In the classic science-fiction film Back to the Future: Part II (Zemeckis, 1989), series protagonist Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels from 1985 to the hyper-realistic future of 2015. October 21, 2015, to be specific which, despite the numerous iconic dates and times visited in the Back to the Future trilogy (ibid, 1985 to 1990), gains additional significance for being named as “Back to the Future Day”, a day to both celebrate all things Back to the Future and all things science.
Released: 3 July 1985
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Distributor: Universal Pictures
Budget: $19 million
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson
High school student Marty McFly is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a time-travelling DeLorean built by his eccentric scientist friend Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown (Lloyd). Trapped in the past, Marty inadvertently prevents his future parents’ meeting, which threatens his very existence, and is forced to reconcile the pair and somehow get back…to the future.
Back to the Future was the brainchild of long-time collaborators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, who wanted to develop a film about time travel but were struggling for a satisfying narrative and were desperate for a successful project after a number of critical or commercial failures. After Gale was inspired by his mother’s conflicting memories of his high school years, the duo worked on numerous versions of the film’s script, which was rejected and criticised multiple times during development (and even after the film was greenlit). Michael J. Fox was the duo’s first choice for the lead role but, when the in-demand youngster’s schedule wouldn’t allow him to sign on, they initially settled for Eric Stoltz. Although several scenes were shot with Stoltz portraying Marty, the filmmakers were dissatisfied with his performance and unique approach to the role and he was eventually replaced, with full pay, by Fox when the young actor’s busy schedule allowed him to participate.
Initially, the time machine was conceived of as a refrigerator but, after concerns that kids would endanger themselves by climbing inside of fridges, the concept was re-worked into an automobile; Gale reportedly turned down a $75,000 deal to use a Ford Mustang in favour of the sleek and futuristic DeLorean. Three of the cars were purchased for the production and, though they were notoriously unreliable, the time machine became one of the most iconic vehicles in film history and creator John DeLorean personally thanked Gale and Zemeckis for using his unique, if flawed, automobile. Back to the Future was a big success at the time and eventually went on to gross just under $390 million worldwide. While the film was met with extremely positive reviews at the time, it has gone on to be regarded as one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made; the film’s presentation, performances, and comedic take on sci-fi drew significant praise and the film not only inspired two sequels and an abundance of spin-offs and merchandise but has gone down as one of the most influential sci-fi films ever made.
Back to the Future is another of those formative, influential movies from my childhood; I was born in 1985, so I was watching this movie alongside the likes of Batman (Burton, 1989), Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), and The Terminator (Cameron, 1984) in the early-nineties and distinctly remember taping it when it aired on, I believe, BBC One. However, full disclosure, I was always more of a fan of the sequel; everything about it was bigger and better and I always found the first movie a little tame and mundane in comparison since I was far more interested in the exciting technology seen in the future and the plot of Marty revisiting the events of the first film. Over time, my appreciation for Back to the Future has definitely grown and I’ve come to regard it more favourably but it’s still the weakest of the three films for me, much like I see Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope (Lucas, 1977) the weakest of the original Star Wars trilogy.
The movie follows the life of average high schooler and aspiring rock star Marty, who is a close friend and assistant of Doc’s. It’s never explained exactly how Marty and Doc met or became friends but there’s clearly a mutual respect and appreciation between the two; Doc depends on Marty to assist with his various science projects and ferry him equipment, while Marty gains the benefit of Doc’s inventions to help bolster his guitar playing. Though a good kid at heart, Marty suffers from all the usual foibles that befall a teenager: he’s easily distracted, a little clumsy, often loses track of time (he’s distraught to find out that he’s late for school, despite the fact that he’s wearing a watch and so should’ve known the time before arriving at Doc’s place), and is a little lazy at times. Because of this, he has earned a reputation with his principal, Gerald Strickland (James Tolkan), for being a “slacker” because he’d rather put his time and energy into hanging out with Doc, trying to steal a kiss from his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), or practising his music. However, Marty’s lackadaisical attitude is clearly attributed to an uninspiring and discouraging family life; his father, George (Glover), is a meek and pathetic individual with few aspirations and his mother, Lorraine (Thompson), is a slovenly alcoholic. Neither set the bar particularly high for Marty or his siblings, who are equally unimpressive duds, and his father’s wishy-washy attitude is starting to negatively affect Marty’s perception of himself and his abilities, much to the boy’s dismay.
Doc is the quintessential scatter-brained, well-meaning mad scientist; his home is little more than a giant garage filled with all kinds of gadgets and inventions of the Rube Goldberg variety that have been designed to automatically take care of menial chores such as turning on the television and feeding his dog, Einstein (Tiger), and a massive sound system for his young apprentice. Doc has been working pretty much around the clock for about thirty years on perfecting his time machine, which came to him in a moment of inspiration after falling off a toilet and hitting his head and envisioning the “flux capacitor” that makes time travel possible. Doc has not only sunk his entire family fortune and estate into the project, but has also acquired a consignment of plutonium from a group of Bolivian terrorists in order to power the machine; this sets in motion a chain reaction that kicks the film’s main plot off as the terrorists track down Doc, brutally riddle him with machine gun fire, and force Marty into the time machine and back to 1955. Luckily for Marty, the Doc of 1955 is every bit the same madcap scientist as the man he knew, except he lives in slightly better conditions and is frustrated by a string of unsuccessful and unremarkable scientific failures. At first, Doc is incredulous to Marty’s claims of being from the future, but his interest is piqued when Marty shares his knowledge of Doc’s life and past with him. Upon discovering the time machine and corroborating that it’s actually his invention, Doc is ecstatic to have finally invented something that works and instantly resolves to help Marty by any means necessary. Unfortunately, the flux capacitor can only work when fuelled by plutonium, a substance that’s not exactly easy to come by in 1985 and all-but-impossible to acquire in 1955. Thankfully, however, Doc is nothing if not adaptable and brilliant and suggests that a direct bolt of lightning could serve as a suitable substitute; thanks to Marty having advanced knowledge of an upcoming lightning storm, the two prepare to channel the lightning’s awesome power into the time machine, a plot that requires precise time and cobbled-together scientific equipment, but which is compromised by Marty jeopardising his very existence.
This is, of course, a completely unintended side effect of Marty’s desperate escape; he had already witnessed the time machine proving to be a success, as it transported Einstein a few moments in time, and was preparing to wish Doc a farewell on his trip thirty years into the future, but the boy was so caught up in his fleeing from gunfire that he didn’t really think about exceeding eighty-eight miles per hour and what the consequences of this would be. Arriving in 1955, Marty is disorientated and in disbelief as he stumbles through downtown Hill Valley, and decides to turn to the only person who can possibly help him: Doc Brown. However, he runs into his father’s teenage self along the way; in 1955, George struggles with confrontations and is every bit the insecure and awkward character he was in 1985, only fuelled by teenage hormones and more interested in keeping his head down and writing science-fiction stories than pursuing girls or trying to stand out. Forgetting all about his mother’s whimsical story of how she met and fell in love with George as a teenager after her father (George DiCenzo) hit him with his car, Marty doesn’t even hesitate to push his would-be father out of harm’s way, thus taking the hit himself and altering his future. Marty thus finds himself being cared for by the young Lorraine, who instantly becomes infatuated with him. While George’s character is mostly the same, if not worse, between the two timelines, Lorraine’s is significantly different; in 1985, Lorraine has let herself go somewhat and is a jaded, cynical woman who disapproves of “girls chasing boys”, so Marty is shocked to find that she was such a horny, rebellious girl in her youth.
George’s lifelong tormentor is local bully and blowhard Biff Tannen (Wilson); in 1985, Biff works at the same miscellaneous company as George and uses his position as George’s supervisor and physical stature to intimidate George into lending him his car (which Biff totals while driving drunk and insists that George should compensate him for) and writing up his work reports. Biff’s personality is very much the same back in 1955, only he’s bolstered by being in the prime of his life and surrounded by a gang of cackling hyenas who eagerly follow his lead in tormenting the young McFly. An arrogant, loud-mouthed youth, Biff sees everyone as beneath him and revels in overpowering and intimidating “Buttheads” like George while lusting after Lorraine, whom he makes several uncomfortable and unappreciated advances towards. Obsessed with his car and determined to force Lorraine to accompany him to the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance at their high school, Biff is a constant thorn in Marty’s side as his negative influence is largely responsible for George’s timid demeanour. Thus, in order to correct the timeline and ensure he’s not erased from existence, Marty has to bolster George’s self-confidence with his 1980’s sensibilities, and this inevitably means George having to summon the courage to not only approach Lorraine but also overcome Biff.
One area where Back to the Future makes an immediate impact is in its sound design; while Alan Silvestri’s bombastic and iconic theme doesn’t kick in until the time machine is first introduced, it provides the necessary emotional and dynamic punch to accentuate scenes with the time machine and help create a sense of awe at the DeLorean’s capabilities and design. The film is bolstered by two absolutely fantastic tracks from Huey Lewis and the News, “The Power of Love” and “Back in Time” (which, thanks to being covered as the theme song for the short-lived cartoon series (1991 to 1992), has become synonymous with the franchise for me), which perfectly capture the rock ‘n roll lifestyle Marty leads. Marty is even the lead singer and guitarist for a high school rock band, the Pinheads, and (thanks to singer Mark Campbell) concludes the film with a banging rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, unknowing birthing the musical genre that he loves so much!
Back to the Future is a film all about parallels and repeating elements, which would be continue throughout the two sequels; we get a decent amount of backstory and a good look at Hill Valley of 1985, in which the central clock tower has been damaged following a lightning storm and farmland has been converted into a sprawling mall and housing estates. When Marty arrives in 1955, he is stunned to see how different the town is; cars and clothing styles are dramatically different and lacking in denim and “life preservers”, the clock tower chimes, and technology is far behind the convenience and excess that Marty has grown up with. While the disorientation means Marty struggles at first to acclimatise to the time period (he’s initially mistaken for an alien, Lorraine’s family is confused by his talk of “re-runs”, and even Doc is sceptical of the idea of Ronald Reagan becoming president), he eventually uses his future knowledge and technology to his benefit. As the DeLorean and his radiation suit are mistaken for a spacecraft and alien suit, Marty uses this to his advantage to scare the wits out of the imaginative and sci-fi mad George; posing as “Darth Vader, an extraterrestrial from the planet Vulcan”, Marty hooks some Eddie Van Halen up to George’s ears with his Walkman and threatens to “melt [his] brain” if he doesn’t as Lorraine out to the dance.
For many people, Back to the Future was one of the most influential sci-fi films in establishing a clear and simple portrayal of time travel; the rules of time travel in Back to the Future may be a little different than in the sequels, but it approaches the element in a way that’s easy to understand and makes for great dramatic tension. The film presents time as a straight line of causality; while the present is currently in progress, the past has happened but can be changed and the future has also happened and can be affected by events in the past and present. When Marty saves George’s life, he endangers his very existence because now he will never be born; rather than addressing the mind-bending implications of such a “Grandfather Paradox”, the film uses this device as a ticking clock for Marty rather than immediately blinking him out of existence the moment he alters the timeline. The more it seems like Lorraine and George won’t get together, the more his brother, sister, and even Marty himself are erased from his photograph of the three from the future; indeed, Marty himself begins to fade away at the dance and is only restored to full health and vitality, his future assured, when George finally kisses Lorraine on the dance floor.
Marty continually attempts to use his knowledge of Doc’s impending fate to save his friend’s life, but the scientist vehemently rejects wanting to know too much about his own future; concerned about the metaphysical impact this could have on reality and the timeline, Doc is focused only with helping Marty right what he put wrong and getting him back to the future, and is content to let fate play out as uninterrupted as possible. Against all odds and with time literally against him, Doc is able to set up an elaborate system of wires to channel the bolt of lighting into the flux capacitor and send Marty back to 1985; upon arrival, Marty desperately races across town to save Doc’s life and is stunned to find that his friend took his warnings to heart and came prepared with a bulletproof vest this time around. While Marty doesn’t notice subtle changes to the timeline (Twin Pines Mall has become Lone Pine Mall), he awakens to find his home life dramatically different compared to what he left behind: his parents are deeply in love, his father is a published science-fiction author, and his brother and sister are both successful and attractive. George and Lorraine show nothing but encouragement and love towards their kids and George’s knockout punch to Biff has reduced the once unruly bully to a meek car washer who ekes out a humble existence. Just as the film ignores the plot hole of why George and Lorraine don’t recognise Marty as the mysterious “Calvin Klein” who brought them together and changed their lives so much, it also glosses over the fact that Marty has interfered so heavily in the timeline that the alternate-1985 he returns to would probably have produced a similarly different version of himself who might not have socialised with Doc. However, I maintain that Doc’s knowledge of the future meant that he probably took a proactive role in meeting and befriending the teen and ensuring that things played out as close to the original timeline as possible.
Although I admit to seeing the first Back to the Future as the weakest of the three films, it’s still an incredibly enjoyable experience; by focusing on the characters and infusing the script with a charming, bumbling comedy, the film expertly approaches the subject of time travel in a way that remains incredibly accessible and was massively influential on many subsequent time travel stories that followed. Sure, under close scientific scrutiny, the film’s depiction of time travel may go against what we understand of physics, but I don’t really think anyone watches Back to the Future, or any sci-fi film, expecting a lesson in quantum mechanics and, if you do, then you’re kind of missing the point. It’s a film made to entertain, and it certainly does that; it’s quaint focus on the 1950s allows it to be grounded in a way its bigger, better sequels aren’t as they veered more towards fantastical spectacle and, at its heart, it’s a story more about characters overcoming their insecurities and becoming the best versions of themselves. Marty initially despairs of his father’s weaknesses and wishes not only that he could be more assertive but also to avoid becoming him; when stranded in 1955, Marty has the opportunity to impart life lessons to his teenage father that help him to become a more confident and self-assured man in the future, thus changing all of their lives for the better and getting a better understanding of his parents and himself in the process. The relationship between Marty and Doc is equally pivotal to the film, and equal to the sci-fi elements surrounding the iconic DeLorean, and cemented the duo as one of the most amusing and memorable in all of cinema, and the film as one of the most exciting and poignant movies about a kid travelling back in time and being seduced by his teenage mother!
Are you a fan of Back to the Future:? How do you rate it compared to the other two films and which of the trilogy is your favourite? What did you think to the film’s depiction of time travel and the use of a DeLorean as the time vehicle? Were you a fan of the relationship between Doc and Marty and what did you think to the plot of Marty having to unite his teenage parents? If you had a time machine, what year would you travel to and why? How are you celebrating Back to the Future Day today? Whatever you think about Back to the Future, feel free to share your thoughts down below or drop a comment on my social media.
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