#334) Back to the Future (1985)
OR “H.G. Wells’ Oedipus Rex”
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Class of 2007
The Plot: Teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is trapped in his hometown of Hill Valley with seemingly no real future. One night in 1985, Marty’s friend – eccentric scientist “Doc” Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) – reveals his latest experiment: a time machine built into a DeLorean. When a terrorist group attacks Doc, Marty escapes in the car and accidentally travels back to 1955. While there, Marty prevents his father George (Crispin Glover) from meeting his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), therefore creating a paradox and threatening his own existence. Can he save his parents and himself? And can he and 1955 Doc find a way to send him back to…the time he came from?
Why It Matters: The NFR gives a plot synopsis, praises the “masterfully over-the-top” Christopher Lloyd, and states that the film spawned “a popular soundtrack and two enjoyable sequels”.
But Does It Really?: I watched “Back to the Future” a lot as a kid, and I’m happy to say that despite a few dated aspects here and there, it holds up remarkably well. An airtight script is aided by great performances from Fox and Lloyd, with every department of the production giving A+ work. On top of all this, “Back to the Future” is just pure fun from beginning to end, and manages to be a logical but never overcomplicated sci-fi story. “Back to the Future” is an iconic classic and another no-brainer for the NFR.
Everybody Gets One: Robert Zemeckis’ writing partner Bob Gale was inspired to write “Back to the Future” when he found his father’s high school yearbook and wondered if they would have been friends if they were classmates. Michael J. Fox was originally unable to commit to “Future” due to his commitment to the TV series “Family Ties”. After Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty and subsequently let go, Fox was allowed to be in the film, on the condition that his “Family Ties” schedule came first. Fox spent weeks juggling the two projects, averaging about five hours of sleep every night.
Wow, That’s Dated: The film firmly establishes its 1985 setting with video-recorders, a Huey Lewis soundtrack, and oh yes, the DeLorean.
Seriously, Oscars?: The highest-grossing film of 1985, “Back to the Future” received four Oscar nominations, and won for its Sound Editing. Zemeckis & Gale’s screenplay lost to “Witness”, while Huey Lewis’ “The Power of Love” lost to Lionel Ritchie’s “Say You, Say Me” from “White Nights”. “Back to the Future” did not receive a Best Picture nod, no doubt because Universal already had a contender in that category: “Out of Africa”.
- No offense to Eric Stoltz, but only Michael J. Fox could have played Marty McFly. Fox has a fun combination of boy-next-door charm and offbeat acting that helps Marty from being a passive cipher. It’s a perfect match of character and actor.
- The entire screenplay is a master class of set-up and payoff. Every line and shot is essential to the story and/or the characters. This is aided by the film’s excellent editing. No scene overstays its welcome: just the essential information and onto the next one.
- Oof, the old age makeup on George, Biff and Lorraine has not held up. These are clearly people in their ‘20s playing middle-aged.
- This time travel experiment brought to you by JCPenney: You’re looking smarter than ever!
- Doc and the DeLorean get one of filmdom’s best intros. Christopher Lloyd manages to make Doc eccentric without seeming crazy. In addition, Lloyd and Fox have an easy chemistry together. There’s no logical reason these two should be friends, but they sell it.
- I wish to take this time to apologize to all Libyans everywhere for how they’re portrayed in this film. Hell, I might as well apologize to the entire Middle East.
- Wow, there’s so much more cursing is in this movie than I remember. I guess I watched the TV edit more often.
- And then Lorraine falls for “Calvin Klein” and this movie takes a turn. Lea Thompson’s convincing naiveté as Lorraine smooth over some very rough patches.
- Not to get all “wibbly wobbly timey wimey” on everyone, but I feel like Doc learning about his time machine 30 years before it happens would have a larger ripple effect on history.
- The scene I wish existed: the montage of Doc taking Marty ‘50s clothes shopping.
- Thomas F. Wilson is just perfect as Biff. Like many an ‘80s antagonist before and after, this casting was a blessing and a curse for Wilson.
- You know it’s coming, but the first kiss between George and Lorraine is very sweet. Bonus points to Alan Silvestri for composing a sweeping underscore for “Earth Angel”.
- The “Johnny B. Dubbed” sequence is fun, but no matter how you slice it, Chuck Berry was already a thing by November 1955. Zemeckis is just prepping us for a whole movie of clumsy passes at history.
- The finale at the clock tower is always an exciting watch. I’ve seen this movie hundreds of times, and I still get anxious at the end.
- I am willing to forgive the movie’s altered history stuff, but you cannot convince me the McFlys would still be living in the same neighborhood, let alone the same house in the new timeline.
- Sure Biff is emasculated in the new 1985, but he still runs his own business, so lay off, butthead.
- “No no no, Marty, you and Jennifer turn out fine. Well, Jennifer looks more like Elisabeth Shue, but still…”
- “Back to the Future” was a runaway hit, and Zemeckis & Gale started on a sequel. Production was delayed so Zemeckis could direct “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, but “Back to the Future Part II” and “Part III” are both worth the wait, and the trilogy makes for satisfactory binge watching.
- Several movies on the Registry have inspired a theme park ride, a few have even become video games, but how many films on this list have their own pinball machine? Just this and “Magnificent Ambersons”.
- The 2015 documentary “Back in Time” is a loving glimpse at the film’s devoted (albeit a bit intense) fanbase.
- To be honest, I could never get into “Rick and Morty”. You’d think its sense of humor would mesh with mine, yet here we are.
- The film’s more problematic aspects are wonderfully articulated in this hilarious John Mulaney bit.
- This is the only chance I’ll get to mention Crispin Glover’s weird Letterman interview.
- And of course, “Back to the Future Part IV”…is a thing that should never happen. There, I said what we were all thinking.
Further Viewing: Wanna ask Thomas F. Wilson about “Back to the Future”? Chances are he’s already covered it in “The Question Song”!
Listen to This: The Penguins’ original version of “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” was added to the National Recording Registry in 2004. The song’s “Back to the Future” connection gets a mention in this essay by Library of Congress staple Cary O’Dell.