Two Dissolvers keep the Back To The Future conversation going...
Genevieve: Here we are, nearly 30 full years beyond Back To The Future’s release, and hardly anything’s changed: Huey Lewis is still a beloved and popular cultural icon, Pepsi Free has usurped all other soda to be named The King Of Soft Drinks, and time-travel movies come and go without anyone caring about or fact-checking the intricacies of their paradox-laden plots. Truly, Back To The Future could come out today and it would play just as well to modern audiences!
Okay, that last statement may be the only one that even flirts with accuracy, but to deny Back To The Future’s pronounced 1985-ness is to deny a huge part of its charm. Beyond all the Internet-friendly nostalgic value afforded by those 1985 cultural markers, Robert Zemeckis’ blockbuster is one of those quintessentially ’80s movies that makes a super-cool hero out of a kinda dweeby underdog, sending him on an adventure that reveals the same things that make him a loser in school (like, say, hanging out with that creepy old inventor guy all the time) make him a winner in the grand scheme of things. I mean, sure, Marty McFly saves his family from oblivion, but the real payoff is discovering when he returns to the present that they’re also now the thin, beautiful, wealthy, 4-by-4-owning family he always wanted. How’s that for Reagan-era wish-fulfillment?
I was surprised on this viewing—my first in a decade—by how borderline-grim the film is before it gets to the time-travel shenanigans, as it focuses on Marty and his family’s lack of success and their inherent loser-dom, which extends to the entire depressed town of Hill Valley, California. Really, I’m surprised Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script even allowed Marty a happy, stable relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer, so focused is the first act on heaping humiliation on our poor hero—who, let’s remember, is named Marty McFly—and his family. Of course, it’s all in service of setting up his journey into the past and its attendant reversal of fortune, but it is fairly startling to realize how craptastic Marty’s life is… and that’s before he watches his weird old-dude best friend get gunned down by Libyans!
Jen: I am completely with you on the charm of Back To The Future’s 1985-ness. Since the movie turns 30 this year, watching it at this exact moment is a particularly meta experience: We’re watching Marty go back in time 30 years, while simultaneously going back in time 30 years to the time when this movie was made. A film about a time machine now effectively acts as a time machine itself. (Whoa. That’s heavy.)
That’s another funny thing, too: The things that may have looked and sounded “so ’80s” to all those residents of 1955 Hill Valley—Marty’s use of the word “heavy,” his Walkman, his “life preserver” puffy vest—look as odd to us 30 years later as they did to those living 30 years before the mid-’80s. I haven’t actually done this, but I suspect that if you watch this with a 10-year-old, the moment when Jason Hervey’s character asks Marty, “What’s a rerun?” would be followed by that 10-year-old asking the exact same question.
To expand on your point regarding BTTF as a quintessentially ’80s movie about an underdog achieving Reagan-era wealth and status: I think I realized on this most recent viewing, which is probably my 30th at least, that one of the reasons I love this movie so much is that it melds together two of the most formative cinematic experiences of my youth: Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and the entire John Hughes teen-movie genre. Back To The Future, released just months after The Breakfast Club came out and produced by Spielberg, traffics in a lot of the tropes that came to define the high-school movie, including the presence of the popular bully, the attempt to makeover the alienated outcast (in this case, that would be George), and the romantic-coupling climax that happens at the big dance. But it braids in all that flux-capacitor, plutonium, time-travel stuff in a way that simultaneously gives BTTF a sci-fi element. Technically, no aliens visit from another planet the way E.T. does in Spielberg’s coming-of-age masterpiece. But in a way, one does: His name is Marty McFly, and when he crashes his DeLorean into Old Man Peabody’s barn circa 1955, the first thing that Peabody’s son Sherman (get it??) assumes is that a kid from 1985 is a creature straight out of his Tales From Space comic. That’s what the passage of time does: Someone from 30 years hence or 30 years ago—especially one’s mother and father, in the full bloom and awkwardness of their youth—look like total aliens to us.
Perhaps this is a good moment to talk about the sheer genius of the comedic performances in this film, starting with its star and object of my most raging, non-Duran-Duran-related 1985 crush, Michael J. Fox?
Genevieve: Fox’s performance is so inextricable from the movie’s success, it’s easy to forget he represents one of the highest-profile cases of mid-shoot re-casting ever. There’s not much footage out there of Eric Stoltz’s five weeks as Marty McFly before he was replaced by Fox, but what there is bears out the filmmakers’ instincts that their original choice just wasn’t bringing the funny hard enough. It’s perhaps unfair to completely write off Stoltz’s performance based on a few seconds of non-verbal footage, but looking at those few seconds side-by-side with Fox’s take on the same non-verbal reactions makes it apparent that Stoltz’s Marty McFly was perhaps just a bit too internal, a bit too tortured… a bit too Stoltz-y. (Though, that could just be the all-black ensemble his Marty’s wearing, which could really use a life preserver or something to liven it up.) Fox, on the other hand, is a very external actor, his instincts shaped by his time on television sitcoms. Usually comparing a movie performance to a sitcom performance is as backhanded a compliment as you can get, but it’s the same inviting, quietly self-deprecating quality that made Alex P. Keaton a breakout on Family Ties—where his character was dealing with a cultural divide of a different sort—that makes Marty McFly an enduring ’80s blockbuster touchstone.
But personally, having been a bit too young during Fox’s heyday to have ever developed a crush on him (although, I totally get it), I’m always wowed again by the spectacularly twitchy weirdness Crispin Glover brings to George McFly. There are times when Glover seems to be in an entirely different movie—perhaps the darker, brooding version of BTTF that Stoltz was in—but that strange energy helps sell the idea that this puny, weird pushover of a guy has something deep inside of him that turns him into the version of George McFly that Lorraine (and Marty) really wants. Glover has since stated that he didn’t appear in either of the film’s sequels because he was unhappy with what he saw as the film’s materialistic message, and while I guess I buy that argument—it’s hard to deny the film perpetuates a very superficial fantasy of success—I think his performance is one of the few elements that helps undercut that message, however slightly. I wish he had found a way to do the same in Part II.
I don’t want to dwell too long on either of the sequels here, as Noel will be looking at them more in-depth on Thursday, but your point about the 30-year gap raises the subject, so I’ll dip a toe in these murky waters. Despite several years of Internet tricksters trying to convince us otherwise, October 21 of this year marks the actual date Doc and Marty travel to in Part II, placing us at a weird convergence point where the future of the second movie is the present of reality, and the past of reality is as far away from the present as the past of the movie was from the first film. (Are you confused yet? I know I am!) The point being, the first two Back To The Future movies both deal with a roughly 30-year time gap, but the first film’s journey to the past will always feel more significant and “real” (whatever that means in this context) because it didn’t require the sort of future-world prognostication that makes past visions of the future look so corny in the harsh light of the present. Put another way: Part I’s observations of the passage of time are powered by hindsight and nostalgia, Part II’s are powered by guesswork and premonition. (It also opens it up to all sorts of nitpicking: Turns out you do need roads where you’re going, Doc.) While I still have a lot of affection for Part II, the original will always feel more solid and enduring for me because it’s rooted in the past. Does that make sense, or am I getting too heavy here?
Jen: It does make sense. But before I address the sequels, I want to quickly second everything you said about Michael J. Fox, and, especially, Crispin Glover. His oddball weirdness elevates that character so, so much. Instead of being just a generic nerd, which 1955 George McFly easily could have been, he’s a fully dimensional human who is nerdy in a way that’s specific to him and only him. Watch his jittery yet endearing dorkiness in the diner—“I am your density”—then immediately fast-forward to the scene at the end of the Enchantment Under The Sea dance where he and Lorraine are together, saying goodbye to Marty. The way he physically carries himself in that latter moment—jacket flung over his shoulder, standing beside Lorraine as though he really is her density, I mean, destiny—oozes a wonderfully subtle confidence that tells us his transformation is complete. He totally owns his McFlyness.
In fact, Glover’s absence from the sequel, and the use of what I’ll call “fake” George in Part II, is one of the reasons I’ve never cared much for the two follow-ups in the trilogy. It sounds silly to say that they’re “not canon” since one can hardly call the narrative that unfolds in a single movie canon. But that’s sort of how I felt when they came out, and how I continue to feel. The story that was told in the first Back To The Future explored such a rich tangle of emotions and plot points that it seemed pointless to even try to match it. Or perhaps, as you said, I’m just drawn more to a movie rooted in hindsight and nostalgia than one that’s predictive or, as Part III was, based in the Old (yawn) West.
I also think that the first BTTF invites repeat viewing in a way the others don’t because there’s so much that can be missed on the first, second, or even third time watching it. This is a movie that was rich in Easter eggs—see all those Hill Valley Telegraph headlines, or the Twin Pines/Lone Pine mall switcheroo—before we even used the term Easter eggs. It’s as though, somehow, it was purposely designed to be screengrabbed and dissected online 30 years in the future.
I also think it’s one of those movies that you watch differently as you grow older. On this most recent viewing, I had a whole different perspective on Lorraine’s assertion that she never sat in a parked car with a boy and that it’s “terrible” for Jennifer to be pursuing Marty. Before, I always thought that worked purely on a comedic, unreliable narrator basis; we can clearly see that young Lorraine could be plenty flirty and forward with the guys when the spirit moved her. But watching the way Biff basically assaults her in 1955—even his handsiness in the cafeteria is very inappropriate—I wonder now whether she was advising her children, especially her daughter, to be chaste because she didn’t want anyone to ever feel violated the way she often did when Biff wouldn’t take no for an answer
That’s a lot to get out of a movie that can just as easily be enjoyed as simply a zippy summer blockbuster. Which, again, speaks to why BTTF still works. There’s a lot going on under this DeLorean’s hood.
Genevieve: Ooh, I really like that interpretation of Lorraine’s behavior; I always assumed that the interactions we see between her and past-Biff have been somehow influenced by Marty’s presence there, but there’s really no reason to think that’s not exactly how he treated her in the “real” past. That view of Lorraine makes the juxtaposition between her attitudes in the past vs. the present less comedically ironic and more pointed, and makes me like that character a lot more. As you say, it’s a movie that’s enriched by multiple viewings.
To that end, one of my favorite things about Back To The Future is that it fully engages with its timey-wimey paradox, logical fallacies be damned. Time-travel and manipulation is a tricky beast, and Zemeckis and Gale’s script builds that fact into the story, crafting Marty’s journey around the damage he causes, and must undo, simply by stepping foot in 1955. And no, it doesn’t come close to passing the bullshit test—photographs don’t work that way!—but it doesn’t really matter, because the movie does the work necessary to create its own believable-enough version of how this completely made-up technology works. I’m forever grateful that Back To The Future came out and established itself in the pop-cultural firmament before the age of Internet and social-medial nitpickers; I can see the “Everything Back To The Future gets wrong about time-travel, the 1950s, and Chuck Berry” articles now, and I’m ignoring all of them! Of course, those types of articles do exist today—plenty of them—but they’re born less of pedantry than of enthusiasm and nostalgia for the films, and don’t really affect anyone’s enjoyment of the movies (at least, I hope not).
Because Back To The Future is so beloved, and so oft-discussed, by multiple generations of movie-lovers, singling out memorable moments or lines feels a little redundant, but I do want to talk a little about some of the smaller, less-discussed moments that don’t end up on highlight reels or Buzzfeed lists. For example, I love the little details of Doc and Marty’s relationship, like when Doc reveals his elaborate model of the town square to Marty, asking him to “please excuse the crudity of this model, I didn’t have time to built it to scale or paint it,” to which a bemused Marty simply replies, “It’s good.” Or Doc’s response to Marty’s umpteenth utterance of the word “heavy”: “Weight has nothing to do with it!” Fox and Christopher Lloyd have such great chemistry together, creating a distinctive, unique relationship—not quite father-son, but something more than just bros—primarily through the quality of their banter and reactions to each other. What other small delights did you find tucked in between the big, memorable moments, Jen?
Jen: Oh gosh, there are so many small delights. Several of them pop up in the dinner scene where Marty sits down with his grandparents and the rest of his relatives, none of whom, naturally, realize they’re related. The wonderful Frances Lee McCain’s line about Uncle “Jailbird” Joey and his playpen—“He cries whenever we take him out, so we just leave him in there all the time”—is just perfect in its complete obliviousness to what lies ahead for that little baby, and provides the perfect rimshot to Michael J. Fox’s “Better get used to these bars, kid.” That whole scene is a master class in comedic timing, because of the great interplay between the actors, but also because of the sharp editing work by Harry Keramidas and Arthur Schmidt. This whole movie feels like it’s going 88 miles per hour, but in a good way. It never feels rushed, but it also zings along quickly. No moments are wasted at all.
This counts less as a small delight and more like a macro-pleasure, but: I also like the fact that you can read Back To The Future as a powerful argument for both free will and fate. On the free will side, clearly Marty’s actions in 1955 altered the timeline for his parents, giving both of them a confidence that allowed them to build a happier, healthier life for themselves. (“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”) At the same time, one could argue that George and Lorraine really were destined to be together. Even when George didn’t get hit by Lorraine’s father’s car, events transpired to allow them to fall in love. If BTTF has a life philosophy, then, it seems to be this: Each of us has the power to change history, but there are also some things that are just meant to be. Oh, and also: Don’t steal plutonium from Libyans who drive a VW bus.
Don’t miss Keith Phipps’ Keynote essay on how Back To The Future plays with the idea of shifting timelines while remaining respectful of the past. And on Thursday, Noel Murray looks at the two Back To The Future sequels.