Buried deep in the Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy Blu-ray (on the disc for Back to the Future, Part III to be precise), you’ll find two videos for Back to the Future… The Ride. Watch them, for they are glorious.
For the uninitiated (i.e., those who never got a chance to visit Universal Studios before 2007) Back to the Future… The Ride was a motion simulator attraction housed in the “Institute of Future Technology” Building at the back of the park, a scientific research facility founded by Doc Brown some time after the events of the third movie when he apparently revealed the existence of time travel to the world. (Outside the building were the train from Part III, and the Mr. Fusion-ized DeLorean) That’s the really fun thing about Universal rides: since it’s a theme park founded entirely on movies, each ride was basically a sequel. That story, invariably, is that you, the visitor, are a guest at an attraction being opened to the public for the very first time. While you are there something goes wrong and you are sent on a wild adventure through the world of that film before being returned to safety. It’s true of the (now defunct) Jaws ride, the Jurassic Park ride, the Terminator 2 show, the Mummy ride, even the backlot tour.
The interesting thing about these rides is that their stories are actually very well structured, following the traditional Five Act Structure. Act I begins in the queue, where through looping monitors and set decoration you experience world building and background information on your part in the story. For Back to the Future… The Ride, the place in the Institute of Future Technology, and the story is that you are a time travel volunteer there to test out Doc Brown’s experimental new 8 passenger DeLorean Time Machine.
This was conveyed through a continuous fifteen minute video that played throughout the queue, and is the first of the two Ride-related videos on the Blu-ray. The important parts of the video are Doc Brown in the year 2015 (hey, that’s now!) directly addressing the viewer and reminding them of the plot of Back to the Future, Part II. See, Biff is missing from 1955 and that’s a problem because he knows about time travel and wants revenge. This is the first you’ll hear of the “not where he is, but *when* he is” joke, which is a staple of all time travel movies despite the fact that the concept of spacetime clearly states that they are not separate concepts, and is in fact a crucial component to Einstein’s theory of relativity. But I digress.
The rest of the video is a lot of playing around with archival footage, cleverly titled “Doc on the March,” done in the style of the old newsreel staple “News on the March.” There’s a lot of Forrest Gumping going on, crudely inserting Doc Brown into historical footage alongside the Beatles, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, and Richard Nixon, which are the perfect kind of low-key waiting-in-line gag that is mildly amusing but won’t wear out its welcome when you see it multiple times. More fascinating though are the segments that simply lay voice over on top of old ephemeral footage of crazy 1950s inventions, claiming them as Doc Brown’s own. There’s a machine with a rotating grill that cooks and automatically flips pancakes, a barber’s chair that uses static electricity to get the customer’s hair to stand on end, and a dog bowl with a timer that pops open when it’s time to feed the dog. They’re all the kind of inventions that you’d see pitched on the home shopping network or in-flight magazines, and the footage is an insightful peek back to a period when Americans were really being sold some strange ideas about what the future means.
Now, because of the “found footage” nature of the segment, this part of the ride video is relatively undated, save for a crude spinning graphic logo and some security pictures of various scientists working in the institute. It’s the second video, the one actually labeled “The Ride” where the story proper starts, and where we get some truly glorious ’90s amazingness.
Act II begins when the visitor enters the pre-show area, and we discover that 1955 Biff is at the Institute, causing minor chaos and spouting off his unique brand of malapropisms. (For instance, upon throwing a bunch of marbles under a lab tech: “Have a nice trip, see you next Winter!” “It’s Fall, you idiot! See you next Fall!”) The ’90s ness starts to come out in full effect, with the security guys in white jumpsuits and bright red hardhats, and the appearance of Heather, the IFT Spokesperson (thanks, imdb!), who’s wearing a salmon-color suit jacket, big chunky earrings, and her hair in an up-do.
There’s also some bad ’90s broad comedy, including some awfully staged slapstick (when one security guard trips he flies through the air in a completely separate shot), though nothing is more dated than the Safety Instructions portion of the video, demonstrated by a pair of Crash Test Dummies. You know, the kind that were people in costumes and they moved around and made sped-up noises like Alvin and the other chipmunks muttering under their breath? Anyone remember when those were a thing? They had TV commercials, and even a line of toys. The music is really obviously “comical,” and the Crash Test Dummies do things like have a hand break off in the closing door, getting a large camera hanging around their neck caught on the lowering safety bar, and general 3 Stooges-esque smacking each other around. (Also, one Crash Test Dummy takes a selfie with a polaroid camera: don’t let anyone tell you selfies are a recent thing, because they are LIARS.)
The acting from Christopher Lloyd and Thomas Wilson is actually pretty solid. They’re playing things more broadly in accordance to the tone of the ride, about as close to being cartoons as they can get outside of the actual Back to the Future Animated Series, but they’re also good enough actors that they still feel like real people. For as much as Doc gets lost here in the Absent-Minded Professor routine, Lloyd still conveys Brown’s genuine enthusiasm for science and the possibility of invention. Biff’s dialogue gets bogged down in “Buttheads” to the point where it’s practically a nervous tick, but Wilson is able to hold on to the single-minded nastiness that keeps a character like Biff threatening even as he makes a fool of himself. There’s one instance where Biff is talking to the viewer through an oscillating security camera, shifting his weight side to side to maintain eye contact. It’s a goofy gag, but there’s a point where, in a moment of frustration, he grabs the camera and breaks it so it stares straight ahead; a potent reminder why he’s a legitimate threat in the first place.
Anyway, Doc gets locked in his own office by Biff, who then steals Doc’s original DeLorean. Thus your regularly-scheduled trip through time is interrupted so you can go back in time and stop Biff from screwing up the timeline. How do you do this? Why, you just have to speed up to 88 miles per hour and bump him, which will create a time vortex and send you both back to the present. At which point you board the ride itself and the story moves through Acts III through V.
At this point in the video, a version of the DeLorean dashboard appears in the bottom third of the screen, which includes the time machine circuits, which of course tell you where you’re going, where you are, and where you were, and a small television screen that Doc Brown will intermittently appear on. You will note that through the course of the ride Doc Brown is controlling the car with the remote control from the first movie, which is a fun detail and charmingly hand-made for a man who owns his own scientific research facility.
Act III, the meat of the ride, is 90% chase sequence, throwing the viewer back and forth through time after Biff. The first stop is everyone’s favorite future date of 2015, and the camera swoops and zooms through future Hill Valley’s downtown, recreated in miniature, and the viewer crashes through a lot of plexiglass signs before driving through the town’s famous clock. Even as the city is largely deserted it’s easily the best segment of the ride, taking the viewer through a recognizable location filled with a lot of fun production design details.
It’s beautifully shot, too, thanks to cinematographer David K. Stewart. You may not recognize his name (or maybe you do, I wouldn’t want to presume anything), but you’ll certainly recognize his work as a special effects DP. Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Alien ^ 3, etc. This segment is Stewart in his element, and it’s absolutely electric.
The second location, sometime in the Ice Age (the time coordinates say the year is 0000), has much less visual flair. It’s a large, icy cavern, though what the setting lacks in creativity it makes up for in a fun sequence where the car’s ever-unreliable engine dies and the car plummets toward and icy river before starting again at the last possible second, the car flying backwards as it hits 88 mph and viewers are hurled into the third location.
The third location is the year “8888,” and Hill Valley is occupied by a large, very active volcano. The viewer plunges down into the volcano after Biff and ends up in a large cavern, where there’s a T-Rex just kind of hanging around. Pretty sure that’s not how volcanoes are structured, and that nothing of that size could live down there, but whatever: dinosaur!
The dinosaur is fun because it’s clearly of the “man in a rubber suit” variety of giant monster, and that’s just charming.
It’s here where Act IV kicks in. Biff taunts the T-Rex, trying to get it to attack the viewer’s car, when the dinosaur hits Biff’s DeLorean and shorts the car out, sending it down to the unseen cavern floor. After briefly being swallowed, the viewer follows Biff down to a lava flow, where his car is floating down a molten river toward a lava waterfall (a “lavafall” as Biff calls it), which will surely melt the car and kill him, turning the story from a standard “chase” narrative into a rescue story.
As with most stories, Act V wraps things up quickly, as you bump Biff’s car (amazingly, everything looks merely charred after floating in lava for several minutes; even the tires appear intact and functional) and are sent back to the Institute. A breathless Biff is hauled out of the car by security personnel and thanks the viewer in his own way (“You saved my life… BUTTHEADS!”) and Doc Brown is elated that everything turned out alright (also that we proved his most recent invention a success, which seems less like an invention than it is a modification to a pre-existing car, but he’s so happy I can’t bring myself to argue the point).
Back to the Future… The Ride is a fun curiosity, and a nice memento for people those with fond memories of the ride, though it definitely loses something being taken out of its natural element. Mostly the fun of being thrown around the interior of a plastic DeLorean replica, and staring at a giant, proto-IMAX big screen. The second and third segment aren’t as visually interesting as the first, and on top of that “Prehistoric Ice Cavern” and “Prehistoric Volcanic Cavern” are a little too similar in concept, look, and action.
In its favor the ride is full of interesting ideas and concepts, like its central car chase across history. Lloyd and Wilson are a ton of fun, the special effects are excellent, it’s funny, and it’s sense of joy is contagious. Plus, since it’s a DVD extra it’s basically free. Whaddya need, a 2015 Sports Almanac?