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DVD Review: Back to the Future Trilogy

By Glenn Abel

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Future art The "Back to the Future" franchise jumps the shark just a few minutes into the trilogy's second film. Nothing odd about that -- the 1980s series more or less follows Hollywood's natural law that a smash hit must spawn sequels of increasingly diminished quality.

But "Future's" shark-jump occurs, quite strangely (cue sci-fi music), just as a giant 3-D Bruce the Shark jumps Michael J. Fox in the year 2015. Fox's time traveler survives the attack; the beast is just a hologram shilling for "Jaws 19." Fox even gets off a great line -- "Shark still looks fake" -- with a wink at executive producer Steven Spielberg.

Of course, lots of folks won't agree that the "Future" series ever made that quantum leap down in quality, especially fans of the second "strange" film. (The current catchphrase "jumping the shark" applies when something good -- say "Happy Days" -- heads south after doing something bad -- say having Fonzie jump over a shark on water skis.)

Picking up on unintended ironies like the shark is a big part of the fun in watching Universal's long-awaited DVD release of "Back to the Future -- The Complete Trilogy" (retail $56.98).

In a sense, viewers are visitors from the future, looking back at the 1980s, when it was hip to be square, and ahead to 2015 as the filmmakers presented it two decades ago. Mullet hunting, anyone? Then there is the time-machine trip back to 1955, mother lode of the series' nostalgic charm. "Future" scientist Doc would have loved the concept of audiences from the future retro-goofing on retro-goofs.

Robert Zemeckis knows well the perils of predicting the future on film. He didn't want to attempt it.

"The only kind of future that an audience accepts is an Orwellian dark future," the series' writer-director says. "You can't be right."

Even the mighty Kubrick blew it, Zemeckis notes. So "Future II" went for contemporary jokes as it imagined 2015. Along with the usual flying cars and video phones, the filmmakers worked in '80s icons Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson. (The real Reagan loved the series and used the phrase "back to the future" in a State of the Union address.)

Watching the trilogy back-to-back-to-back on DVD allows viewers to catch many of the quick visual references to previous and future "Future" films. Zemeckis and writing partner Bob Gale loved tinkering with their premise, and it pays off in the attention to detail that's sure to inspire multiple DVD viewings. The team takes time travel seriously, following "rules" established in "A Christmas Carol" and "The Time Machine."

Gale, also the executive producer, got the idea for the first "Future" while going through his parents' attic in Missouri and learning that his dad once was class president. This led to the trilogy's "big idea" that offspring are always amazed to realize their parents once were real teenagers.

Gale does the heavy lifting on the DVD set's sea of extras, appearing throughout the featurettes and on the three films' commentaries (with fellow producer Neil Canton). Gale speaks softly, with a Ben Stein-toned delivery that won't keep anybody up late. The extras have far too much duplication. "You're probably sick of hearing us talk about these movies," he says gently as "Future III" begins. Only the obsessed will disagree.

Gale works hard, though, and delivers the goods for those hungry for production stories. He recalls how Universal chieftain Lew Wasserman ended a salary holdout on "Future III" in Hollywood "Godfather" style, with the balking filmmakers getting nothing extra. " 'Don't mess with Lew Wasserman' was the moral of the story," Gale remembers. Production of the second and third films overlapped, with Zemeckis editing "II" while shooting "III."

Zemeckis, Gale and star Fox get in their camera time in "Making the Trilogy," a snappy DVD docu that runs as a serial across the three discs. Original making-ofs lead off each disc's extras. The first is surprisingly interesting. Zemeckis and Gale appear on a second audio commentary for each film that repurposes Q&A screenings with USC film students.

Fox chips in here and there, looking good. His enthusiasm level peaks as he speaks of the scene in which his Marty character invents rock 'n' roll in "Future I."

Fox, a "big guitar fan," had played in bands as a kid and spent two weeks trying to learn the Chuck Berry licks required for the film. The payoff comes as audiences see what appears to be a double burning up the frets. The camera moves up and the player is clearly Fox. The actor threw in touches of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townshend to salute two of his heroes.

Deleted scenes should interest fans, especially a dark take in which Biff Tannen's ancestor Mad Dog shoots a father in the back as his son watches. (No one should die in the series and not come back, they decided.) Tannen, the series' dumb and cruel villain, was named after executive Ned Tannen, who had insulted the filmmakers years before.

The remastered 5.1 Dolby has some decent rear effects, mostly swooshes and blasts as our heroes ride their time machine, but nothing heavy. There is no DTS track.

The set comes in widescreen and full-screen. The widescreen version shows the film as matted by the filmmakers for theatrical release (1.85.1). The full-screen shows the images as shot (about 1.35:1), so there is a bit more visual information. The otherwise informative DVD packaging doesn't cover this. Images look OK, with minor speckling. Colors seem fine for popcorn movies from the '80s.

Other extras include pop-up trivia, production archives, that "Power of Love" music video, a blooper reel and segments on the DeLorean and the Hoverboard. A piece on Industrial Light + Magic covers the special effects -- all created optically because CG was still a bit in the future.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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