An Appreciation – Back to the Future
There are some films that have become so familiar to us that watching them again feels a bit like coming home. We know the characters, we know the sequences, and sometimes we can even say the lines of dialogue before they come. They are so a part of who we are that we associate the film with our own upbringing. That’s how I feel every time I see Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future (1985). One of the essential films of the 1980s, I feel that it’s safe to say that just about everyone knows and has seen it, and for some of us, couldn’t fathom what growing up would be like without it. It does everything that you can expect out of pure entertainment—with names, places, and images that have lasted in contemporary popular culture. I’ve become so familiar with the film that I can’t remember the first time ever seeing it.
One of the elements that the film accomplishes so well is taking the idea of our parents’ youth and imaginatively running away with it. As kids, we never thought that are our fathers and mothers could have been like us: young, naïve, confused, and even foolish to a certain degree. They always seemed to be there, telling us to do our homework or clean up our rooms, and grounding us if we ever got into trouble. Could you honestly imagine what it would be like to see them as teenagers, having the same feelings that we had at that age? I wonder, if I had known my father at 18, would we have had similar interests, maybe even have become friends? That’s the beauty of the movie, to take this impossible premise and set it within an action comedy sci-fi adventure. And with that, Zemeckis—along with co-writer Bob Gale—crafted a story that feels a part of its time, and timeless, simultaneously. There’s a reason why the film is continuously shown on television throughout the years. If you were to say the term “flux capacitor,” chances are someone next to you will know what you’re talking about. That’s how big this movie’s influence has been.
We all know the story. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the young and precocious kid, gets in way over his head through his friendship with the wacky scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Not much is explained as to why this teenager would befriend such a borderline nut job, and perhaps it’s wise not to delve in to it too deeply. But the main story involves Marty, at the time helping Doc Brown record the very first successful use of his time traveling machine, accidentally being sent from his present time of 1985 back thirty years to 1955. His town of Hill Valley goes through a dramatic change with his teleportation. Buildings and roads he has known to be broken down and dirty are now new and fresh; people that he recognized as older adults are now younger kids. The future mayor of the town is a clean-up boy at the local café, and the clock tower he knew to be broken is fully working and maintained. Needless to say, this is not the world Marty is used to, and so he turns to the 1955 version of Doc Brown to help him repair the time machine and return back to the Hill Valley of 1985.
Oh, but before he can do that, Marty runs into a little snag. The great fun of this movie is seeing how Zemeckis and Gale play with the properly titled “space-time continuum.” With someone from a certain time traveling back to the past, any interference he has with that world will directly affect the future (his present). As Doc Brown so enthusiastically poses, any interaction he has with other people could lead to dire and dramatic consequences. Well, nothing is more dramatic than Marty accidentally running into and interacting with the 1955 versions of his parents, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and George (Crispin Glover) McFly. Much is made of Lorraine and George meeting and ultimately falling in love. It is explained that Lorraine instantly developed an attraction to George when her father inadvertently hit him with his car. Marty completely forgets this, and when he saves his father and gets hit himself, Lorraine’s feelings get targeted towards him. On paper, the idea of a protagonist’s mother developing feelings toward him shouldn’t work at all, and thus became one of the biggest points of contention against the film being made. But luckily, the writing sidesteps becoming too disturbing, and rather focuses on Marty’s attempts to bring his parents back to each other. Because if they do not ended up falling in love, Marty (along with his two siblings) will be wiped away from existence.
So we have the complication involving Marty and Doc Brown fixing the time machine and sending Marty back to 1985, along with the issue of Marty trying to get his parents together, but really that only scratches the surface of how much fun this movie actually is. Of all the movies I’ve seen, very few have had such replay value as this, and that is because there are so many elements within the film that have become iconic. Let’s start off with the town itself. It’s no secret that much of the film was shot in the back lot of Universal Studios in Hollywood. The city center, which incorporates the town square, clock tower, café, and theater, has become one of the most remembered sets in all of the movies, and has played a center role in each of the following sequels. Those that have taken the tram tour at Universal Studios will instantly recognize it, as it is one of the main attractions of the tour. One of the highlights of the movie (and the trilogy over all) is seeing how the town changes throughout the different times—how things that are dramatically different still stay familiar to the viewer, thus creating an anchor for us to reference as the story takes its turns.
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