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Back to the Future - revisited
Is the 1985 classic still worth watching?
Certain films capture your heart at 15, but how awkward and old-fashioned would they make you feel if you watched them with a teenager now? And what horrifying things might they reveal about the person you once were? Avoid embarrassment, and the waste of £1.49 in rental fees, by letting us take the risk on your behalf.
Can we show the kids?
Back to the Future (1985)
Suburban slacker Marty McFly is unlikely friends with madcap inventor ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown whose time machine - built into a DeLorean - sends Marty back to 1955, where he inadvertently stops his parents from meeting. Marty must try and get his parents together to ensure he continues existing, even as the Doc of 1955 tries to figure out a way of getting Marty back… to the future.
Time travel stories are notoriously difficult to pull off. They almost immediately start throwing up grandfather paradoxes and alternate universes and historical what-ifs, and everything gets too complicated. The only way to escape all this causality is pretend to wrestle with the knotty skein of time but not take it too seriously. In taking this jauntily cavalier approach to physics, Back to the Future is a sibling to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Time Bandits. When Marty charges Doc with screwing up the space-time continuum, and Doc replies ‘I figured, what the hell’, he is speaking for the writers.
What the platform (IMDb) says: sex & nudity, violence & gore, profanity, alcohol, drugs & smoking, frightening & intense scenes. (All of this is pretty mild, tbf)
Sex: No, not actual. Marty’s father is a peeping tom, in a plot point that is oddly under-addressed. Even more squeamishly Lorraine, Marty’s mother, develops a crush on Marty that becomes increasingly uncomfortable for him and us.
Bechdel Test: Fail. The only time we hear women talking to each other is when Lorraine is discussing with her friends her unwitting crush on her own son.
Disappointing afterlife of the stars: More of a sad afterlife; Michael J Fox’s Parkinson's Disease means he has had to largely give up acting.
Racism: The villains use the period slur ‘spook’ to refer to the Black band members performing at the climactic Enchantment Under The Sea dance, but they are the villains. It is then heavily implied that a white man invented rock n’ roll, after band-leader Marvin Berry phones his ‘cousin Chuck’ and tells him to listen to Marty playing Johnny B Goode. Marty is merely playing Chuck Berry riffs, though, so ultimately it’s just a time travel joke. The cartoonish bad guys, for some reason driving a VW Campervan, are Libyan, which is quintessentially ‘80s.
Sexual violence: Biff the bully harrasses Lorraine throughout and eventually attacks her in a near-rape scene that is disturbing, and is meant to be. It feels like a crack in the film’s generally benign movie-set version of the ‘50s, a glimpse of genuine darkness beneath the repression and enforced etiquette. It also helps to set up the film’s denouement, in which Biff’s life is effectively ruined: he deserved it.
The script: Back to the Future is pretty much the poster boy for a certain kind of ‘80s Hollywood movie: slick, non-stop, gleeful. It appears to be utterly easeful and kinetic, just rolling along under the effects of its own gravity, like Marty on his skateboard. Underneath, however, it is pushing off hard; like Doc’s study, it’s a teeming, ticking machine of meshed clockwork. The script is a steel trap of efficiency, like a reverse engineered piece of mediaeval exegesis, with almost every line having at least four levels of meaning: plot delivery, character development, setting up time-travel-based payoffs, and just being amusing. The whole thing is built on rhymes and echoes in such a way that it becomes polyphonically satisfying.
The actors: The performances are perfectly judged. Christopher Lloyd and Michael J Fox are exceptionally gifted comic actors and both have the happy ability to play big without being irritating. Crispin Glover is possibly in another film to everyone else, but then he’s possibly in another world to everyone else and in his hands George McFly becomes an unparalleled loner weirdo. Meanwhile, as Lorraine McFly, Lea Thompson helps us navigate the potential ick of her crush on her own son by playing believably naive and eager.
The direction: Zemeckis isn’t flashy, but, better, is a consummate visual storyteller, light with the comedy and splendidly fluid with the action while retaining a comprehensible coherence of place and action.
Soundtrack: The defining track is The Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News, which Marty’s band plays in an audition for a school dance, only to be turned down by Huey Lewis himself in a cameo appearance. It’s a fairly standard piece of hummable, good-natured mid-80s power pop, but its association with such a feelgood film gives it an impact it hasn’t otherwise earned, and which probably doesn’t translate for younger audiences.
‘When this baby hits 88mph you’re going to see some serious shit!’
‘Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull?’
‘Better get used to these bars, kid’
‘Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads’
Generation X-relevant material: Marty is in many ways the perfect Gen X hero. His whole schtick is quotation and appropriation: riffing off Star Wars and Star Trek to freak out his adolescent father, ripping off Chuck Berry at the school dance. Moreover he is a ‘slacker’, in the words of his head teacher, and so is definitely one of us.
Still worth it?
Oh very much yes. One of those films you’d show if you wanted to convince your kids that the ‘80s were fun. Because they were, sometimes. In Hill Valley, at least.
Marty’s adventure might ostensibly be about guiding the path of true love, but underneath it's also about his struggle to access a shiny, comfortable middle class lifestyle. At the beginning of the film Marty is visibly disappointed with his shabby family of unambitious losers. He is rewarded at the end of the film with a shiny pick-up and slim, flirtatious parents who are deeply relaxed about their son’s sex life. The suburban dream of the ‘50s, the film seems to be suggesting, is only achievable in the ‘80s if you happen to know someone with a time machine.
There are also echoes throughout of It’s A Wonderful Life, but it’s a measure of the film’s quirky intelligence that Marty is trying to escape Bedford Falls and return to Pottersville, with its ATMs, homelessness and terrorism. The ‘50s in Hill Valley (‘A Nice Place to Live’) may be less segregated and McCarthyite than the reality, but Biff’s assault on Lorraine reveals a darker sense of the period than we had any right to expect from a mass market teen flick. The film doesn’t shy away from the downsides of the ‘80s either. Instead of a broken knob on a newel post, Marty’s joyful confirmation that he is home comes when he sees that the local cinema is advertising a porn film, instead of the Ronald Reagan flick that was playing there in 1955.
Next week: Life on Mars - one hot summer with Gene Hunt