- Year: 1985
- Director: Robert Zemeckis
- Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson
Even if you’ve never seen Back to the Future, there’s a very high chance you’ve seen if referenced, homaged, or parodied in pop culture. 30 years later, it’s probably the most talked about film of 1985, as well as a contender for the most famous and beloved work of time travel fiction ever. So why does it hold up so well?
It would have been so easy for this movie to appear dated. It’s a high school movie from the 1980s where our lead character travels back to the 1950s. Plenty of ’80s high school movies are dated, simply by being drenched in the culture of time, but to also set in the ’50s could easily have been a disaster (*cough* Porkys *cough*). The ’80s view of the ’50s was almost as cliched as… well, our view of the ’80s today.
High school movies set in the ’50s tend to either portray students as completely wholesome or completely sex-crazed, with very little in between, but the characters in Back to the Future seem like real people. Sure, George McFly (Crispin Glover) comes across at first as a standard nerd, but once Marty (Michael J. Fox) gets him to open up, he’s quite a nice guy who has strength beyond his means. Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is one of the “popular” girls, but she has no issue associating with George and eventually falling in love with him.
The typical high school bully is also taken a look at with the character of Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). He’s not just a jerk who will grow out of it after high school, but rather an attempted rapist. It would have been so easy to have taken him down the “bullies because he’s insecure” route, but the movie deserves some serious props for being this dark with their bully.
Compare these subtle deconstructions with something like The Breakfast Club, which also aims to break down high school stereotypes, but does it with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. While it has its merits, so much of The Breakfast Club doesn’t hold up today. First of all, the characters break out of their stereotypes in the course of one afternoon, while Back to the Future takes place over the course of a week. At the end of The Breakfast Club, the others still make the “nerd” of the group do their assignment for them, while the bully who was verbally abusing a girl just hours before makes out with her.
I know, I know, this isn’t a critique of The Breakfast Club, so I’ll move on. Another thing that could have been so wrong is Marty and Doc’s friendship. When you think about, it’s a teenager who is close friends with the mad scientist who lives by himself. However, the way it’s portrayed shows that they’re just people of very different ages who happen to be friends. It really helps that Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) encourages Marty with Doc’s own words, showing that she respects him just as much as Marty does. Screenwriter Bob Gale and director Bob Zemeckis even came up with a backstory that explains the friendship. Marty snooped around at Doc’s place, befriended Doc as they both felt like outcasts, and Marty now works for Doc, helping with experiments and feeding his dog Einstein.
When people talk about the great characters in Back to the Future, Marty will always get mentioned as he’s the protagonist, but the focus is often on Doc for being the most bombastic and George for going through the most change. Marty’s traits and arc are more subtle than George’s, but they are still very much present. You might not notice it the first time you watch, but Marty has a very keen ability to see the good in society’s outcasts. He’s already done this with Doc Brown, and this helps him do the same with his own father as a teenager. Marty also has his own insecurities to overcome. Like his father with writing, Marty is afraid to share his guitar skills with the world, based on the fear of rejection. By the end, he finally overcomes this when he rocks the Enchantment Under the Sea dance with his rendition of Johnny B. Goode. The sequels feel the need to give him additional insecurities to overcome, but they feel shoehorned in compared to this realistic development.
The storytelling is absolutely flawless. Everything mentioned in the early parts of the movie comes back into play at some point, but it doesn’t feel forced. The Lorraine McFly in the original 1985 feels like someone who would endlessly reminisce about the past, as her marriage in its current state is awful. We understand why she mentions all the things Marty goes on to see in 1955. The clock tower supporter seems obsessed enough with her own cause that she would pass out fliers documenting the exact time lightning struck.
Science in time-travel movies is tough, because obviously time travel doesn’t exist in real life. It’s over-explained in some films and glossed over in others, but for the kind of movie Back to the Future is, it’s handled perfectly. Doc tells Marty the flux capacitor makes time travel possible, that he got the idea from falling off his toilet, and that plutonium is required, but that’s about it. It’s just enough to make us believe Doc invented time travel, but not enough to bore us. Plus, the time machine is a Delorean and Doc is a pretty cool scientist, so even his lines of exposition come across as awesome.
Every scene and basically every line is memorable, but there is a one-two-three punch of scenes at the film’s climax that cements Back to the Future as a classic. When George McFly, who everyone but Marty had counted out, finally finds his strength and knocks Biff out, saving Lorraine from assault, it’s pure triumph. It’s not just that they’ll end up together, but that they actually earn it. Their meeting in the original 1955 was pure coincidence. George has grown as a character, and the future George will never be the same.
This is followed by the dance scene, giving us the most romantic moment in the film (Lorraine and George finally kissing to “Earth Angel”) and the most fun (Marty playing Johnny B. Goode) back-to-back, and it is glorious. When “Earth Angel” fades, the romantic score comes in, and then the two play in conjunction, it’s just perfect. Also, pairing the seriousness of “Earth Angel” with the party feel of “Johnny B Goode” shows how well this film balances it serious and comedic moments.
With George and Lorraine’s story wrapped up, Marty still has to get back to 1985 and convince Doc to take precautionary measures against the Libyan terrorists who will otherwise kill him. Watching Marty try to tell Doc what’s going to happen in the future is heartbreaking, even when you know it will turn out alright. The Doc and Marty scenes in 1955 are beautifully bittersweet, as Marty knows this might be the last days he’ll ever spend with his friend. I love that the scene stays in 1955 after Marty goes back, because we get to see Doc celebrating his own success.
So is there anything about Back to the Future that doesn’t work? A good number of people take issue with the final scenes, where it is revealed that George and Lorraine now have a happy marriage and are pretty well off, due to George finally embracing his writing and getting published. Even Cripsin Glover took issue with this, saying the McFlies shouldn’t need money to be happy. For me though, it seems pretty clear that both the happy marriage and the money come from George’s character development. By believing in himself, he has become a better person, caring more about his wife and giving himself a successful career.
Some also take issue with Biff waxing George’s car, as George is employing his wife’s attempted rapist. A lot of those who dislike this, though, will make it sound like Biff is George’s personal slave or something. It’s made clear that he’s just the auto detail guy in town, and he is only at the McFly house when they need cars touched up.
Back to the Future is what happens when love is poured into every aspect of a film. The story, the directing, the performances, and the score all come together in perfect harmony. Oh, and what a score it is too. Apparently, Zemeckis didn’t think the story was good enough on its own, so he asked Alan Silvestri to compose the biggest theme he could… and boy did he.
There is some fish-out-of water comedy, but it’s used sparingly and incredibly well. Most of the comedy comes from the characters, as it should. The comedy and drama is mixed in just the right proportions, creating something that feels a lot like real life (you know, if we had time travel). It’s such a tightly-wound movie—no scene is wasted and the two hour run time flies by. Let’s take a look at the final score.
Story (30/30 Points)
Every scene is crucial,and the way characters are developed is unique and heartwarming. The three scenes at the climax just never let go.
Cast (30/30 Points)
The movie doesn’t have endless supporting characters, but there are five main characters who are all crucial to the story, and all of the actors give their all. Claudia Wells even makes the most of her few scenes as Jennifer.
Experience (25/25 Points)
It’s a gorgeous film to look at and listen to. The songs from ’80s and the ’50s are great, including “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis, which is perfect for the opening scenes. Of course, we all know and love the Johnny B. Goode scene. It’s something not often mentioned, but the aging makeup is really well done too, especially on Crispin Glover.
Originality (15/15 Points)
Very few time travel movies have someone change the future for the better, and even fewer have it stay that way at the end. That’s such a breath of fresh air. Of course, building a Delorean out of a time machine is pretty unique too.
FINAL SCORE: 100%
In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this is one of my favorite films, and it’s definitely the most fun film of all time. Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale clearly cared about this film a lot, and their vision shows in every frame. I respect them for saying they will never remake it or release a special edition with “updated” effects, because they understand the fans wouldn’t change a thing.
Trust me, there are still plenty of interesting time travel flicks to come. Next week, it’s an all-out comedy with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.