By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010; 10:09 AM
Most of us didn't learn what we know about time travel from physicists or the writings of H.G. Wells. We learned it all from "Back to the Future," the 1985 blockbuster that introduced us to flying DeLoreans, flux capacitors and the plucky Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) , a wannabe rock guitarist who inadvertently befriends the teenage versions of his parents after zooming back to 1955.
As further proof that time (and time travel stories) inevitably marches on, the much-beloved Robert Zemeckis movie celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, a milestone that Universal has commemorated with the release of "Back to the Future: The 25th Anniversary Trilogy," a DVD ($49.98) and Blu-ray ($79.98) set that includes the original "Future," the pair of less compelling sequels it spawned and a wealth of bonus material that reveals many of the behind-the-scenes secrets involved in crafting this complex franchise. (And before you ask, no, it's not possible to purchase each of these releases individually. If you want "Back to the Future I," you've got to take II and III as well.)
The extra that has garnered the most attention from the "Future" fan base is the newly included, never-before-seen footage of Eric Stoltz, the actor who was originally cast as Marty and completed a substantial portion of the film before being fired because, as director Zemeckis explains, his comic sensibilities didn't suit the material. During a new six-part documentary about the trilogy, we finally get to see Stoltz in character and appearing in scenes that eventually were reshot with Fox, who ultimately catapulted to mega-fame as a result of his work in the film. The clips, which leaked online before the box set even released, are fascinating but far too brief. Perhaps out of respect for the actor, the DVD doesn't include any of Stoltz's scenes in their entirety with audio, so we never get a feel for what he may have brought to the role.
That said, the documentary -- one of a only few new extras included among the multitude of deleted scenes, outtakes, featurettes and commentary tracks that appeared on previous "Back to the Future" releases -- does an excellent job of exploring the evolution of the franchise. In addition to the glimpses of Stoltz, the doc touches on other elements that were ultimately abandoned (the time-traveling DeLorean came dangerously close to being a time-traveling refrigerator), "Back to the Future's" cultural impact (Ronald Reagan? Huge fan!) and explains why some actors from the first movie didn't make the journey to the second two. (The filmmakers note that Crispin Glover, who doesn't appear in the special features, got sliced out of the ensuing films because the actor made unreasonable demands, including asking for a sizeable raise. "That is the reason George McFly is a tombstone in Part II," says co-writer and producer Bob Gale.)
It's a thorough, highly watchable making-of that that will please "Future" fans and provides the primary attraction in this collection, although there are a couple of other reasons to consider purchasing it. One is the never-before-seen look at the original, storyboarded version of the movie's climax, in which Marty and Doc Brown rely on an explosion at a nuclear test facility -- rather than the power of a lightning bolt -- to get the jolt of energy needed to speed back to 1985. The other is the enhanced experience that, on Blu-ray, comes from watching the films in high-def. The movies, making their debut in the format, all look sharper and come with improved functionality that makes it possible to toggle between commentaries and pop-up trivia tracks with seamless ease.
Ultimately, though, it's the enduring affection for these films that will motivate fans to buy. Despite the elements that date the "Back to the Future" franchise as a product of the '80s (see jokes about Pepsi Free and all those Huey Lewis and the News songs) the movies, especially the original, continue to charm because -- like Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life," whose small town of Bedford Falls clearly serves as a model for "Future's" Hill Valley -- they force their characters to ask whether, if given the chance, they would radically alter their own lives. The conclusions Marty McFly and Doc Brown reach may differ somewhat from those of George Bailey. But their values -- which stress the importance of pursuing one's ambitions without losing an appreciation for home and family -- are remarkably similar. And, the era-jumping powers of that tricked-out DeLorean aside, remarkably timeless.