Ten Things I Love About… Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

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Warning: plot spoilers ahead. In fact, I’m assuming you know the film’s basic story.

This is not a review. (Want a review? “Perfect – 10 flux capacitors out of 10”.) Instead, it’s a love letter to one of the most important films in my life. Here’s a list of 10 areas in which I think Back to the Future especially excels.

1. It’s about time.
Unsurprisingly for a movie about time-travel, there’s a recurring theme of clocks and chronology. Time plays a huge role in the story, thematically as well as literally. The characters are often surrounded by reminders of it. The first thing we hear is ticking clocks; the first scene is a slow pan across dozens of timepieces. As the story begins, Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is carrying out an experiment and has set all these clocks to the wrong time, meaning Marty (Michael J Fox) is late for school. The time machine, meanwhile, has digital readouts specifying the time and date of each travel. Later, Marty is pestered by a woman wanting a donation for her campaign to save the town’s decrepit clock tower. When Marty reaches the 1950s, that clock is in working order: its deafening clang is a vivid pointer that he is actually in the past. Later, the same bell prevents Doc hearing important information from Marty. The writers’ original idea was for the story’s climax to take place at an out-of-town nuclear plant. What a smart move it was to change that and keep Hill Valley’s town clock central to proceedings. Much more satisfying.

2. A design for life.
Lawrence G Paull’s production design for this movie is just masterful. It does precisely what film design should do: the sets, costumes, props and locations create a fully believable setting, but they also *tell the story* just as cleverly as dialogue or acting. That’s really the key to this film, why it’s such a classic. Its story is explored via every tool in the cinematic workshop. For example, in the opening shot – a 126-second slow track through Doc’s house – we see newspapers hinting at the character’s back story. The camera then tilts down to his modest bed and cluttered belongings; then shows off his Heath Robinson gadgetry, including a device for feeding the dog. Before we ever clap eyes on him, some of Doc’s history, personality and situation are conveyed through visual means. The entire movie is crammed full of this kind of storytelling. Sometimes it’s big and obvious – for example, how bright and gleaming the 1950s are compared to the 1980s – but often it’s subtle. Doc’s house in the 1980s is a rundown shed; in the 1950s, that shed is just a workshop next to his enormous mansion. Without it being said, we infer that he’s on his uppers in later life.

3. Hiding in plain sight.
Again and again, the film plonks down huge clues and jokes and bits of information right in front of you, and dares you to spot the significance. Some examples… One of the clocks in the opening scene has a miniature Harold Lloyd hanging from its face… a situation Doc will later find himself in. We’re shown a seemingly random TV news report about some missing plutonium… which we soon learn the Doc has stolen. A poster in the town centre is asking people to re-elect the mayor… a man we’ll meet in 1955, when Marty gives him the idea to go into politics. Marty is handed a flyer about the clock tower’s history, which we think is important because his girlfriend has written her phone number on the back of it… but it’s actually the printed side that’ll prove vital. We see some boys in 1955 using proto-skateboards… one of which Marty later nabs for a getaway. All these things make repeat viewings an absolute blast. (If anyone mentions Twin Pines Mall, we all have to take a sip of our drink.)

4. “Marty!”
What a fantastic lead character Marty McFly is. He’s the audience’s point of view, and is in virtually every scene. He has energy, charm and wit. He wears sunglasses, a denim jacket and a body-warmer. He uses a skateboard and hangs Walkman headphones round his neck. He gives off an air of Ferris Bueller-like confidence, yet admits to being scared of rejection. And he has a cute girlfriend (who’ll get even cuter after a recast in the sequels). It’s amazing we don’t hate him – but we don’t. That’s down to Michael J Fox, who plays the role with fantastic comic energy. Equally important is the fact his performance has total sincerity. We believe in the situations because he does. It would have been so easy to play it detached or with a knowing irony, kind of like Bill Murray in Ghostbusters. Maybe that’s what Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role, was doing before he was fired.

5. “Well, looky what we have here.”
There are so many fantastic jokes in the background of scenes or details tossed off without comment, and they’re often bits of comedy. It took me many viewings to appreciate the gag of Marty methodically fine-tuning a humungous amplifier… only to then use a laughably *tiny* guitar. Later, when Marty reaches 1955, a Ronald Reagan movie is playing at the local cinema. It’s a joke that works on two levels. Not only was Reagan US President at the time of the film’s release, but the reminder that he used to be actor sets us up for a gag from an incredulous Doc Brown. Another great example is how Marty and his dad do the exact same hand gesture when unknowingly sitting next to each other in a cafe.

6. “Don’t need no credit card to ride this train!”
There’s loads of music in this film (well, it was the 1980s). Huey Lewis and the News get two tracks – The Power of Love and Back in Time. The latter’s lyrics relate directly to the story, though I didn’t spot that for a stupidly long time. In a bit of postmodern humour, when Marty auditions for a battle-of-the-bands competition, he and his pals play The Power of Love and Huey Lewis cameos as the judge who doesn’t like it. From the present, there are songs by Lindsey Buckingham, Eric Clapton and Van Halen on the soundtrack; in the past, period tracks such as The Four Aces’ Mr Sandman and Etta James’s The Wallflower (Dance With Me Henry) set the scene. Meanwhile, Alan Silvestri’s incidental music is just magic. Big and dramatic, it makes what is a reasonably small-scale movie feel like fucking Die Hard.

7. “I’m gonna clean up this town!”
Has there ever been a better film set than Hill Valley? For the production, an entire town square was built from scratch – and we see it in two different states. In 1985, it’s grimy and rundown, there’s graffiti, and it has a porno cinema. In 1955, it’s clean and verdant and full of life. (The name of the town is an oxymoron, by the way – it took me a long time to twig that.) You could watch this film and solely concentrate on how the shop fronts and other details change between decades. One great example is how the central square is a car park in 1985 yet in 1955 has a war memorial. Presumably it got bulldozed at some point.

8. “I’m writing this down – this is good stuff.”
The dialogue pulls off an astonishing trick. Pretty much every line is doing three things all at once: it’s moving the plot forward, it’s speaking to character, and it’s entertaining us with style. We’re constantly – and I mean constantly – being given vital story information, yet it never feels like dull exposition because it’s smuggled in under the cover of characterisation or comedy (or often both). Check out the early 1985 scene between Marty and his family, where Lorraine (Lea Thompson) talks about meeting George (Crispin Glover). The *entire* conversation is information we need to know for what’s going to happen in the story. It’s pure plot primer. Yet the scene is alive and fresh and funny and charismatic. It doesn’t feel like an info-dump. It feels like people talking. (As a scene that’s an exposition lecture and you just don’t notice, the only comparable example I can think of is the newsreel at the start of Citizen Kane.)

9. The right direction.
Robert Zemeckis does a quietly magnificent job directing this film. Every moment is paced to perfection and the flow from scene to scene is seamless. The film is fit to bursting with energy, while the camerawork – the movement, the framing, the mise-en-scene – is superb.

10. “Don’t be so gullible, McFly!”
Biff Tannen is one of cinema’s great bad guys, superbly played by Thomas F Wilson, who has to give us three versions of the same man. We see him in the 1980s, where he’s overweight, domineering and slovenly; in the 1950s, where he’s the arrogant school bully with a gang of hangers-on; and then back in the 80s, where he’s a subservient car-cleaner. Wilson pulls off all incarnations brilliantly. Biff is not a subtle character. He has no hidden depths. Yet the actor makes him so watchable. He also has a gag – “Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here?” – that won’t get its punchline until the sequel.

11. (Did you seriously think I could limit this to just 10 things?!) By George!
Marty’s nerdy dad is the real heart of the story. In some ways, it’s *his* story: he’s the protagonist who’s trying to achieve something. (Marty is actually a complication.) When we get to the 1950s, George is sat at a café – but neither Marty nor us notice him at first. It’s then quite a moment when the realisation sinks in. Later, it’s a totally believable moment when George punches Biff and wins Lorraine’s heart, thanks in big part to Crispin Glover. The actor was clearly a bit of a fruit-loop back in the day, but he’s terrific in this film. (And, I learnt recently, is the son of Bruce Glover, who played assassin Mr Wint in Diamonds Are Forever.)

12. We are family.
Marty’s siblings aren’t in the film much – just one scene in each version of 1985. But they’re fab. Brother Dave is played by Marc McClure, fresh from four movies as Jimmy Olsen. Sister Linda is played by Wendie Jo Sperber.

13. “It’s written all over your underwear!”
Marty’s mum, Lorraine, is an old soak in 1985. She’s chavvy, a bit overweight and very world-weary. She condemns modern behaviour such as sitting in parked cars with boys, then bores her family with a well-worn story about she met her husband. But when we meet her in 1955 at the age of 17, she’s a right hottie. The young Lorraine is sweet and adorable, but also feisty and a bit of a secret rebel. Lea Thompson is wonderful at playing the two versions of the character (as well as a happy and trim 47-year-old at the end of the film). Despite young Lorraine’s lust for Marty, she doesn’t dismiss nervous George when he makes a play for her, which helps sell their eventual union. She also does all the things her grown-up self condemns: park with a boy, smoke, drink and flirt.

14. “Great Scott!”
We first see Dr Emmett L Brown driving his time machine out from a van, down the ramp surrounded by smoke. It’s a theatrical entrance for both the car and the Doc – though how he got into the motor when it was inside such a narrow van is another issue. He’s the epitome of the wild-haired, wild-eyed mad scientist, but has a huge likeability. (He’s one of the great Doctor Whos we never got.) It’s never revealed how Doc and Marty met or became such good friends, because we don’t especially need to know – it’s still a massive moment when the Doc is seemingly murdered at the end of the first act. In 1955, the younger version is just as bonkers. When Marty tracks him down, the 50s Doc is conducting a mind-reading experiment, then later builds a scale model of Hill Valley so he can demonstrate to Marty – and us – how the film’s climax will work. (Soon after this show-and-tell, he meets Lorraine: the only time in the entire trilogy that the two characters interact.) When Marty gets back to 1985, the Doc evades death by changing history. “What the hell?” he quips. He then features in a cliffhanger ending when he collects Marty and Jennifer to take them 30 years into the future (ie, to now).

15. “You built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
A sports-car shape with a harsh, metallic finish and gull-wing doors? Well, it just looks cool, doesn’t it? Making the time machine a car – rather than a stationary capsule – was a masterstroke, giving movement and dynamism to the act of time-travel. (Surely HG Wells would have made this improvement if he’d done just one more draft. Or, you know, been writing after the invention of the car.) After each time-travel, the vehicle is icy cold and covered in mist. That idea got dropped for the sequels!

16. “Do you really think I oughta swear?”
Marty exclaims, “Holy shit!” a few times. When Biff attacks Lorraine, his intentions are shockingly obvious. And the entire emotional storyline is predicated on a mother falling romantically for her son. (Disney turned down the chance to make the film because of its Oedipal overtones.) For a ‘family film’, Back to the Future has an edge. And that makes it more interesting.

17. “Looks like an airplane… without wings!”
When Marty arrives in 1955, his silver car and yellow radiation suit trick a family of farmers into thinking he’s an alien crashed on earth. And Marty later uses the suit (and a Sony Walkman) to con George into believing ‘Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan’ has come to visit him. This old-school sci-fi paranoia is just one thread in the wonderful 1950s-ness of the film’s middle chunk. Nostalgia for that decade is seen a lot in American pop culture from the 1970s and 80s: Grease, Happy Days, American Graffiti, Stand By Me… But it’s especially apt in this movie. It’s the story of a teenager meeting his parents when they were teenagers – and the 1950s saw the birth of teenage culture.

18. “You know, Marty, you look so familiar. Do I know your mother?”
In 1955, Marty meets his mum’s family – Lorraine’s pregnant mother, her TV-fixing dad, and her siblings (one of whom is Kevin Arnold’s brother from The Wonder Years). They get one scene and very nearly steal the film. There’s the joke about baby Joey enjoying being behind bars, Marty being uncomfortable with Lorraine’s flirting, Marty recognising the Jackie Gleason show on TV because he’s already seen it, and the dad not knowing who John F Kennedy is.

19. New things.
I’ve seen this film dozens of times, yet I always spot something new every time I watch it. The two things that dropped into my mind this time are both pretty obvious, yet I’ve never considered them in 30 years. At the start of the film, Marty and his band audition for a panel of judges… on the *same stage* that Marty will play Johnny B. Goode at the end of the film. Never made that connection before. Also, the movie establishes that Twin Pine Malls is around two miles from the centre of Hill Valley. Yet at the film’s climax, Marty runs that distance in *under nine minutes*. No wonder he’s out of breath.

20. “Let’s do something that really cooks!”
I don’t have children, but I’m certain Sophie’s choice would be preferable to selecting just one favourite moment of Back to the Future. But for its sheer joyfulness, why don’t we focus on Marty’s stint as replacement guitarist with dance band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters? It’s maybe not the most vital scene in terms of the plot, though Marty’s erratic guitar playing is a neat illustration of the timeline being under threat. But it’s so, so fun. Once George and Lorraine have hooked up – to the swell of the band playing Earth Angel – the camera cranes up and back, signifying that the storyline is concluded. Then Marty is asked to play another song. He tells the band, “It’s a blues riff in B; watch me for the changes and try to keep up, okay?” then rips into Johnny B. Goode, wowing the crowd with a burst of nascent rock-n-roll. They’ve never heard the song before; no one has. Marty is seemingly inventing a genre on the spot. Lead singer Marvin Berry is so impressed that he telephones his cousin so he can hear the song. “Chuck? Chuck? It’s your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you looking for? Well, listen to this!” Hashtag bootstrap paradox. Marty then goes off-piste, throwing in impressions of Jimi Hendrix and Pete Townsend, which just bemuses the entire room. “I guess you guy aren’t ready for that yet,” he says after finishing. “But your kids are gonna love it.”

21. Summing up?
This post is three thousand words and I’ve barely got started. The film has surgical attention to detail, but never loses sight of the big picture. It’s played at a lick, but never feels rushed. It’s funny, poignant, clever, exciting and witty. It has *huge* heart, but is never soppy. There’s dramatic irony, but it’s never smug. The camerawork and editing are aimed precisely at where the story is, never showing off. Plot, character, action and comedy are all intertwined all of the time – it’s the greatest ever example of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw Back to the Future. It was on a rental video, and must have been in around 1986. (I’ve since seen it on a big screen three times: at an independent cinema in 2000 and twice during a re-release in 2010.) In my mind, it’s just always been there, always been a part of my life. Always been a friend.

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