Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy
Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Elisabeth Shue, James Tolkan, Jeffrey Wesissman, Mary Steenburgen, and Thomas F. Wilson.
Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy features the movies remastered in 4K, along with a few new bonus features and a mountain of extra content that’s been carried forward from previous Blu-ray and DVD editions. It’s a great place for newcomers to jump into the films, and it’s a worthwhile purchase for fans who want the best available image and sound quality.
Back to the Future was the first movie that made me think about screenwriting. I was a Spielberg/Lucas kid, so of course I appreciated the storytelling in Star Wars, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and all the rest, but Back to the Future had me really thinking about the subject.
Back to the Future‘s screenplay tosses guns all over the mantelpiece, as Chekhov might say, and fires them off throughout the second and third acts, paying off those setups in a rapid-fire succession that rewards repeat viewings. (“Oh, yeah, look at the name of the mall!” I realized once.) Time travel stories have always reveled in that kind of thing, but Back to the Future does it so well that it’s not a surprise the script is often referenced in screenwriting classes. And, yes, the other elements of the story do their share of heavy lifting too, including a nice arc for the main character’s father and a surprise twist during the denouement.
You know this film and its sequels, right? I’ve heard stories of people in the Gen Z set who don’t, so here’s a rundown of the story: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a typical kid living in 1985 suburbia. He has a girlfriend, plays in a band, and dreams of owning an amazing pickup truck. He has a problem with being on time for school, and his dad (Crispin Glover) is a well-meaning nebbish who’s always being taken advantage of by Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), who has bullied him since high school.
Marty is also pals with eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who’s always working on kooky inventions and has the rest of fictional Hilly Valley looking at him with suspicion. As the film opens, Doc Brown has gone missing, but he resurfaces with a cryptic phone call asking Marty to meet him that evening at the local mall, where he shows off his time machine, a modified DeLorean. (Trust me: it was a very funny idea in the 80s.)
Terrorists show up to exact revenge against Doc Brown, who has traded them old pinball machine parts, instead of cash, for the plutonium he needed to power the time machine. One thing leads to another and as Marty tries to escape in the DeLorean, he sends himself back to 1955. There, he meets younger versions of his parents, Doc Brown, and Biff, and he enlists Doc Brown’s help to get back to 1985.
Unfortunately, his meeting with his mother causes her to fall for him, rather than his father, and he must figure out how to get them together before he leaves, or he and his siblings will cease to exist. On top of that, the time machine is out of plutonium and must use an impending lightning strike for power, so Marty has a deadline to meet to get all that done and return to 1985. (How does he know about the lightning strike ahead of time? Again, watch for the setups.)
One of the few new bonus items in this new 4K Blu-ray edition of the film trilogy is a set of audition tapes for actors and actresses who tried to land the roles of Marty, his girlfriend Jennifer, and Biff. The names include Billy Zane (Biff), Jon Cryer and Ben Stiller (Marty), and Kyra Sedgwick (Jennifer). None of them steered me away from the conclusion that the film’s casting was spot-on.
You’ve probably heard that Eric Stoltz was originally cast as Marty and part of the film was shot before director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale could work something out with their original choice, Michael J. Fox, whose schedule was tied up by the hit sitcom Family Ties. Fox ended up working on the show and the movie simultaneously, and Stoltz was fired and became the answer to a trivia question. Unfortunately, the elusive Stoltz footage isn’t found here, but I know it’s popped up online, so you might be able to track it down.
Before I get into the rest of the bonus features, I should note that, yes, Universal remastered these movies in 4K, as opposed to using the same film elements that they utilized for the previous Blu-ray editions. The films are as close to theatrical quality as you can get with modern technology, although that extra clarity also means that some of the complicated old school optical effects, especially in the second movie, look a bit soft.
Some folks online are bemoaning the image quality of this new trilogy set while others, like me, are satisfied with it. Your judgment will likely depend on what kind of setup you have and how much you like to scrutinize the picture it produces. (Two different setups can produce two different-looking movies from the same disc.) I’ve always felt that some of the picture quality discussion online, from the DVD era forward, has a navel gazing quality that’s lost on most people. Sure, I’ve seen films that just don’t look good on a certain disc, but for the most part, the studios are trying to put out the best picture they can with the technology available to them at that time.
And now on to the other new bonus stuff, which includes:
- The Hollywood Museum Goes Back to the Future (10 minutes): Take a tour of the Back to the Future props in the Hollywood Museum, which include costumes, two DeLoreans, a hoverboard, and more.
- Back to the Future: The Musical Behind the Scenes (34 minutes): I’m still waiting for that Planet of the Apes musical, complete with “I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-a to chimpanzee,” but in the meantime, of course someone turned the film into a musical. Producer Bob Gale and film star Christopher Lloyd discuss the production with two of its actors. It’s a curiosity, and you can also check out two musical numbers from the show.
- Could You Survive the Movies? Back to the Future (20 minutes): You may have seen this one on YouTube. Even if you haven’t, you can probably guess the answer to this one: No, you likely wouldn’t survive getting blasted by high-intensity sound waves from a speaker nor by getting hit by the kind of lightning strike shown in the film. It’s still a fun scientific exploration of that side of the movie, though.
This set includes a 4K Blu-ray and a standard Blu-ray per film plus a seventh Blu-ray of bonus materials. The bonus content was mostly ported over from previous editions going back to the 2002 DVD set. You’ll also find a code for 4K digital versions of the movies.
I won’t detail all of the bonus content in the rest of this set, but I’ll give a basic rundown. The 4K and Blu-ray platters for each film repeat the bonus content on each one. Each film has two commentary tracks – one with Zemeckis and Gale and one with Gale and fellow producer Neil Canton – along with a big pile of making-of content, theatrical trailers, music videos for the first and third films, and a lot more. If you’re a long-time fan, you know and love all this stuff. If you’re a newcomer to the trilogy, be prepared to set aside at least a weekend to dig through it all.
There are probably some things missing here, but my understanding is that anything lost along the way is pretty minor, like some U-Control options in the 2010 Blu-ray set that had a trivia track and storyboard comparisons. You may want to hold onto any of the old sets you still have, though.
So for now, this is the ultimate Back to the Future trilogy set. Universal seems to like putting out new ones at five-year intervals, so we’ll see what 2025 holds.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★