In 1985, Back To The Future sent 17-year-old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) hurtling 30 years into the past to the year 1955 and, in the film’s final moments, 30 years into the future to the year 2015. For writer-director Robert Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale, the years were likely just a matter of math needed to make the plot work. For 17-year-old Marty to meet his middle-aged parents when they were his age, he’d have to land in 1955. Ditto the leap to 2015 made by Marty, his scientist pal Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (played here by the soon-to-vanish Claudia Wells and in the sequels by Elizabeth Shue). Yet staring down those years from the perspective of the 2015—the real one, without the hoverboards and flying cars—the years seem to take on an added significance. We’re as distant in time from 1985 as 1985 was from 1955 (and connected to the tacky 2015 of Back To The Future Part II mostly by videoconferencing and widescreen televisions). Yet, thanks to movies and memory, the past seems as close at hand as it does impossible to reach—and impossible to change.
I remember where I was the first time I saw Back To The Future: at a mall in suburban Ohio, my best friend and I doing our best Doc Brown impressions on the way back to the car of whichever parent drove us that day. In 1955, it was a patch of undeveloped land. In 1985, it was the busy retail heart of all the surrounding communities. Now it’s demolished, turned into a weed-filled vacant lot by a declining economy. But I remember it so well I can close my eyes and travel back there any time I like via the only kind of time travel any of us will ever really get to experience.
It’s also, if Back To The Future is to be believed, the safest. There’s a lot going on in Back To The Future, including the persistent suggestion that it’s dangerous to try to get back to some past, and that any imagined golden age is never quite as golden as it’s remembered to be. The ’50s of the film is a place of coonskin caps and neat suburban lawns, but also racial prejudice, sexual menace, and the sort of general paranoia that makes a farmer take a shotgun to a visitor from another world.
Back To The Future wasn’t Zemeckis or Gale’s first trip through time, nor would it be the last. The filmmaking team began their career with a nostalgia piece in part about the futility of trying to hold on to the past. Released to general indifference in 1978, though it’s well worth seeking out, I Wanna Hold Your Hand climaxes with a greaser named Tony (Bobby Di Cicco) who has no use for The Beatles taking an ax to the roof of the Ed Sullivan Theater in order to prevent the broadcast of the group’s first live appearance on American TV. A well-timed bolt of lightning prevents him from cutting off the signal, but every other moment of the film suggests it wouldn’t have mattered. History is about to subsume everything that made him the epitome of cool in his time—from his music to his fashion sense to his way of talking—and there’s nothing he can do about it. Time only moves one way. Anyone who tries to stop it should prepare to get crushed.
Bending time, on the other hand, is another matter. Marty doesn’t so much work to change history as to change it back, his very presence having created an existential crisis in the most literal sense. In the process, he gets to nudge it in his preferred direction, getting his parents’ relationship off to a better start while instilling his dad George (Crispin Glover) with the confidence he needs to be less of a loser for the rest of his life. Consequently, he returns to a happier family that can afford the custom 4-by-4 truck he craves for a romantic camping trip with Jennifer. (Glover has cited the wealth on display in the ending as a bummer that affirms “corporate value systems as opposed to humans’ value systems.” A more generous reading would see the prosperity as a byproduct of George’s less fearful approach to life, and not the source of the McFlys’ happiness.)
Yet, in the original film at least, Marty can only make small changes. (A sidenote: I want to focus on the original film here, but a piece later this week will engage with the sequels. They make wilder alterations to Hill Valley, but if anything they’re even more fatalistic: So many Tannens, so many McFlys, all locked into variations on the same endless drama decade after decade, with the same actors playing the parts.) Goldie Wilson (Donald Fullilove) overcomes prejudice to become Hill Valley’s mayor not because Marty encourages him, but because he was always going to become mayor. Marvin Berry clues his cousin Chuck into Marty’s performance of “Johnny B. Goode,” but Marty couldn’t have known the song if he didn’t come from a timeline when Chuck Berry wrote it in the first place.
There are troubling examples of this, too. In 1985, Marty’s home town of Hill Valley looks run down from its 1955 heyday. Courthouse Square—filmed on the same familiar Anytown backlot seen in Gremlins just the year before—has become a hangout for the homeless, and the two movie houses have been converted into a church and a porno theater. When Marty returns from the past, Hill Valley appears as dingy as when he left it. He can alter his family’s fate, at least a little: Marty and his siblings at least look the same and they still live in the same house in the same neighborhood, everything’s just a little nicer than before. But the more general trends that have driven Hill Valley’s downtown into decline—no doubt including the arrival of the shopping mall where Marty and Doc first test the DeLorean’s time-traveling abilities—remain unaffected. If he were to change it, chances are he’d only make things worse. The past is not for trifling with, and it will punish those who try.
So how does Marty get away with it? He has a powerful motivation: Should he fail to set things right, he won’t just disrupt history, he’ll be erased from it. It also helps that he has science on his side in the form of Doc Brown, who can explain what he needs to do to correct the errors he’s inserted into the past, and calculate down to the precise moment when he’ll need to hit a pair of electrically charged wires in order to return to 1985.
But the universe of Back To The Future is driven as much by intangible forces as the immutable laws of physics. In trying to get George to approach Lorraine (Lea Thompson), the woman Marty hopes will someday be his mother, it’s no accident that Marty coaches George to use the word “destiny.” (Or, “density,” as George initially mangles it.) Beyond the impact it will have on him personally, there’s a larger sense that the universe just won’t be right if these two people who don’t get together.
Back To The Future is a film of wonderful concepts and remarkable filmmaking—from the long, exposition- and foreshadowing-packed shot that opens the film to the beautifully staged climax—and memorable lines. But the heart of its appeal comes from the unusual love story at its center: that of a boy and his parents. It begins in the discomfort of Marty trying to elude his own mother’s sexual advances but ends much more sweetly than any such a set-up might have suggested. Marty begins the film seeing his parents as sad caricatures. Lorraine drinks too much. George lets life in general, and his lifelong bully Biff Tannen (Tom Wilson) in particular, walk all over him, finding escape only in the reruns on TV. Time travel allows Marty to see his parents as people again, and to see the potential they once had and might yet have again. He wants what’s best not just for him but for them, and it’s this recognition, as much as Doc Brown’s genius, that allows him to put the broken pieces of history back together again (with some selective rearranging of some key parts). Put simply: Love saves the day. Even time can’t stand in its way.
There’s a flip side to understanding that your parents have turned into sadder, unfulfilled versions of the people they hoped to be, however. It means the same might also be true of you. Just as Marty comes to recognize his parents’ lives might have followed different, happier courses, he sees the potential for his own life to fall apart. Marty lives for skateboarding, music, and Jennifer (and, to a lesser degree, oversized trucks and sugar-free Pepsi products). He doesn’t want his existence ever to be about anything else, and he definitely doesn’t want life to do to him what it did to George and Lorraine the first time around. When Doc Brown returns from 2015 to whisk him and Jennifer away, Marty’s first question is, “Do we turn into assholes or something?” Time, as Marty’s seen, has a way of doing that even to people who don’t start out that way—be it the teens of 1955, their kids in 1985, or the grown-ups those kids turned into in 2015, who now live a year that still sounds to them like something from a science-fiction future and wonder how the ’80s slipped so deep into the past. There’s usually no way of reversing the process, even with a flux capacitor, but some fates are worth fighting.
The Back To The Future discussion continues in the Forum, which digs into the film’s big legacy, small pleasures, and singular performances. And on Thursday, Noel Murray looks at the two Back To The Future sequels.