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Back in Time

D: Jason Aron / 95m

With: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Steven Spielberg, Frank Price, Donald Fullilove, Huey Lewis, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan, Alan Silvestri, Dean Cundey, Dan Harmon, Adam F. Goldberg, Jeffrey Weissman, Andrew Probert, Kevin Pike, Michael Scheffe

The enduring appeal of the Back to the Future trilogy is due to one inescapable fact: the scripts – by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis on Part I, and Gale alone on parts II and III – are some of the best screenplays ever written. Forget that these aren’t movies that explore in depth the meaning of life, or what it is to be human, or any other deep, meaningful topics. Remember instead that these movies, taken together, constitute one of the most enjoyable, most rewarding movie trilogies this side of the Toy Story series (and if you ignore animation altogether, then they win hands down – sorry anyone waving the Star Wars Original Trilogy at me; I have just one word for you: Ewoks).

Jason Aron’s likeable, though fumbled, documentary looks at the story behind the making of the first movie, and then widens its scope to look at how it’s affected the lives of some of its fans, people like Stephen Clark, who became the Executive Director of Backtothefuture.com, the one-stop shop for anyone looking for information or merchandise relating to the series. Or Terry and Oliver Holler, who bought a DeLorean as a Bucket List idea when Oliver was diagnosed with cancer; now they travel around the US in their BttF-style DeLorean raising money for Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s charity. Or Greg and Jill Henderson, who through their company Arx Pax, have created a working hoverboard.

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While these stories are interesting in and of themselves, and the people recounting them are engaging and refreshingly down-to-earth about their love for the movies and the work they do as a result of that love, it all comes at the expense of the movies themselves. If you’re a fan of Parts II and III, then this is not the movie for you if you’re looking for insights into the making of those movies, or any anecdotes relating to them. Part II gets a brief look, while Part III is practically ignored. The focus is squarely on Part I as the launching point for all the fan activity that followed in its wake.

So this leaves the movie feeling, initially, like it’s going to be about the making of all three movies. But it keeps veering away, jumping from personal recollections to detailed analyses of how several DeLoreans were transformed (by several different people) into copies of the cars used in the movies. There’s feedback from other entertainers/writers/directors, such as Dan Harmon, who created Community, and Adam F. Goldberg, the creator of The Goldbergs. And there are glimpses of conventions and public events, including the Secret Cinema presentation of Back to the Future from 2014. The movie covers a lot of ground, but in doing so, misses out on quite a lot also.

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Part of the issue is, as mentioned above, the way in which Back in Time‘s structure reduces the amount of time we have to find out about one of the most respected and well-regarded cultural icons of the last thirty years. There are some great anecdotes about the making of the first movie, including Disney’s reaction to the script, and Gale is a great guide for the viewer, but without the contributions of Fox, Lloyd and Thompson in particular, this would be a rather dry examination of a wonderful movie (Zemeckis looks uncomfortable throughout, as if looking back on such a long-ago project detracts from the work he’s doing today).

There’s a flatness about the movie as well, a quality that makes it difficult for the viewer to become completely engaged with it. Whole stretches pass by in such a plain, matter-of-fact way that anyone watching from the comfort of their armchair might be inclined to skip ahead to the next section and see if it’s any more interesting. Aron also  keeps the shooting style pretty plain and simple, and the static talking head approach is rarely abandoned for anything different.

As for the cast and crew of Back to the Future, the absence of Thomas F. Wilson (any Tannen you care to mention), and Crispin Glover (George McFly in Part I) is disappointing even though it’s expected. Aside from voicing his characters on various video games over the years, Wilson hasn’t milked his association with the series in the way that, say, Wells and Fullilove have (just watch the movie to find out how), but it would have been interesting to hear what he recalls about making the movies*. Glover, of course, shot himself in the foot when negotiating his contract for Parts II and III, but again, his contribution to such a terrific movie would be great to hear about. (The same goes for Eric Stoltz, but that’s probably not going to happen either.)

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With the movie not quite working at the level it needs to, and even though there are some priceless moments – Fox referring to Princess Diana as “smokin’ hot”; Greg Henderson saying if he could time travel he’d like to go back and “bitch slap” a couple of people – it’s perhaps fitting to end this review with an absolutely brilliant quote from Dan Harmon: “We actually use the same logic when we go to see movies as we do walking into a casino. We largely know we’re gonna get ripped off, but the chance is worth it. If it were any other industry, we would have long ago shut it down and sued everybody. Because if it was cans of tuna, the equivalent would be like every third can had a human finger in it. Movies are so bad now.” And amen to that.

Rating: 6/10 – imperfectly assembled and with too many distractions from the “main feature”, Back in Time is only occasionally successful in doing justice to the movie series it has such high regard for; a once only viewing experience that will only have viewers clamouring for more about the movies and not the fans – they should have been saved for another movie all their own.

 

*If you want to have some idea of how Thomas F. Wilson feels about his association with Back to the Future, check this out:

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