Say hi to your mom for me
by Thom Yee
It’s the thirtieth anniversary of Back to the Future!
That’s a big deal.
It was July 3, 1985 when Back to the Future first hit theatres, literally just over thirty years ago, and not only does that mean we’ve finally reached the year its sequel travelled forward to, with its flying cars and hoverboards and rehydrated pizzas, it also means that we’ve travelled as far forward in time since its release as Marty McFly travelled back in time to 1955 to ensure his own existence and re-emergence into an improved 1985 timeline.
Is that important? Does that mean anything? Did that sentence even make any real sense? It doesn’t matter. I don’t, uh… I’m gonna start over.
For me (and we all know this entire GOO Reviews adventure has really just been a way to talk about ourselves and wax shallow and fairly obvious philosophies through the lens of movies and TV shows), Back to the Future is one of the first movies I think of when I think of what a movie is supposed to be. The Back to the Future trilogy was one of the first movie series my family owned, and it was a series I returned to frequently while growing up. In some ways its story and lessons almost filled in for my parents who always seemed to be at work. I can remember being a kid and wanting nothing more than to play the guitar or drive a DeLorean or hitch a skateboard ride holding onto the back of a car (none of which are things I’ve done or have come anywhere near doing). Probably more than any movie, Back to the Future is almost like a member of my family in the same way it seems like Star Wars is among other families.
I’ve written quite frequently about time travel movies in the past and the inherent temptations of the concept of time travel, but I never once envied Marty McFly and his journey into his own origin, and that’s probably because of the propulsive energy and elegance of Back to the Future’s storytelling. It’s a movie that takes the time to observe the intricacies of its premise, but it also moves forward with enough energy and speed that you never really have time to rest or contemplate anything for too long before realizing how on the edge of your seat you’ve become while watching Marty escape Biff’s oncoming Ford Super Deluxe on a skateboard or play “Johnny B. Goode” or chase the clocktower lightning in a car that always dies at the worst time. It’s a rare joy of a movie whose premise naturally invites questions but never leaves you dissatisfied with its answers (no matter how nonsensical), and even though it’s a movie that’s also utterly defined by its ‘80s origins, it’s timeless enough that you’ll want to watch it no matter what time or day it’s on.
Shortly after the murder of his friend and mentor, the scientist Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), by Libyan terrorists, young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) finds himself unexpectedly transported thirty years back to 1955. At first unable to comprehend what’s happened, he winds up accidentally disrupts the chain of events that brought his parents together, threatening his very existence in the process. Enlisting the help of the younger, 1955-era Doc Brown, the two devise a plan to reunite his parents and send Marty… back to the future… hence the title.
Opening in 1985, Back to the Future is a movie that, like I said, is sheer, unadulterated ‘80s down to its bones, down to its fashions, down to the very fonts it uses in its credits, but that never gets in the way of the story and somehow makes it even more meaningful thirty years later. There’s a magic about it, an innocence despite its overt violence, casual swearing and slightly incestual content that just wouldn’t work in a later, more cynical age. Starting with one of the greatest, most intricate and visually interesting title sequences in movie history (or at least it’s my favourite), it quickly sets off on a high-concept sci-fi premise of a mad scientist successfully building a time travel machine before revealing itself as a movie that’s really just about family. Time travel is never presented as much as a fix or key element as it is simply a device for Marty to find out who his parents once were and what led them to becoming who they are. Along the way, he comes to understand and appreciate the world and circumstances they grew up in, especially how bully Biff terrorized and continued to terrorize them into adulthood. There’s a point early in the movie when Doc Brown, in trying to figure out a way to bring Marty’s parents together, asks Marty what their common interests are, what they like to do together, and he can’t think of a thing, and that’s a sentiment that a lot of us would echo about our own parents. Crucially, though, it’s a moment that’s played for laughs in what’s ultimately a really funny movie, because a time-travelling movie about splitting your parents up by accidentally causing your mom to fall romantically in love with you would be monstrously horrific if it wasn’t primarily comedic. Ultimately it’s Marty’s gentle nudging and advice (advice that he would need to learn for himself as well) that would lead to successfully bringing his parents back together and his return to the future.
Headlined with a star-turning lead performance from Michael J. Fox, it’s also a movie that’s perfectly cast with Christopher Lloyd as crazy Doc Brown, Lia Thompson as Marty’s sex-obsessed mother Lorraine, Crispin Glover as Marty’s painfully awkward father George, and Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen. It’s the kind of movie you can’t imagine being remade as much for its cast as its overall quality and timelessness, but it’s also a movie that famously had to recast its original lead, Eric Stoltz, even though it was already several weeks into production. Eric Stoltz, if you don’t know, is probably most famous either for playing Rocky Dennis in the film Mask (which also came out in 1985) or for playing the drug dealer who told John Travolta’s Vincent Vega to stab Uma Thurman straight in the heart with a cardiac adrenaline needle in Pulp Fiction. You’ve probably never heard of him, though, mostly because he never starred in a movie like Back to the Future.
One of the most fun elements of Back to the Future is how open it is to debate given its premise and how questionable the whole thing really is in the light of any sort of reality. There is, of course, the foundational question at the heart of most time travel movies, which is how our protagonist continues to exist after initially disrupting the time stream since it seems unlikely that time would be such a merciful force that it would give you the opportunity to make things right. In Back to the Future the storytelling mechanism that lets us know how close he is to disappearing is the picture of Marty with his brother and sister as first his brother and then sister gradually fade from the picture, but that doesn’t really make sense for any other reason than telling a story. Plus, what does that really mean, that back in the shifting, changing future his brother is slowly disappearing from head-to-toe? That’s kind of horrific if taken literally.
Specific to Back to the Future, some of the bigger questions are why neither George nor Lorraine wonder what happened to this kid who came in and out of their lives for a brief week in 1955, why George and Lorraine didn’t feel it odd that they named their second son after that kid, why they don’t recognize that that their son looks exactly the same as that kid, or how that kid would know about a fire Marty would set at age eight (if that happened in the new timeline at all). There’s also the question of all the future remnants Marty left behind like his pre-Chuck Berry “Johnny B. Goode” performances and his references to Darth Vader and the planet Vulcan. These are questions that even as a child I couldn’t help wondering about (along with how conspicuous all the Pepsi product placement was). Possibly the most disturbing question of all is how Marty could possibly navigate his new life after returning to a world that, while much brighter (and materially blessed), is still not his own. Other than the basics, he doesn’t know anything of the life he’s led to that point, and he’s lucky that he still has cognitive touchstones like his girlfriend or the truck he wanted (and is now given freely by his much more successful parents).
Back to the Future has also given way to several popular fan theories, including the idea that a science-fiction obsessed George did recognize that his own son was a time traveller and the friend he knew back in 1955 and didn’t question it because he understood the need to allow things to unfold the way they did, that the DeLorean displays a certain sentience in breaking down at times that help rather than hurt our protagonists (e.g., Marty still timed the lightning strike correctly even though Doc Brown’s alarm clock already went off), and that Doc Brown was actually the first Time Lord (especially with the way he dressed in Back to the Future III). None of these theories fundamentally change or alter the movie in any meaningful way, but they do point to how inviting a world director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale created and how rewarding the movie can be to viewers who pay attention.
I do have one major issue with the movie however, one gnawing, grating, agitating problem that I’ll never let go of, and that’s why Marty only gave himself an extra ten minutes to try to prevent Doc Brown’s death after returning to 1985. Ten minutes. Ten minutes! I like to set my clocks an extra ten minutes ahead just so I can feel like I’m ahead of schedule, but Marty seems to think ten minutes is enough to get across town, prevent the death of his dear, time-crossed friend, and defeat a terrorist cell armed with machine guns and rocket launchers. Technically it’s a choice that closes the infinite chronal loop of the initial time jump in a nice and tidy manner that prevents the two Martys from ever meeting, but if I wanted to ensure success, I would’ve given myself a lot more than ten minutes.
Despite the continuing presence of these questions and theories, the most important thing about Back to the Future is that it doesn’t deny their validity so much as it leaps over them simply by being a movie that comes together so well. It’s a movie that’s almost perfectly executed, with storytelling that’s fundamentally sensible on an emotional level if not a logical one, and it feels considered at every level in even its most freakish elements. Any questions or complaints simply feel petty and wrongheaded in the face of how good the movie is. Sure, in retrospect, Biff was less a mean bully and actually more of a malicious potential rapist and murderer, and the movie really doesn’t have anything positive to say about women whose entire futures are predicated on what becomes of the men they marry, but it’s a movie full of hope that at least suggests that with just a little bit of positive influence the right thing will happen. For a kid like me it offered the hope that maybe someday when I grew up to be a teenager I might be able to go back in time and finally set things on the right path.
Thirty years later it’s a movie that’s just as good as if not better than the day it came out, even if it’s beset by its ‘80s stylings, doesn’t necessarily hold up to logical scrutiny, and may be a little anti-feminist. It’s playing at the Telus World of a Science this Tuesday (July 7th) and Thursday (9th). So why don’t you make like a tree and go see it.
Back to the Future final score: 10
On the Edge
- Is it just me or is the yellow guitar Marty’s uses at the beginning really, like, excessively tiny? I don’t know, I’m not a guitar expert.
- Why was that woman in the car so freaked out when Marty asks her and her husband for help after he first arrives in 1955? Didn’t people used to help strangers in the fifties?
- What kind of guy carries pictures of their family in their wallet but not pictures of their girlfriend?
- “Y’mean you’re gonna go touch her on her…?”
- No matter how well things may have turned out for George and Lorraine in the car park after George punches Biff, wouldn’t George always have wondered if maybe Marty was trying to set him up by having Biff in the car instead of himself?
- That ending always confused me when I was a kid. I mean, how did they know they were going to make a sequel? You can’t just leave it like that if you might not be making a sequel! You can’t!
You Might Also Like…