Today I watched Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985)
A bonafide Hollywood classic of the Eighties, Back to the Future may be the most popular time travel movie ever. Yet despite it’s pop appeal, the story is actually pretty funny in how gross, dark, and weird it can get. It is the story of Marty McFly, a likable every-guy in high school. While his life is otherwise perfectly fine, his family are all extremely lame, especially his nebbish father, and this weighs rather heavily on Marty. A strange element of Marty’s life is his friendship with eccentric scientist Emmett Brown, who just so happens to have invented time travel, and he needs Marty to help him document the maiden voyage of his time machine, a Delorean automobile, cementing the only lasting legacy for that odd automobile in pop culture. But it just so happens that Doc Brown stole some plutonium from Libyan terrorists and during the trial run with Marty, the terrorists attack and kill him. Marty manages to escape by jumping into the Delorean and driving away, but just before he does that, Doc Brown had primed it for time travel and now Marty finds himself thirty years in the past. Not only does the car not have enough plutonium loaded up to bring him home, but he just saved the young man who will become his father from being hit by a car, a car accident that would have allowed Marty’s parents to meet and fall in love. So now not only does Marty need to get home with the help of a younger Doc Brown, but he has to get his parents to fall for one another or he will never be born.
So that weirdness I was talking about, being reductionist about this, it’s a movie about a guy trying not to have sex with his mom, though it’s not a Freudian as it sounds. And let’s be frank here, Marty’s mom is really forward and touchy in a manner that is not really acceptable. For example she thinks Marty’s name is Calvin Klein because she reads it on his boxers because she took his pants off when her father brings him in after knocking him out with his car, that is sexual harassment. Marty’s dad on the other hand is a peeping tom in his youth and what about Doc Brown’s connection with these Libyan terrorists? We do see him bribing police later so he certainly seems a much shiftier character than he lets on. This raunchiness and seemingly implied darkness behind the mad science elements of the plot all seem subtly self aware in a manner that really enhances the film. Watching it in my youth I never caught on to some of the darker undertones but watching it now, it doesn’t distract, it enhances the experience of re-watching it.
That being said what really makes this film work, to me, are three things, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Alan Silvestri. Those two actors and their characters have become legendary for this film and series, so I’ll make it short. I would think that such an unhinged and crazy performance as the one delivered by Lloyd as Doc Brown would steal every scene, but somehow Fox manages to match him consistently as an identifiable straight man in Marty. Silvestri on the other hand is the composer and so much of what works about this film, what makes it a timeless classic, and what makes it stand out can be credited to his score tying all the disparate elements together. His score amplifies the adventure and the wonder instead of the humour, reminding us how crazy and wild the situation is. It makes a film, which can often be a rather tame teen comedy set in a small area, into something grand, into a spectacle.
And it is a spectacle with a big heart, a genuineness that often seems lost to today’s blockbusters and audience pleasing comedy. The film has a message to it about self determination, not living in bad faith, and pushing oneself to accomplish goals and make the most of life, and despite that being a very stock theme, it is one that should never go unappreciated. This big heart beats in the chest of a film brimming with creativity, hilarious gags, many using the time travel concept to it’s fullest, and classic characters. It really is a marvel of genre mash-up, a wonderfully humerous teen comedy, an exciting sci-fi adventure, a period piece, and it all makes it a classic of the golden age of the blockbuster. One that I am sure you have seen, so just make sure your kids don’t miss out on it. 5/5