by Adam Ferenz
July 3, 1985. Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Claudia Wells, James Tolkan and Thomas F. Wilson.
Back to the Future is one of my personal favorite movies. I’ve seen it so many times, I’ve lost count. It is endlessly entertaining. It has also become problematic, for some, who accuse it of golden age thinking. I disagree, and will get to that in a moment. What the film is, ultimately, is wish fulfillment, and fantasy, mixed with heaping doses of humor and escapism. The adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Brown were a vital part of my filmic youth. So, what was it all about?
Plotwise, it’s about a high school student who travels back in time after seeing his mentor get shot to death, and ends up meeting his parents before they became a couple, and how he must navigate the waters of avoiding altering history, because, you see, his mother has the hots for him. Yep. But, more on that in a bit. In reality, it’s about consequences, about hopes and dreams. Oh, and lots of humor.
The film isn’t ultimately a deep, philosophical argument about man’s place in the universe, nor is it about the randomness of existence and chance. It would be a stretch to say that is what it is about, though it is not unfair to consider those themes while watching it. What this film is, is a pure entertainment piece. This business of making one feel joy, of laughing, of being thrilled by the events and coming to care about the characters, which it accomplishes expertly, by keeping the story simple without ever being stupid or shallow. This is a film with a great big heart.
This is also a film about the characters, about who they are and what they want and how they experience the events contained within the narrative. First, we have Marty, a high school kid that just wants to go to the lake with his girlfriend, who isn’t happy at home because his parents aren’t attentive, who gets knocked because of the family he is from and who has one real friend in the world, Doc Brown. Now, Doc Brown, as we find out, has built a time machine out of a DeLorean car. After Doc Brown’s demonstration of the machine to Marty ends with doc Brown being gunned down by Libyan terrorists he stole plutonium from, Marty finds himself back in 1955, where he discovers his father has always been weak, typified by his complete wilting in the face of Biff’s bullying, which had been shown to continue into adulthood, where Biff was making Marty’s father George write his reports and pay for wrecking Georges car. At this point, Marty begins to notice some of his own self doubts, such as his fear of rejection concerning his music, are a reflection of his father. He also meets his mother, in the same manner his parents had originally met, resulting in his mother becoming attracted to him instead of his father, a complication which means that if Marty can’t fix this, he will be erased from history.
So, Marty spends the rest of the film dodging Biff, and teaching his father how to stand up for himself, while also trying to ensure his mother does not become any more attached to him than she already is. The film is essentially a series of funny incidents in the vein of a screwball comedy with a science fiction twist. It is insane, and yet it works. It works because, as noted above, it has heart. It has been accused of being wish fulfillment that preserves the status quo, even though that isn’t what it is really about. It is about how “if you set your mind, you can accomplish anything” as both Doc Brown and Marty’s father, George, keep saying.
The end of the film is where this criticism is most taken from, and as with the accusations of conformity in Forrest Gump, another Zemeckis film, I reject the notion, and here is the reason why. The film uses nostalgia without itself being nostalgic. Never once is 1955 shown to be better, except in very surface ways, such as the school being “new and clean” as in every way that counts, signs of how bad things are, can be seen. Future Hill Valley mayor Wilson’s treatment by his employer, Biff’s bullying, and others, point to the past and present being equally awful, and how it is the way we view others and ourselves that matters the most. All the nostalgia in this film works to evoke a sense of place, contrasted with Marty’s responses, which show neither past nor “present”-then the “future” for Marty’s position in time-were all that wonderful.
I wish the sequels had gotten on the list, because some of these ideas are carried through in parts two and three, particularly in the second half of the second film and the denouement to the third. As such, I will stick with this, the original and still the best, of the three films, a film which is infinitely watchable, full of energy and entertainment, humor and great character moments, a film which is an escape in a positive sense. It is not a film which allows you to escape from reality, but rather, one which gives you an experience-time travel-which you will never have. Within that, the story is much as any other romantic comedy. What makes this one work, is, again, the characters, the energy and the “gimmick” of time travel.
This was never going to end up being one of the deeper analyses I will have written for this list, not because the film doesn’t have places I could go-Marty almost vanishing because of his and others choices is ripe for analysis-but because I choose to use this spot to celebrate a film I grew up watching and loving, a film I have seen so many times I’ve lost count. A film I consider a backbone of not just 1980s pop culture, but, to a large degree, American Pop in the last 30 years. A highly influential time travel tale, which set down rules and has been spoofed, imitated but never outdone.
I have spoken about the heart and fun that this film has, and it comes through in its most grand way during the prom sequence, when George finally stands up for himself, and lets Lorraine know how much he wants her. A scene some have argued is a man asserting himself as “owner” over a woman, ignoring that the woman in question clearly didn’t want to be bothered by the man who had cut in. This scene also features Marty, on stage, rocking out to Johnny B. Goode, ending with him having to leave the stage when he imitates the stage crawling antics of many an 80’s metal band. Very fun, and funny. Yet nothing tops Doc Brown, after Marty has returned to 1985, revealing that he wore a bullet proof vest, and decided that it was worth messing with the time line to stay alive.
It’s certainly worth your time to see this film. Again, no doubt, but if it isn’t, well, hop in the DeLorean and enjoy the ride. Come to know the joys of Einstein, Doc Brown, Biff’s affinity for manure, how much of a jerk Strickland is, and of course, to believe in saving the clock tower and The Power Of Love. Laugh, against your better judgment, at the prospect of Jailbird Joey, or the consternation of the eternal prick, principal Strickland, because, I promise, you will find yourself seeing the world through Marty’s eyes, and, perhaps, marveling at how much the world had changed from his parent’s day to his. Not in a nostalgic way, though. No, never that. In a “wow, this is truly different. Was this what it was like? I want to go home” way. You can do that, too.
What? You don’t know what I am talking about? Go see the movie. Now.