Gotta Get Back in Time
Back to the Future
Growing up in the 1980s, there was a lot of media that helped to foment my love for time travel stories. The concept of time travel had been around for decades, of course, already a mainstay in Sci-Fi media (such as Doctor Who and Star TrekOriginally conceived as "Wagon Train in Space", Star Trek was released during the height of the Hollywood Western film and TV boom. While the concept CBS originally asked for had a western vibe, it was the smart, intellectual stories set in a future utopia of science and exploration that proved vital to the series' long impact on popular culture.), but the 1980s gave kids two formative works to latch onto: Back to the Future in 1985, and then Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure in 1989. Both of these would go on to be big hits and stay in the public consciousness for decades to come.
I can see the appeal of these films to the Gen-X (and Gen-Y) kids growing up in the era: instead of brainy scientists and adult explorers traveling the vagaries of time, these films featured teens ("like us!") who get stuck on an adventure they weren't expecting but use their own intelligence and skill to get through to the end. "That could be me!" if, you know, we had some crackpot scientist or an entire future civilization backing our time travel exploits. There's escapism, of course, along with a bit of that fantasy imagination. Who wouldn't want to be Bill and Ted, getting to be party guys across the timeline, or Marty McFly helping to reshape the course of his own future? That does seem pretty cool.
Of course, when the original Back to the Future came out, there was another group that got to enjoy the film for different reason: adults and parents who had grown up in the 1950s and felt nostalgic about their bygone era. Every generation looks back at their past years with rose colored glasses, and Back to the Future plays into that as well, letting the adults in the audience rely their glory days why the kids get a protagonist they could identify with. It's really a well crafted concept that plays across demographics. Most demographics, anyway.
Certainly Back to the Future is White, middle class escapism -- a kid who grows up in the suburbs, goes back in time and gets to improve his family so they go from lower-middle class to upper-middle class in the blink of an eye. The film doesn't exactly provide much for minority viewers to latch onto, mind you, although it does at least make a nod towards Black viewers with Goldie Wilson (Donald Fullilove), the Black server who goes on to be mayor in future Hill Valley (at the prompting of Marty in the past even though he did it on his own in the previous timeline). But for the most part this is pure White thrills, a tinted look at the ear of the past with little acknowledgment of racial inequality or the gender politics of the era. It's not a movie meant to challenge people as that would get in the way of the escapist thrills.
Taken as a pure thrill ride, though, Back to the Future works really well. Although just about everyone has seen the film, for those that somehow have skipped out: Back to the Future featured Michael J. Fox (a the height of his career) as Marty McFly, a high school student and aspiring rock star. Marty is friends with Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a crackpot scientist who, somehow, manages to invent time travel (an idea he had for 30 years that he finally gets to pull off in 1985). On the night of his time travel exploits, Doc convinces Marty to come out to the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall to see his experiment in action. And it works, fantastically in fact.
To power the machine, which requires a huge amount of energy, Doc had to get plutonium, so he conned a group of Libyan terrorists by saying he'd build them a bomb... then steals the plutonium and runs off. The Libyans come for Doc, killing him and forcing Marty on the run. So he jumps in the machine, accidentally travels back to 1955, and ends up stranded since he didn't take any fuel for the trip back home. Now he has to work with Doc Brown of 1955 to get the machine working. Only problem is that, in the process of exploring 1955 he accidentally gets in the way of the meet-cute between his father, George McFly (Crispin Glover), and his mother, Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson). So the two of them have to fix Marty's soon-to-be family, saving his own existence, find a way to get Marty back, and save all of history in the process. No big deal.
Going back and watching Back to the Future I was impressed with the tight construction and solid pacing of the movie. The first act sets up all the details we need to know -- how George and Lorraine met, what happens on the night of the big high school "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance, the fact that lightning strikes the old clock tower at the center of town -- all so it can pay off in the past later. As Marty stumbles through town and screws things up (while also advancing things faster than they should) we see each of the earlier details, little and big, pay off over time. The film sets up so many dominoes in the early going, and it does it with a certain amount of grace, so that it can knock them all over in a satisfying way.
Hell, one of my favorite little details in the film is the "Twin Pines Mall". Doc Brown explained that a crazy farmer used to own all the land and had this dumb idea about mating pine trees (thus, "Twin Pines"). But then, in the past, Marty drives the time-traveling Delorean through one of the two pines, and when he's back in the present at the end of the film, the mall is now the "Lone Pine Mall". That's a gag that takes an easy hour and fifteen to pay off, but it's so good. The film has so many big and little moments like that, crazy attention to detail that goes into making the world feel whole and complete.
Of course, Back to the Future has much bigger stakes than the first Bill and Ted flick. Here, Marty doesn't just have to keep his future on track, which was all Bill and Ted were focused on, but find a way home and ensure he's not deleted from the timeline. This makes Back to the Future into a more tense film in the last act, as all the pieces come together and the adrenaline of the situation starts to build up. When I talk about Bill and Ted it's in terms of a hang out movie -- low key but fun to watch. Back to the Future, by comparison, is a thrill ride and engineered as such. Yes, it's funny (at times incredibly so), but it has grander ambitions for its story than the other 1980s time travel franchise.
The movie is, of course, powered by the dual leads of Fox and Lloyd who have great on-screen chemistry. Lloyd, a character actor who rose to prominence in the 1980s with turns in Star Trek III, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, and, eventually, the iconic performance as Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but for many kids of the 1980s his most famous role will be as Doc Brown, the wild-eyed dreamer. He has such energy, enthusing over even his dumbest inventions, which sucks you into all his dumb, wild schemes.
Meanwhile, Fox was riding the heights of his performance on Family Ties where he played Alex P. Keaton for, eventually, 176 episodes. Where he played a conservative child in a liberal family there, Marty is apolitical, simply just getting by in his town, cruising along while he tries to become a musician. While the film doesn't exactly play up his dreams (he actually fucks up his own big performance at the end of the film) the movie doesn't hold that against him: he's a kid and still learning. Plus, he's so much fun to hang out with in Fox's hands.
Credit, though, should be paid to the rest of the cast. Thomas F. Wilson does great work as Biff Tannen, the high school bully that makes George's life hell (as we see in the first version of the present, that doesn't change after decades). Wilson played a character everyone loved to hate, and he played it with style and panache. Crispin Glover makes George into that right kind of nebbish, twitchy nerd, callow and reedy and also a little antsy. It's hard to say if that was really the performance or just Glover himself (he's always been a weird dude), but it works well in the movie such that, when he finally mans up and takes on Biff, punching the jerk and knocking him out, it feels like he earned his strength.
And there's Thompson as Lorraine, the love interest and also source of a lot of the humor. She's a hellcat, as we learn, and a horndog, a girl that knows what she wants, and once she sets eyes on Marty (her son from the future, not that she knows that), she wants him. But Thompson has shades to her performance, not just the comedic angles but she also manages to find this bashful, shy girl in there as well. She plays both sides, the girl on the prowl along with the shy and demure woman trying to get a boy to like her. I think, for the character, the shy and demure side is an act, her trying to be what she thinks boys like, but it's impressive that she manages to get all these different aspect to the character and still feel like "Lorraine" through all of it. Really a solid performance.
Really, the film is a credit to everyone involved, from the writers and producers to the director and the cast. Despite it being set in the 1980s and 1950s, the film still works even not, 35 years later. Yes, in some respects the movie feels like its own anachronism, with the world having moved on such that we're now further away from 1985 than Marty was from the past he travels to, but its constructed in such a way that the technology we see in the 1980s doesn't attract the kind of attention that makes you think, "lol, that's so old." The one big piece of tech, the Delorean, felt like its own anachronism -- Marty saying, "you built a time machine... out of a Delorean?!" perfect caps the silliness of it. There's not a lot in the film, beyond the music and fashions, that pull out out of the film to think, "this is a product of a bygone era."
Any issues I have with the trilogy don't start here. This movie, on its own, is a perfect nugget of Hollywood Blockbuster film making. Tightly plotted and well executed, it's a fantastic film on its own that, frankly, didn't really need any continuations. Of course, the tag ending right before the credits roll, with Doc coming back from the future of 2015 to take Marty on another adventure through time, promised more stories to come. Or it was a joke and the producers put it in there to entertain themselves. But those sequels to come lacked the magic of the original, as we'll soon discover, and can't hold a candle this one perfectly executed story. Sometimes you watch a movie and think, "nope, I'm good. I got what I needed right here." Back to the Future is exactly that kind of film, perfect on its own right without any need to go any further in the series.