Review: Back to the Future
It’s a serendipitous coincidence that this review happened to go live on October 26. If you’ll recall, October 26, 1985 was the date when a certain mutt-dog named Einstein became the world’s first time traveler, followed moments later by Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), as he rockets back to 1955 in a tricked-out, plutonium-powered DeLorean (“The way I see it, if you’re going to build a time machine out of a car, why not do it with some style?”) in Back to the Future.
I was 15 when Future came out and I loved it. It was smart, it was funny, it was cool, it was sci-fi that didn’t take itself too seriously, and the story of Marty accidentally going back in time and having to figure out how to get back to his timeline—and
the repercussions caused by interacting with his own parents—were unlike anything I had seen to that point.
Now for its 35th anniversary, Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has given the iconic Back to the Future trilogy a full 4K HDR makeover with new Dolby Atmos soundtracks. While the films are only sold bundled together as a box set on physical media, Kaleidescape offers each one individually. As a bonus, if you already own Blu-ray versions of the films, Kaleidescape offers a terrific upgrade price of just $11.99 per movie, making it a no-brainer to go all-in on getting the entire trilogy.
Had you asked me who directed Future prior to watching this, I would have said Steven Spielberg. That’s probably because the top of the movie poster—and the opening title credit of the film—boldly proclaims “Steven Spielberg presents.” Robert Zemeckis is actually the writer and director, but when Future released, Zemeckis wasn’t well known, and in fact needed the backing of Spielberg’s
THE FUTURE AT A GLANCE
The trio of films that made Robert Zemeckis a big director and Michael J. Fox a movie star receives the 35th-anniversary 4K HDR/Dolby Atmos treatment.
The transfer stays true to the original film, with HDR adding some depth and pop to the time-travel sequences.
The Atmos mixes does a great job of expanding the soundstage, precisely placing the surround effects and panning appropriate sounds, like rain, into the overhead channels.
Amblin Studios to get Future made. But Spielberg’s faith in Zemeckis proved true, and Future and its two sequels helped to launch and establish his career.
Speaking of sequels, Future II and III hold the distinction of being among the first films shot simultaneously, for a theatrical release just six months apart, a strategy later employed by Peter Jackson for both the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies, the Wachowskis for the two Matrix sequels, and the Russo brothers for Infinity War and Endgame.
Back to the Future became such a massive hit, and received such critical and audience acclaim, it’s hard to believe it was originally rejected by over 40 studios. Today, even 35 years later, things like “1.21 gigawatts,” the “Flux capacitor” (which even has its own product page at O’Reilly Auto Parts), “I’m your density,” and “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” remain part of the cultural lexicon.
The first film holds up remarkably well, with the storyline of Marty meeting his teenaged parents and finding out they aren’t exactly what he thought (especially his not-so-innocent mother) still ringing true. (Possibly even more so for me as I now have a teenager approaching Marty’s age.) The jokes and gags are still funny, especially the banter between Marty and eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and Doc misunderstanding Marty’s modern slang. I also feel like I notice some new Easter-egg piece of background set dressing that ties the past and present together each time I watch. There is also an especially timely Eddie Van Halen nod, as that is the tape Marty uses to blast George McFly (Crispin Glover) awake, convincing him that he is an alien and that he must ask his future wife Lorraine (Lea Thompson) to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance.
I can’t say as much for the second film—the lowest-rated one of the trilogy—where the vision of life in the future of 2015 and the quality of the visual effects shots don’t hold up nearly as well. The film begins immediately after the events of the first film, but the “ending” was reshot to replace Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, with actress Elisabeth Shue after original actress Claudia Wells was unable to return due to an ailing mother. (She has such a minor role, it hardly matters.) Also, the subplot of Marty needing to save his future child (also played by Fox) from being dragged into criminal activity by trilogy bully Biff Tannen’s (Thomas F. Wilson) grandson just isn’t very compelling. However, the parts where Marty and Doc return to 1955 to stop Biff from getting the Sports Almanac and thus altering Marty’s “current” 1985, where we get to see events from the first film from another angle, are fun, and the movie concludes with a real cliffhanger.
The final film starts immediately after the events of the second film, with Marty needing to travel back to the wild west of 1885 to save Doc, who has become a blacksmith in order to fit in. Continuity with the earlier films is kept with Biff’s ancestor, Buford “Mad Dog” Tanner, returning as series’ nemesis, plus it brings in a new element by introducing the lovely Mary Steenburgen as Doc’s love interest, Clara.
One thing that did standout on this viewing of the first film was the glossing over of what is pretty clearly Biff’s attempted rape of Marty’s mom, Lorraine. Sure, George arrived to stop things before they went too far—“Hey, you! Get your damn hands off her!”—but Lorraine’s “No!”’s obviously meant NO, and Biff was forcing himself on her in a position that definitely suggested rape was on the docket. I guess addressing and handling the aftermaths of such an event—which took place in the parking lot of a high school dance—were a bit too heavy for a comedy of the day, and if the film were to come out today, we’d have a different version of events, or perhaps a re-written future for Tanner.
Originally filmed in 35mm, these transfers are taken from new 4K digital intermediates with HDR grading. Zemeckis shot most scenes fairly tight and close on the action, so the 1.85 aspect ratio works well, as there are few big, long establishing shots that would benefit from a wider presentation. Right away you can see the image is cleaner and sharper. It hasn’t been washed of all grain, but what grain is there—usually found in daylight sky scenes—is natural and never distracting.
The added resolution is noticeable in an early scene in Doc’s house when his automated dog-feeding machine is opening a can of Kal Kan dog food. Pause it here, and you can practically read the micro-printing on the can’s label.
While it isn’t fair to expect a 35-year-old film to have the tack-sharp look of modern shot-on-digital transfers, there is still plenty of detail throughout, with images having sharp, defined edges and plenty of detail. Whether it is every strand of Doc’s crazy, poofy, wispy hair or the tight line structure of the window blinds outside Hill Valley High, or the detail in closeups such as the knitting in Lorraine’s sweater, the pattern and texture of Doc’s silver snakeskin-looking jacket, the check print on the sport coat Marty wears to the dance, or the metallic grain in the DeLorean’s stainless-steel body and tiny metallic circles on its front grille.
The cleaned-up transfer and added resolution show a bit of the heavy-handed application of makeup on the “older” characters, especially noticeable on the necks of “old” school enforcer Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan) and Doc Brown. However, this is only really noticeable in a couple of shots, and the aging techniques used on the actors still mostly work.
They didn’t get overly aggressive with the HDR pass, but it definitely adds punch to certain scenes, lending more depth and realism throughout.
The night scene at the mall during the initial time travel shows off the added benefits of HDR. With dark-black night skies and black pavement, the bright mall lights and signage and rows of brightly lit buttons and gauges inside the DeLorean really pop. Near the end, when Marty is preparing for his trip home, we’re again at night with neon lights and lit store windows in downtown punctuated with bright lightning flashes. The wider color gamut also benefits things like the glowing neon tubes in Doc’s jukebox. Also, I noticed that reds throughout look deep, vibrant, and very saturated, such as Biff’s shirt, Marvin Berry’s (Harry Waters Jr.) guitar, painted curbs, or Doc Brown’s chair back in the ‘50s.
Back to the Future won an Academy Award for Sound Effects (with additional nominations for Best Sound, Original Song—the still great “Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as Original Screenplay) and the new Atmos mix does a great
job of expanding the soundstage and giving instruments more separation.
Right from the opening, you’ll notice some hard panning and precise localization of the many clocks ticking all around the room in Doc’s house. You can clearly pick out multiple different ticks and tocks happening across the front, the sides, rear, and overhead.
The mixers didn’t use the new Atmos technology to exaggerate the mix, but to expand appropriate sounds overhead. Things like the sounds of light rain pattering on the roof during a dinner scene or wind whistling overhead from the upcoming big lightning storm, to the sounds of the DeLorean cooling, ticking, and venting gases after time traveling. The mix definitely gets more aggressive and kicked up a level for the big finale.
Music plays a big role in the movie, and it is far more present and noticeable in the new Atmos mix. Both the songs and Alan Silvestri’s score are mixed up to height speakers, noticeably expanding the soundstage. “Power of Love” sounds great mixed wide and big across the front channels and height speakers, as does “Earth Angel” and “Johnny B. Goode” from the school dance.
While not filled with a lot of bass-heavy moments, subwoofers are brought into
play when appropriate, beginning with low, room-thrumming bass energy as Marty cranks every amp to 10. We also get a nice bass boom when the DeLorean travels in time, when the farmer blasts at Marty with his shotgun, and the booming thunder storms during the climax.
While a bit uneven, the Back to the Future trilogy remains loads of fun to watch, especially the first film, which will leave you smiling ear-to-ear with nostalgia as well as entertaining new viewers. The restored 4K HDR version has this film looking its best, and the new Atmos mix retains the spirit of the originals while breathing in some new life for modern home theaters. If you’re looking for a family-friendly weekend movie marathon, this trip back to the future remains a blast from the past.
Probably the most experienced writer on custom installation in the industry, John Sciacca is co-owner of Custom Theater & Audio in Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, & is known for his writing for such publications as Residential Systems and Sound & Vision. Follow him on Twitter at @SciaccaTweets and at johnsciacca.com.