Which is the best Back to the Future film? In honor of Back to the Future Day, three Polygon writers prepare their best arguments. Read the case for Back to the Future here and Back to the Future Part 2 here.
I won't try to argue that Back to the Future Part 3 is better than Robert Zemeckis' original. That would be a fool's errand. Back to the Future is a classic comedy sci-fi adventure and its 1989 sequel, a Dark Middle Chapter, is saddled with connecting the trilogy through a convoluted, campy plot. But the third movie, a Western, so closely matches the original in its charm, wit and sweetness, it deserves to be remembered as the rare sequel that can stand on its own.
And, without a doubt, it's leagues better than the second.
Back to the Future Part 3 starts wonderfully, with the glee of Doc Brown realizing that he's just been successful in sending Marty McFly safely back to 1985. That reshot scene then twists with the arrival of Marty — and Michael J. Fox showing off his physical comedy chops — and to the horror of the doctor, he presents a new wrinkle in their time-traveling adventure.
The movie then sets up a story that parallels and, in some ways, cleverly flips the narrative of the first. In order to save Doc Brown's future (in the past), Marty intentionally takes a trip back in time in the DeLorean to alter the course of events. The Doc would normally object to this kind of deliberate alteration of fate, but he concedes because his own life is on the line. We saw him do the same thing in the original Back to the Future, reading Marty's letter to him explaining how he died at the hands of the Libyans in 1985.
Marty and Doc then struggle with many of the same problems they faced in 1955. They need to power the DeLorean. A love interest threatens to upset their plans. There's a Tannen, an unmovable deadline, a photo that telegraphs the fate of both Marty and Doc. Rather than feeling like a retread, Part 3 feels more like a remix set in a playful new period in which both protagonists are out of time. This is the movie where Doc and Marty flip their roles and even their signature catchphrases, "This is heavy" and "Great Scott!"
Sure, it may follow a familiar blueprint, but that template, as laid out by the original Back to the Future, worked.
There are some fun callbacks to the original and Part 2. Many are obvious — the Seamus McFly household scene, Marty and Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen's confrontation in the bar, Doc building a not-to-scale model of the daring train heist plan, Marty playing the 1885 equivalent of Wild Gunman — but some are more subtle, woven into the film's dialogue.
"Remember, where you're going, there are no roads," Doc says to Marty, trying to explain fourth dimensional travel at the drive-in.
Marty using 1985-era parlance in scenes with characters living in the previous century also pays off. "Hey, lighten up, jerk!" Marty says to Buford, to the total bewilderment of Tannen and his entire gang. "Far out," he says to the 1885 McFlys, who later remark to each other, "It was right there in front of him!"
Incidentally, Thomas F. Wilson's turn as the dumb-as-dirt Buford Tannen is some of his best work in the series. Thank goodness he's out of the old man makeup in Part 3.
And hey, this movie has ZZ Top in it! Zemeckis worked that cameo in perfectly (just like Huey Lewis' appearance in the original), with ZZ Top playing "Doubleback" in acoustic instrumental form at the town festival. It's another wink at an audience that is in on the series' many self-referential gags.
Rewatching it now, it's also interesting to see how Back to the Future Part 3 pokes fun at how movies misinterpret other time periods. While many of us tease Part 2 for its hilariously bad guesses at 2015 — Hoverboards! Flying cars! Men wearing two ties at once! — Part 3 takes a jab at cowboy movies of the '50s by dressing up Marty in gaudy, wholly inappropriate pink and mauve Western wear. You have to wonder how Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale thought their own work would be received by us in 2015.
It's fascinating to see how Doc Brown becomes willing to play with time in Part 3, and the concessions he makes in the interest of love. Though he curses himself at first for changing Clara Clayton's fate, he falls in love with this "one in a googolplex" woman and is willing to sacrifice everything, even the fabric of time as he knows it, to be with her. He's prepared to transport this 19th century school teacher into the future to be with him. He recklessly tells other saloon patrons about future technology during a sober, depressed rant. Doc has always been willing to deliberately adjust the timeline to save his friends and loved ones, but it's fun to see his character behave differently when confronted with a new variable. (Is that... the power of love?)
And that's one of the things I like most about Part 3. This is a pure-hearted romance featuring two older characters, Doc Brown and Clara, not a horny teenage romp between a pair of cute actors infused with a weird incestuous streak. Old folks! In love! It makes you feel good.
Part 3 ends with the series' most satisfying, most tightly tied-up final acts. There are no more real cliffhangers or unresolved threads. Marty's happy. His anger issues have been (mostly) resolved. The DeLorean, which Doc Brown curses as a device he wishes he'd never invented, is finally destroyed, never to cause time-traveling trouble again. The McFlys are set right, Biff is back in his place. Doc is content, in love, and pursuing his passion for science and invention.
(But... what's with Doc's weird kid pointing at his crotch?)
Back to the Future Part 3 may border too much on sentimental, but it's the happiest of happy endings for the characters we've known and loved over the course of these three films. Unlike Part 2 — and even the very last scene of the original — we leave Doc Brown and Marty McFly with our hearts warm, knowing that everything will be alright in the future.