Retro Review – Back to the Future
With “Future Day” almost upon us I thought it would be a good idea to cover the Back to the Future trilogy. Hopefully I can time the second film for the day that Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the Doc (Christopher Lloyd) appear in the future. For those not in the know that date is October 21, 2015 so people can stop doctoring pictures and putting them on social media claiming that the date is finally here when it isn’t.
The Back to the Future trilogy is one of the best trilogies ever made and each film easily achieves classic status on their own. I have been a fan of these films for as long as I can remember and they seem to get better every time I watch them. It’s easy to love them as they are entertaining, have great characters and an engaging story that captures the imagination.
Time travel is a fairly common practice in science fiction. People can spend hours debating the rules around Terminator or how it all works in Doctor Who. It’s a lot of fun to play with the possibilities that time travel brings as the idea of going back to change something is always interesting. Sometimes that can be really violent like Skynet sending a Terminator back in time to kill Sarah Connor before her son can be born to lead an uprising that defeats it or it can be relatively innocent like Marty McFly almost cancelling his own existence by getting in the way of his parents meeting.
Back to the Future solidified itself as a pop culture touchstone pretty much when it came out and has endured ever since. It works so well because as a film it never takes itself too seriously and is wide open for parody. Just have a look at the several hilarious Family Guy sketches that poke fun at several key scenes in an affectionately inventive way and you’ll see just what I mean by the potential for parody.
With a film that is 30 years old like this one people often ask the question “is it really that good?” and to my mind this one is. There are many reasons that this film comes together in a really unique way with a lot of different things blending in to make this whole thing work.
For me it starts with the screenplay. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale crafted an excellent script that is tense when it needs to be, funny when the occasion calls for it, has great characters who develop organically through the film and a complex idea that feels simple through expert execution. Interestingly the story apparently started life as a line of thought from Bob Gale who wondered how he and his father would get along if they were both the same age at high school. Would his dad be his friend or hate his guts? It’s a great idea that is really worth exploring and clearly Zemeckis loved the idea enough to develop it into the film we all know.
The story as written is very simple. Marty McFly travels back in time from the year 1985 to the year 1955 and unwittingly gets in the way of his parents meeting so has to take steps to ensure that they get together or he and his siblings will never be born. On paper it looks like something of a romantic comedy as at its core you have someone trying to play matchmaker for an oblivious couple but throw in the time travel premise and suddenly there are some real stakes to the story. Marty will literally cease to exist if he fails.
Despite that the subject is never treated as something morbid but neither is the importance of success downplayed. It is very much the object of the film and stays in the foreground at all times. Even the scenes concerned with getting Marty back to his own time bring in his progress with getting his parents to fall in love. It’s a clever script that keeps the science fiction elements prominent but grounds them so far in relatable drama that they are easy to accept. People that say Back to the Future is a story about time travel are incorrect as the notion of travelling through time is only a very small part of the narrative. It is important but only serves as the device to get Marty into the real story.
With a great screenplay comes great characters and perfect casting to bring them to life. Marty McFly is an excellent character who goes through a defined arc both in this film and over the series as a whole. He starts off as projecting the image of a cool kid who skateboards and is always late for school due to a disrespect for authority. It’s interesting that this seems to be an outward image that he projects to the world as at his heart he is clearly a bit of a nerd. He spends his spare time hanging around with a crazy old man for one thing. The film never explains how their friendship came to be and it doesn’t need to but it’s an unlikely a pairing as you’re likely to find.
Another thing about Marty is that he has some really obvious insecurities about his life and in particular his future. His family life is established as being less than ideal with his father George (Crispin Glover) being a cowardly loser who still lets himself get pushed around by the school bully years after leaving high school. His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an overweight alcoholic, his brother (Marc McClure) is unambitious and his sister (Wendie Jo Sperber) is insecure and considers herself unattractive.
I really like the fact that Marty’s family are portrayed as being less than ideal but not in a mean spirited way. In many ways it feels like a real family unit that have managed to get in such a state through years of not facing their problems head on. They aren’t dysfunctional at all and seem to get on really well but the major issue that Marty faces is that he feels like there’s something more to life. His desire to become a famous musician is a big part of his escape fantasy. To his mind fame and fortune will give his life the validation Marty thinks it needs.
The conversation at dinner sets up a lot of the important plot points for the film. Lorraine talks at length about the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance and how profound an experience it was for her and George. It’s also mentioned that their first meeting involved Lorraine’s father (George Dicenzo) hitting George with her car which started her infatuation with him due to the “Florence Nightingale Effect” as Doc Brown calls it. She also mentions that she doesn’t like the fact that Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) calls him rather than the other way around. Naturally it comes with the “I didn’t do anything like that at my age” qualifier. It may seem like a throwaway discussion at first but in retrospect it sets up pretty much the entirety of the film from then on.
Marty learns a lot when in the past and spending time with his parents. In particular his interactions with George teach him a lot about himself. He sees a young guy who will grow up to be his father but is completely riddled with insecurities. He really wants to be left alone but unfortunately has got the attention of the school bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson). This means that he has to do the standard bullied kid stuff like do Biff’s homework for him and generally feel small in his presence. Biff is a big guy and physically imposing so it’s not hard to believe that anyone wouldn’t be afraid of him.
Marty is quite similar to his dad at that age but has a little more self confidence to speak of. Marty can probably see what his life will turn into if he doesn’t change things and it’s something that he really doesn’t want to become. He is somewhat prompted to change his dad due to the fact that he gets in the way of their first meeting. Instead of George being hit by the car it’s Marty so his mother ends up becoming infatuated with him which might initially seem like all kinds of creepy but for some reason never comes across that way.
I think the light tone does a lot to help this along and perfect comic timing from Michael J. Fox makes the concept as ludicrous as it sounds. There’s a particularly great moment when he looks so uncomfortable when he tells his dad that women don’t like it when guys take advantage of them. It almost looks as if he’s holding back from throwing up in his mouth at that point.
Marty almost takes on the parent role to his parents by teaching his dad how to be confident, deal with bullies and get girls. Something he manages to do very well as he ends up changing his life completely when he returns to his own time. I’ll get onto that more later.
Michael J. Fox’ performance is generally excellent throughout. He embodies the character of Marty McFly so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in that role. If you have the box set then you can actually see Eric Stoltz in some scenes and he does a fine job but doesn’t seem right for the role. Fox brings a certain energy to the role that feels completely unique and probably couldn’t easily be replicated by any other actor.
I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Christopher Lloyd as Doctor Emmett Brown. He is the very definition of a mad scientist but not in a sinister way. He is so wonderfully eccentric and his energetic performance is more than a match for the one given by Michael J. Fox. As I said it’s a strange pairing but it totally works. There’s a genuine quality to their friendship and Christopher Lloyd completely owns this character. Interestingly John Lithgow and Jeff Goldblum were both up for this role at one point. Lithgow I can almost see giving a vaguely similar performance but part of me really wants to see the Goldblum version of this character. It would have been insane.
The sheer entertainment value of this film is more than worth the price of admission. So many scenes are completely iconic such as Marty being chased by Biff and his goons which causes the invention of the skateboard and ends with Biff’s car being covered in manure. The events leading up to and following Marty’s journey through time are similarly iconic. The Doc looking alarmed and uttering “Libyans!” with terror in his voice isn’t something that ever really leaves you.
Of course the final scene is just the perfect way to end a film. Seeing the DeLorean take off and fly off into the future is exciting and builds anticipation for a sequel that Zemeckis had no intention of making at the time. It’s just a great scene on its own and caps off the wonderful adventure that was this film perfectly.
I mentioned in my review of “The Walk” that Zemeckis is a master of tension as a director and this comes across really well here. Despite the setting being a school dance the significant stakes for his parents getting together always feel tense and urgent. That would be enough for one film but following it up with an equally tense sequence involving the Doc hanging from the clock tower as his cables come loose and it’s all a very nerve shredding experience.
Thanks to these films the DeLorean has achieved legendary status as a car despite having a reputation for being hugely unreliable. I know I really wanted one and still do despite all I know about it. The film even brings that in when the engine stalls just as Marty is preparing to take the run up to hit the coveted 88 miles per hour. As a time machine it looks particularly unique with the gull wing doors and sleek shape. There’s some space agey about it which works perfectly for the purposes here. It even manages to spook old man Peabody into thinking that it’s a crashed UFO.
Of course I have to talk about the score and the soundtrack in general. Alan Silvestri composed such a great theme for Back to the Future that I have had people swear blind that it must have been composed by John Williams. It wasn’t but Silvestri outdid himself here. The theme builds excitement, tension and puts across an incredible sense of adventure all at the same time. It’s a big part of the success of the film and should not be ignored. Well timed songs from Huey Lewis and the News among other notable artists works at giving the whole thing an aural identity as well.
There’s more I could say about the film in terms of how perfect Biff is as a villain but I think that’d be better served in my review of the later films so I can talk about the character in the context of the trilogy as I feel this really illustrates how perfect he really is. I could also bang on about the specific scenes and how effective they are at doing certain things to make this write-up 10,000 words or more but I’d suggest you just watch the film instead. The strengths will become apparent if you haven’t seen it before and if you have then watch it again and I may have given you something new to think about.
Instead of doing a deeper analysis of a film that has been analysed to death I’m going to do some old fashioned nitpicking. My first question is what experiment is the Doc conducting where he synchronises every clock in his Lab to be exactly 25 minutes slow. What is the purpose of such an experiment and what is he trying to prove? We never find out but it does accomplish the task of making Marty late for school.
Another problem I have is how the Doc gets inside the DeLorean when it is in the back of the truck. The gull wing doors would make that impossible. My only conclusion is that he decided he was going to drive in, close the back of it and drive back out when Marty appears in order to make a dramatic entrance. It’s the only logical explanation. It makes for a cool shot so it’s not really worth questioning but that’s why I’m nitpicking.
Now onto the really complicated stuff surrounding the time travel rules. It’s clear that the film isn’t a pre-destination paradox meaning that Marty doesn’t create his life by being in the past. He changes some really significant things but that raises quite a few questions. Some of the changes are so subtle like Marty running over a pine tree which leads to the change of the name of the mall in the present from the “Twin Pines Mall” to the “Lone Pine Mall”. There’s also a piece broken off the ledge from when the Doc was holding on for dear life. I like these subtle changes as it shows that Marty made an impact and rewards eagle eyed spotters.
The significant changes are more troubling. By encouraging his father to be more confident and stand up to Biff Marty returns to his time and finds that his dad is a successful author, his mother is no longer an overweight alcoholic, his brother has a good job and his sister is desired by lots of men. Also, Biff is a lot more timid and does a lot to help George out. Basically Marty has come back to a life he knows nothing about and is essentially living with strangers. He’s lucky that his family still live in the same house.
Even more concerning is the question of what happens to the Marty who comes from this time. Surely he would get back to 1955 and find that another version of himself is already there making this life happen. This is never explored but hangs over the entire film. It’s amazing how structuring something so well makes it easy to overlook these things.
There are some small changes he makes such as inventing the skateboard that aren’t quite as important. Since it’s not a predestination paradox he doesn’t need to be there to invent it but it’s probably one of those things that could have been invented by anyone at any given time as it’s not an idea that really needed a unique vision to come up with as such.
I find his invention of rock & roll as we know it to be an interesting one to talk about though. When he plays “Johnny B. Goode” at the dance and the singer of the band calls his cousin Chuck (as in Berry) to let him hear the sound that he has been looking for to reinvent himself it would seem that Marty is responsible for this existing which is of course not the case. Chuck Berry couldn’t possibly have heard enough of the song to replicate it but he must get the vibe and accelerate his own development process. He would still write the song and compose the music but the idea for it came from a slightly different place. What I don’t understand is why Marvin gives this to his cousin. Why doesn’t he take it for himself? There is a missed opportunity for a subtle visual of a Marvin Berry album on Marty’s shelf instead of Chuck. The film is 30 years old so of course it’s far too late but it’s worth thinking about.
There’s a line from Lorraine where she says that she likes the name Marty which of course implies that they might call their child that someday. Why do they wait to call their third child Marty when Dave and Linda were born before him? Also, why are no eyebrows raised when Marty ends up looking just like that guy that George was helped by all these years ago. Was George not suspicious at any point?
Last nitpick, I promise. If the clock doesn’t have a second hand then how do they know the precise moment the lightning hits the clock tower? That level of timing would be impossible with that knowledge available but having 59 second margin of error makes the odds of success so remote that I couldn’t even speculate.
As I said that was all nitpicking and there’s more I could do but I’ll just leave it at that as it still gives me plenty to talk about and debate with others even after all this time. Perhaps the key to any great film is having some flaws that keep us talking.