Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Crispin Glover
My rating: ★★★★ stars
Perennially entertaining teen sci-fi comedy.
Back to the Future is almost impossible to review. It’s a perfect movie. I can’t find a single flaw to bring out or nitpick. Every performance is on-key. Every scene works. It came out 30 years ago this month, and it’s still as fresh and entertaining as the day it was released.
One aspect of the film that does hearken back to an early era in filmmaking is the way the film takes its time. A full half hour passes before Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) goes back in time. During that first half hour, the film sets up an enormous amount of exposition. We learn about Marty, an underachieving teenager–a “slacker” as his principal, Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan), calls him. We learn about his dysfunctional family. Most, importantly, we learn about the invention of a time machine by his friend, the eccentric Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Yet, none of the time spent introducing all the elements of the film seems wasted. We’re not twiddling our thumbs waiting for Marty to go back in time. A modern movie would rush through the opening, sending Marty back to 1955 before the first fifteen minutes are over, and the time in the past would have less meaning because we wouldn’t understand its connection to the present. The extra time spent in the present, the lack of haste in getting the story started, now, seems refreshing.
The story of Marty’s mother, Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson), as a teenager developing a crush on the time traveler could have been creepy. But, thanks largely to the over-the-top adoration of Thompson’s teenager performance and the similarly unrestrained flustered earnestness of Fox’s, it remains charmingly innocent–because the threat of incest seems not quite real.
The performances throughout the film are all over-the-top, particularly Crispin Glover’s as Marty’s hapless geek of a father, George McFly, and Lloyd’s Doc Brown. But these exaggerated performances are not a flaw in the film. They deliberately highlight the artificial essence of the movie’s world.
Much of Back to the Future paints the 1950s as a more innocent “golden age.” The images director Robert Zemeckis shows of the 1980s version of the film’s setting, Hill Valley, CA, depict a town in decline. The movie theater is now a triple-X theater. A homeless man lives in the town square. Graffiti covers everything in the area. In the 1950s version of the community, however, everything is clean and new. The film came out during a wave of nostalgia for the 1950s. And, as with all nostalgia, it comes with the pain of something lost. (The Greek ending –algia means “pain.”)
But the picture postcard perfection of 1950s Hill Valley never seems genuine. From the moment Marty returns, the time’s quaintness is exaggerated. The artificial quality reminds viewers that nostalgia skews memories to eliminate the contradictions and problems of bygone eras. The film gives hints that all is not well in the 1950s. For example, the black cafe worker’s ambitions are dismissed by the owner. Yet, in 1985, that cafe worker has achieved his goal to be mayor, something that would not have been possible in 1955.
In order to get back to 1985, Marty seeks out the 1955 version of Doc Brown, the man who built the time machine. Giving the protagonist an older sidekick is a departure for a teen movie. Most often, the teens are forced to work out their problems themselves without help from adults. Doc Brown could easily have been shown to be in his 40s in 1985, making him a teenager in 1955. That might have even worked plot wise. However, by making one major character older, the film broadens its appeal to a wider audience. Doc Brown, as eccentric as he is, may not be the kind of character anyone relates to, but his presence keeps the film from being isolated in the teenage world.
The plot is governed by a strict clock, as it’s called in the screenwriting business–a deadline for the protagonist to accomplish his goal. In this case, the film has two clocks. Having disrupted his parents’ first meeting, Marty must transfer his mother’s affections back to his father before Marty fades from existence as a result of his parents not becoming romantically involved. The other clock is literally a clock. Marty must be prepared to leave the past by the time lightning strikes the town’s clock tower, the only chance he has of going back to the future. Otherwise, he’ll be stuck in the past. The doubling of the plot’s “clocks” leads to an extraordinarily suspenseful climax. Even viewers who know how the movie ends still may bite their nails when Marty and Doc struggle to get everything in place before the lightning strikes.
The momentum of the film is augmented by Alan Silvestri’s instantly recognizable score. The majesty of the score reminds us that the movie is not a simple comedy. It indicates that the film involves something magical and larger-than-life.
Like the score, many images and scenes have become iconic. From Doc Brown and Marty standing in the fiery tracks of the time machine, to the skateboard chase, to Marty playing “Johnny B. Goode” at the school dance, the film is packed with images that viewers remember fondly and vividly. Yet, despite our familiarity with the film, our recognition of famous scenes, our ability to recite the dialogue verbatim, the movie remains entertaining. Now, we’re as far separated from the time the film came out as that time is to the time Marty travels back to, but the film has not diminished.
Oh, wait! Back to the Future does have a flaw. Doc and Marty continually mispronounce “gigawatt.” Well, nothing’s perfect.