Review: Back to the Future The Ultimate Trilogy 4K Set

The screenplay for the original Back to the Future, out this week as part of a full Ultimate Trilogy 4K set is sometimes taught in film school as an example of the perfect script, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s a movie loaded with information and throwaways, with every single one paying off in some way. It’s a testament to self-improvement in one’s own life, given the right amount of effort. It could be the best thought-out time paradox movie to hit the mainstream, and above and beyond all that it centers on a high schooler’s friendship with a weird old guy, and the former’s attempt to avoid incest…without ever feeling the least bit creepy.

But it’s not just the script. Every actor in the movie delivers a career-best feature film performance, from Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly all the way down to James Tolkan’s Principal Strickland. Everyone gets at least one instantly and eternally quotable line. And every time the movie needs an exposition dump, Christopher Lloyd simply yells it as loudly and quickly and possible for instant entertainment.

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Jokey cliffhanger aside — that ending was never meant to pay off into anything specific — Back to the Future also told a complete story in a satisfying way. It never needed sequels or anything else. Yet the next two installments satisfyingly build on the first, repeating comedic beats in new contexts with a level of ring theory and mirroring that the Star Wars sequel trilogy could have taken many lessons from. Mercifully, once the trilogy built to a second satisfying conclusion, director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale held the line and refused to make more. As such, Back to the Future remains the rare perfect trilogy.

Fans may try to get technical and insist that Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth saga is two different trilogies, or that Fury Road reboots Mad Max in a way that makes the Mel Gibson movies their own trilogy, of course. But few held the line at three franchise movies only, all of which are beloved. (Sorry, Godfather.)

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Time has been kind. Back when the sequels first came out, with no Internet to serve constantly updated tidbits from every major movie in production, theatergoers expressed palpable rage when Part II ended in a massive cliffhanger and a trailer for Part III. Second installments frequently world-build and work better once the whole saga can be viewed — Avengers: Age of Ultron being a great example. Now that all three films are even older today than 1955 was in 1985, and can screen in order any time, the gap in-between no longer matters. And indeed, it’s now clearer just how much of III was foreshadowed in II, something 1989 audiences couldn’t have known. In general this is a trilogy that rewards rewatching. How many views of the first does it take most people to notice Twin Pines Mall becoming Lone Pine Mall, for example?

The Back to the Future trilogy has inspired such wide-ranging pop-cultural riffs as Hot Tub Time Machine and Rick and Morty, in part because it contains so much. While all three films follow similar beats, the first is mainly a meditation on the generation gap, the second some serious time-travel nerdery, and the third a Western-set love story. (The transition of Doc Brown from crazy sidekick to romantic lead feels extremely underrated in how effortlessly it plays.) Yet they all feel of a piece. Zemeckis and Gale knew their vision of 2015 would become almost instantly dated. What they probably didn’t realize is that their dark alternate-1985 would more closely resemble the real 2020. Ironically, the 2015 pull-down ceiling vegetable garden feels like more of a stretch now than hoverboard technology.

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To throw out just a couple of other bits of obvious high praise: Lea Thompson’s Lorraine gets to play female desire in an entirely positive, never slut-shamed way. Thomas F. Wilson’s many generations of evildoers named Tannen are both comedic gold and terrifying. And Crispin Glover seriously blew his chance at a larger star career when he tried to demand better perks than Michael J. Fox for the sequel and ruled himself out. Known primarily for creepy guy roles now, Glover as George invoked the de rigeur ’80s revenge of the nerd sympathy. But without sugarcoating how awkward and off-putting his insecurities could be.

It’s a good thing that the sequels do hold up well, since Back to the Future is generally only sold as a packaged trilogy. The Ultimate Trilogy 4K set keeps the previous fully loaded extras, deleted scenes, commentaries etc from the DVD and Blu-ray sets. But it also adds a new Blu-ray disc with about an hour of extra material. It’s tough to say much of this is essential. Some comes from YouTube, for example, like the promotional shorts made to celebrate the real year 2015. And a featurette on the physical effects the movie’s time travel might have on a body.

Two episodes of the animated series are also included. It’s fun to see the young Bill Nye start as Doc Brown’s assistant. And it’s even enjoyable to hear Dan Castellaneta voice Doc as a Bernie Sanders soundalike. Plus the stories go surprisingly dark. In one, Doc’s kids have to be rescued from a Civil War massacre that will kill all involved. But there’s already a separate set for the complete animated series.

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The most worthwhile new extras include two songs from the Back to the Future musical, as well as a cast Q&A with special guest Christopher Lloyd. Bob Gale provides a brief tour of the Hollywood Museum’s Back to the Future exhibit. And in all-too-brief montage, some long-unseen audition footage features the likes of Ben Stiller and Kyra Sedgewick. Sadly, no Eric Stoltz, here or in deleted footage. He’s talked about a lot, but it’s understandable that he might not want to sign off on promoting his most infamous firing.

So the real question is whether to upgrade to 4K or not. If this is your first ever Back to the Future purchase, it can’t hurt. Especially since prices go as low as $42.99. (See Amazon link below.) But if you already own the Blu-rays, maybe not. Like some other notable recent 4K upgrades like Superman: The Movie and The Big Lebowski, it features “overcast” 4K. Every scene looks a bit like a thunderstorm passing overhead, as the colors are duller, the lighting darker.

Most significantly, the bright neon colors of 2015 look filmed much later in the day than before. Small details like Jennifer’s couch show every fiber, but in several indoor shots, grain-scrubbing gives Michael J. Fox a bit of a digital facelift. Oddly enough, the old-age makeup on the necks of Christopher Lloyd and James Tolkan becomes far more visible. Superimpositions like flying cars also look more…superimposed.

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Zemeckis insisted on never tinkering with a film post-release. That’s why the first movie doesn’t include the added-for-video “To Be Continued.” A nice touch, if relatively insignificant. Perhaps that insistence also kept him from color-correcting the 4K. That’s not quite so nice.

Grades: 5/5 for the movies, 5/5 for the previous extras…2/5 for the new stuff.

Buy It Now! Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy 4K

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