2009
When Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote the screenplay for Back to the Future back in 1980, there didn't seem to be much chance it would get made. A pair of box office disappointments had put Zemeckis on the outs with the major studios, all of whom rejected the screenplay. The project stayed in limbo until Zemeckis earned his credibility back with Romancing the Stone in 1984. With the studio's interest renewed in the shelved project, the suddenly hot Zemeckis asked the one person who had originally believed in the movie if he would produce it, and Steven Spielberg said yes. The only problem was that the person Zemeckis and Gale wanted as the lead was too busy playing Alex P. Keaton on the hit NBC show Family Ties to be in the movie. Production began with second choice Eric Stolz as Marty McFly and ran for a good six weeks before Zemeckis decided Stolz just wasn't working out. As luck would have it, Stolz was let go around the same time Ties creator Gary David Goldberg agreed to let Michael J. Fox be in the movie. For ten grueling weeks, the young actor shot his TV show during the day and the movie at night, working six days a week and sleeping less than two hours a night. Despite finally getting Fox, the behind-schedule Zemeckis and Gale were under studio pressure to complete the movie for summer release. Somehow, they finished in time for a Fourth of July opening, and Back to the Future became a monster hit, exceeding expectations and becoming one of the most popular sci-fi/fantasy trilogies of all time. Zemeckis cemented his place as one of Hollywood's top directors, Fox became a huge movie star, and pop culture was never the same. Talk about good timing.
Now, just in time for its 24th anniversary (that's an anniversary, right?), the three Back to the Future movies are being re-released on DVD. All three came out in a Trilogy set back in 2002, but this is the first time they're available as stand-alone discs. Though Part II and Part III are virtually unchanged from the 2002 set, the first movie re-release comes with a brand-new second disc of extras, including all the video from the Universal Studios theme park Back to the Future ride, which closed in 2007, an NBC special from 1989 previewing Back to the Future Part II, and an independent making-of documentary. The added material is clearly aimed at fans, who already know the movie is great and probably own the trilogy set. Is the lure of theme park footage and Leslie Nielsen enough to recommend a double dip?
This is where I'd usually include a description of the plot, but come on. Is there anyone who doesn't know the plot of Back to the Future?
Revisiting movies you loved as a kid can be a painful experience, but every once in a while nostalgia holds up. Back to the Future might just be the best example of childhood memories meeting grown-up expectations. Umpteen viewings later, this movie is just as fun as ever. It's also just as fresh. How many '80s movies can you say that about? From the spot-on casting to Alan Silvestri's iconic score to the infinitely quotable script, everything works. The action is thrilling, the characters are memorable, and the story is just about perfect.
Back to the Future has one of the tightest screenplays in recent movie history. No scene or scrap of dialogue is wasted. Everything serves both the past and future parts of the story, setting things up early in the movie that often aren't paid off until much later. These include big plot points, like Marty finding out his mother wasn't the virtuous teen she said she was, or the "Save the Clock Tower" flyer being the basis of Doc Brown's plan to send Marty back home, as well as subtle connections that reward repeat viewing. In the opening sequence, for example, one of the clocks on Doc's desk shows a ceramic Harold Lloyd hanging from the hands of a tower clock, mirroring what happens during the electrifying finale. It's hard enough making a time travel movie that doesn't trip over its own rules. Making one that flaunts those rules in funny and creative ways is a real accomplishment.
The DVD transfer hasn't changed from the 2002 release, but it looks so good it's hard to complain. The colors are rich and natural, with deep blacks and bright whites. You can tell this movie wasn't made yesterday, but just barely. I was especially impressed by the level of detail. When you see the wood grain in Doc's front door, it's tough to know whether a hi-def release is really necessary. Though the special effects show their age (I'm looking at you, see-through hand), there aren't enough for it to be a problem. As for the sound, the 5.1 mix does the film justice, though I didn't really notice it kick into full gear until the climactic clock tower sequence.
The extras on the first disc are all repeats from the trilogy set, but if you don't already have that release, there's plenty here to enjoy. There are two behind-the-scenes featurettes, "The Making of Back to the Future" and "Making the Trilogy: Chapter One" (chapters two and three can be found on the sequel DVDs). They each run about 15 minutes. "Making of" dates from the movie itself, and has tons of great archival footage and interviews. "Making the Trilogy" was created for the DVDs and has more of a retrospective feel. There are also ten minutes of rough-looking yet interesting deleted scenes and three minutes of so-so outtakes.
The DVD says there's only one feature commentary, but that's a bit misleading. The Q&A session with Zemeckis and Bob Gale -- recorded live after a University of Southern California screening of the movie -- is available as an alternate audio track to the movie, though the questions they answer have nothing to do with what's happening onscreen. The session lasts about 99 minutes, which means it ends a good 20 minutes before the movie does. It's well worth listening to, but why they force you to watch the movie to hear the Q&A is beyond me. Another extra that plays along with the movie but shouldn't is an "enhanced" picture-in-picture conversation with Michael J. Fox, accessible by hitting enter when clock icons appear onscreen. What Fox has to say may be interesting, but it doesn't run the full length of the movie, has little to do with what you're actually watching, and if you're in widescreen it pops everything into 4:3 letterbox for the duration of each segment.
The actual feature commentary with Gale and producer Neil Canton is, thankfully, scene specific. Gale dominates the conversation, and goes out of his way not to repeat what he says elsewhere in the extras. Even without Zemeckis, it's an outstanding track, with lots of great technical info and trivia. The movie seems somehow more impressive when you realize it could have been about a kid who went back to 1955 in a time-traveling refrigerator invented by a professor who owned a pet chimp, and that only budget constraints kept Marty from being sent home not by lightning but by an atomic blast in the middle of the Nevada desert.
Of course, if you own the Back to the Future Trilogy set that's all old news. What about that second disc of extras? The biggest addition, and the one fans seem to be most excited about, is the complete video from Back to the Future: The Ride, which is split into two parts: what was shown to visitors waiting in line, and the ride itself. The "Lobby Monitor" video runs 15 minutes and is comprised of messages from the Institute of Future Technology, an introduction to the DeLorean time machine, transmissions from Doc Brown giving instructions to his "time travel volunteers," a newsreel of Doc inserted Gump-style into historical footage, and a mini-documentary about his many other groundbreaking inventions. "The Ride" runs about 15 minutes as well, though only five of those are the ride itself. The rest sets up the story of Biff breaking into the Institute, stealing the DeLorean, and you having to chase after him. Those who went on the actual ride will probably enjoy the nostalgia factor, but unless your couch is equipped with hydraulics, the rollercoaster trip back to prehistoric Hill Valley (complete with animatronic T. Rex) doesn't pack much of a punch. Most disappointing, it's not even in surround sound. Neutered experience aside, it's a fun piece of movie history you won't find anywhere else. The fact that you don't have to stand in line for two hours makes it worth watching at least once.
If you were as excited as I was about the release of Back to the Future Part II, you probably remember watching the NBC "Back to the Future Night" special in 1989. Hosted by a subdued Leslie Nielsen, the 26-minute preview gave viewers a sneak peek at just about all of the sequel's major plot points -- spoiler warnings be damned! Now that we've all seen Part II a jillion times over, the special is most notable as the alleged origin of the "hoverboards are real" urban myth.
The bonus disc also includes "Looking Back to the Future," a 45-minute cut of an independent feature-length documentary about the trilogy. The filmmakers got interviews with almost all the key players and actors, and the result is pretty impressive. Content-wise, many of the stories are repeats of things you'll hear on the other featurettes (about Fox's casting, for example), but it also includes detailed looks at staging the Johnny B. Goode sequence and building Hill Valley on a Universal backlot. Unfortunately, while some of the talking head footage looks fine, some of it has been stretched to fill a widescreen format. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, for example, are obviously wider than they should be. It's a strange choice since the filmmakers have no problem showing archival footage in 4:3 format. The real problem with the documentary, though, is that it's only part of a longer piece that also included segments on the sequels, and there don't seem to be any plans to release it in its entirety. Even if it meant making them two-disc sets, the rest of "Looking Back" should have been added to the sequel re-releases.
Finally, there's an eight-part "Michael J. Fox Q&A," which has two big problems: not only are some of the segments the same interview snippets from disc one's "enhanced conversation," there's no "play all" option. The latter is particularly infuriating as none of the segments last more than two minutes and one is barely 30 seconds long.
So, the real question: to double dip or not to double dip? I'm sorry to say the answer is, it depends. If you really want the ride footage, NBC special, and what they included of the "Looking Back" documentary, go for it. The second disc has a good two hours of new content, so it's not a bad value proposition. That said, this is hardly a complete release. None of the Eric Stolz footage fans have been clamoring for is here (I don't personally see the need to embarrass an accomplished actor, but that's just me), and it's a shame they cut the second disc documentary short. There's also the specter of the as-yet-unannounced Blu-ray version of the film. None of that, however, should keep fans who held off on buying the trilogy set from picking up this DVD. It's the best available version of a classic movie that everyone should own. If you already own it and don't feel like upgrading, that's fine, but you might want to consider replacing the first disc in your trilogy set with this one and donating the old disc to a friend. That, after all, is the power of love.
Not guilty! Hmmm...I feel like I've said that before.
Review content copyright © 2009 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 1985
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Site