Back on the Big Screen: “Back to the Future Part II” (1989) and “The Iron Giant”(1999)

I am trying something new here on Plot and Theme: “Back on the Big Screen” will be a series of posts focused around familiar films that I had the opportunity to see screened in a theatre. Sometimes I will focus on a single film, but like today I will also use it as a way to comment on multiple films without delving into a full-on review. The first official Back on the Big Screen will showcase two films recently shown in theatres in the last month as a special occasion: The Iron Giant and Back to the Future Part II.

The Iron Giant was back in theatres on September 30th and billed as “The Signature Edition” as a promotional offering to tease the Blu Ray edition with the same name (release date still TBD). As the first feature-length film directed by Brad Bird, I have always loved the emotional strength of this film, and managed to rope my wife into seeing it for the first time with me. For those of you still unaware of this cult classic, it tells the story of a giant Iron robot which crash-lands in a New England town in the 1950’s and befriends a local boy. Of course, it is difficult to keep a gigantic iron robot secret for very long, and the film dramatized both the obvious conflict between an alien visitor and the local government as well as the Giant’s own self-discovery.

Despite focusing on a giant iron robot, the film is able to approach concepts like free will and the choice of controlling one’s own destiny with surprising nuance. What’s more, all of the narrative beats are well set-up and hit perfect emotional notes as well. At one point, deep into the third act, my wife turned to me and whispered, “Does it end happy?” as she was clearly concerned that this cartoon had her worried that a Bambi-esque level of sadness was incoming. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, I must recommend that you see the film, as it has all the heart of Pixar’s greatest offerings wrapped up in a great 1950’s science fiction story. And for those of you who are familiar with it, I need only say, “Superman!”

More recently, Back to the Future Part II was shown at our local theatres on October 21st, 2015, as that is the date that Marty and Doc Brown travel to in the film in order to prevent Marty’s son from being arrested. Hence, this week in particular has been heavily nostalgic with many Back to the Future references, memes, and reviews posted all over the internets, and we wanted to get in on the action.

First, I am a huge fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, and often include it in discussions of “Greatest Movie Trilogy” for the masterful way in which it blends humor and science fiction, the wonderful characters, and the great plot. But, I must admit that the second entry is my least favorite, and probably the weakest film of the bunch, both in the context as a standalone film and as an entry in the series. Obviously, the only real competitor would be the third entry, as the original is an all-time classic, and I certainly wouldn’t begrudge someone preferring part II to the final installment.

Mostly, I came to this conclusion while watching Part II in the theatre and realizing that if I had been capable of watching the film during its original theatrical release with a critical eye, I would hve been rather disappointed (I was only four, so my ability to comprehend films, much less critique them, was rather low). Essentially, though, my argument boils down to this: as a sequel, is Back to the Future Part II closer to Aliens / The Godfather Part II or is it closer to The Hangover Part II? By this, I mean does it further develop our characters in interesting ways, or place them in a brand new setting, or is it content to merely re-hash that which made the original great? And, I think it is pretty clear that while Part II definitely has elements of the former (mostly the actual trip to 2015 which effected the film’s current theatrical release), it is mostly an uninspired re-hash.

Put down your pitchforks, as I am not calling this a bad film. On a scale of 1 to 10 it probably sits comfortably at a 7 or simply on the strength of the characters, the concept, and some of the more-inspired plot elements. But this movie hits so many of the same beats that were already touched upon, and often times does so fairly clumsily. Of particular annoyance was the bluntness with which Marty’s weakness to being called “Chicken” is handled in this one. Three full times we are treated to the exact same exchange: Marty says “no” to something, is called “chicken”, the same musical cue informs the audience that this is important, Marty caves, and then something very bad happens to him. And, just in case we didn’t quite understand this particular character flaw, in the sequence taking place at Marty’s home in the future we have his mother provide a rote moralization of how this particular character flaw has severely damaged his life. I understand that similar things happen in the other entries, and that is it necessary for Marty’s arc to hit bottom so he can understand the value of standing up to ridicule, but we could use with a little more subtlety.

Still, like I said, put all together the Back to the Future trilogy is a wonderful mishmash of comedy and science fiction. I was certainly pleased watching the film on the big screen for the first time in my life, and likely would have enjoyed the experience even more had it been part of a three-film marathon. On the whole, it was great to see the film with an audience and isolated from its brethren, much like movie-goers may have seen it way back in 1989.

Of these two films, I certainly preferred seeing The Iron Giant on the big screen, and it certainly holds up better on this grand scale (some of the CGI for Back to the Future looks a little wonky). Further, I think it just stands as a better film in the abstract, with significantly more heart. Still, both films were great, and I was quite excited that I got the chance to see them in the theatre for the first time.

So, Plot and Theme readers, what films have you seen on the big screen lately that you easily could have just watched at home? What is the best experience you’ve had seeking out an old film on the big screen, and do you have additional ones planned in the near future? (I know I might be drawn to a screening of The Shining next week, and the wife is stoked to go see My Fair Lady). Chime in below with your thoughts, and keep your eyes peeled for additional Back on the Big Screen entries in the future!

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