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Back to the Future (1985)
Written by Bob Gale & Robert Zemeckis
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Marty McFly is your average high school student. He lives in Hill Valley, California. He has a girlfriend. He has lame parents. He’s friends with an elderly disgraced nuclear physicist. You know as regular teenagers do. Things get heavy when Marty meets Doc Brown in a mall parking lot in the middle of the night. Doc shows off his modified Delorean, transformed into a mobile time machine. The experiment is cut short when the Libyan terrorists Doc stole plutonium from show up and kill the elderly scientist. Marty escapes in the Delorean and is tossed back to 1955 without the needed fuel to get time machine running again. To make matters worse, he interrupts his parents’ first meeting so that his future mother is now in love with him! The clock is ticking before Marty destroys his timeline and he needs the Doc Brown of 1955’s help to undo the damage.
A few years ago I rewatched Back to the Future after about ten years and was surprised with how funny the film is. As a child I was caught up in the Delorean and Marty stopping Biff, I didn’t notice the genuinely good comedy woven throughout the film. Michael J. Fox is, and Christopher Lloyd has some great reactions. The writing is also very tight and entertaining, playing off both young Doc Brown and Marty’s misunderstandings about the future and past respectively. When Doc asks Marty about who the President is in 1985 and Marty responds with Ronald Reagan, the older man scoffs at this and jokes about the other celebrities of the day who would hold cabinet positions.
I enjoy the smart way the fish out of water aspect is played in the film. Marty doesn’t believe what is happening is real at first, so he doesn’t think about the consequences of his actions on the timeline. He says things about the future without realizing how they could affect things. When he enters a local diner, he asks for a Tab and then a Pepsi Free leading to a funny, confusing moment. These time crossed misunderstandings are what add to the charm of the film.
As an adult, I can now see the exaggerated nature of reality in the film. In many ways, Back to the Future is a fairy tale where cynicism and the grim nature of reality are softened. Yes, Biff is sexually assaulting Marty’s mom when his dad rescues her, and she seems to recover surprisingly fast. But as I examined the movie closer, thinking about how these events went down without Marty’s presence, you realize his mom was probably sexually assaulted in a way that didn’t end with the assault being stopped in the previous timeline. This explains the bleakness of the opening scenes where we first meet Marty’s family. Back to the Future is like a child who is learning the reality behind his parents’ youth and trying to cover this up, make this ugliness more beautiful by rewriting his dad as a heroic figure who was able to save his mom and stop the bad guy. Back to the Future is the wish fulfillment of a child disappointed in their parents.
If I look at through the lens of Spielberg-wonder Back to the Future slips perfectly into that mold. Science is another word for magic in the film. Doc spouts lots of science-sounding vocabulary, and it sounds official, but the movie is interested in the hard science of time machines. There is a bit of fun theory about the nature of the timeline, what happens when you changed the circumstances of your conception, and how if you break these rules you can make a better world. It also helps that the scope of Back to the Future is a single city in California. No global threat or master villain is traveling through time with Marty. The story is intimate and simple which makes the picture so much more relatable.
Back to the Future, while so grounded in two specific eras, still feels timeless and relevant. The human stories being told in this fantasy comedy are universal. It’s not the most profound film ever made, but it isn’t mindless. Creative thought was put into the story in a way that makes it an incredibly magical experience.