It’s been 35 years since the original Back to the Future came out and we were introduced to Marty McFly, Doc Brown and a supporting cast full of like-able, hate-able, and laughable characters. Back to the Future Part II and Part III were released a few years later. With the advent of seemingly every Hollywood-budget film getting sequels, prequels and franchises (or at least rumors of such) that began in the early 21st century, we examine why the Back to the Future trifecta is still the king of all trilogies.
It spans several genres
There is a Back to the Future for everyone. All three films can be described as action/adventure, comedy, and science fiction. While each entry blends those categories well, they are all different in their own respective ways in terms of setting, dialogue, characters and nuance.
The original Back to the Future fits the mold of a period piece. Most of the film takes place in 1955 and we’re given a detailed view of mid-century life in [fictional] Hill Valley, California. What makes this environment so effective for the audience is that the film begins in the exact same location, but in 1985.
Back to the Future Part II leans much more on the sci-fi and fantasy genres. We’re once again in Hill Valley, but this times it’s the year 2015 (from a 1989 perspective). Commonplace are flying cars, hoverboards, and cooking a pizza in a few seconds through hydration. Marty McFly and Doc Brown then visit an alternative 1985 and subsequently 1955 once more, of course bringing the airborne Delorean and hoverboard with them.
The third installment, Back to the Future Part III, brings the Western fans into the fold by following the two protagonists into 1885. They run into the wild-west ancestors of the characters you’ve already met from the 1985/1955/2015 worlds. Complete with gun slinging, duels, bandits, horses, and trains, BTTF III is an undeniable Western film.
Because each film presents different settings, and thus different versions of characters and plot events, every viewer has one they hold dear, one that speaks to them the most. It’s hard to find this spread out favoritism among any other franchise where there’s typically a heavy consensus when it comes to “the best one.”
A perfectly casted and written duo
Everyone knows Marty McFly and Doc Brown*. Whether you first saw BTTF as kid or were introduced to it later as an adult, you’re familiar with this dynamic duo. The characters play off each other consistently in each phase of the trilogy.
The two not only maximize hilarity throughout their exchanges, but also make expositional dialogue sound natural. Conversing over what just happened, what may happen, or what needs to happen sounds comes off as not only normal, but expected.
Two sequels that are not “just a rehash” and are also not “too different”
This is one of the thinnest lines to toe in all of cinema. Sequels, reboots and remakes are all too often panned by audiences as either being too similar or too different than the classic they are trying to complement and build upon. For example, in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens falls into Column 1 as being too much of a copy of A New Hope. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi falls into Column 2 as being too experimental.
The Back to the Future trilogy does not have this problem. Part II harks back on the events of the original, but only in the final third of the movie. While the original focuses on a problem entirely surrounding Marty and his family, the real conflict in Part II involves ramifications that affect both their lives.
The plot in Part III shifts the attention to Doc Brown. Though Marty and his family/ancestors are still present, we’re more concerned about Doc’s fate and his burgeoning romantic interest, Clara Clayton.
A perfect introduction for new fans of time travel and science fiction
While it wasn’t the first instance of time travel in cinema by any stretch, BTTF made it very palatable for mainstream audiences. Before then, the subject was reserved for science fiction fanatics and nerdier folk.
One of the keys to this is the Flux Capacitor, which is of course what makes time travel possible in the BTTF universe. There’s no deep dive into scientific jargon about how or why it works – that isn’t the point. The film is not about how to invent time travel but about the ramifications of time travel.
It’s also the first time many watchers were introduced to the concept of an “alternate present” (Back to the Future II), which is clearly explained by Doc both for Marty and the audience.
Genius dialogue, wit & humor
Great Scott! That’s heavy! A myriad of the some of the greatest film quotes in cinematic history come from the Back to the Future trilogy. These lines become memorable for a few reasons:
1) The timing and delivery is perfect, whether it’s coming from Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover or any of the others.
2) The lines fit their characters well. For example, the nerdy and anti-social George McFly saying “density” instead of “destiny” when proposing that Lorraine go with him to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
3) Many catchphrases are repeated throughout the trilogy and coincide with the recurrence of events in different time zones.
Short on plot holes
Many time travel movies are rife with incongruities. The Terminator franchise, for example, practically relies on causal loops. One event causes a second event which is needed to cause the original event. Back to the Future, however, has minimal causal loops and plot holes in general. It even has scenes and lines created to ensure that the audience is not distracted with “but wait” thoughts.
For instance, if you have’t seen Back to the Future Part III in some time and quickly read through the plot synopsis, you might ask “How can Doc’s gravestone at the beginning of the movie mention his ‘beloved Clara’ when Doc and Clara’s encounter only happens as a result of Marty being sent back to stop Doc’s death?”
If you watch the film closely, however, you’ll notice a scene where the Mayor stop’s by Doc’s shop and the two have an exchange as follows:
Mayor: Excuse me Emmett. You remember last week at the town meeting when you volunteered to meet the new school teacher at the station after she came in?
Doc: Oh yes, quite so.
Mayor: Well, we just got word she’s comin’ in tomorrow. Here are the details for ya. He gives Doc a sheet of paper. Thanks for all your help.
Doc: Anytime, Hubert!
Mayor: Oh, her name’s Miss Clayton. Clara Clayton.
So Doc’s presence in 1885 would have prevented the death of Clara Clayton, whether Marty came back or not. In other words, Doc and Clara would have met and fell in love whether it was because of him escorting her home from the station or because of him saving her from falling into the ravine near the train tracks.
No wasted scenes
There’s very little filler throughout this trilogy. Nearly every scene moves along the plot, adds a dimension to the characters, provides humor, or offers an examination of whichever time period they’re in. The jokes never take away from the adventure and you don’t feel like any of the films ever stop specifically to add in humor. Most of the comedy works also to either advances the narrative or develop the characters. Because of this, no moments are ever tedious and the runtime of each entry feels just about right.
An impeccable supporting cast
While the franchise hinges on the performances of Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as Emmett Brown, the supporting characters are well written and expertly cast. Whether it’s Lea Thompson’s portrayal of the sweet while amorous Lorraine Baines-McFly or Crispin Glover’s performance as the geeky, untenable George McFly, the personalities are unforgettable.
Furthermore, very seldom do actors get to portray older or younger versions of themselves. In the BTTF trilogy, we see multiple iterations of Doc and Marty, but also the supporting cast. This not only creates believable lineages, but also makes the “recurring” events as special as they are. Thomas F. Wilson does an expert job at portraying Biff Tannen as a teen bully in 1955 and a scourge in 1985, his own tyrant of a son in 2015, and his ancestor Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen in 1885.
While three films was not the intention of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale from the get-go, the first performed so well that sequels were inevitable. Back to the Future II and III were shot back-to-back, ensuring that there wouldn’t be any contradictions between the installments. Of course, having both Zemeckis and Gale behind the production aided in the continuity effort. Since BTTF was the creation of Zemeckis and Gale to begin with and not any adaption, it would be certain that passion and meticulousness would be put into the process.
A contrast to this is the Star Wars sequel trilogy, where Disney delegated directorial duties to J.J. Abrams for the first film, switched to Rian Johnson for the second, and then reverted to Abrams for the final episode. While the films were all a box office success, ardent Star Wars fans will tell you how disjointed and inconsistent they feel.
The strongest of trilogies will usually have the same director at the helm for all 3 entries. See Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather.
It’s hard to think of any other films that are at least 30 years old and feel less dated than Back to the Future and its sequels. Never mind the fact that Back to the Future II‘s vision of 2015 didn’t come quite to fruition (though still made some accurate predictions). The reliance on practical effects has paid off well and it would be shame to ever see a reboot or remake of the franchise that relied more on CGI.
Alan Silvestri’s imaginative score is a classic and pop music sounds are injected at all the right times. The “Earth Angel” and “Johnny B. Goode” scenes are iconic in their own right and provide for an amazing payoff moment in the first movie (and revisited in the second).
Extraordinary repeat viewing
The BTTF trilogy sits at the top of the chart when it comes to “watchability.” It’s an easy but meaningful viewing, whether you want to start from the very beginning of the original or turn it on somewhere in the middle of series. Even if you want to start from Part III and have forgotten the events of the first two, you’ll quickly be caught up to speed by the back-and-forth between Doc and Marty. Though the conversation is very expositional, it doesn’t feel forced or unnatural. After all, Doc is known for rambling on and taking his own notes and Marty has no other option but to update Doc on why he’s suddenly back in 1955.
What makes subsequent watches even more enjoyable is catching different nuances that you hadn’t noticed before, whether it be set design details, parallels between time periods, or jokes that you had missed.
Few trilogies can maintain quality through their final episode. Most commonly, the first or second installment is particularly strong and the others lag behind. Back to the Future is consistently captivating throughout all of its three parts. Each one has its own unique story but always maintains familiarity. The characters are well developed and only change when their history has changed. The actors playing them not only are the same throughout, but uniquely play multiple variants of themselves. The humor is self-contained and never sidetracks from the plot. The trilogy is action, adventure, comedy, science fiction, Western, romance, and fantasy. It has suspense, cliffhangers, build-up, and payoff. There are few plot holes and there are many times when attention was paid to the finest details. These films have sentiment. Of all the great trilogies, this is the only one that you can call timeless.