A film review by Craig J. Koban
BACK TO THE FUTURE
20th Anniversary Retrospective
1985, PG, 117 mins. Marty McFly: Michael J. Fox / Dr. Brown: Christopher LLoyd / Lorriane Baines: Lea Thompson
/ George McFly: Crispin Glover / Biff Tannen: Thomas F. Wilson
/ Jennifer Parker: Claudia Wells
BACK TO THE FUTURE ½
20th Anniversary Retrospective
1985, PG, 117 mins.
Marty McFly: Michael J. Fox / Dr. Brown: Christopher LLoyd / Lorriane Baines: Lea Thompson
/ George McFly: Crispin Glover / Biff Tannen: Thomas F. Wilson
/ Jennifer Parker: Claudia Wells
Revisiting the first BACK TO THE FUTURE picture is, ironically enough, like traveling in a time machine and looking back fondly at a unique period in our pop culture.
The film originally played, more or less, like a loving time capsule of a kinder and more congenial period in American history (in its case, the 1950’s). Now, it sort of plays on many more distinct levels. BACK TO THE FUTURE is one of those wonderful films in a genre I like to call hybrid cinema. It’s part escapist special effects picture, part family comedy, part high school teen comedy, part mad (well, not quite so mad) scientist film, part social satire and commentary, part Frank Capra-esque small-town parable, and finally part science fiction film. That it amalgamates all of these facets so well is a testament to this film’s longevity and popularity over the years. BACK TO THE FUTURE remains one of the more endearing and entertaining films of the 80’s and, not only that, but it established itself as one of the best time travel films ever concocted, at least in Carl Sagan's eyes.
Time travel is nothing new to popular fiction. H.G. Wells was writing about it in THE TIME MACHINE nearly a century before the film came out. Also, earlier films before BACK TO THE FUTURE that were popular with the film-going public also intrigued interest in time travel, like James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR from 1984. That movie chronicled a killing cyborg that was sent from the future and to the past in order to kill a woman that would eventually give birth to a future leader that would destroy the machines.
Although that science fiction film was more of a visceral action-adventure picture, it still posed a lot of problematic and metaphysical questions about the very nature of time travel. I guess I say problematic in the sense of referring to the bane of existence of all time travel pictures – paradox. For example, if you sent a robot from the future and into the past and he did, in fact, kill the woman, why would any intelligence in the future need to decide to send the robot back to kill her when she already died? Also, what if you were a soldier and were sent into the past from the future by a man that turns out to be your own son that you conceived with the woman in the past. If the man did not send you back to the past you would not have met the woman, not have conceived the child, who would then not have lived on into the future to send you into the past in the first place. I have just gone crossed-eyed.
Okay, there is an acceptable level of disbelief when it comes to the issue of time travel and paradox in films. I think if you constantly become a needless a pragmatist over these issues then it can seriously impede your enjoyment of an otherwise good film. Most films that have dealt with time travel have wisely avoided the issue of paradox altogether, but the most fascinating and refreshing aspect of BACK TO THE FUTURE is in the way it embraces the nature of Chaos Theory and paradox and let’s them provide for an overall story arc for the film.
The film is overwhelmingly a light comedy, but underneath it all it poses some truly enthralling questions. For starters, what if you time traveled back to the past, met both of your parents before they hooked up, and then you accidentally did something that impaired their ability to get together, get married, and have kids. Obviously, if they never married then they would have never conceived you…the consequences would obviously be disastrous. You would cease to exist. It’s an incredibly creepy notion, and it's sort of indicative of how BACK TO THE FUTURE, outside of its comic high jinks, actually is a sort of sinister in its tone. The film also proposes something even more lurid – what if you made your own mother, in the past, fall in love with you instead of your future father? Oh my…paging Dr. Freud.
I think that’s the key to the overall success of the film. It's funny in all of the right places, has the right effective balance between light comedy and almost farcical pratfalls and physical gags, has a keen eye for social commentary, and it finally tells a science fiction tale of time travel that does not ignore the issue of paradox, but rather embraces it. It's not so much that the film’s young teenage time traveler, Marty McFly, has to get back to the future with his time traveling machine, but he actually has to fix the mistakes he has made in the past in order to ensure his basic survival in the present. Not only that, but the film also tantalizes its viewers with something even more appealing – if you could help your parents out in the past so that they are not complete social misfits and awkward parents in the present, then wouldn't you? If your father was a hopelessly apathetic and tireless dweeb, would you not want to, if you had the power, help him in the past in order to make him more empowered in the present? Sign me up!
Despite the film’s enormous success at the box office in 1985, it did not have an easy path to the big screen. The film was co-written by future Oscar winning director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, whose previous screenwriting credits were somewhat dubious, to say the least (they wrote Steven Spielberg’s 1979 bomb 1941). Bob Gale had the inspiration for the basic premise of the film while looking at an old high school yearbook of his father’s and wondering if he would have been a friend with him as a teenager. This created a springboard for the film’s concept of a teen that is accidentally time traveled back to the past and subsequently meets his parents as teens. After the script was completed, Zemeckis tried to sell the idea to Disney, but they felt that the idea of a teen time traveling back to meet his parents in the past with his mom accidentally falling in love with him was too risqué. Although there is no denying the obvious incestual overtones of the film, Disney’s concerns seemed overzealous in hindsight. In fact, while trying to sell the concept of the film many studios found it lacking in risqué content. In an age when more adult-oriented teen comedies like FAST TIME AT RIDGEMONT HIGH and REVENGE OF THE NERDS were popular, BACK TO THE FUTURE seemed too wholesome in comparison.
The film eventually found a home at Universal Pictures and with Zemeckis’ buddy in Mr. Spielberg. As a result, the film got a confident green light. Although it may seem impossible to envision the time machine to be anything but the DeLorean that was in the final cut (a 1981 DMC-12 model, with a 6-cylinder PRV Peugeot engine, to be more specific), Zemeckis and Gale postulated other concepts before they arrived at the now famous car. Early concepts in first drafts included everything from a laser to a fridge that was attached to an atomic bomb (now that would have made for an interesting time machine). Fearing that they did not want children to climb into refrigerators, Zemeckis and Spielberg eventually opted for the DeLorean…wise choice, indeed.
With the script ready, pre-production complete, and a nifty and unique time traveling device settled on, the filmmakers then set their sights on a star to headline the film. Eric Stolz was originally cast as Marty McFly and Zemeckis actually filmed a large amount of footage with the then young star. However, as he revealed in the supplemental features on the recently released DVD set of the film, Zemeckis made one of his “hardest” decisions in firing Stoltz, who he then thought was not right for the role after the numerous weeks of filming. His replacement was Michael J. Fox, who was then garnering great critical and audience accolades for his role as Alex P. Keaton on the hit show FAMILY TIES. The role of Marty McFly proved to be one of the most influential to the unfolding of Fox’s star power, but it would also prove to be physically and emotionally taxing on him. He would film FAMILY TIES all day and into the afternoon and then rush straight from that show’s set to the BACK TO THE FUTURE shoot and work until 6 am in the morning. In a recent interview Fox claimed to have only slept two hours a night for nearly two months while filming FAMILY TIES and the film concurrently.
To act as a foil to the hot-headed impulsiveness of Fox's teen character, the filmmakers made an inspired casting decision by getting Christopher Lloyd to play Emmett “Doc” Brown, the inventor of the famous DeLorean time machine that ran on plutonium through its "flux capacitor". John Lithgow original was considered for the role, but Lloyd, as with Fox, was a gifted TV actor who managed to inspire great laughter with his comic performance, in this case on TAXI. Basing his manic and intensely zany performance on, to his own admission, Albert Einstein and conductor Leopold Stokowski, Lloyd managed to create one of the more endearing and silly performances to grace the silver screen of the mid-80’s. Along with his agitated and near possessed scientific zeal, Brown and McFly emerged as a sort of offbeat comic duo with a lot of chemistry, with Fox playing the relative straight man to Lloyd’s outrageous and hyperactive grandstanding. Watching Lloyd you really do believe that a guy as kooky as him invented a time machine.
As for the film’s basic plot, it is set up simply and expeditiously. It begins in the present (in this case, 1985) with a skateboarding and guitar playing McFly who manages to live out a typical teenage life in small town middle-America. He's sort of a recluse, chastised equally by both his mother and his teachers. His parents are an eclectic bunch, to say the least. His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is kind of an alcoholic white trash figure whereas his father George (the very funny and memorable Crispin Glover) is a middle age man so preoccupied with overt dweebiness that he makes Napoleon Dynamite seem suave and sophisticated. Well, poppa McFly seems content with watching reruns of The Honeymooners and letting his boss Biff (the wonderfully contemptible and crude Thomas F. Wilson) walk all over him. Mama McFly guzzles Vodka with every evening meal. Gosh, if only Marty could fix his parents in some way.
Well, the only stability that young Marty has is in his friendship with the local mad scientist Dr. Brown, who just may be the nuttiest inventor in recent screen memory. It seems that Doc has discovered the secret of time travel (in this case, take a cool looking car, put some sophisticated gadgets on it, fuel it with a dangerous power source, and voila – instant time machine). One night at a local deserted shopping mall, Marty and Doc successfully test his time machine. Well, through a series of surprises, Marty eventually ends up in the time machine and winds up going back exactly 30 years into the past and visits his hometown in 1955. Obviously, having a pimped-up DeLorean show up in 1955 would make some heads turn (there is a very funny sight gag where a farmer mistakes the car and Marty in his radiation suit to be an spaceship and alien respectively). When Marty makes it into town, more time travel culture shock strikes the young man, who obviously does not quite fit into the ultra-conservative socio-cultural norms of the 50’s. Even as he walks through the town in his goose down vest, many people look at him incredulously and ask him why he’s wearing a life preserver.
Marty makes a few mistakes early on. There is a funny play on words when he orders a “Pepsi Free” (now renamed Diet Pepsi) and the café owner barks back, “If ya wanna drink pal, you gotta pay for it.” He also makes a key error in judgment when he bumps into his teenage father at the same café. He was…or is…the same hopeless nerd he will become in the future, who is picked on by his future boss, who is in 1955 a bitter and mean school bully. Marty makes one catastrophic mistake when he follows George around and accidentally stops a key event from happening – in this case, his father meeting his mother. As a result of this (and unfortunately for Marty), his future mom develops a gigantic crush on him instead. Yikes!
Realizing the severity of his situation, Marty seeks out the only man who can help him, the young 1955 Doc Brown. Needless to say, Marty has a very tricky time trying to convince Doc who he is and how he got to 1955. When he tries to tell Doc that Ronald Regan will become the US President in the future, Doc responds completely stupefied and screams out, “The actor? Who is vice-president…Jerry Lewis??!!” Eventually, Marty is able to provide proof of the existence of the time machine to Doc and he concocts an amazingly elaborate scheme to get Marty back to the future. There is only one BIG problem – since Marty stopped his parents from getting together, this could mean that they will not get married and not have kids, thus creating a paradox which could make Marty become “erased from existence.” Not only has Marty got to get back to his time, but he also must now get his dorky dad to ask out his popular mom so they can…well…you know.
20 years after its release, the one aspect that still holds up terrifically in this film is how much fun it has with the underlying material. I appreciate how this film basically forgets any pretence of scientific plausibility (the time traveling car concept is, let’s face it, ludicrous) and instead invests in its basic story and allows the performances to bring out the natural comedy and satire. BACK TO THE FUTURE has been unfortunately labeled a science fiction film. Yes, it has concepts grounded in the genre, but it’s nowhere near the level of other escapist entertainments (the film is not interested in showing us bold visual sights and images – it only has 32 special effects shots in total). Rather, the film works as a very funny and undemanding family comedy and tries to explore issues of time travel paradox as they would, more or less, occur.
One of the great pleasures in the film is to see the comedy shine through even in the direst circumstances. When faced with the possibility of his life being erased due to paradox, Marty responds with a 1980’s vernacular that his situation is “heavy,” to which Doc asks, “Why do you always say that? Is there something wrong with the Earth’s gravitational pull in the future?” Another funny scene occurs where Marty unveils to Doc a futuristic camcorder from 1985 and shows him a video of him in a radiation suit testing the DeLorean in the future. After seeing the footage Doc then surmises, “That suit…of course…I must need it to protect myself from all of the fallout from your future’s atomic wars!” BACK TO THE FUTURE is filled with witty, satiric running gags like these all through it its two hours. Even more funny is a wild and wacky moment where Marty, who ends up a a local high school dance and plays with the prom band, engages in a wild electric guitar solo and, as a result, inadvertently and single-handedly invents rock 'n roll. While Marty plays wildly, the other band member, Marvin Berry, calls up his cousin Chuck and tells him "I've found that new sound you're looking for!"
The film became one of the biggest hits of the 1980’s, and it not only launched the film career of Michael J. Fox, but it also marked the launching of a series of even greater films by director Zemeckis. His future films, like WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, FORREST GUMP, and most recently the exceptional POLAR EXPRESS have revealed him to be one of the eminent film pioneers and voices of his generation. BACK TO THE FUTURE may appear, at face value, to be an affable and pleasant comedy, but it also acted as a catalytic spark that launched the creation of many more important films to come.
BACK TO THE FUTURE is a film that has aged, but it still nevertheless maintains a reputation for being one of the more unique and offbeat time travel pictures. Yet, it should not really be remembered as a sci-fi comedy as it mostly tries to forget about science and go straight for the comedy instead. The film playfully swims through the inventiveness of its smart and crafty screenplay and is able to get genuine laughs out of its material while not ignoring the issues of paradox and Chaos Theory in time travel. For what it’s worth, I look at the film as sort of a nice combination of the bold ideas of Wells mixed with some Capra-esque charm, warmth, and humor that comes naturally out of human relationships. The film emerges now to be a wonderful piece of 1980’s escapist nostalgia and poses a very serious object lesson to all prospective time travelers out there:
If you’re going to time travel into the past, make damn sure that you don’t accidentally bump into your mom and let her “get the hots” for you.