Summer Sight and Sound: A Ride “Back to the Future”

By: Daniel Reynolds

To see part one of the Same Page’s Summer Sight and Sound series–a look at the biggest films of each decade from 1975 on–start here.

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The first thing you remember about Robert Zemeckis‘ Back to the Future is the car – the DeLorean DMC-12. Like the film, it somehow looks both wildly futuristic and hopelessly dated. As a visual totem, the DeLorean also evokes the film’s unique appeal as one of the more unlikely film franchises in recent movie history. Cars have long figured prominently into films, but none have been this car. Back to the Future was not based on pre-existing material; its lead actor was a TV star at a time when a jump into a movie career required the equivalent of 1.21 gigawatts of power; and while Zemeckis was fresh off directing the hit Romancing the Stone, he wasn’t quite a Spielberg or Lucas. Still, it blasted along to become the highest grossing film of 1985, earning over $200 million domestically, after its release 30 years ago this past weekend.

There is a timelessness to Back to the Future that belies its actual content. On the one hand, it’s a rather straightforward adventure yarn (despite the role time travel plays in the plot), complete with a wide-eyed smart aleck hero Marty McFly (played exuberantly by Michael J. Fox), memorable mentor Doc Brown (a hammy-by-design Christopher Lloyd), and quintessential bully Biff Tannen (the forever typecast Thomas F. Wilson) as the villain. There’s a romance involved–but not the one you’d expect (in fact, it’s mostly much creepier)–and while the film enjoys tweaking 1950’s sensibilities, it’s done with genuine affection. (Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale were both born in ’51.) Through it all, the script obeys the tenets of the classic Hero’s Journey. But on the other hand, it’s kind of a batshit movie.

Doc Brown and Marty McFly chat outside the famous DeLorean.

Doc Brown and Marty McFly chat outside the famous DeLorean.

Foremost (and most hilariously), Back to the Future is supremely confident in its perceived coolness. The film makes hay from McFly’s hip 80s clothes, his choice of beverage (Pepsi Free!), and his shredding skills on both a skateboard and an electric guitar. He’s a proto-Bart Simpson. Naturally, his parents are both hopelessly out of touch. That last point sticks out as we meet the McFlys in this initial darkest timeline of the 80s – the sad pairing of George and Lorraine (played by Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson), the broken siblings and relatives, their run down home. The McFly’s town is one of casual despair, of graffiti-ed walls and vacant buildings. It’s the fallout of Reagan-era politics on small town America when only the cool, like Marty (and his prop girlfriend), could see a way out to the future. Oh yeah, and as if this paragraph wasn’t dated enough: the inciting villains of Back to the Future are Libyan terrorists. Remember: Muammar Gaddafi was a big deal back then.

These are the (batshit) things you don’t remember about Back to the Future, or at least these are the things I’d forgotten. The plot machinations of the opening–and much of the film–are dense and some kind of ridiculous. Do you remember those aforementioned Libyans driving down main street in a VW bus with a rocket launcher pointed out the sun roof? How about Doc Brown getting gunned down in cold blood? Did I mention the almost-rape scene that happens later, when Biff forces himself onto Lorraine before George can have his hero moment? How did we get here? Wait, don’t answer that! (It involves Marty’s young mother falling in lust with him, which eventually causes Marty to start disappearing because his parents never meet, so he has to coach his hopeless loser father on how to be a cool guy. See what I mean: dense, ridiculous and oh yes, creepy.) The better question is how did Zemeckis ever get this made?

Marty being cool.

Marty being cool.

It feels simplistic to say this but Back to the Future was released at a time when Hollywood had the stomach to invest big on brand new ideas. It still had its eye towards sequels of course, with the third Star Wars and Jaws films out by 1983. But generally, the time for something original was right. Back to the Future would go on to become the booming middle act to Zemeckis’s early career, after Romancing the Stone’s prior success and before the technical leap forward that Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would later represent. But the trick of all three movies was that they owed their underlying structure and tone to something old (adventure serials, small town Americana, classic cartoons), even as they pushed their new ideas forward. In Back to the Future‘s case, it was a trade-in on a booming teen culture and, yes, it was about being cool. That it could find a place for both Van Halen and Chuck Berry, to name one example, provides a neat summary of this intent.

The irony now is that all of Back to the Future feels like something of a relic. Its politics are quaint, everyone overacts in it (not just Lloyd, though he’s the best at it), and its coolness is now hopelessly hokey (or worse, can only be enjoyed for said irony). Finally, there’s that DeLorean. It’s easy to see in retrospect how that car could capture the visual imagination of the masses in the summer of 1985. It had all those funky electronics and LED displays, the sleek grey metal, the doors that fanned out vertically. But unlike the muscle cars of the previous decades, or James Bond’s tireless Aston Martin, the DeLorean doesn’t quite escape its decade. It’s no longer really cool, but rather a vision of a future timeline that never came to pass. To its credit, Back to the Future, much like its weird car, will always be charming in its boldness. The thought of pitching a movie like it now feels even more crazy than some of its dated content. In that way, it’s not ahead or behind its time, but beyond it.

The Summer Sight and Sound series continues next month with a delirious look back at everyon’s favourite comic book movie, Batman Forever.

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