Following the recent podcast epidsode, George McGhee tries to get to the bottom of what makes Back To The Future such a treasured sci-fi classic.
In a nutshell: Teenager Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) accidentally travels back to 1955 in a time machine built by his good friend and mentor Doc Brown. Due to a series of encounters, he has to get his parents to fall in love whilst finding a way to get….back to the future!
How do you objectively review Back to the Future? A film that is beloved by so many? A film that is even used as an example at a Californian film school for being a “near-perfect” script?
Despite it’s revered status, Back To The Future had trouble making it to the big screen. Studios rejected the original script for ironically, being too old fashioned. Not raunchy enough. At the other side of town, at Disney, they deemed it too raunchy, it was down right incestuous! Defeated, Robert Zemeckis went off and made Romancing the Stone (1984), which became a hit. Suddenly the studios were now eager to fund his next project whatever it may be. Wisely Zemeckis and writer/producer Bob Gale took it to a friend who had always believed in their script, one Steven Spielberg.
As they say, practice makes perfect and the lengthy pre-production work helped craft a well balanced story, full of character, humour and warmth. It’s not hard to see that magic Spielberg/Amblin touch all over the film, with it’s perfect balance of thrills, laughs and special effects to drive the story forward. Zemeckis and Gale’s script quickly sets the stage of who the key characters are, Marty, his parents, the antagonist, Biff, even Principal Strickland.
“What’s with the life preserver?!”
Ironically for a film that spends a good portion of its running time in the 1950’s it’s become a key piece of 80’s iconography. Everyone wanted to be Marty McFly – some people still do. From his look – the aviators, Nike’s, the body warmer (or a gillet as we call it today) or the skills – skateboarding and he’s an awesome guitarist.
Whilst Marty is the lead, this is a two hander series, and we don’t get our first look at Doc Brown until around 20 mins in, along with the two big reveals: Alan Silvestri’s unforgettable score and one pimped out Delorean. The time machine has become one of the most famous cars in film history. It’s the best advert that makers Delorean could hope for, considering it was a famously unreliable car.
Time travel can be a liberating narrative device, but it’s easy to bamboozle your audience – just check out the brilliant and bonkers Primer (2004) or Time Crimes (2007). Yet here, with some classic “economic exposition” and the use of his dog, Doc Brown quickly surmises how everything works and we jump back to the Fifties.
Once there, we get to spend time with the same characters but the twist is, they’re not the same. It’s a lot of fun seeing different versions of Lorraine (Lea Thompson), George (Crispin Glover) and Biff (Tom F Wilson). Due to the time hopping, they essentially play three different versions of their character – something the sequels has even more fun with. Hats off to the cast and their make up artists, as they all skilfully inhibit effectively these roles – as a child I was convinced they were all played by different actors! In a great comic twist, Doc Brown has barely aged a day in thirty years is as eccentric as ever.
“What’s a re-run?”
The 1950s Hill Valley is presented with rose tinted nostalgia (an ironic sentence on a retro movie blog) that smartly avoids any McCarthy Communist paranoia whilst honoring the era’s pulpy sci-fi invasion allegories. Hill Valley is a postcard perfect American town, much like Bedford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. Everything is clean and everybody knows each other. The film has a certain innocence, but does have some fun with old fashioned values; “A coloured mayor? That’ll be the day!” or the changing face of American politics – “Ronald Reagan? The actor?!” Judging by today’s issues on race and celebrity politicians, it makes the 1980s seem like a much more innocent time!
In contrast, Zemeckis gives the present day Hill Valley a grimy aesthetic, to display things have aged and moved on. It has graffiti, homeless drunks and the local businesses have made way for shopping malls.
Like a time machine, there are so many vital parts to making this film work – the stellar script, the special effects but it’s main strength is it’s leads. It’s career defining stuff for both Fox and Lloyd and it’s a massive shame they haven’t had bigger careers (as many will know, sadly Fox has had health problems) Both actors nail the physical comedy and the genuine heartfelt drama required and invest you in the story. Marty isn’t a perfect character and that’s why it works, he makes a lot of mistakes and is all the more human for it.
The film is treasured by so many down to it’s perfect wish fulfilment. Who hasn’t wished they could travel back in time to change something?! Whilst the film is a lot of fun for the family, there’s still some bold themes, existentialism and whilst deftly played for laughs, incest.
“Who do you think? The Libyans!”
Ironically the few flaws the film has are mainly due down to the passage of time. Just like the 1950’s, we now look back on the 1980’s as a more innocent era. The subplot of having Doc double cross some Libyan terrorists is played for laughs, with their fate glossed over…Are they dead? Mildly stunned?! Terrorism is such a prevalent threat in today’s society, one imagines there would be a very different plot device, if made today. Zemeckis and Gale have thankfully promised the film will never be remade in their lifetime
As with any 80’s film, there’s an underlying message of capitalism and The American Dream. Marty has changed his present for the better, his parents are happy, good looking, his siblings have successful jobs (Dave is even wearing a suit!) and have you seen Marty’s sweet new 4×4?!
Overall this film is a genuine classic, a defining film of it’s era and genre. Full of heart, wit, thrills and memorable characters, it’s a joy to revisit time and time again. We’re further away from 1985 than Marty was from 1955. Thankfully this film itself has become a time travel device, where we can escape back to a simpler and optimistic time.
Alternate title: Space Man from Pluto (actually suggested by the head of the studio)
MVP: Michael J Fox – A career defining role that made us all want to skateboard.
Fun Fact: In early scripts the time machine was a refrigerator that was powered by a nuclear explosion.
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