Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)
You can’t find the reason that American movies changed forever in the mid-1970s any more than you can pinpoint the moment that it happened. The closest we can come is to glare at Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which broke all previous records to become the top grossing film in history up to its release, but that is supremely unfair, first because Jaws is a masterful film, second because Spielberg, crowd-pleaser though he may be, genuinely loves his medium. He loved it enough to believe in two budding screenwriters with bad reputations, time and time again. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, a pair of imaginatively witty USC graduates, had so many unproduced scripts floating around Hollywood in the first decade of their career that it’s scarcely possible that any modern filmmakers have been so prolific while managing to get such a trivial number of movies (two, maybe three) actually made.
It’s a bizarre story because ten years before, these two may well have been a sensation. As in the great comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, the screenplays are densely layered — almost overwritten. The problem is simply that their unique humor — over the top yet, perversely, delivering the goods almost entirely through subtle dialogue — and wildly bizarre ideas are simultaneously stuck firmly in the years of the studio system and far ahead of their time (compare the Coen brothers, Charlie Kaufman, and Wes Anderson). Their first two films, both produced by Spielberg and both major box office failures, were brilliant, evocative comedies that did not find faithful audiences for many years. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, an insanely fast-paced screwball comedy about a group of teenagers visiting the Ed Sullivan Theatre on February 9, 1964, and Used Cars, a monstrously effective satire starring Kurt Russell, were critically acclaimed and marked the beginning of Spielberg’s eventually lucrative career as a producer.
Used Cars was released not long after another Zemeckis/Gale script destroyed the pair’s reputation for years to come. 1941 was, unlike the other two, not directed by Zemeckis; it was, excluding the shot-for-TV Duel, Steven Spielberg’s fourth theatrical film as director… and the first to lose money, not to mention the first to be critically panned. Like so many bigger-is-better comedies (and so many SNL-star vehicles), this one went through recut after recut after painful recut. 1941 struggles at the hands of a director who is taking a chance and seemingly halfway through production began to regret it. The bonkers WWII farce featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd was so unanimously seen as a bomb in 1979 that it could well have permanently damaged Spielberg’s career were it not for his collaboration with George Lucas of the following year, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Zemeckis could perhaps have made something of the film, but when Spielberg’s (undeniable) passion is misdirected, it can ruin a fine script with all the makings of something special (although any movie Charlton Heston refuses to appear in on principle has something going for it).
The point is, Hollywood is a cruel universe and the classic perception of this maverick twosome circa 1980 was that of the two men who caused the first blot on Spielberg’s permanent record. 1980 is also the year that they began to write Back to the Future. It was the year that they started to shop it around. It was the year that every major studio in Hollywood rejected it, and not just on grounds of the writers’ reputation. They had written rejected scripts before, many of them, but never had they shopped one around so intently. This was something they believed in: teenager Marty McFly (played eventually by Michael J. Fox) is, strangely, a close friend of a locally infamous scientist known as “Doc” Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who has invented a time machine using plutonium ripped off from Libyan terrorists. When the Libyans come and kill Doc during an experiment with the machine, houesd inside a DeLorean, Marty hops into the car to outrun them and ends up accidentally shot into 1955 with no fuel for the time machine, so now he’s forced to find a way to get thirty years into the future, and while still in a state of shock prevents his parents from meeting and therefore adds infinitely to his problems, to say nothing of the fact that his mother is now infatuated with him. He is thus forced to enlist the aid of the younger version of the time-machine inventor in restoring the world to normalcy and returning home. Simple.
If we are to interpret the twists and turns in his career that followed in a logical sense, Zemeckis virtually gave up on screenwriting after this point, breaking one of the all-time great screen partnerships before even a glimmer of recognition had been allowed for it. He left to direct the screwball-Indiana Jones rip Romancing the Stone, and Back to the Future would be the last Zemeckis-directed film for which he worked on the script. You can sense where the story’s going from here if you don’t already know. Romancing was a mammoth box office hit, and suddenly Gale and Zemeckis had the reputation and influence to create Back to the Future; they returned to the ever-faithful Spielberg to make it. It’s worth noting that Romancing is — like nearly all the films Zemeckis has made, to this day — a throwback, and a simplified, intentionally cartoonish throwback at that. Back to the Future is the ultimate anachronism, and not merely because it involves time travel.
This film with only a handful of trick shots was promoted as an effects picture, at a time when Spielberg productions almost invariably fit that stereotype. It’s not particularly surprising that it was a major box office hit — one of the biggest ever — though it is ironic considering how many studios had turned it down. In addition to Spielberg’s reputation and the potential for awe-inspiring visuals, Universal had icon Fox of TV’s Family Ties. to thank. These elements were possibly what overwhelmed the deeply unfashionable It’s a Wonderful Life slant of the movie to allow it to become a pop culture phenomenon. What this fails to explain is how BTTF has managed to remain such an acclaimed and widely remembered film. The answer has much to do with what Steven Spielberg called the Leave It to Beaver plot and even more to do with elements of interpretation in the film that Zemeckis or Gale arguably never intended or imagined at the time. The movie plays beautifully today to a degree most of the stylish pieces of its era do not. There are several reasons for this, and the first is, of course, the two screenwriters.
They knew how to tell a story. their earlier collaborations were comedies but could have just as easily qualified as suspense films with the sheer tension they created and the maddening buildup that proceeded up until the final shots. It’s not hard to figure out that this virtue would be magnified on a huge film like Back to the Future. It’s a massive crowd-pleaser not becuase of the special effects or star power, but the everyday genius of the premise: A teenager is stuck in the past and bumps into his parents. This works because it’s both genuinely frightening and rather tantalizing, like the ability of James Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life to see how life would be without him. Better yet, Zemeckis and Gale formed this into a screenplay that hits all the right notes. In terms of the writing, characters, and dialogue, Future is as solidly formed as any film of its era and should probably have had the screenwriting Oscar. It may be a lighthearted film, but it creates a universe in its people: the populace of Hill Valley, then and now, and the three-dimensional and complex spirits of the McFlys and Doc. The jokes are subtle and hardly emphasized but uproarious (the first act is notoriously slower than the remainder but a masterpiece of deadpan, especially at the McFly home); the entire film builds itself on understatement and absurdity.
This also complements to perfection another major factor in the film’s longevity, its direction (by Zemeckis) and cinematography (by Dean Cundey). Zemeckis, while not as bombastic as Tim Burton or David Cronenberg by a longshot, always employed a style of in-your-face visual design that exaggerated movement and intensity, bringing the action to the fore, the same way his peer Spielberg employs the use of distance to give a sense of wonder. Zemeckis is from the school of Hitchcock, Ford, and perhaps Jonathan Demme in particular: His camera is precise and calculated but it is always invisible. On the other hand, the objects within the screen tend to pop out toward the viewer. The early Zemeckis films, this one included, frequently resemble 3D movies, yet unlike Joe Dante, who has used similar techniques, he is not showy; he has plenty of restraint and the audience is his first priority.
We could go on about Crispin Glover’s performance in this movie for pages, but that would be an injustice to the other brilliant actors. He does steal every scene he’s in, but you do not often find a comedy or a sci-fi film with such dynamic, priceless screen presence from its leads and supporters. Christopher Lloyd, Michael J. Fox, Tom Wilson (as classicist bullheaded asshole Biff, who comes equipped with a team of rogue echo-chamber bullies, one of whom constantly wears 3D glasses and is credited as “3-D”), and Lea Thompson (wonderful, perfect, luminous as horny and sly teenage Lorraine, eventually equally perfect as the sad-eyed alcoholic mother to Marty) were born for their roles. Part of the reason such a lightweight film has so much resonance is the mad brilliance of casting and performing.
Thanks to the two sequels, everyone had a chance to shine eventually, but this movie belongs to Glover, who as Marty’s father George pours himself into every line to great comic effect. He is hilariously odd as a stick-in-the-mud fortysomething, funnier still as a gawky confused teenager, and maybe most uproariously funny of all as a well-to-do yuppie author at the finale. There’s something truly manic in his presence, especially the face; a coffee table book could be filled with the bizarre, pained, unearthly faces he makes, and that’s not even addressing his squeaky, constantly breathless voice — whether confronted by “Darth Vader” or fighting back against mortal enemy and car-smasher Biff. Pauline Kael wrote of his George McFly: “I’m not sure what to make of the performance, but the movie would be considerably more innocuous without it.”
A lot of the story elements — boy/girl, time travel, enormity of climax — are obviously timeless, even Capraesque, but Back to the Future is in the best sense of the word a dated film. The iconic nature of Fox’s mall culture countenance and jean jacket-wearing lifestyle ties the movie to 1985 permanently. This ends up helping the movie and the sequels strike a narrative course; every other entrance to a time period (1955, 2015, the warped 1985, and 1885) is marked by long shots of things that make the time seem alien to us. The synth-heavy, incalculably dull pop music and a hairsprayed Marty skateboarding around Yuppie town do the same for his point of origin. I used to believe this was a happy accident, but since these teen-movie stylistics are absent from all of Zemeckis’ other films and even the majority of Spielberg’s, today I think Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis were just perceptive enough to spot things that would quickly grow antiquated. For what it’s worth, the ’80s sensibility is noticably absent in the two sequels. (Zemeckis’ tendency toward on-the-nose music supervision unfortunately translates to his vision of 1955 as being defined by Patty (sic) Page, “Theme from Davy Crockett,” and the Chordettes’ “Mr. Sandman,” though Marvin Berry’s band fares better with covers of Earl Bostic’s “Night Train” and the Penguins’ “Earth Angel.”)
It’s kind of a minor point, especially in this movie, but one thing about the Zemeckis-Gale scripts that’s always impressed me is the way they dodge exposition. Lorraine’s aloof explanation of her first meeting with George is a dark moment that sticks with you dramatically, as he sits guffawing at The Honeymooners, and it isn’t clear until later how important her comments will be. Mostly, however, the first half-hour of Back to the Future is the most painfully slow beginning in any of their screenplays. For a repeat viewer, the first few scenes are charming, but for a general audience, the damn thing just goes on and on and on, though in a way that makes it more rewarding when the movie adopts its breakneck pace later on. If anything, though, I think the director and writer’s desire to make Jaws forced them to sacrifice some excellent material, like the hysterical “peanut brittle” deleted scene found on the DVD.
For me, the movie is vital as a portion of the series it’s in. It’s easily, for my money, the least thrilling and evocative of the three films, but it’s still magnificently funny and full of awe-inspiring sequences. Years before running this blog, I had planned to tackle all three of the films in the series in a single essay, but I had to rethink the approach when I realized I had so much I wanted to say about the world-shakingly brilliant Back to the Future Part II that it was really going to need its own lengthy page. Plus, I think such an assessment would be unfair to the way the films work individually, this first one in particular. It sits at such a unique point, coming from the hands of many people who pushed the medium so far forward it couldn’t go home again and yet simultaneously looking backwards. At least one person, Zemeckis, came away from it a star. His next project would be Who Framed Roger Rabbit. In less than a decade, he’d have a Best Director Oscar (for some reason).
I don’t know how good the idea of sequels to this film would have seemed back in 1985. I suppose there is a case to be made that, if anything, follow-ups negated the purity of the original film. Personally I don’t know how much the original would mean to me without Parts II and III, which I consider about as good and accessible as science fiction can get. The original film still operates in its own bitterly funny but nostalgic and sweet way, and for that it deserves kudos. I think of it more as the conclusion of a trilogy — with I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars — than the beginning of one.
In either guise it conjures up a mountain of bittersweet emotions: the memories of Friday nights watching it with my parents, the manner in which it pokes fun at yearning for the past while quite convincingly capturing the impossible sense of pining one feels at the brooding or happy entrance into one’s memories. More than any other film about time travel, Back to the Future is concerned with the emotional reality at the center of such an idea — the revisiting of long-gone relationships and lives misled. It could have struck its note to become a depressing film rather than a mordant, lightly incisive, somewhat brutally satiric one (note that Marty’s parents’ great outcome is that they turn from an alcoholic and a loser into golf-playing well-to-dos, an amusing potshot at the Reagan era). What’s important is that unlike nearly every other fantasy or science fiction film of the ’80s, it’s a movie about people — even when it wants to be crass or tinged with sepia-toned fetishizing of the past or of big bulky machines, it can’t even help it. That’s why it means so much to all of us.
[Edited down (believe it or not) from a review posted elsewhere in 2003. Last paragraph new.]