Back to the Future: 25th Anniversary Trilogy

Back to the Future Trilogy

Review by Johanna and KC Carlson

The 25th Anniversary Trilogy edition of Back to the Future totally justifies the purchase of our Blu-ray player. The excellent picture quality (newly restored for this release) made me feel like I was watching it for the first time. As for special features, the set is so comprehensive it’s almost overkill. You have the movies on both Blu-ray and DVD. You have all these extras (some redundant, but extra points for being complete). You have digital copies of all three films. 

You have a new six-part documentary, “Tales From the Future”, with all-new cast and crew interviews. They’re excellent, hitting all the high points, and part of what makes them so good is their depth, talking to more people than just the producers and stars. If you haven’t yet upgraded, you can get the standard DVD edition with the new docs and most of the special features. Either way, this set is a much-appreciated upgrade from the DVD trilogy version released five years ago. (Originally, I thought “a couple”. Time keeps passing, faster than you think.)

The First Film

Back to the Future Trilogy

Did the 80s have better movies, or are we just nostalgic? Today’s teens have a choice between ever-raunchier sex comedies (starting with American Pie and going down from there) or disgusting gorefests. I miss movies like Back to the Future and Gremlins (which shot on one of the same town sets) — clever teen comedy/romances that blended in other genres for a fresh spin and plenty of imagination, adventure, and laughs.

There’s something poetic about watching a 1985 film about returning to 1955 in 2010 (although perhaps I should have waited five more years). Just as Marty (Michael J. Fox) is astounded by seeing full-service uniformed Texaco service station attendants, I’m flabbergasted remembering Pepsi Free and Walkmen. The neon-and-chrome diner is classic in any era, though.

So is finding out that your parents were once teens just like you, sex-crazed and nerdy and confused. Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson’s makeup as adults doesn’t seem as cutting edge now as it was then, but their performances as confused adolescents still hold up well. It’s a fantasy of most kids to have a cool stranger realize how special they are and help them achieve their fondest dreams, as Marty does for his young dad.

Since we knew the movie, we re-watched it with the trivia track (a Blu-ray exclusive) on. The factoids take up about a sixth of the screen in the lower right corner, but every time one appeared, we had to lean forward to read it, since the text is tiny, perhaps designed for huge flat-planel screens. It’s also been updated from a prior version, with references as current as movies released earlier this year. Some of the mentions are fun — like all Doc Brown’s clocks homaging The Time Machine (1960) — but others are missed. For example, Marty being blown back into the black leather chair by the speaker looks a lot like that Memorex commercial to me, although that’s not noted.

Also available only in the Blu-ray version for each movie is a “Setups and Payoffs” version that tracks scenes and their resulting future plot points. I need to check that out, because one of the things that makes this movie so much fun is noticing the little details — Twin Pine Mall becoming Lone Pine Mall after Marty runs over one of the young trees was my favorite — and how great it was that the filmmakers didn’t feel the need to beat us over the head with them.

Extensive Special Features

The best I can tell, Universal did a wonderful job moving over everything from the previous set, plus adding excellent updates. The new “Tales From the Future” documentaries are comprehensive enough that the older featurettes aren’t necessary, but for completists, it’s great that they didn’t make us choose. On the other hand, if you watch everything, you’re going to get tired, for instance, of Zemeckis explaining that the time machine was originally going to be a refrigerator. There are only so many anecdotes that can be told. Three of the six parts of the new feature are focused on the first movie:

Back to the Future poster

* “In the Beginning…” (27 minutes), covering how the movie came to be, plus casting stories. Producer/co-writer Bob Gale and director/co-writer Robert Zemeckis previously worked together on Used Cars, an underrated Kurt Russell slob comedy. Their writing process sounds simple and logical, and then you realize how much other work went into it. Tying into my earlier comment, the film got passed on several times for being too sweet and not raunchy enough. (Yet Disney passed because the incest implications freaked them out.) Executive Producer Steven Spielberg got it, though, and had previously worked with the team on the bomb 1941. All these folks participate, as well as Michael J. Fox, Lea Thompson, additional producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, Claudia Wells (the first version of the girlfriend), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland, the mean principal), Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), and various production crew specialists.

This is the segment that includes footage shot with first casting choice Eric Stoltz. That’s very interesting, because it shows that the actor really does matter. It’s a totally different feel, in small part because he’s so much taller.

* “Time to Go” (30 minutes) discusses building the environment and recreating the time period, including the difficulties of capturing the history. Fox talks about his guitar playing, and Gale reveals the original ending, set at a nuclear test site! Then they talk about the effects needed for the actual climax, as well as the audience reactions and creating the classic poster, by Drew Struzan.

* “Keeping Time” (6 minutes) is about Alan Silvestri’s orchestral score and the movie music, plus Huey Lewis’ first film role and the ZZ Top appearance from the third chapter.

Under Archival Featurettes, “Back to the Future Night” is new to Blu-ray (it’s only available in that format), but it was an NBC promotion when the movie first aired on network TV. These are the wrappers, hosted by Leslie Nielson, and the first time some of the outtakes were shown. Plus, it included previews from the then-upcoming second movie. Also in this section are the first “Making of” and “Making the Trilogy: Chapter One” (new to the 2005 DVD box set, and parts two and three appear on their respective film discs).

Eight deleted scenes take up 10 minutes, with optional commentary by Gale. Several of them are referenced in the trivia track, so it’s great they were included, although the picture quality on some looks like fuzzy, third-generation videotape. The “Michael J. Fox Q&A” is a set of eight one-minute-or-so segments that were first available as interactive bonuses on the previous set. That’s one thing about seeing all these featurettes, made at different times; they unfortunately show the progress of his Parkinson’s.

The Behind-the-Scenes section has a new Nuclear Test Site storyboard sequence (four minutes) that explains the original ending, either with or without Gale’s commentary. Otherwise, three minutes of outtakes, galleries, and makeup tests are carried over. An extended version of “The Power of Love” Huey Lewis and the News music video has an opening sequence featuring Christopher Lloyd in character and the car. Two commentaries carry over from the previous edition, one a Q&A track from a live appearance with Zemeckis and Gale and the other a more traditional one with Gale and producer Neil Canton.

Although this material is incredibly comprehensive, this is easily the most confusing set of menus I’ve ever seen once you start getting into Universal’s branded Blu-ray add-ons, such as a Ticker that does nothing but run text ads. Under U-Control, separate from Extras, there’s the Setups and Payoffs option, the trivia track, and a storyboard comparison picture-in-picture mode. There’s also a User Guide to explain it all. Plus, the cardboard slipcase has an extra flap to explain all these extra features. There’s even a D-Box Motion Code connection, which as best I understand it means that if you have a really expensive home theater with motion-activated seats, the movie will control shaking your chairs.

The Second Film

Boo! Early on, Doc says something that translates to “the girl doesn’t matter”. Which is a shame. Then they hide her by dumping her in the garbage. Blech. That’s one of the reasons this is my least favorite of the three. The other reasons: handling the future is much harder than tackling the past, and this one is very complicated to follow. It’s not as much of a thrill ride as the first, instead choosing to be much more twisty. I thought too much time was spent with the walkie-talkies and chasing the sportsbook maguffin. I also got tired of “chicken” being such an instant hot-button when there wasn’t any ground laid for it in the first movie. I bet that setups and payoffs bonus feature would work well with this installment, though.

On the other hand, it’s hilarious looking at what the movie got right and wrong. Laceless sneakers? Yes. Futuristic phone booths? Nope. Ball caps? Yes. Holographic fabrics? No, too movie-techy. Laser discs in the trash? Yes. Advanced rejuvenation techniques (as when Doc pulls off his old-age makeup)? Yep. (Compare a 60-year-old today to one 30 years ago, or really aged Michael J. Fox and Lea Thompson on the special features to their much-more-exaggerated movie versions.) No lawyers and a fast justice system? Nope. USA Today? Yes, for a few years longer. And most obviously: personal hover technology? No.

Back to the Future cast

Left to right: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Lea Thompson, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Mary Steenburgen, and Huey Lewis at the reunion and launch party, Monday, October 25, 2010, in New York (Diane Bondareff/AP Images for Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

We found the opening future scenes were best watched with remote control close at hand, so we could freeze-frame — clear as a bell on Blu-ray — and check out all the then-modern-day “antiques” and decorations in the “Cafe 80s”.

Extensive Special Features: The Sequel

I’m not going to list everything, because many of the same types of material from disc one are also included for this movie, such as the deleted or extended scenes (seven of them, running almost 6 minutes), again with or without commentary. There are two “Tales From the Future” installments related to this film:

* “Time Flies” (28 minutes), about making the sequel, obviously. Claudia Wells explains why she didn’t return, and there are lots of comments about recreating some of the first movie’s scenes.

* “The Physics of Back to the Future With Dr. Michio Kaku” (8 1/2 minutes), in which a theoretical physicist explains how the movies get it right, since time travel depends on large amounts of energy.

There are also the two making ofs in Archival Featurettes; two commentaries; and the usual behind-the-scenes information.

The Third Film

The third movie is just plain fun. You’ve got the premise and characters established, you’ve explored what problems can happen and figured out the same person playng multiple roles in a film, so in this one, they just play with the Western genre. God bless Doc Brown and his model environments. This is really Christopher Lloyd’s movie. And yay for Clara, a woman with interests in her own right, as opposed to mother/girlfriend/wife only. She’s not a fully 3-D character, but she’s better than the other women in the movies.

Extensive Special Features: The Trilogy

There’s one deleted scene, an omission I agree with, since it’s needlessly violent, and two new documentary segments:

* “Third Time’s the Charm” (17 minutes) is the making of, with lots of information from Mary Steenburgen and a brief memorial to Wendy Jo Spurber. They also talk about why they stopped making sequels.

* “The Test of Time” (17 minutes) explores the aftermath, including “Back to the Future: The Ride” (now only existing at Universal’s Japanese theme park — and on this disc, where you can watch the Lobby Monitor footage (30 minutes, with bad CGI, but it is 20 years old) as well as the ride film), the cartoon series, and a fan who built his own version of the car.

The outtakes are less than two minutes, but there’s never a time when a guy falling off a horse isn’t funny. In addition to the two makings-of in Archival Featurettes, we get the 20-minute “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy”, a 1990 TV special hosted by a young Kirk Cameron. It answers fan questions, shows off some of the outtakes, and explains the special effects. Before widespread use of the internet, and in the days of only three main networks, this was considered reasonable network programming, and it was all you got to learn more about behind-the-scenes work. Plus, it promoted the then-current third film installment and the then-upcoming ride.

The effects-laden ZZ Top “Doubleback” music video was filmed in the saloon set (or a replica), with poorly integrated movie clips of dubious video quality. There’s also a text FAQ (10 screens or so) that covers many of the things mentioned in other extras.

Last Thoughts

There is one area where this set could have been greatly improved: the disc packaging. The discs are packed in a non-standard plastic folder, and I first thought that I was going to end up breaking something figuring out how to remove them. It’s so bad that the company has released instructions on how to insert and remove the discs, available at that link.

Otherwise, this is my favorite Blu-ray release yet. Great movies, excellent extras, nostalgic appeal… what more could I want? (The studio provided a review copy.)

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