Taken For Granted: Back to the Future
Good movies don’t just happen. Even when they do, there’s no guarantee that the movie will be successful. It’s rare that a movie comes along that manages to connect with audiences in a way that it becomes assimilated into the broader culture. But some movies do. Many connect in the moment, and some manage to endure long after the moment. A select few become touchstones that always garner the same response:
“What do you mean you haven’t seen X?”
However, there’s a funny thing about movies that are that popular. When everybody has seen something, the reasons for its success often get lost in the conversation. When everyone agrees that something is good, it doesn’t tend to breed meaningful conversation. After all, most people who see movies can see that a movie is good, but can’t always explain why.
These movies are Taken For Granted. This column is dedication to analyzing beloved classic movies; assessing what works, acknowledging what doesn’t, and ultimately affirming that most of them really are as good as we think they are.
Back to the Future
Wide Release Date: July 3, 1985
Directed By: Robert Zemeckis
Written By: Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Produced By: Bob Gale and Neil Canton
Cinematography By: Dean Cundey
Edited By: Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Distributed By: Universal Studios
Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly
Christopher Lloyd as Dr. Emmett Brown
Lea Thompson as Lorraine Baines-McFly
Crispin Glover as George McFly
Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen
What Do We All Know?
Robert Zemeckis’ time travel flick was the biggest hit of 1985 and the eighth highest grossing film of the 1980’s. More tellingly, the film has endured for over thirty years as one of the most popular and critically acclaimed movies of all time. It spawned two sequels, both hugely popular in their own right. Its characters, concepts and even the minutia (1.21 gigawatts, the DeLorean) have been absorbed into popular culture. On its thirtieth anniversary people were lamenting that we still don’t have hoverboards. As Michael J. Fox puts it; “It’s ironic that a movie about time travel is timeless.”
If you read last week’s column, you may recall that if I asked if Jurassic Park was the classic we all remember it as, or if it was overrated. Well, that ain’t happening this week, because Back to the Future is a bonafide classic. Any criticism I have toward it is solely of the academic, analytical variety, not in the negative “Well this movie sucks” sense. We’ll look at some of the small details that don’t work, but the first Back to the Future is just a flat out great movie. Why?
What Went Right?
Back to the Future is a perfect concoction of blockbuster science fiction and high school drama, two genres that would seemingly have nothing to do with each other but work perfectly in this movie. Because of that unique combination, it was incredibly fresh in 1985, and still feels fresh today because any other movie that goes for that combo is going to immediately be compared to Back to the Future. It’s a million dollar idea, though many didn’t think it would be. It was too risqué for Disney and too tame for studios who were thought films aimed at teenagers should all be like Porky’s. So, being an original, fresh idea that didn’t really fit neatly into any established box? Yeah, that’ll get you noticed by people.
But being new is rarely enough for something to last. Back to the Future wasn’t just a new idea; it was a new story with a meticulously laid out script that’s easy to follow. Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Dale came up with clever ideas like Marty inventing skateboards and rock ‘n’ roll, but to make that play, they had to establish those things in the opening. This logic is applied to almost every conversation; Marty experiences things in the future that echo in the past and then payoff again in the future. There’s something more at play there, but for now, I just want to acknowledge that this film’s script is as well-plotted as they come. It’s a good story and it would be a good story even if the film didn’t have more to offer.
Fortunately, it does. The film knows the story is going to be the main “fresh” material, so it wisely plays its characters as arch as possible. Marty McFly and Doc Brown are playing the Likable Young Protagonist and Wise Old Mentor figure to a tee. They are right up there with Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi as examples of this trope. Marty is mostly unremarkable but he has skills, guile and courage that make him useful and interesting. Doc Brown is brilliant and resourceful, but never comes across as being perfect or able to solve everything. They are a team, and their bond is the emotional center of the film.
It doesn’t hurt that they are being played by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Fox embodies an everyman effortlessly, but he’s also a gifted comedic actor whose reactions and body language elevate the material he’s working with. Lloyd is not an actor with a ton of range, but he’s perfectly suited to the material here. I really don’t think the film would have worked with any other combination of actors.
When the plot goes back to 1955, we get more classic archetypes. George McFly is as socially awkward, off putting and non-threatening as bullied nerd characters get. Biff Tannen? A stereotypical bully so evil that he doesn’t even have layers; given the opportunity, he’d gleefully rape Lorraine or run Marty over with his car. Lorraine is a bit of an exception, as she’s a girl next door but not really a wholly innocent one. That isn’t nagging, by the way, just pointing out that her sexuality isn’t what we expect from her stock character. It would be jarring even if she wasn’t Marty’s mom.
Speaking of that…
What Went Wrong?
This section is going to be short. The possible incest of the movie is not really necessary. If Marty had saved his father from the car, the timeline would be altered regardless. However, it would drastically change the plot, with Lorraine not in the picture as much and Biff likely becoming the rival for her affections. So, while the incest is creepy, it does help the plot and thus works. And unlike certain other movies from the 1980’s that have possible incest…
Ahem. At least this movie wants us to be creeped out by the implication. That’s sort of an example of why this movie works so damn well. Even the stuff that should be bad on paper works within the context of the movie. The only real problems it could have are the usual paradoxes of time-travel. Which, it does have; how the parents don’t put together their pieces when their son looks exactly like the guy they named him after is just kind of baffling. But this is a very minor quibble in a film that just rarely ever makes a wrong turn.
What Went Really Right?
So Back to the Future was a fresh, enjoyable story with good actors playing good characters. The screenplay was smart and funny, Alan Silvestri’s score was great, cinematographer Dean Cundey is one of the best in the business for blockbusters; it’s just well made all around. But the reason it connected with audiences in 1985 and continues to resonant now is that it has a strong thematic premise; what if children could interact with their parents when they were children?
The film is largely set in 1955, which means that it doesn’t just appeal to teenagers in 1985, but to their parents as well. While the film shows the differences, it is primarily about how parents and children have more in common with each other than they admit. As previously mentioned; conversations in 1955 are set up in 1985, with Marty getting to see how his parents were like him, and also how they changed as people. It brings them closer, but it also has this effect; as a kid or an adult, Back to the Future will speak to you. That’s why it’s easy to rewatch and has stood the test of time.
It truly is timeless.
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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include The Witch, Zootopia, and the classic Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup.