The most emotionally compelling of the series, “Back to the Future: Part III” is satisfying because it makes Marty and Doc question their actions and motivations instead of using their contrasting personalities as cheap plot devices. While the first two movies focused on conflicts that were birthed from hubris and ego, “Back to the Future: Part III” casts the pair in a dustier light, reckoning with the harsh truth that having infinite time to deal with a problem doesn’t guarantee you’ll ever find a solution.
The movie starts off with Marty catching up with past-Doc in 1955, right after he sent original-Marty back to 1985. Marty shows Doc the tattered letter he received from future-Doc, now living in the Wild West. The two discover Doc has been murdered by an early, gun-toting descendant of Biff’s, so Marty travels back in time to stop the shooting. Except Marty’s arrival triggers a chance encounter between Doc and the Western belle Clara (Mary Steenburgen).
Doc falls head over spurs for Clara, Marty meets his much less-angry ancestor, and an increasingly volatile Mad Dog Tannen threatens to erupt and derail Marty and Doc’s high noon departure back to 1985. There’s a lot of plot dust being kicked around, and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale manage to balance these precious story elements while making Old West Hill Valley feel just as alive and real as its 1985 and 1955 counterparts.
But the movie is at its best when it forces Doc and Marty to question the very basic nature of themselves. Marty is clearly infatuated with the idea of himself as a hero and a defender, jumping to the rescue of some damsel in distress without having to deal with any true risks or consequences. He got out of early situations in the future by flexing his guns, but literally wins the final showdown with Mad Dog because he put them back in his holster.
While the first two films saw Doc lighten up a bit, he still remains a man of precision and calculation in “Back to the Future: Part III.” Clara, though, is a thorn in his scientific paw, an unexpected variable that holds no theoretical or mathematical solution. Doc spends the entire second half of the movie trying to figure out this problem as if it were an equation, when he finally realizes that there is no right or wrong way about it: He simply loves Clara, and he’ll do what he needs to to be with her.
It’s great character development, but still flawed in a sense that it only rectifies the poor writing in “Back to the Future: Part II.” Doc had already learned to give up control by the end of the first movie, and Marty had his true quest of being recognized as a musician fulfilled with the Johnny B. Goode performance. “Back to the Future: Part III” sees Marty and Doc in triumphant positions again, but only after facing challenges that they never really needed to.
But, “Back to the Future: Part III” closes out on a strong thematic finish. We’re back in the good-1985 where George is confident and Lorraine is happy. Marty isn’t hotheaded and Doc is using the time machine to finally travel. These characters are able to dwell in their success because they finally realized that you don’t need a time machine to fix your mistakes, you just need to seize opportunities and make thoughtful choices when they’re in front of you in the present.