The Back to the Future films are nothing if not entertaining. The first film was pretty lightweight Hollywood fare, but it was such joyously well-executed Hollywood fare that I couldn’t help but love it nevertheless. Even the unjustly maligned Back to the Future Part II, despite featuring some surprisingly gloomy moments, delivered more than enough popcorn-friendly thrills to satisfy. Thus, despite easily being the trilogy’s weakest entry, Back to the Future Part III is still pretty enjoyable, all things said and done. It’s still the trilogy’s weakest entry, though.
Due to the climactic events of Part II (which I won’t spoil here, but suffice it to say that they’re pretty dumb), the 1985 version of time-traveling scientist “Doc” Brown is peacefully stuck in 1884 among the residents of an Old West town. However, the 1955-stuck Marty McFly finds out that he gets killed by Biff’s great-great grandfather over some unpaid money, so he enlists the help of 1955 Doc to find the DeLorean (conveniently buried in a long-abandoned mine), then journey into the past—again—to save 1985 Doc.
Sounds confusing? Well, if you’ve already seen the first two films (particularly Part II), you’ll know that the series likes dealing in these kinds of slightly confounding storylines. Unfortunately, once Marty settles into the late 19th-century setting and finds Doc, Part III winds up harboring the least complex, least unique, and least compelling plot of the entire series—making it the least notable entry as a result. The thrilling sense of danger, suspense, and—even with the aforementioned threat of murder—impending doom that fueled the previous two entries is all but gone here, replaced with a laundry list of Western clichés that could’ve been looted from any old Howard Hanks film.
Barfights, group dancing, horse-riding, train robberies, attempted hanging, and gunfights are all sorted through, but they’re not done with any sort of creativity, self-awareness, or passion. Watching the film, I felt less like writer Bob Gale was trying to craft a loving tribute to a dying genre (even with Marty humorously renaming himself “Clint Eastwood”**), and more like he just wanted to cheaply pander to those who like it.
Now, I see why some may find this lighter, sweeter film more pleasing than Part II’s dark, chaotic messiness, but to me, Part III’s hokey pleasantness gets kinda boring fast. A romance subplot between Doc and a sweet local woman, Clara Clayton, especially sags, with the lovers blandly going through the motions of hooking up, leaving each other over a minor dispute (the fact that Doc came from the future, which, of course, Clara initially doesn’t believe), then eventually reuniting again. Yawn.
And really, when stacked against its predecessors, the film is just a big yawn. Sure, it’s kept afloat by some fun performances and set pieces (a climactic train scene is especially gripping, if also filled with that “been-there-done-that” feeling), but a yawn is still a yawn, no matter what you may try to dress it up with.
*To be more specific, it’s actually Marty’s hometown of “Hill Valley”, which was conveniently also the main place of Part II‘s 2015 escapades. As if that wasn’t groan-worthy enough, the lightning-struck clock tower is pointlessly referenced several times, and the first film’s famous “Mom, is that you?” scene is irritatingly copied almost word-for-word. (To be fair, both of those things were also present in Part II, but rehashing them again for Part III is beyond lazy.)
**Bizarrely, he recites the famous “Are you talking to me? Well, I’m the only one here.” lines from Taxi Driver—a film that has absolutely nothing to do with Eastwood or the Old West—in one scene to get into this character.