Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Oct 19, 2020
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy (4K UHD Review)

Director

Robert Zemeckis

Release Date(s)

1985, 1989, 1990 (October 20, 2020)

Studio(s)

Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A-

Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy (4K Ultra HD)

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Review

Time travel is a subject that Hollywood has depicted many times on the big screen, particularly in recent years. But up until the mid-1980s, the most notable examples included George Pal’s The Time Machine (1960), Franklin Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968), Nicholas Meyer’s Time After Time (1979), Don Taylor’s The Final Countdown (1980), and of course James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984). But few time travel films have had as great an impact on popular culture as Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future.

Michael J. Fox—at the very height of his popularity as Alex P. Keaton on TV’s Family Ties—stars as Marty McFly, a young man who lives with his family in Hill Valley, California in 1985. Marty’s dad George (Crispin Glover) is a spineless loser who’s been bullied all his life by his high school nemesis Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson). Meanwhile, his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic, and his siblings (played by Marc McClure and Wendie Jo Sperber, ex Superman: The Movie and 1941) are failures as well. But Marty’s friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the eccentric scientist and inventor, is far more industrious. It seems that Doc has invented a time machine in the form of a souped-up DeLorean sports car. Naturally, events conspire such that Marty is accidentally sent back to the Hill Valley of 1955, where he meets his own parents as teenagers. Marty’s only hope to get back is to find Doc’s younger self in the hope that he might be able to get the time machine working again. But when Marty saves his father from being run over by a car, Doc realizes he’s changed his own future—now his parents will never meet and Marty will never be born. So Marty has to help young George overcome his fears to ask Lorraine to the school dance, and thus set things right again. But Biff Tannen is determined to stand in their way and young Lorraine has developed a crush on Marty instead. Eventually, the timeline is set right, and Doc manages to send Marty back to 1985. But no sooner does he arrive, and reunite with his girlfriend Jennifer, Brown appears again in the DeLorean. He’s just traveled back from the future in 2015 when, he says, Marty and Jennifer’s kids are in big trouble. And so begins an epic adventure that sends Marty and Doc not only to 2015, but back to 1955 again, and even way back to the Hill Valley of 1885 before they’re through.

The original Back to the Future is a genuinely entertaining film that still holds up well today on repeat viewing (especially at the level of quality found on Universal’s new 4K release, which—when projected on a large screen—is like being back in a theater again). The entire cast is terrific and all the gags work well. Unfortunately, Back to the Future II suffers from severe campiness in its entire first half, when Marty and Doc visit 2015 and then return to a 1985 that’s been changed by Biff. The film features a number of over-the-top scenes where the actors play both their younger and older selves (Fox even plays his own son and daughter) in ridiculous make up, surrounded by goofy imagined technology of the future. The film does get quite a bit better in its second half, when Doc and Marty visit 1955 again, but not nearly better enough. Thankfully though, Back to the Future III is a straight-up comic romp in the Old West that doesn’t rely on hammy make-up and other gimmicks. So on the whole, the trilogy ends on a strong, enjoyable note and its complicated time travel plot ties together fairly well. One does also have to give the filmmakers points for predicting the Chicago Cub’s World Series win over a decade and a half earlier. (It was funny in 1989 because nobody believed it was possible.)

Back to the Future: A
Back to the Future Part II: C+
Back to the Future Part III: B+

Back to the Future and Back to the Future II were each shot on 35 mm photochemical film using Panavision and VistaVision cameras (the latter for VFX) with spherical lenses. Back to the Future III was shot using Panavision, Arriflex, and VistaVision cameras (the latter again for VFX) with spherical lenses. All three were finished on film at the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. For this new Ultra HD release, Universal has scanned the original camera negative, as well as all VFX film out footage, in native 4K to create a new Digital Intermediate, complete with new HDR color grading (both HDR10 and Dolby Vision options are available, along with the more recent HDR10+).

So how does the 4K image look? Well, the original Back to the Future looks pretty terrific. The camera negative is in good condition and the VFX were largely done the old fashioned way, with analog optical compositing and model work. For non-VFX shots, the improvement in detail and texturing is very pleasing (save for the occasional shot where the camera focus was just a little off). Film grain is light to medium but remains organic. To be fair, there are a few places here and there where it looks like a bit of digital noise reduction has been applied, notably the scene when Marty—decked out in his yellow hazmat suit—first sees the Lyon Estates billboard in 1955. But they’re fairly brief and I wouldn’t call them excessive or particularly egregious. Optically composited shots have a slight generation loss in resolution and detail, but on the whole the first film quite good indeed, and very much improved from the 25th anniversary edition Blu-ray release. The HDR has also expanded the contrast, deepening the blacks and adding a little more pop to the highlights. The wider color gamut improves color accuracy and saturation while adding greater nuance to the various shadings in the palette. Dolby Vision has the slight edge over HDR10, as usual, thanks to the extra 2-bits of color depth (I don’t have an HDR10+ compatible display to comment on that). But whichever you can take advantage of, I think most fans of this film will be quite pleased.

Back to the Future II and III look good overall as well, but the situation is a little more complicated. While the original film was released in 1985, the sequels were shot back-to-back and released 1989 and 1990 respectively. In the intervening years, ILM was pioneering the technology for CG animation and digital compositing. BTTF II was one of the very first feature projects to fully employ it, which allowed the filmmakers to create complex scenes involving the same actors playing themselves at different ages in the same shot. BUT… that early film scanning and digital workflow resolution was low by today’s standards. The product of that work was scanned back out to photochemical IP film stock, but the effective result is that all of the visual effects shots have a softer appearance than the live action footage. Every bit of film was scanned in native 4K for this new presentation, so there is a detail improvement and organic film grain is still present—though again there’s a bit of light DNR employed in spots. But obviously, there’s only so much VFX detail to be had. Again though, the OCN footage looks fantastic. And the rest of the footage still benefits from the expanded contrast and enhanced color depth of HDR. The upshot of all this is that BTTF II looks better than ever before, but the improvement isn’t as dramatic as it is for the first film. The good news, however, is that BTTF III looks absolutely fantastic, and is certainly the most improved entry in the trilogy image-wise, as the overwhelming majority of the film was captured in-camera, with far fewer digital effects shots. What’s more, the credits for all three films are no longer weirdly cropped—they’re presented here just as you would have seen them back in theaters in the mid-to-late 1980s.

From an audio standpoint, all three films have received new English Dolby Atmos mixes, which are of course 7.1 Dolby TrueHD compatible. These new mixes are top notch for all three films, presenting notably larger and more open soundstages for each. The height channels add welcome vertical completion and atmosphere, and occasionally more direct sound effects in key sequences—the clock tower sequence in the first film, for example, aerial effects in the second, and lovely vertical lift for the railroad steam engine in the third film. Overall dynamic range is excellent, notable right away when Marty blows the speaker in Doc’s lab with his guitar, and is then bombarded by the sound of ringing alarm clocks all around. Dialogue is clean and clear, with an appropriate front-center presence, while atmospheric and directional effects fill the surrounds. Panning is smooth and natural, and bass is ample in the LFE channel. Longtime fans will be happy to know that the odd music warble in BTTF II (as Marty re-enters the dance in 1955) has been corrected. Alan Silvestri’s iconic score has seldom sounded better, and the pop tracks by Huey Lewis and the News and ZZ Top have terrific fidelity. There are no complaints on the audio front with any of these films. Note that additional audio options on the 4K discs include English and French 5.1 DTS, with optional subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.

VIDEO (I/II/III): A-/B+/A
AUDIO (I/II/III): A/A/A

Fans will also be happy to know that Universal’s Ultra HD release includes the films not just in 4K but on newly-remastered Blu-ray Discs as well—these too look fantastic (they have audio in 5.1 DTS-HD MA). Both formats include the following bonus features:

Back to the Future (4K and Blu-ray)

  • Q&A Commentary with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
  • Feature Audio Commentary with Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Deleted Scenes (HD, some upsampled from SD – 8 scenes with optional commentary by Bob Gale – 10:45 in all)
  • Tales from the Future: In the Beginning… (HD – 27:25)
  • Tales from the Future: Time to Go (HD – 29:54)
  • Tales from the Future: Keeping Time (HD – 5:44)
  • The Making of Back to the Future (SD – 14:28)
  • Making the Trilogy: Chapter One (SD – 15:30)
  • Back to the Future Night (SD – 27:11)
  • Michael J. Fox Q&A (SD – 8 parts – 10:16 in all)
  • Behind the Scenes: Original Makeup Tests (HD – 2:17)
  • Behind the Scenes: Outtakes (HD – 2:50)
  • Behind the Scenes: Nuclear Test Site Sequence (HD – 4:12 – with optional commentary by Bob Gale)
  • Behind the Scenes: Photo Galleries (HD – on Blu-ray only – 5 galleries)
  • Huey Lewis and the News “The Power of Love” Music Video (SD – 6:27)
  • Theatrical Teaser Trailer (SD – 1:24)
  • Join Team Fox Promo (HD – 6:04)

Back to the Future II (4K and Blu-ray)

  • Q&A Commentary with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
  • Feature Audio Commentary with Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Deleted Scenes (HD – 7 scenes with optional commentary by Bob Gale – 5:46 in all)
  • Tales from the Future: Time Flies (HD – 28:36)
  • The Physics of Back to the Future (HD – 8:24)
  • The Making of Back to the Future Part II (SD – 6:40)
  • Making the Trilogy: Chapter Two (SD – 15:30)
  • Behind the Scenes: Outtakes (SD – :49)
  • Behind the Scenes: Production Design (SD – 2:55)
  • Behind the Scenes: Storyboarding (SD – 1:31)
  • Behind the Scenes: Designing the DeLorean (SD – 3:32)
  • Behind the Scenes: Designing Time Travel (SD – 2:41)
  • Behind the Scenes: Hoverboard Test (SD – 1:05)
  • Behind the Scenes: Evolution of Visual Effects Shots (SD – 5:42)
  • Behind the Scenes: Photo Galleries (HD – on Blu-ray only – 5 galleries)
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:21)

Back to the Future III (4K and Blu-ray)

  • Q&A Commentary with Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
  • Feature Audio Commentary with Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Deleted Scene (HD – with optional commentary by Bob Gale – 1:18)
  • Tales from the Future: Third Time’s the Charm (HD – 17:07)
  • Tales from the Future: The Test of Time (HD – 17:00)
  • The Making of Back to the Future Part III (SD – 7:32)
  • Making the Trilogy: Chapter Three (SD – 16:20)
  • The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy (SD – 20:41)
  • Behind the Scenes: Outtakes (SD – 1:35)
  • Behind the Scenes: Designing the Town of Hill Valley (SD – 1:08)
  • Behind the Scenes: Designing the Campaign (SD – 1:18)
  • Behind the Scenes: Photo Galleries (HD – on Blu-ray only – 5 galleries)
  • ZZ Top “Doubleback” Music Video (SD – 4:09)
  • FAQs About the Trilogy (HD – 21 text pages in all)
  • Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:18)
  • Back to the Future: The Ride (SD – 2 segments – 31:06 in all)

These extras are a good mix of original DVD content and features prepared for the 25th anniversary Blu-ray release in 2010, as well as the 30th anniversary release in 2015. Missing from the 2010 BD are the various U-Control options (including a trivia track, storyboard comparisons, and the like), but that’s really about all.

The 4K set also contains an additional Blu-ray Disc of bonus features that adds the following content:

Bonus Disc (Blu-ray)

  • The Hollywood Museum Goes Back to the Future (HD – 10:17) – NEW
  • Back to the Future: The Musical – Cast and Creative Q&A (HD – 28:15) – NEW
  • Back to the Future: The Musical – “Gotta Start Somewhere” (HD – 2:33) – NEW
  • Back to the Future: The Musical – “Put Your Mind to It” (HD – 2:59) – NEW
  • An Alternate Future: Lost Audition Tapes (HD – 3:45) – NEW
  • Could You Survive the Movies? Back to the Future (HD – 19:47) – NEW
  • 2015 Message from Doc Brown (HD – :45)
  • Doc Brown Saves the World (HD – 9:38)
  • OUTATIME: Restoring the DeLorean (HD – 22:00)
  • Looking Back to the Future (SD – 9 segments – 45:42 in all)
  • Back to the Future: The Animated Series – Brothers (SD – 23:24)
  • Back to the Future: The Animated Series – Mac the Black (SD – 23:08)
  • 2015 Commercial: Jaws 19 Trailer (HD – 1:28)
  • 2015 Commercial: Hoverboard (HD – 1:06)

Much of this content is carried over from the 2015 Blu-ray release. Lost Audition Tapes actually offers a chance to see footage of a few actors who tried out for Marty, Jennifer, and Biff but didn’t get the roles (including Billy Zane, John Crier, C. Thomas Howell, Kyra Sedgwick, and Ben Stiller), though the unused footage of Eric Stoltz is still MIA. With the addition of this bonus disc, essentially all of the previously-released bonus content for these films has been included.

[Editor’s Note: A few of the featurettes on this set are actually NEW content and are now marked as such above.]

The new UHD packaging features a cardboard slipcase with a hardcover book-like insert featuring cardboard pages with slots that hold the set’s 7 discs. The bad news is that the artwork on the slipcase is a modern Photoshop hatchet job, but the good news is that the actual book cover (and its interior pages) features the original Drew Struzan poster artwork. You also get a Movies Anywhere Digital Copy code on a paper insert in the package.

Universal’s new Back to the Future: The Ultimate Trilogy Ultra HD release is a worthy A/V upgrade of these films—and quite possibly the last time we’ll see them released on physical media. Yes, if you’ve purchased these films on Blu-ray previously, you’ve already got all of this bonus content. But the new 4K film remasters and high dynamic range grades—not to mention the new Dolby Atmos sound mixes and the remastered Blu-rays as well—make this package an almost irresistible upgrade for fans of the trilogy. For $42 on Amazon (as of the time of this review), this package is a pretty good value. The image quality here isn’t quite perfect, but it’s definitely fair to say that thse films have never looked or sounded better. Recommended.

- Bill Hunt

(You can follow Bill on social media at these links: Twitter and Facebook)

 

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