100 Film Favorites – #5: Back to the Future
(Robert Zemeckis, 1985)
We’ve made it at long last to the TOP FIVE! I know we technically should have reached the end long before now (if I’d kept my daily pace we would have ended on the 3rd). Regardless, we’re finally into the home stretch. Welcome to the Final Five Favorite Film Favorites.
If you’ve been paying attention thus far, you may have seen today’s selection coming. In fact, you might be able to guess a couple of the other films still to come. Today, we complete the Back to the Future trilogy with its first entry. On the Countdown post reviewing either Part II or III of the series, Pratyush Dubey commented that the sequels should have ranked closer to the end of the Countdown. Well, if all three Back to the Future “Parts” were considered together, as a single six-hour supermovie, it might very well rank among my top 3 Film Favorites. The masterful use of running gags, common themes, and a deep, coherent, and consistent film-world combine to make “BttF” arguably the best film trilogy ever made.
That said, the original Back to the Future is my favorite of the three, for reasons we’ll explore later.
As the film begins, the camera tracks across a vast collection of clocks of all makes and models (including one which depicts an iconic scene from the 1923 film “Safety Last,” in which star Harold Lloyd dangles precariously from the face of a clock-tower).
The pan continues, past a half-concealed case of plutonium and a dog’s bowl, filled to overflowing by a canine breakfast machine (that makes the third breakfast machine on this list so far, after Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, for anyone keeping track).
After this foreshadowing-bonanza of an opening shot, teenage protagonist Marty McFly enters the room (which is revealed to be a garage-turned-living-quarters), and calls out for its absent owner, one Doc Brown. Finding himself alone, Marty takes the opportunity to “try out” (read: destroy) Doc’s enormous, supercharged electric guitar amplifier. In Marty’s defense, why exactly Doc built the amplifier is never explained or mentioned again, so it must not have been particularly important. As he pulls himself from the wreckage of the exploded amplifier, Marty gets a call from Doc, who announces he’s on the verge of a life-changing scientific breakthrough. Further details are drowned out by the sudden chiming of the multitude of clocks, after which an overjoyed Doc notes that the timepieces are “all exactly 25 minutes slow!” Realizing he’s late for school, Marty bolts out the door and jumps on his skateboard. In a totally radical series of misdemeanors, the young McFly hitches a ride to school by grabbing on to the bumpers of various cars and letting them pull him through the streets, while Huey Lewis’ “Power of Love” plays over the opening credits.
Marty’s life is far from perfect. His principal, Mr. Strickland, declares him a “slacker” who will never amount to anything, and his band fails spectacularly at the school Battle of the Bands (they were probably up against the Wyld Stallyns).
Things only get worse when Marty gets home from school. We see that Marty’s father George is a dweeb, without the backbone to stand up to his overbearing boss, Biff Tannen. Marty’s mother, Lorraine, is an alcoholic, and his older brother…works at Burger King (THE SHAME!). Over dinner, Lorraine nostalgically recalls how she fell in love with George in high school, when her father accidentally ran George over in the street and she “nursed him back to health.” Throughout the telling, George remains oblivious, watching a re-run of “The Honeymooners” across the room.
The two positive aspects of Marty’s existence are his relationships with his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, and his wacky mad scientist best friend, “Doc” Emmet Brown. So when Doc calls him late that night requesting assistance with an experiment, Marty heads out for the Twin Pines Mall without a second thought.
In the mall parking lot, Doc unveils what he claims to be his greatest invention ever: a time machine. More specifically, a time machine built into a DeLorean, a gleaming, stainless steel 80s-tastic spacecar. Doc excitedly demonstrates the machine by sending his dog, Einstein, one minute into the future. He explains the criteria which must be met to make a successful time-trip:
1. You must have a sufficient amount of plutonium to power the “flux capacitor” and generate 1.21 gigawatts (or “jiggowatts”) of electricity.
2. The DeLorean must accelerate to 88 miles per hour (at which point outside observers will “see some serious shit”).
Doc accelerates the car remotely, and Einstein successfully becomes the first time traveler when the car blinks out of existence, only to come screeching back across the parking lot precisely one minute later. A stop-watch inside the car confirms that while one minute has passed for Marty and Doc, no time has passed inside the car…it has “skipped over” that minute to arrive at the predetermined destination time.
Doc proceeds to the next stage of his demonstration, showing how to operate the machine from the inside, and typing several possible destination dates into the car’s “time circuit” display panel. One such date is November 5th, 1955, the date Doc first envisioned the Flux Capacitor (after falling off a toilet and hitting his head).
Doc’s reminiscing is cut short when a Libyan terrorist cell, from whom he has stolen his stock of Plutonium, shows up pissed. The Libyans mercilessly gun Doc down, but Marty is able to dive into the DeLorean and drive away. Thinking of nothing but escape, he puts pedal to metal, and soon the speedometer has climbed to 88…
After a blinding flash, Marty suddenly finds himself racing across “Old Man Peabody’s” farmland, which once lay where the mall is in 1985. After a misunderstanding with the farmer’s family (they mistake Marty, in his radiation suit and spacey car, for an alien), he hits the road again, running over one of Peabody’s favorite pine trees in the process.
Marty assumes he must be having some kind of a dream, until he discovers that his neighborhood hasn’t even been built yet. Hiding the DeLorean to avoid further confusion, Marty heads on foot into downtown Hill Valley, where a newspaper confirms it is indeed November 5th, 1955, the last date punched into the time machine’s keypad.
At the local soda fountain, Marty encounters his father, George McFly, as a teenager. The dorky George is pushed around by an also-teenaged Biff, despite janitor Goldie Wilson (mayor of Hill Valley in Marty’s time) advising George to stand up for himself.
Marty encounters George again later, spying on an undressing Lorraine from a tree. George loses his balance and falls from the tree into the middle of the street. Marty pushes George out of the way of an incoming car, only to be struck by the car himself. The automobile in question turns out to belong to Lorraine’s father… Marty gradually realizes that by “saving” his father from the car, he has prevented his parents’ meeting and falling in love. Worse, at least for the moment, is the fact that Lorraine is now nursing MARTY back to health, and becoming quite infatuated with him in the process.
A thoroughly creeped-out Marty leaves to track down the Doc Brown of 1955. Though initially reluctant to believe the crazy tales of this “future-boy” (Doc is especially incredulous to learn that Ronald Reagan, a minor movie star in the 50s, is president in 1985), he comes to accept Marty’s story as truth when Marty retells Doc’s story of inventing the Flux Capacitor. Doc says he’d love to help Marty get “Back to the Future,” but unfortunately there’s no plutonium handy. Marty used the only canister in the car to make his accidental first trip, and now he needs some way to generate those 1.21 jiggowatts without fuel.
Doc states that the only way to generate that kind of power would be with a bolt of lightning, but unfortunately you never know when or where lightning will strike. In a supreme stroke of luck, Marty DOES happen to know that a lightning bolt will strike (and irreparably damage) Hill Valley’s historic clock tower on November 12th, 1955, just a week away. He knows the moment it will strike, too…the lightning stopped the clock.
This puts Doc’s mind at ease, until he learns of Marty’s interactions with his past-parents. Doc looks at a McFly family photo Marty had shown him earlier and gasps: Marty and his siblings are slowly fading from the picture. Because Marty interrupted Lorraine and George’s meeting, his eventual existence is growing less and less likely by the minute. Marty now has one week to get his mother and father together before the lightning strike the next Saturday night.
This is easier said than done. Every time Marty attempts to act as George’s wing-man, Lorraine simply falls deeper for Marty himself, whom she knows as Calvin Klein (it’s written all over his underwear). During one such attempt, Marty stands up to Biff, inciting a chase during which Marty “invents” the skateboard to escape, wowing the entire town. Biff slams his car into a manure truck and swears revenge on Marty.
Running out of ideas on how to re-unite his parents, Marty concocts a plan with George: Marty is scheduled to take Lorraine to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, the site of George & Lorraine’s first kiss in the original timeline. In the parking lot, Marty will “take liberties” with his mother, giving George the opportunity to step in and save Lorraine from the ostensibly unwanted advances.
Luckily (well, kinda), this proposed scenario never reaches full oedipal squick. Instead of George, a vengeful and intoxicated Biff comes across Lorraine and Marty in the parking lot. Biff incapacitates Marty and hands him off to his gang of goons, before climbing into the car and attempting to rape Lorraine. George arrives at the prescribed time, and instructs Biff (not Marty) to “Get your damn hands off her!” Only after the towering Biff climbs out of the car does George realize the plan has changed. Nevertheless, George is outraged by Biff’s treatment of Lorraine, and miraculously manages to lay Tannen out on the asphalt with one fateful punch.
Marty, meanwhile, has been abandoned by the goons in the trunk of another car, which just happens to belong to the dance’s live band, Marvin Berry & The Starlighters. When Marvin hurts his hand jimmying the trunk open, Marty volunteers to play guitar, and finally gets the opportunity to lead a band onstage. During a stirring rendition of “Earth Angel,” George & Lorraine kiss on the dance floor, and Marty’s existence is ensured once more. Triumphant, Marty leads the Starlighters in an impromptu performance of “Johnny B. Goode.” Marty’s wild, over-the-top performance shocks the 50s audience…”but your kids are gonna love it,” he says. Meanwhile, in the wings, Marvin Berry calls up his cousin Chuck, to let him listen in on “that new sound you’ve been looking for.”
Outside the school, Marty shakes hands with newly-minted lovebirds George & Lorraine, before rushing downtown for his rendezvous with destiny. In the town square, Doc has strung power lines from the roof of the clock tower, down across an intersection of the street below, and outfitted the DeLorean with a metal hook which will channel the lightning into the Flux Capacitor. He explains that “all” Marty has to do is make sure he’s driving at precisely 88 mph at the instant the hook connects with the power lines (which also has to be the moment the lightning strikes the tower).
In their final moments together, Marty attempts to warn Doc about the bullet-riddled end which awaits him in 1985, and hands him a letter which details his fate. Doc is furious, saying that his knowing the future could drastically damage the time-space continuum, and he tears up the letter. Running out of time, Marty has no choice but to dash for the car. The tension is upped still further when one of the power cables comes loose, but Doc is able to re-connect it at the last moment. The lightning surges through the lines just as Marty makes contact at 88 mph, and, like it says on the tin, Marty McFly goes “Back to the Future.”
Marty arrives in 1985 (at what is now the “Lone Pine Mall”) several minutes earlier than he left, intent on making one last effort to save Doc, but he’s too late (why didn’t he just give himself more time?). Doc is still gunned down, and Marty mourns over his body, just as five-minutes-earlier-Marty flees the Libyans in the DeLorean and, in a blinding flash, departs for the fifties.
Then Doc gets up. Unveiling Marty’s pieced-together letter, he discloses that he ultimately decided “What the Hell,” read his fate, and opted to change it by wearing a bulletproof vest.
Back home, things are brighter as well. George’s decision to stand up for himself in 1955 has created a new timeline, featuring McFlys who are bolder, sexier, and more successful. George is now a popular science fiction author (in the original timeline, he never shared his writing with anyone), and Biff is a lowly auto-worker whom George keeps around the house an awful lot considering the whole “tried to rape your wife” thing.
And Marty’s Burger King brother? Now a suave 80s businessman.
Marty’s uber-parents present him with his dream car (which, for some reason, is a black pickup truck). Jennifer arrives at the house, and she and Marty prepare to leave for a romantic evening at “the lake.” But before any hanky-panky gets underway, Doc come careening down the street in a newly tricked-out DeLorean, and informs Marty and Jennifer that it’s time for Back to the Future, Part II. They rise into the air, and in a flash Doc takes them back to the future he has just visited…a place where they “won’t need roads.”
Okay, that was probably the longest plot-summary to date. But it speaks to the tightness of the script that practically every moment of the film is integral to its plot. Virtually every line adds meaning to the story, or foreshadows events to come. And at the movie’s climax, Christopher Lloyd (no relation to Harold Lloyd) does indeed dangle perilously from the hands of a clock-tower.
Back to the Future also manages to flawlessly incorporate aspects of many genres, without any of them suffering. It’s a funny science-fiction action love story, and proves a great success, rather than the mess that that genre word salad might suggest.
These strengths are only amplified when the film is paired with its sequels. Running gags and parallel scenarios appear throughout the trilogy, serving both to deepen the story-world and emphasize that some things never change: there’s always a McFly, and there’s always a Tannen. All three chapters are replete with the same sense of humor-sci-fi-action-romance, and viewed as a single narrative the trilogy is undoubtedly one of the finest films I’ve seen. But for introducing the iconic characters of Marty and Doc, as well as one of the most memorable time machines in film history, the original “Back to the Future” comes out on top.
-The original draft of the Back to the Future script was considerably different from the final version. Initially, the time machine was to be built out of an old refrigerator, but this idea was nixed out of fear that children nationwide would start locking themselves in fridges. Additionally, when Doc says “The only thing that can generate that kind of power is a bolt of lightning!”, the original line was “is an atomic blast!” The final scene would have had Marty driving across the desert toward a 1955 nuclear test, jumping into the future just before the mushroom cloud consumed him. This idea was allegedly changed due to budget constraints, but the decision to link Marty’s return to the future with the clock tower at the center of town is so much better it’s mind-boggling. It keeps everything centralized, and emphasizes the theme of continuity, and the idea that the town is just as much a central character of the film as the McFlys or the Tannens. But executive producer Steven Spielberg may have been taking notes…23 years later, his Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull would feature a protagonist riding a vintage refrigerator through a mushroom cloud in a 1950s nuclear test.
-For the nit-picky, Back to the Future has some major potential plot holes. One that has been commented on is the fact that Marty’s successful family at the end of Part I isn’t really HIS. Overlooking the implausibility that Marty’s parents would still decide to procreate at exactly the same time, and produce exactly identical offspring as “the first time around,” they and his siblings now possess decades of memory’s which he doesn’t share. These are people with whom Marty has never interacted, and the “real” parents he remembers now never existed.
-I think an even more interesting problem branches off of this one. Why does the Marty who belongs to the improved family still depart in the time machine? Why is he even still friends with Doc? In the movie, it’s kind of implied that Doc is something of a foster figure to fill in for Marty’s dysfunctional parents, so if George and Lorraine are now super-successful, would Marty still hang out with Doc? It’d be kind of awkward if “our” Marty arrived back in 1985, only to be confronted with another Marty who’s completely content in his situation and has no desire to leave. Actually, I read a really interesting piece of fan-fiction (in middle school, back before I realized that 98% of fan-fiction is porn) which speculates on this matter, following 50s Doc from the time he sends Marty back to the future. He now knows he must keep the cycle going, and ensure that he one day befriends a young Marty and acquires a DeLorean. It also shows Doc and Marty becoming friends, and “explains” how their relationship results in 8-year-old Marty setting fire to his living-room rug, mentioned as an aside in the first film. If there ever is a “Back to the Future, Part IV” (and I certainly hope there won’t be), I think this would be an interesting story to see unfold.
-Recently, Telltale Games released a point-and-click adventure game based on Back to the Future. The game is lovingly produced, and pays dedicated homage to virtually every element of the franchise. It really does feel like another (if slightly more boring) chapter of the BttF story, featuring Marty traveling back to Prohibition-era Hill Valley, battling with a bootlegger Tannen and aiding Jennifer’s police officer grandfather.
Brian Terrill is the host of television show Count Gauntly’s Horrors from the Public Domain. You can keep up with Brian’s 100 Film Favorites countdown here.
5 thoughts on “Brian Terrill’s 100 Film Favorites – #5: “Back to the Future””
I recently re-watched BttF 1 for the first time in a few years, and it definitely holds up. I want to inquire on one specific point:
You are on the record as being against immutable timelines (aka “predestination” timelines) in time travel stories, and prefer mutable timelines, where changes impact the future. I find them to be equally compelling but paradoxical — mutable timelines for many of the reasons you highlight here.
But BttF defintely has some moments that suggest an immutable timeline. For example, when Marvin calls his cousin, Chuck Berry, it seems pretty clear that’s intended to be Chuck getting inspiration for the rock and roll he would create… but had already created without Marty’s intervention in his original timeline! Another is when Marty suggests the busboy would be mayor, which seems to inspire him to vow he will someday be mayor. I always interpreted this as Goldie getting his idea to become mayor in the future, which he already was in Marty’s timeline!
I also got to thinking about some of the stuff about Marty’s mom, and it gets pretty ooky real fast. There’s the whole Biff molestation thing — the levity of which is one of the few things that hasn’t aged well. I also found it odd that the original timeline mom is so prudish around her kids, whereas new-timeline mom is so liberated. Is this just because she lives a more empowered life in general? Or did something that happened that Marty changed?
It’s a fair argument, but I just see those things as examples of changes made to a mutable timeline. There was a universe where Chuck Berry found inspiration elsewhere, and one where Marty was the inspiration. Same with Goldie Wilson.
As for the mom’s personality, I guess this is an excuse for me to watch through the movies again. Previously I’d just thought of it in the context of a gag: The mom being stern and moralizing with her children vs. “Oh I’d love to park” in her youth just shows the “do as I say not as I do” aspect of parenting. But you’re right that in the “greatest timeline” shown at the end she’s totally different. Maybe Marty had something to do with it, or George’s bolder nature (which also traces to Marty’s actions).
Also yeah, I would still not keep creepy Biff around, even as a lowly car-polisher.
Also to restate something from the article, I’d be interested to know more about why Doc and Marty still became friends in the changed timeline.
I guess that’s the problem with mutable timelines – they become predestination timelines after one pass. if paradoxes are a problem, Doc’s going to have to now make sure important stuff happens the same way so that “best timeline” Marty still gets in a time machine and carries out his duties each iteration.
Another important question: the 1955 and 1985 dates (Oct. 26th and Nov. 5th) are both really close to Halloween, and yet we never see a single Halloween decoration. Not even in “scary” 1985. What gives? What even led them to pick those dates?
Final final thought: I’m glad I’m not the only one who periodically re-reads these posts. They were definitely the highlight of my 2013, and together with the Halloween posts of that year and the “Ten Things Brian Likes” posts from the following year stand as some of my favorite examples of my own writing. Certainly my most consistently prolific period of writing, if nothing else.