On a sultry weeknight in August 1985, I went on a double date with my girlfriend, the leader of my youth group, and his wife. We played Putt-Putt mini golf, then drove to the Jo-Mor Panorama Theatre in Penfield, NY. The feature was Back to the Future.
Recently, I revisited Back to the Future, watching at home while my wife attended her 30-year high school reunion. (Only as I type that sentence do I recognize the nostalgia that influenced my choice. Peggy Sue Got Married, 1986, was another recent selection.) Directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg’s company, Back to the Future might be the definitive summer movie, released during a blockbuster season that included The Goonies, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Teen Wolf, Weird Science, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, The Black Cauldron, Cocoon, and Fletch (consider that all of those were safe to watch with a youth group leader and his wife; such were the mid-1980s of Ronald Reagan’s America.)
Start with the title, which is a recursive play on itself; Huey Lewis and the News elaborated the concept with their song Back in Time, written for the movie (“Take me away, I don’t mind, but you better promise me I’ll be back in time.”) Zemeckis has great fun with a recurring motif of clocks, omnipresent in the film. In the opening scene, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown is overjoyed when every alarm clock in his house is exactly 25 minutes slow – the idea of time as precise yet unreliable is repeated throughout the movie. A climactic set piece involving a large clock recalls Harold Lloyd’s iconic Safety Last (1923).
Zemeckis and Bob Gale wrote a clockwork plot that is essentially a science fiction farce. It’s one of only three I can think of – Sleeper (1973) of course, and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1985) slips in. But while there have been many sci-fi parodies, and a few decent genre comedies like Ghostbusters (1984), B2tF generates laughs from the structure of the story itself (I don’t count Groundhog Day, 1993, which wasn’t remotely sci-fi, but metaphysical.) Marty McFly (who becomes a figurative fly on the wall of his own family history) is accidentally sent thirty years into the past, where his interaction with his teenaged parents threatens his own existence. Specifically, his mother develops a crush on him instead of his father, an ingenious farcical setup that is wrung for every possible laugh, as Marty is forced to play matchmaker and correct the damage.
The four principals are like a movie casting equivalent of The Beatles – a seemingly disparate group that becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Michael J. Fox, newly famous in the sitcom Family Ties, wasn’t the first choice for Marty. Eric Stoltz had already filmed several scenes, but his Method intensity wasn’t a good fit. Fox provides an exasperated everyman quality (Jimmy Stewart-esque) that grounds the film, allowing his co-stars to fly on their own whacked-out comic trajectories; in that sense, it’s a generously un-showy performance. Christopher Lloyd redefines the crazy scientist with his role: rubber-faced, bulging eyes, delicious phrasing. (I still crack up every time he says “Future Boy.”) Lea Thompson is the mooniest, breathiest teen sexpot ever (her sweater-encased breasts are a platonic ideal); she’s innocent even when she’s swilling stolen whiskey. Crispin Glover triangulates the weirdness of Lloyd and Thompson, filling in shades of zaniness not covered by the others – his nerdiness is gloriously transcendent.
Zemeckis directs the best parts of the film like an extended Loony Tunes short. He loves to establish a frame, then upend it by having a character appear suddenly in the foreground. He emphasizes those moments with Alan Silvestri’s orchestral punctuation (the score is occasionally perfect, when it’s not operating in “John Williams blockbuster” mode.) If the film occasionally feels too processed or worked-out (when Marty sings Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, Michael J. Fox lip-syncs to a dub that’s painfully not his voice), it has a wittier script and sharper direction than film snobs (myself included) usually give it credit for.
At the end of the movie, after Marty returns from his odyssey 30 years in the past, Doc Brown says he’s going forward 30 years. Marty replies, “Look me up when you get there, guess I’ll be about 47.” As I re-watched Back to the Future at 46 years old, 31 years had passed since I’d first seen it. I was dumbfounded that the movie’s 1955, impossibly distant to my 15 year-old self, was less distant in 1985 than Back to the Future’s release date is from my current vantage point. (Strangely, this knowledge doesn’t make me more sympathetic when my daughter dismisses the cultural detritus of my youth.) Although the film’s prediction that we’d have flying cars with garbage-fueled fusion reactors missed the mark, the film holds up: a perfect summer blockbuster.