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‘Back To The Future’: An Observation Of One Of The Great Films Of Our Time
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Week of Geek; Back to the Future, 25th Anniversary

I remember the first time I saw Back To The Future. When the movie was first broadcast on television on a Friday night in November 1989, the release of its long-awaited sequel Back To The Future Part II was about a week or so away and the premiere airing on NBC was also structured to be a first look at the sequel. Many of the details of that Friday I have forgotten in the more-than-two decades since, but I do remember having cut myself bad while playing with my friends after school and my mom had to patch up my wounds fast because we had been planning to watch Back To The Future and didn’t want to miss a minute of it, not even the commercials. By the time the end credits rolled and the 11 o’clock local news began, my family and I had become fans of Robert Zemeckis’ time-tripping comic fantasy, so when the sequel was released that Thanksgiving we made sure to catch it on opening night. Then when we got home from that movie, we fired up the ol’ VCR and popped in the standard-setting blockbuster of 1989, Batman. Two great movies in one day, that was truly a Thanksgiving to remember.

This weekend marks the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of the original and still best Back To The Future, and in the quarter-century since, the movie has become a modern-day classic film whose memorable characters, quotable dialogue, and bravura performances have elevated it to the status of a cultural touchstone. Magazine articles are still written about it, films (Hot Tub Time Machine is an incredibly funny riff on Zemeckis‘ movie) and television shows (Family Guy has mined Back To The Future for a few good jokes and even devoted an entire episode to spoofing the movie) pay tribute to the film’s enduring influence, and even former president Ronald Reagan quoted the movie in one of the many movie-quoting speeches he gave during his time in the Oval Office.

Back to the Future is a movie that simply gets better with age; it’s more than a mere time capsule of a cinematic era. The witty and ingenious script Zemeckis concocted with his writing partner and producer Bob Gale took the germ of an idea the two had nurtured for years — what if you could go back in time and meet your parents — and used it as the foundation for a film rich with imagination, heart, soul, and in the words of Huey Lewis and the News… the power of love.

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is your typical all-American teen living in the once-picturesque town of Hill Valley, California. He’s not the most exceptional student but he does what he wants to do with his life, and that’s to ROCK!!! Unfortunately he can’t even get a gig playing at his own high school’s upcoming dance because his music is just “too darn loud” (in the words of a dance committee chairman played in a clever cameo by Huey Lewis). His family isn’t too encouraging either as they all have their own problems; worst of all his spineless father George (Crispin Glover) is forced to work for Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), the lout who bullied him constantly when they were in high school. Marty seems destined to end up a hopeless loser like everyone else in his family, until one fateful night when his friend Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a local scientist judged by the townsfolk as a little eccentric, asks him to participate in his latest experiment. Marty meets Doc that night in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall just in time to witness his friend’s greatest achievement. Doc Brown has completed the culmination of his life’s work: a time machine he built out of a DeLorean automobile. Marty is skeptical to say the least until he sees the machine in action and the fire trails and spinning license plate it leaves behind once it hits 88 miles per hour. Just as Doc is about to leave on a trip into the future, two members of a Libyan terrorist organization that hired him to build them a bomb using the plutonium he borrowed to give the DeLorean its power source, show up to the mall and shoot Doc to death. Marty jumps into the time machine to escape and once he puts the pedal to the metal, he finds himself traveling back in time to a date the Doc had set on the DeLorean’s onboard computer as an example destination: November 5, 1955, the day he claimed he came up with the idea for the flux capacitor, the device that makes time travel possible.

Finding himself trapped in an era long before his birth since the DeLorean exhausted its supply of plutonium, Marty is forced to track down the Doc of 1955 so that he can get back to his own time. During his search he encounters his parents George and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) when they were teenagers attending the same high school and inadvertently interrupts what would have been their first meeting — the precise meeting that led to their falling in love and later getting married: Marty spots George peeping on Lorraine undressing from a tree across from her house and then pushes George out of the way of Lorraine’s father’s approaching car. Marty gets hit by the car instead and in nursing him back to health Lorraine starts to fall in love with Marty when he finally manages to locate the Doc, looking not much younger than he looks in 1985. Despite not believing Marty’s story at first, Doc Brown soon changes his tune after seeing for himself the time machine and the flux capacitor, which he had come up with the idea for just that day after hitting his head in a fall from his toilet. Marty and Doc set about to send the teenager back to his own time but a few complications arise: first, since Marty doesn’t have any extra plutonium on hand to power the DeLorean, Doc deduces that the only alternate source of energy with enough power is a bolt of lightning, but that may not be a problem since Marty knows that on the following Saturday night a lightning bolt will strike the giant clock atop the town courthouse, damaging it irreparably forever and he even knows the exact time; and second, since he interrupted the meeting between his parents that would ultimately lead to his birth, Marty has put his future existence and that of his brother and sister in jeopardy and the only way he can repair the timeline is to ensure George and Lorraine meet and fall in love at the high school’s Enchantment Under the Sea dance, which happens to fall on the same night as the lightning bolt hitting the clock tower; then there is the matter of the teenage bully Biff Tannen making trouble for all involved once he sets his own hormonal sights on Lorraine. If Marty can’t do the impossible and help his parents find true love, then he won’t have a future to return to.

Back To The Future is one of those movies where everything came together beautifully in spite of almost overwhelming odds. It’s a near-perfect film that after 25 years still never fails to entertain. We all must wonder at some point in our lives what it would be like to meet our parents when they were our age. Would they be the kind of people we’d hang out with, or the kind who would stuff us in our own lockers just for the hell of it? I know for a fact my mother and father didn’t run with the popular crowd when they were in high school. Hell, my father didn’t even graduate high school. But they were outcasts, as was I during my own youth, so I’d like to think they would consider me cool enough to be friends with. The concept of time travel in itself is fascinating enough that we also all wonder what we’d do if we could travel back to the past and forward to the future, even though going to the future is theoretically impossible since as it’s in a state of flux. Of course I could also argue as what constitutes the past, present, and future, but I won’t do that here. I haven’t come here to discuss amateur quantum physics, I’ve come here to write about the greatness that is Back To The Future.

And of how great this movie is! There are so many moments in Back To The Future where you want to stand up and cheer because you’re having so much fun. This is one of the ultimate crowd-pleasing entertainments. Almost every line of dialogue is instantly quotable, every character moment endearing in ways that are alternately humorous and emotional, and the film itself is so well made by a small army of the finest visual and verbal storytellers that you could call it a perfect film and few would be inclined to argue with you. The editing by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas crackles and hums with enough electricity and energy to power the DeLorean with no help from a lightning bolt. The music by the great Alan Silvestri soars with a powerful epic gusto you wouldn’t expect to find in a comic fantasy made in the decade where some arcane, unwritten rule dictated that practically every film geared towards younger audiences must be underscored with subpar synthesizer tinkling. The production design by Lawrence G. Paull and Todd Hallowell’s art direction are loaded with stunning detail and wonderment made all the more visually striking by the fantastic widescreen cinematography of Dean Cundey, whose work shooting films for directors such as Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and John Carpenter has put him in the ranks of the greatest directors of photography Hollywood has ever produced. This is a first-rate production team that ultimately gave life to a first-rate film.

The strangest thing about this movie was it almost never happened, and when it finally went before the cameras, Back To The Future came close to falling apart. Zemeckis and Gale had written the film years before it went into production, but the first films they had made — I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars (one of my favorite comedies) — were not financially successful so the major studios weren’t exactly falling at the team’s feet to give Back To The Future a green light. Plus, they had written Steven Spielberg’s first out-and-out failure as a director, 1941, and that movie had already become the latest shorthand term for uncontrollable Hollywood excess (fortunately for them Ishtar was right around the corner). Spielberg had given the duo their big break as writers and then produced their first two films, and when the script for Back To The Future crossed his desk after the film was put into turnaround he brought Zemeckis and Gale to Universal Pictures. Barring a few minor story detail changes (give Doc Brown a dog instead of a chimpanzee; the DeLorean cannot use a nuclear explosion to bring Marty… back to the future!) Back To The Future was finally given the go-ahead. Then the production hit a major speed bump when Eric Stoltz, the actor originally cast in the role of Marty McFly, had to be let go from the film four weeks into filming because his performance had been judged as too dramatic and intense for the light-hearted role he was playing. The filmmakers were free to return to their first choice for the part of Marty, Michael J. Fox, who had initially turned the film down on the grounds that the production would conflict with his shooting schedule on the then-popular NBC sitcom Family Ties. He would have to face a punishing schedule for the next several months as he worked on the film and his sitcom, but this time Fox accepted his first major movie role thus ensuring his own future would be a prosperous one despite his battle with Parkinson’s disease.

The success of the film can be traced back to its origin, the finely crafted screenplay Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale honed over the course of five years before committing their vision to celluloid. Time travel stories have been around since the days of H.G. Wells and it seems like every science-fiction and fantasy author has at least one time travel tale in them. Ray Bradbury‘s “A Sound of Thunder” is one of the seminal works of fantasy fiction and Harlan Ellison’s contribution to this subgenre of storytelling is the classic Star Trek episode “City on the Edge of Forever,” is arguably the show’s finest episode and one of the best hours in television history. The core conflict at the heart of the majority of time travel stories is what would happen if we did something to change the course of history, be it the events of world history or the progression of our own family tree. Marty McFly, the main protagonist in Back To The Future, doesn’t kill a butterfly in prehistoric times and alter the course of human evolution but as far as he’s concerned he might as well have. With one humane but ill-advised action, he endangers his own existence so he has to put right what he damaged and get the foolish youngsters who will one day be his parents fall in love without giving away his true identity. Story-wise the film could have hit any one of many potential pitfalls and failed miserably, but never does because Zemeckis and Gale realize that the most important element to making a memorable film is having great characters. They spend the majority of Back To The Future’s first act developing their sizable cast of characters and establishing their situations in life before the time travel element of the story even comes into play. Once the story starts getting into the fantastic, your sympathies remain with Marty, Doc, George, and Lorraine.

The relationships provide the film with its emotional core and they are as superb and heartfelt as the best dramas of our time. Marty and Doc Brown’s friendship has a strong undercurrent of mutual respect and is given extra weight by the fact that neither character seems to have any other real friends. Doc would probably get written off as a kook by the Hill Valley locals and the rest of the scientific community, but Marty, who doesn’t seem to socialize with other teens his age outside of his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and the members of his band, never sees Doc as anything but a true friend, mentor, and surrogate father figure (since his own father George is a bit wishy-washy and can never seem to find the time to be a caring and concerned parent or husband to Lorraine). Even though he occasionally lets on that Doc may be a bit out of his gourd, Marty trusts his friend and would do just about anything to help him, even getting out of the bed in the middle of the night to assist Doc in his time travel experiment. Then you have the Doc, who sees Marty not as some immature punk kid but as someone smart and headstrong enough that he would want to provide him with friendship, loyalty, guidance, and an unorthodox education outside of the high school. It’s through their relationship that we see Marty and the Doc as different people than the rest of their narrow-minded community views them. Once he goes back to the year 1955, Marty has to establish a bond and trust with the two insecure and emotionally naïve teenagers who will one day become his parents as long as his plan to get them together works. Realizing that in order to get George McFly to man up and follow his heart, Marty has to be more of a friend to him than Marty’s father (the same person, one of the story’s richest ironies) ever was to him. Lorraine, on the other hand, has an attraction to Marty that she thinks is romantic but is really a nubile teenage girl acting not with her heart but her burgeoning hormones, but Marty does indeed care for her and not just because she’s his future mother but because she’s a sweet and somewhat intelligent person whose heart is in the right place, much like George. The relationships between Marty, George, and Lorraine all help them grow to be better people and in the process their futures become brighter as they ultimately realize their limitless potential as individuals, and most importantly as parents.

But these relationships would simply founder and die on screen if it weren’t for the meticulously-assembled cast whose collective talent flourish under the direction of Robert Zemeckis. Stepping in literally at the last minute for Eric Stoltz was Michael J. Fox, who was mostly known as an accomplished TV actor until Back To The Future forever altered the course of his career. There was never any doubt Fox was going to be a star from the moment he started stealing his scenes on Family Ties and with his first starring role in a major motion picture (he had a small role in the 1982 exploitation gem Class of 1984) the young actor proved he had the superb comic timing and dramatic chops to carry the weight of a big-budget film on his shoulders, as well while hardly breaking a sweat. Fox is one of the reasons why Back To The Future endures after all these years, making his character Marty McFly an extremely likable kid who never trades away that likability despite being trapped in an unusual situation. He takes his dilemma seriously and plays the fish-out-of-water in 1955 well while establishing intriguing dimensions to his own personality. Christopher Lloyd could have played a mad scientist in his sleep given the eccentric parts he’s taken on in the past, from Reverend Jim on the TV comedy Taxi to the vicious Klingon villain Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, but he performs the role with great humor and a strange yet poignant charm and gives the character great dimension while most actors would’ve simply played up its crazier aspects without finding the humanity at the center. Crispin Glover has made a career out of playing wild and unusual characters but with his performance as George McFly he managed to temper those oddball impulses with a sweetness and vulnerability you wouldn’t see much of in his acting for the remainder of his career. He makes George a bright and personable kid not unlike Marty (except his interest isn’t in creating music but writing science fiction stories), but hopelessly inept socially and romantically. No wonder George was always the character I identified with the most. I am George McFly! Glover may have never really hit the acting heights he achieved in Back To The Future (with the exception of his delightfully strange performance as Layne in River’s Edge the following year), but he gives the role his all and comes through with a wonderful bit of acting that he would later call back to with good humor as the one-armed bellhop in the aforementioned Hot Tub Time Machine.

If I consider myself to be like George McFly, well then it makes perfect sense why my mad crush on Lea Thompson endures after all these years much like my love for this film. Back in the day you couldn’t find actresses who had the amount of cuteness and talent Thompson possessed, both traits that serve her performance as Lorraine splendidly. Like the other characters in Back To The Future she has more than her fair share of emotional hurdles to leap, and even spends most of the first act in hideous old-age makeup that still fails to conceal her timeless beauty, but Thompson lets us see the sweet and insecure teenager in her character who has to struggle to understand the feelings she has for Marty, and later for George. Thompson is a wonderful presence in the film and it’s sad that she never grew to become a great and respected actress, but at least she’s still around doing decent, dependable work in film and television.

In the supporting cast, the actors who stand out the most play the characters who represent the dark forces trying to keep Marty, his parents, and Doc from fulfilling their destinies: Thomas F. Wilson as Biff and James Tolkan, a veteran character actor, as Mr. Strickland, the principal of Hill Valley High. These two characters fuel their own egos by making others bend to their will and they make appropriate villains for Back To The Future. Wilson plays the typical high school bully who gets off on humiliating those he sees as inferior, particularly poor George McFly as someone who knows how to be an intimidating brute but not an intelligent one when you hear his malapropisms like “Why don’t you make like a tree… and get out of here?” Since he was a stand-up comedian before taking the Biff role (and still is to this day), Wilson knows how to play up the subtle humor in his character but never makes him anything less than a world class dickhead whose comeuppance towards the end of the movie makes you want to pump your fist in the air and shout “HELL YEAH!”

Tolkan plays Principal Strickland with total fascistic authority and not a solitary shred of heart and humor. The character doesn’t need it since the only thing Strickland believes in is discipline and not being a “slacker” (which is what he has always accused Marty and his father of being). In a sense Tolkan’s performance is a darkly amusing one as his ramrod posture and characteristically appropriate bald head make him seem more like a potential weapon of mass destruction than a human being and you never need to see Strickland get his comeuppance for the way he condescends to the film’s sympathetic heroes because as the scenes in 1955 and 1985 show, he seems destined to be a high school principal for the rest of his life, and that’s punishment enough.

I’m pleased to call Back To The Future one of the true cinematic classics released in my lifetime and a hugely entertaining film that I never outgrow, and the same can be said for many of those like me, including some of you reading this article. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna make like a tree… and leaf. What did you think I was going to say?

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