Back to the Future (1985)
WRITERS: ROBERT ZEMECKIS and BOB GALE
DIRECTOR: ROBERT ZEMECKIS
RELEASE DATE: July 3 1985
Thirty years ago director Robert Zemeckis brought Back to the Future to the big screen, a comedic science fiction film starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. Taken from a script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the story grew out of the notion by Gale as to whether or not he and his father could have been friends had he met him in high school. The film became a big success at the box office and won critical acclaim, establishing itself as a classic.
The film opens with Marty McFly (Fox), an ambitious musician in high school. His father George (Crispin Glover) works a thankless job and is bullied by his supervisor, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is on her way to full blown alcoholism. His siblings are stuck in a rut. Marty wants more for his life - he’s in a good relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells). The principal at his school, a taskmaster with a total lack of humour by the name Strickland (the eternally gruff James Tolkan) thinks he’s a slacker, just like his father before him.
Marty happens to be friends with the eccentric Doctor Emmett Brown (Lloyd), a local scientist. Doc Brown asks Marty to meet late at night at a local mall to assist in an experiment. Marty finds the Doc with a DeLorean, and learns that it’s been converted into a time machine. It doesn’t take long before Marty finds himself back in time, thirty years, where he’s a fish out of water, encountering his parents as teens and inadvertently altering history.
The film had been in development hell for several years - Zemeckis and Gale had a general story worked out, but had problems selling the concept to studios. That changed when
Zemeckis directed Romancing The Stone, a box office success. Fox had been first considered - he was tied up with Family Ties at the time and the producers weren’t keen on releasing him to film a movie - and Eric Stoltz had then been cast in the lead role. Zemeckis decided that it was a miscast, and worked out an arrangement with the show producers to allow Fox to join his film. It was the right casting - Fox brought a gift for comedy to the role and the same general wiseass personality of the character.
Zemeckis and Gale’s script plays out well, with a strong sense of humour throughout, blending science fiction, characterization, and nostalgia for the era with a fish out of water motif. There’s a lot to it, small things at times, that pay off later - watch it for references and lines that have greater significance as the story plays out. Marty is completely out of his element, dealing with sheer culture shock (how on earth did anyone make it out of the 1950s?). And yet he adapts and comes into his own, dealing with younger versions of both of his parents (his discomfort at being the object of affection for his own mother provides much of the comedy). The script and direction by Zemeckis keep things moving along briskly - there’s never the sense of slowness to the film, and there’s certainly a lot of attention to detail - the 1955 era feels very much authentic, while the time travel sequences (particularly the climactic return to the present) are quite a different spin on time travel - I’ve always liked the notion of flaming trails left behind when the DeLorean passes into another time.
The casting is just right. Thomas F. Wilson has spent most of his career as a standup comedian, and as an actor is best known for his part in this trilogy of films. Here he plays Biff in three different ways in two different time periods. When we first meet him he’s a middle aged lout, a bully accustomed to years of getting his own way and pushing people around. Wilson plays to that, and in the 1955 era, the character’s a teenaged punk, a younger version of himself with no respect for others, and very little in the way of intelligence (apparently stupidity runs deep in the Tannen family). When we last see him, he’s subtly different. Biff is an unlikable character, as he’s supposed to be, and Wilson plays to that.
Georgel McFly, Lorraine Baines, and Calvin Klein
Lea Thompson is an interesting choice as Lorraine. Her younger self seems to be the wide eyed naive typical 50s girl, but beneath that is someone who sees what she wants and isn’t afraid to cross a line - which of course freaks out the teen who will one day be her son. She’s oblivious to George at first, something that Marty needs to fix, but as the story goes along and that plotline plays out, it’s believable that the two characters end up coming together (albeit in a different way than the original timeline).
Crispin Glover has a history of playing eccentric characters (George returned in the second film of the series, but without Glover in the role). When we first meet him in 1985 he’s a sad sack, accustomed to being pushed around by his supervisor, a socially awkward nitwit. That also plays out as a teen in 1955, where we see the nerd at that era, and it explains a lot. Marty has to befriend him to set things right, and in the process both learns more about his father - and the experience ends up giving George a backbone. When we see them again in 1985, both George and Lorraine are different than they started out as - and for the better. Glover certainly brings that about in the closing scenes, playing the character with confidence.
The role of Doc Brown was supposed to go to John Lithgow at first - I could have seen his manic energy in the role, but Christopher Lloyd was cast, and he turns out to be perfect for the eccentric scientist as we see him in two eras. Doc Brown is off kilter to say the least - some might say crazy - and he’s larger than life. Lloyd brings that across in his performance, which also provides much of the humour of the film (I particularly like his sense of annoyed dismay as he waits for Marty and keeps checking the time: “Damn, where is that kid?”). As whacky as the character is, he’s fundamentally a decent guy, and the audience gets to like him a lot.
Fox is perfectly cast as Marty. The character starts out clearly unsatisfied with his life - he sees the rut that the rest of his family is in and doesn’t want to fall into that. He has dreams and hopes for his own future - when the principal tells him that no McFly ever amounted to anything, he confidently says that history’s going to change. There’s a wiseass aspect to the character, a smirk in the face of authority sort of sensibility that appeals to me (gee, I wonder why), and Marty proves to be resourceful and adaptive when he’s out of his element. Fox brings all this to the role, along with his natural charm, and plays to the comedy of the situation he finds himself in.
Of course it was inevitable that there would be a sequel. The film was hugely successful at the box office, proving to be the biggest grossing film of that year. And so within a few years two sequels came out. Back To The Future rightfully has become a classic, established itself as a beloved film, and remains fresh and entertaining anytime one watches it.