Michael J Fox
Every Friday, I try to encourage you, my reader, to actually get out and watch something at the cinema, hopefully with some consideration as to what’s worth watching. This week, there’s a movie that’s 25 years old that I’d like to bring to your attention which has returned to cinemas in the UK for a limited time, and which you ought to go out of your way to see. In case the title wasn’t enough of a clue, it’s…
I have recently upgraded Back To The Future to the status of one of my all time favourite movies, and it’s the only one on that list I’ve never seen at the cinema. I can guess what you’re thinking – I’ve seen this before, why should I go and hand over my hard earned cash to see something where I know what happens? (This is now known as the Titanic argument, of course.) Especially when it’s due out on Blu-ray in just a couple of weeks. Or indeed, why should you go and see something that’s 25 years old? Possibly because it’s one of the few movies which succeeds in so many genres simultaneously, but also because it’s packed full of iconic imagery, concepts and phraseology.
So I present the eighty-eight reasons why I love Back To The Future, and why it’s taken such a cherished place in my movie life. (Eighty-eight reasons? If that doesn’t make sense to you, then I frankly demand that you stop reading RIGHT NOW, find out the time of the nearest showing to you, and sit idly and do nothing until it’s time to go out to watch it. You have my permission to stop at the concessions stall, but that’s it.)
1. First off, it’s a fantastic comedy, packed from end to end with laughs, which would put most modern comedies to shame.
2. But it’s also a compelling thriller, with a number of tense, well constructed action sequences, culminating in a set piece perfect in its intricate construction but also set over a wide scope.
3. Then again, it’s a love story, which truly requires its protagonists to be in love, and to work for that love.
4. And it’s also a sci-fi classic that takes a concept so high it’ll give you nosebleeds (what if you could travel back in time and meet your parents?) and runs with it at exactly the right pace.
5. It has my favourite poster of all time, a static image that screams action and excitement, and the various versions have some of the best taglines of all time; not just the one above, but “He wasn’t in time for his classes… Then one day, he wasn’t in his time at all.” They genuinely don’t write them like that any more. Thanks to Drew Struzan for the poster design, as well as the rest of his work.
6. The opening sequence is a work of genius, a pan around Doc Brown’s lab that almost wordlessly sets up what’s to come. There’s a literary concept called Chekhov’s Gun, whereby objects are introduced that will later become relevant. This is the equivalent of Chekhov’s gun cabinet.
7. Our introduction to Marty McFly is also iconic, and also effortlessly explains why a school kid would be hanging around with a white-haired, eccentric inventor.
8. The transition around, showing us Hill Valley in all its run down glory, has two other things going for it – Huey Lewis and The News is one of them. So many Eighties soundtrack moments come over as cheesy now, but this still sums up the Eighties, and Marty’s band even get to play a rocking instrumental version later at the band auditions.
9. Skateboarding is the other. Even at 36, I would still like to attempt to skateboard behind a moving jeep at least once before I die, and skateboarding is such a popular youth activity now that it’s almost as if the filmmakers travelled forward in time themselves to find enduring aspects of popular culture. (I have just realised how old the last sentence made me sound.)
10. Despite being set largely in and around a school, we never see any actual teaching going on, but Mr. Strickland is surely one of the most memorable teachers in any movie. Especially given that he appears to be some sort of ageless immortal…
11. Marty is the perfect avatar for the audience, to use today’s parlance. He’s a middle-America lad with aspirations of his own truck and allowing his band to be successful – aspirations that pretty much every other Eighties movie teen, from Ferris Bueller to Bill and Ted, could empathise with.
12. He had managed to already snag Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells) as his girlfriend, though, lucky sod. So it’s OK to be slightly jealous. But after all, Marty needs a reason to try to come back, doesn’t he?
13. On the other hand, he’d have every reason to want to stay exactly where he was. His family are a construct designed to show quite why he’d want to better himself and to encourage others to do so, and Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson especially excelled in both eras.
14. It’s packed full of detail to show the differences between the eras, and to also link them together. Some of that detail you may not even spot on first viewing.
15. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd make the perfect odd couple. When they’re together on screen, Fox becomes the straight man – literally, since the height difference (5′ 4.5″ vs 6′ 1″) means that whenever you see them together, Christopher Lloyd is hunched over so he can hear what’s going on.
16. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” Undisputably the coolest time machine ever committed to celluloid, and every single detail just makes it cooler – for an eleven year old boy, it was the only other car that looked like K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider on the inside, and it had the perfectly judged three colour time readout. Not to mention the flame trails when it time travelled, the fact it could be remote controlled, and just the design of the car itself, which lends itself superbly to some of the Fifties-era gags.
17. “Eighty-eight miles an hour!” For legal reasons, of course, I must point out that if driving your car at such speeds, you should be on a private road or in Germany, but if you are, when the needle hits that mark, you are allowed to profess your extreme disappointment that you are not now travelling in time. (Also related to this: if being overtaken by a particularly aggressive driver, uttering the phrase, “Let’s see if you bastards can do ninety!”)
18. Libyans. Given the tensions between the US and Libya around this time, why didn’t more movies use Libyans as terrorists? (Please note, I’m sure that now, all Libyans are lovely, and unlikely to commit any terrorist acts at all. Thank you.)
19. Back To The Future also had the common sense to know when things were not working, and to put them right. Not only did it take them a few drafts to replace the original time machine (a fridge in a nuclear blast – sound horribly familiar, Indy fans?) with the DeLorean, but Eric Stoltz was not only originally cast as Marty, but actually filmed for a while. There’s even the odd glimpse of him still in the movie.
20. Robert Zemeckis is also a talented director, and one of the few people who could have pulled off all of the different types of movie that this becomes. He had form in this area, of course (Romancing The Stone), but without his talent for action, many of the scenes here wouldn’t carry the tension or excitement that they do, the whole “being chased by the Libyans” sequence being a prime example. (Michael Bay, take note. We prefer our action to look like this, not the way you do it.)
21. The period details are, of course, as high quality as everything else, even down to the authentic looking comic books. Where can I get one of those “Spacemen From Pluto” comics again?
22. Back To The Future also gave me a strong history lesson when I was younger. I also had a “life-preserver” jacket when I was younger, but little did I know that they had only just come into fashion. (Unlike the rest of my wardrobe, which is still waiting patiently for that day.)
23. It’s also taken us 25 years, until this year’s Inception and “Je ne regrette rien”, until we had a song so able to be linked to a dreamlike state as when Marty wanders round 1955 Hill Valley, unsure if he’s still awake or not, and “Mr Sandman” is playing in his head.
24. Of course, like much of the best science fiction, it can act as allegory, and it’s hard not to feel that Zemeckis, Spielberg et al felt that there was a loss of America’s innocence in the Eighties, totally embodied in their picture-perfect rendition of Fifties Hill Valley.
25. The movie makers also did their research. As an astonishing pedant myself, I’m happy to be able to confirm that both November 5, 1955 and October 26, 1985 were indeed Saturdays. A small detail, but it’s getting things like this right which keeps nutters like myself happy.
26. Since Marty is cool, everything he owns is cool as well, including a calculator watch. I would still be wearing one today if my wife wasn’t embarrassed to see me in public wearing it.
27. Back To The Future also gave the world Billy Zane, although it had the common sense to keep him in the background.
28. A lot of modern films on romance have achieved their success or their cult following because they managed to be honest about the failings of human relationships as well as the strengths. How many of those creative people had George McFly up a tree, perving his soon-to-be girlfriend, in mind when they did that? Surely the classic honest movie about relationships from the Eighties.
29. It never lets logic get in the way of a good story. We can only speculate on time travel, of course, because it isn’t actually possible, but only the craziest mind would think that changing the course of your parents’ relationship would take a week to erase you from existence. That’s my kind of crazy mind.
30. So few movies these days manage to get the physical side of comedy down well, but Michael J. Fox is an excellent physical comedian and has great timing, from hitting his head on a gull wing door to falling off a bed to avoid the amorous advances of his mother.
31. Also, if you’re going to do product placement, do it without even having to show your product on screen, and use it for classy name / underpants confusion. If only Quantum of Solace could have gone down the same route…
32. Back To The Future also has a handy guide to see if you are significantly older than the person you’re watching with. If, like me, you hear the line about having two TVs and think “yes, when I was younger”, then you’re about my age. Anyone from the Eighties or younger is probably carrying two on them, never mind at home.
33. The production design is wonderful, and possibly the best example of this is Doc Brown’s Fifties’ house. Outside wonderfully styled, and a complete contrast to the dive he’s ended up in having spent his family fortune in the Eighties, and on the inside the same chaotic mess, filled with the selection of great pictures of the Brown family that give Doc a strange air of authority.
34. I have to confess at this point that I have never been to a fancy dress party in movie fancy dress, but if I did, then Marty’s Eighties look might be a strong contender, but some of Doc’s Fifties outfits, especially the one he’s wearing when Marty first arrives, I could see myself wearing to do the shopping in.
35. So many sci-fi movies get bogged down into complex technical explanations (not to mention the sci-fi TV series of the last thirty years), so how refreshing in that context is the concept of the flux capacitor? To all intents and purposes, a flashing light in the shape of a Y in a box, but we cheerfully buy into the concept that it “makes… time… travel… possible.”
36. Of course, as well as being a love letter to the Fifties, it’s turned out to be a wonderful time capsule of the Eighties. My iPhone now does pretty much everything that the JVC video camera and the Walkman do, but somehow there’s still a part of me that would have loved to have owned one of those giant video cameras that only takes tiny video tapes.
37. I also love the fact that, even though he’s a mad inventor, Doc Brown still has time to have a dart board in his garage.
38. Proof, if proof be needed, that Doc Brown is a mad scientist, in that every other scientist would call it one-point-two-one-giga-whats, not one-point-twenty-one-jigger-whats. (A jigger-what is a billion whats. Thank you for asking.)
39. Question: what’s the only thing cooler than a nuclear powered, time travelling car? A lightning powered, time travelling car, that’s what. An absolutely genius concept.
40. In this day and age, I am absolutely, resolutely glad that the makers didn’t go for a re-release in 3D, but if they had, Doc Brown running towards you to scream “Back… To The Future” would have been worth a dozen Avatars for my money.
41. As a ginger myself, the fact that George McFly gets bullied by not only Biff’s gang, but a secondary group, one of whom is as ginger as ginger beer with added ginger in an orange glass, that a life at the bottom of life’s pecking order wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. (I did indeed pluck up the courage to work my way to two or three rungs from the bottom of the pecking order having seen this.)
42. It should not be forgotten that this is basically an incest comedy. I can only imagine the pitch sessions, where Zemeckis and writer Gale had to convince studios that this Oedpial love story would actually be a comedy, and I don’t envy them that job.
43. Michael J. Fox’s height came in advantageous not only for his odd-couple pairing with Christopher Lloyd, but had nearly a foot disadvantage on Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff, who manages to flick between sleazy and menacing and was the perfect school bully.
44. Of course, George is a closet sci-fi writer. Not only does this set up his predicament well, but also perfectly validates the creative aspirations of all involved. Who wouldn’t want to be the next Ray Bradbury (as long as you could be as cool as Marty)? Whoever you’d like to be, there’s the opportunity for a role model among this family.
45. And the movie also manages to use Marty’s cool to confirm that it was possible to like both Star Wars and Star Trek, thanks to the Darth Vader / Vulcan references. (And indeed, Eddie Van Halen.)
46. The physical comedy isn’t confined to Michael J. Fox, of course. Crispin Glover’s George gets a chance to shine when entering the diner to approach Lorraine, and the density / destiny line manages to convey a believability to the relationships and the situation in a single line of dialogue. (Plus reactions, of course.) Most movies today would give their right arms to be so effortless.
47. Of course, while Doc had inspiration and took thirty years to act on it, the movie shows us how effective such role models can be, even in terms of subtle inspiration. But Marty manages to invent the skateboard on the run – who knew Calvin Klein was so talented?
48. Speaking of inspiration, whenever I’ve had a new TV set-up over the years, I keep reminding myself that if the Doc and Marty could connect an Eighties video camera to a Fifties TV, I should have no trouble, since all my wires are supposed to fit into the sockets I’ve got.
49. There are many of the small details that I love about this movie, and many of those small details are in Doc Brown’s loving recreation of the town square from milk bottles and cardboard boxes.
50. I have also attempted to imitate Christopher Lloyd’s desperate horror face when the car goes off the table model and sets fire to the nearby rags, in the same way that Edmund Blackadder’s utterance of “Oh God” at times of ultimate despair has become a trademark catchphrase over the years.
51. Back To The Future also taught me that women will come after the right man if you have enough to offer, with Lorraine’s chasing down of Marty reassuring the adolescent me that I didn’t need to worry about asking women out. (And I’m happily married now, so of course it works perfectly. Thanks, ladies.)
52. Another source of inspiration, as someone who plans for a living, is both Marty’s sense of planning and his adaptability. At several points in the duration of the movie, he has a well worked out plan for getting George and Lorraine together, but thankfully he never lets failure get in the way of his ideas.
53. It’s also worth saying that, for any children watching, only Bart Simpson can stand as a role model in terms of encouraging mild swearing. Thankfully, having seen this as a child, Die Hard and Robocop two years later gave me the advanced course.
54. In terms of genuine life lessons, what this movie does give us is a lesson on the value of friendship, with Marty’s repeated attempts to save the life of his mentor, and indeed the refusal to allow a friend’s concerns to get in the way of genuine care. (So the moral of the story is, ignore your friends if you think they’re wrong. Wait…)
55. It would be remiss of me not to include at least one number that related to the movie itself, and 1955 is lovingly recreated right throughout the movie, to the extent where it’s hard not to want to travel back in time and grow up there yourself. And of course, you could get to go to the Enchantment Under The Sea dance as well.
56. Many modern comedies, such as the American Pie movies, have pondered on the difficulties of male / female interaction. How much would life have been easier for us young men if all girls were as easy as Lorraine? But this was also reassuring to me as a young lad about to approach the flushes of adolescence that not all of the obligation might not fall on my shoulders. Or indeed, other body parts.
57. The movie also gets the balance of comedy and genuine threat perfectly right. I’ve already mentioned Biff’s efficiency as the school bully, but when he comes to get retribution for the damage to his car, the threat moves up a level and takes on a much higher level of risk for Lorraine, but never feels like it’s going too far.
58. The music choices throughout the movie are also impeccable. In addition to the two Huey Lewis tracks, the music for Marvin Berry’s band is also great and fits the mood of the scenes it supports astonishingly well.
59. And I can’t go any further without mentioning Alan Silvestri’s score, which has a permanent residence on my iPod and for my money is the best orchestral score not written by John Williams in the Eighties. It was also, at the time, using the largest orchestra assembled for such a purpose.
60. As the movie moves into the final act, a number of things become apparent. The first is that there’s a number of deadlines or objectives that have been set, and having arrived at the dance it then begins to reel off these set-piece resolutions with breath-taking efficiency. Given the amount of ground the plot covers, it’s amazing that it both never feels rushed and also that it clocks in under two hours.
61. Many of these are about wish-fulfilment. First and foremost is the geek standing up to the bully, and surely anyone who’s ever been bullied would love to have the courage of George McFly to stand up to Biff. (Not that I’m condoning violence, of course.)
62. Marty’s wish in all this is probably the least demanding – he simply wants to get home, but as a sideline to that he’d love to be a rock star, and Johnny B. Goode is his opportunity, and a joy from powerful start to cringing finish. Your kids will indeed love it. As should you.
63. The ticking clock is a great literary device, and of course a very literal one in the latter stages, but all of the set-ups for the key outcomes are well planned, and Marty’s photo of his family, slowly fading away and about to take him, is also a masterpiece of understated effectiveness.
64. And it ties in gorgeously with the most perfect moment in the movie, when George, having been cut out by the ginger kid (again), pushes his way back in, takes Lorraine and kisses her for the first time. The match of events, editing, soundtrack and emotion is a real punch the air moment.
65. It is very difficult not to think of the daring genius of the sequel, which ends up taking place in the background of this scene, and adds jeopardy to both itself and extra risk to this original – Back To The Future is the movie that just keeps on giving.
66. Of course, Marty does over the course of the movies do most of the sensible things we’d do if travelling in time – the most prominent in this movie being to get himself out of trouble as an eight year old. It’s a credit to the movie that Marty can suggest to this pair the idea of children less than ten minutes after their first kiss, and that both we and they believe it possible.
67. Another of the lessons that Back To The Future is that it’s important to dress for the occasion. (Also, that men can get changed quickly if they put their minds to it. Less than an hour, Marty’s back in his proper clothes. Good man.)
68. One of the gimmicks of more recent years is the real time thriller, and as we approach the climax we get 8, as opposed to 24. The eight minutes of the future return play out pretty much in real time, and the tension gets ramped up very effectively through this stretch.
69. Robert Zemeckis also uses many of the surrounding concepts to ramp up both the tension and the humour, including the architecture of the clock tower and the mechanisms to shroud Doc’s challenge in a threatening darkness.
70. This eight minute stretch manages to throw in further twists on a regular basis, with both Doc and Marty facing obstacles, and should be a template for anyone looking to structure a dramatic climax to their movie.
71. And despite Doc’s plan requiring a number of contrivances and coincidences, it works perfectly (of course), and that final sequence actually appears in all three movies, giving a wonderful sense of connection between them.
72. You have to admire that, in what is essentially a family movie, we could get away with Marty’s first shot on returning home being of the “XXX American Orgy” playing at the local picture house, and the first person he encounters being the drunk tramp on the park bench.
73. There’s also some salient business lessons in the movie – not least why we’re not all driving round in DeLoreans these days. (Dodgy starter motors and clumsy gull wing doors for a start.) Athough you still would, wouldn’t you?
74. I can remember being thrilled by the way that Doc Brown fell over in stages when he was shot, and then disappointed that they hadn’t matched that move when Marty returns from the future. It was only after a few viewings that it hit me – of course, why would they?
75. You also have to admire Doc Brown’s willingness to take the gag the full length, playing dead even as Marty rolls him over. Marty, you’ve been punk’d!
76. But maybe, sowed by the seed thirty years previously of seeing the positive change in George McFly’s fortunes by changing events, Doc learns the best lesson – “what the hell.”
77. I grew up in the same house all my childhood – my mother still lives there, and it’s been in my family since 1931. It’s nothing to shout about, but it’s home. And it comforts me to see that the McFlys, despite their increased affluence thanks to Marty’s intervention, follow the same principles, having a much nicer house, but home is home and thankfully they didn’t decide to move.
78. I also love the fact that Marty sleeps, as I feel I do, in the same uncomfortable position every single night, nose pressed into the pillow and legs spread to give him support.
79. I also live in hope that my loved ones have such selective memories about the past – for not only does George remember the events well enough to put the radiation suit on the front of his book, and Lorraine still remembers the story of how they got together, they’ve both conveniently forgotten that their son is the spitting image of the boy who helped get them together, with of course the same name. Happy times.
80. Already at the end of the first movie, though, we’re getting hints of the future, and what we can expect in a mere five years time. Of course, the first sequel sets our expectations for hoverboards, automatic trainers and the like, but I will be disappointed if we don’t all have a Mr Fusion and silver wraparound sunglasses in five years.
81. Marty is also a lucky guy. Not only is Jennifer Parker a great looker and a huge groupie for Marty, she’s also remarkably calm when a man turns up wearing ridiculous clothes and tells her she’s going to have children with her boyfriend. If I wasn’t a happily married man…
82. In terms of last lines, the movie has one of the best, although opportunities for quoting it normally lead to trouble. “Roads… where we’re going, we don’t need… roads.” (Really, where are we going?!?)
83. And of course, what’s cooler than a nuclear powered, time travelling car and a lightning powered, time travelling car? A flying nuclear fusion powered time travelling car, of course.
84. “To be continued –>” Testament to the power of the movie that, for the first time in my life, I was keen to know more about the process. Was there really going to be more? (Turns out it was just a tease, of course, originally, but thankfully they decided to come back.)
85. The first sequel was one of the most unusual sequels, but it packed as much in, if not more, as the original, with the future, the moral debates on gambling, the dark version of the Eighties (with the hardcore Mr Strickland), and the mind-bending return to November 12th, 1955.
86. And while the second sequel may have been more conventional, being simply a time travelling movie, it still managed to work in a love story without undermining any of those to have gone before, more excellent cultural references and another sequence of escalating climaxes, right up to the touching and appropriate end.
87. What those principles underline, more than anything, is the ultimate joy of the Back To The Future movies – wish fulfilment. I started by quoting the different types of genre that these movies fall into, especially the first and last, but actually they may be closer to modern day fairy tales than anything else – the princes may not ride up on white chargers, but they do fight for the women they love, and everyone gets to live happily ever after. Aw shucks, I’m welling up here.
88. Well, I’d love to stay and talk more, as there’s so much I haven’t mentioned (Great scott! Heavy? The triple sonic boom), but I’m afraid you’ll just have to rediscover it for yourselves. I’m outatime…