Back to the Future (1985)

Posted: September 21, 2013 in Favorite Films
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16. Back to the Future (1985)

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson

Have you ever had a look at your parents’ old high school yearbooks? If you have, like me, you may find yourself flashing back to those years in your mind as if you had been there. Never mind that the pictures are all in black & white, because the imagination can still view it all in vivid Technicolor. If we could physically travel back in time to when our parents were teenagers, they might appear just as we picture them, or maybe they could surprise us still. One October night in the parking lot of a shopping mall in Hill Valley, California, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is able to take just such a journey.

Marty is a 17-year old kid with dreams of becoming a rock musician, but lacking the self-confidence to achieve his goals. In this way, he reminds himself of his father, George (Crispin Glover), who is so lacking in courage that he’s never been able to stand up for himself in his life. Marty’s mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson, one of my earliest celebrity crushes thanks to this movie) is just as disappointing to him, a heavy drinker who disapproves of his girlfriend. Her story of how she and George fell in love sounds more pitiful than romantic, yet it is the basis for the very existence of Marty and his two older siblings. The only thing keeping Marty from going crazy is his friendship with Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc is anxious to show off his new invention, which turns out to be a DeLorean converted into the world’s first time machine. It is this vehicle by which Marty will find himself stuck in 1955. One of the first things he manages to do while there is bump into both his parents and prevent the incident that led to their romance and his eventual birth.

His interaction with the 17-year old versions of his parents is by far my favorite thing about “Back to the Future.” Lorraine is not the depressive stick-in-the-mud he’s become familiar with. Instead she’s an assertive, rebellious teenage girl who actually likes sitting in parked cars with boys. But it’s George who I relate to most. He’s a lonely, science fiction writer who could make something of himself if only he had the willpower. He’s equally helpless when it comes to the ladies. The diner scene where he’s trying to woo Lorraine with a pick-up line fed to him by Marty is nothing short of cringe-worthy. I feel your pain, George! Michael J. Fox plays this part of the movie wonderfully, as Marty sets up a scenario by which he can help George make his pivotal date with Lorraine happen. To steal a line from the 1978 Superman movie: “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

A danger that any comedy may face is that its gags will begin to really date the movie over time. An example of that from this all-but flawless movie involves product placement (of which there may be more in “Back to the Future” than in any other movie I know about), specifically regarding the soft drink Pepsi Free. Only two years after the movie was released, the name “Pepsi Free” was discontinued, and the drink has been known simply as Caffeine-Free Pepsi ever since. Another danger that can completely sink a movie is when a character is miscast. I can’t imagine anyone other than Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, yet it almost didn’t happen due to his attachment to TV’s “Family Ties.” Actor Eric Stoltz was to be his replacement. Many scenes were filmed with Stoltz, and there is plenty of archival evidence that exists to this day, but director Robert Zemeckis could sense that it wasn’t working out. Luckily, Michael J. Fox was so interested in the part that he was willing to work on both the movie and his TV show, thus not leaving much time for him to sleep each day. What a trooper!

The one segment of the “Back to the Future” story which I adore most is the entire Enchantment Under the Sea dance sequence. I’m especially fond of the character growth which George goes through, standing up to Biff Tannen (the consummate bully, played by Thomas F. Wilson) and protecting Lorraine all at once. Of course, there’s also the music. As much as I love the iconic score by Alan Silvestri and the great songs by Huey Lewis, it’s the rendition of “Earth Angel” playing during the dance which really tugs away at the heartstrings.

In addition to an almost certain influence from Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone,” Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale drew their inspiration from two movies in particular: 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and the 1960 adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” Both of these are must-see movies for any serious moviegoer, but if you’re looking for something fun with a nice message presented in a way that only the 1980’s could, and you’ve somehow managed to go this long without seeing it at least once in your life, then steer yourself at 88 mph in the direction of “Back to the Future”!


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