25 years ago, Steven Speilberg (the man who gave the world Jaws, E.T., and Saving Private Ryan) produced another classic, and instantly recognizable, film; Back to the Future; a Robert Zemeckis (The Polar Express) movie about time-travel, that’s loved the world over, is the epitome of 1980’s culture, and has just been given a limited cinematic re-run, to celebrate both the film’s 25th anniversary, and the release of the Back to the Future trilogy on Blu-ray.
Set in fictional suburban town of Hill Valley, Back to the Future follows the adventure of a young high-school student named Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, Spin City), as he becomes an accidental time-traveler (in a manner much cooler than the accidental time-traveling seen in The Time Traveler’s Wife), when the time traveling car his friend Dr. Emmet ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd, The Addams Family) built, propels him 30 years into the past, and leaves him stranded in 1955, with a burning desire to get back to the future.
Getting back to 1985 however, isn’t jus a matter of setting the date on the DeLorean’s control panel (as the Doc built the time machine into the now iconic car), accelerating to 88 miles per hour (the precise speed needed for time travel), and popping back up in the land of mullets and Michael Jackson; as the device that makes time travel possible (something known as the Flux Capacitor) runs on plutonium, and as Marty was being chased by a couple of Libyan terrorists at the time he accidentally jumped, he didn’t pack any for the return journey.
All is not lost however, as Marty hooks up with the Doc (who’s obviously 30 years younger, and amazed by the whole situation, but has just had the idea that will eventually lead to inventing time travel), and hatches a plan to use an upcoming lightning strike (because Marty happens to know the precise moment a bolt of lightning will strike the town clock) to generate the 1.21 gigawatt’s of electricity usually provided by the plutonium, and get home, leaving him with a week to spend in 1955; a time where Ronald Reagan was still known as an actor, and nobody even dreamed of owning two television sets.
But sitting back and relaxing for a week isn’t an option for the young time-traveler, as before meeting up with Doc Brown, he accidentally stopped his parents from meeting and eventually falling in love, and even managed to end up getting his own mother (who, thanks to the magic of time travel, is the same age as her son) to fancy him rather than his father; meaning that unless he can get his parents to fall in love, he will never be born, and will vanish from existence.
So the majority of the film is then concerned with watching Marty scrabble around trying to convince his weak and nerdy father; George (Crispin Glover, Alice in Wonderland); to ask out his mother; Lorraine (Lea Thompson, Caroline in the City); while the Doc works out the details of using lightning to power a time machine, and the local hard-man/school bully; Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson, The Informant); attempts to not only beat up him and his dad, but seduce his mother.
With all of that going on, it’d be easy for Back to the Future to get a little complicated and convoluted, but it stays simple, easy to understand, and most importantly, fun, throughout; which is due in no small part to the near faultless writing of Robert Zemeckis, who’s script oozes perfect (and never wasteful) dialogue, as it seamlessly blends science-fiction, and comedy, with a number of serious elements (including bullying, an attempted rape, drug references, and casual racism), and contains no end of nostalgic goodies that are guaranteed to make viewers smile; as Marty gets chased around town on a skateboard, uses a walkman and some Star Wars/Star Trek references to convince someone he’s an alien, and walks through the 50’s town to the tune of Mr Sandman.
But the best thing about Robert Zemeckis script; ignoring the way the way he blends several themes and genres together, makes a time travel movie that actually gets it right, and even manages to work in basic scientific references to the grandfather paradox, time travel itself, and altering future events (in essence chaos theory); is the fact that it never seems to date; as we’re now a quarter of a century from the time it was first released, and not only has it failed to get old (despite all the denim, tape-decks, and upbeat optimism), but somehow keeps giving viewers something new almost every time they watch.
Casting was also excellent, as not only were Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd perfect for their roles (Mike admits to being the real-life version of Marty, and Chris’ partially improvised performance was utterly brilliant, as it epitomizes everything a mad scientist/crackpot inventor should be, and so much more; utterly over-the-top, yet believable, likable, and somehow subtle, at the same time), but Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff was surly, brash, and as big a jerk as the picture called for, while Marty’s parents fit well into both time periods, and always stayed believable.
Yet despite the brilliant acting, time-traveling car, memorable dialogue, and distinctively fashionable look of the film, one of the most memorable things about the movie is the soundtrack; because not only was Alan Silvestri’s score beautifully fitting, suitably rousing, and tempered perfectly to the tone of the film, but there’s aren’t too many, 25-year-old, film’s that even casual fans know songs from; as almost everyone knows of Huey Lewis’ Power of Love, the Mr. Sandman scene, and in some cases, Back in Time (another Huey Lewis classic).
But the real power of Back to the Future lies in it’s finale, as the immense build up to the life-altering lightning storm couldn’t have been handled better, and lines up all the building blocks to create a stunningly tense, visually thrilling, triple-header that never lets go, and provides all the excitement, worry, and payoff that a successful climax should; as Marty’s last few hours in 1955 are spent trying desperately to get his mother and father to cop-off before he vanishes from existence, rushing back to the DeLorean to be in the precise spot needed, traveling at the precise speed, at the precise moment needed, to get back home, and trying to stop the Doc from being assassinated by the Libyan terrorists.
Back to the Future may be a little formulaic; as everything fits in its place perfectly, and does it job of setting up the next scene just as it should (and that formula is much easier to spot now than it was back in 1985); but it’s never distracting, well balanced, has the perfect nostalgia factor, and manages to stay thoroughly upbeat, but remain on the right side of sickening, and ensure that everyone watching is going to have not only a big grin on their face, but a whole lot of fun.
So upon re-examining Back to the Future (a film that is now a quarter of a century old) it’s surprisingly hard to find any faults with it; because it’s not only the best that Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd have ever been, but had perfect casting, perfect music, and a perfect finale, as well as some serious themes intricately and subtly woven in-between the humour and adventure; meaning that it’s a film that both kids and adults, from the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the ‘00s, and the foreseeable future, are guaranteed to enjoy.
Back to the Future has to be one of the best things to come out the 1980’s; being both a brilliant film, and the prime example of ‘80s culture; and now that’s it’s being re-released at the cinema (for a limited time only), it’s the perfect time to revisit the film, or find a new filmic gem, in this un-aging classic that has practically limitless appeal (particularly as the new transfer looks as good as it does).