Some time ago we did a whole episode on time travel films without mentioning Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s Back to the Future series, their bold updating of Oedipus, so today we remedy that oversight and see if the pride of 1985 and its follow-ups live up to their reputations, and their posters. Remember when movie posters were good?
Back to the Future feels like one of those films I don’t actually need to describe, having found its way into popular culture in so many ways, in particular as a shorthand for a type or mechanic of time travel. But someone is born every second who hasn’t seen it, so perhaps you haven’t either. The setup is this: in 1985 in the California town of Hill Valley, Christopher Lloyd’s Doctor Emmett Brown, a cross between your typical mad scientist type and a failed inventor, has finally made something that works: a time machine, powered by a device called a “flux capacitor”. He has housed this machine within an example of the rubbish-but-striking DMC DeLorean, and created perhaps the most iconic car in film history.
To document the first test, Doc Brown enlists the help of his friend, Michael J. Fox’s totally a teenager, Marty McFly (no-one’s buying it, but his short stature helps sell it a little) to operate the video camera, and an astonished Marty watches as the car, and the Doc’s dog, disappears before his eyes and then reappears a minute later. Super successful, and only requiring a mere 1.21 jigawatts of electricity per trip, supplied by the everyday staple of plutonium, which the Doc has ripped off from a group of Libyan terrorists. These Libyans, super-pissed and wanting their plutonium back, suddenly appear and shoot down the Doc. Marty flees in the DeLorean and, when he hits the magical speed of 88mph, disappears. To thirty years earlier.
Back in 1955, a bewildered Marty accidentally disrupts the meeting of his parents, causing a rift in the space-time continuum that could destroy the universe. Or maybe just mean he’s never born, though for Marty that may be indistinguishable. He then enlists the help of the Doc from 1955 to juice up the DeLorean and get Marty back to the future (boom, title-drop) and turn what at first seems a science fiction adventure into a time-travelling, culture clash, fish-out-of-water caper with elements of nostalgia, romance, coming of age and even alternative history.
As with all time travel in films, it pays not to think about Back to the Future’s too much, or at all. If you start asking yourself why not much more has changed in Marty’s house when he returns than the furniture and happier parents, when his entire shared family history would be alien to him, then you’re going to find the whole thing is a house of cards.
All time travel is nonsense, but this film’s conceits make a sort of sense on the surface, and the cause-and-effect stuff it pays attention to, and the general mechanics, are easy to grasp for a broad audience. The likes of Primer may at least appear to have a greater ring of truthiness about them, but have considerably less joy. Plus, a DeLorean is one hell of a lot more fun than man-sized Tupperware (though, amusingly, the original notion for the time machine in BTTF was a fridge).
Like Jaws, Back to the Future is, for me, one of those rare perfect films where there is nothing about it I think could realistically be improved. While not every joke may land for everyone, while some performances may not be to the taste of all, structurally I think it is nigh on flawless, thanks to Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ superb script. Everything is set up and paid off, and with no clunky exposition. From the opening scene, even though we may not realise it, we’re being fed information that will become relevant later in the film. News stories about the Libyans, old black and white TV episodes, variants of Pepsi, the name of the mayor, the broken clock: all important either to the plot or to set up comedy, but not one with a lantern hung on it, rather all part of the texture of Hill Valley. There are even references that would pay off in the sequels, but this is thanks to the writers’ skills and not some “it was always meant to be a trilogy” planning (or bullshit, as that is usually called).
Bizarrely, though, this incredibly well-crafted script managed to be too subtle for some people (idiots, we will call them), even people I generally held in reasonable regard like John Gruber of Daring Fireball, who went a bit crazy earlier this year over a YouTube clip called “Easter Egg or Thing in the Movie: Lone Pine Mall from “Back to the Future”” in which the reason for the name change of the shopping mall at the end of the film is spelled out for the hard of thinking. Jeebus. This isn’t a lot of people belatedly noticing that creepy wee bastard pointing to his junk at the end of Part III, this is something that was related to significant plot points, action and crucial locations. But I digress.
Easter egg. Fuck’s sake.
Sorry, did it again.
While Back to the Future may, now, be further away from us than 1955 was from Marty McFly, I think it still stands up incredibly well, though of course it’s difficult for me to be objective about this. However, this will not stop me, and you can consider my recommendation unassailable.
Following on directly from the first instalment, we make good on Doc Brown’s offer to stop unpleasantness happening to Marty and Jennifer (now a recast Elisabeth Shue)’s kid in the far flung future of 2015. Impersonating the junior version of himself, he stops his involvement with Griff Tannen’s criminal scheme, played by Thomas F. Wilson, of course, with only a minimum of hoverboard related mayhem. It’s just a shame Marty can’t take the antique sporting almanac back to ’85 with him for betting purposes.
That’s not a scruple that the elderly Biff Tannen has, who takes advantage of a window of distraction to nip back to 1955 and give his younger self the means to gamble his way to unlimited wealth, creating an alternate 1985 where he’s one of the richest, most powerful men around, and Marty’s step-dad, after George McFly’s death due to contract negotiation failure. If you are aged between 35 and 55 and exhibit symptoms, consult your G.P. immediately.
Realising what’s happened, it’s up to Doc and Marty to stop them, while Jennifer continues to remain as asleep as is possible to avoid having to write lines for girls or something. So off they head to 1955 to nick the almanac back from Young Biff, while avoiding the versions of themselves already kicking about this cluttered temporal junction.
In what’s still in the main a comedy, there’s not much point me giving you much more of a recommendation than to say that it remains extremely funny, due to a very clever script with precision-strike levels of recurring gags, sharp rejoinders, expertly paced cutaways, and of course the exuberance and energy that Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd bring to their roles.
Like the first, it’s going very much for a pop sci fi feel rather than any sort of serious prediction of the future, although you could make a case for it getting more right than wrong, flying cars notwithstanding, and at any rate this is much more interested in characters than in technology. Of course, a lot of those characters turn out to be the same actors in a range of makeups, which for me at least is more charming than chintzy, although your mileage may vary.
I don’t have a great deal more to say before opening this up to the floor – it’s a great sequel that plays with, if not exactly reinterprets, the original, the latter act dancing around the plot of the first film giving a pleasant twist on things that makes this more memorable than a sequel could have been. In short, it’s really funny, watch it.
Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads. Though there are railroads. And tracks. Look, just shoosh. The reason we don’t need roads is because we’re going to the Doc’s favourite era, the Old West, and horses don’t need roads. Though they may travel more quickly along them, but a) I don’t know about horses and b) shut up.
After the events of the end of Part II, we find Marty and the Doc back at the Doc’s house where, after convincing the Doc that Marty is really there, the duo recovers the DeLorean from the old mine in which it has been stored since 1885 to send Marty back home. While doing this, though, they discover that Doc Brown is going to die a few days after his letter was written, so Marty has to make a stop in the 19th century before he can finally return to his 1985 life.
Back in 1885 Marty adopts the moniker “Clint Eastwood” (what a stupid name for a cowboy!), meets up with the Doc, other McFly’s, Tannens and Stricklands, and generally risks messing up the space-time continuum (though this time it’s Doc Brown who’s the biggest danger to that, falling in love as he does with Mary Steenburgen’s Clara).
The plot isn’t a great deal different from the first film, and the fish out of water stuff works in a similar way, so Part III is understandably less good than the first, but it’s always been my second favourite of the trilogy, perhaps in large part due to the Western setting.
It retains an extremely well-constructed screenplay, with lots of pay-offs to things subtly set up in Part II in particular, such as Marty being a crack shot and a reference to A Fistful of Dollars, though by this point in the trilogy, while it’s still a great deal of fun, the film is certainly suffering from diminishing returns, and some of the elements seem very forced, most obviously the presence of Lea Thompson as part of Marty’s family in 1885. She’s there for the running joke, and probably for a degree of… fairness? …loyalty? but her role is either very silly or very icky, depending on how you view it.
But it’s less goofy than the first half of Part II, though it does, unfortunately, carry on that film’s most awkward new idea, that, out of nowhere, Marty now can’t abide being called chicken. That never sat well with me. Other than that, though, I still heartily enjoy it.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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