Friday Film Focus: Back to the Future

In September of 1980, filmmakers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale collaborated on a script whose ingenious time-travel theme extrapolated an idea by Gale: If I had gone to high school with my dad, would I be friends with him?

I think one of the things all teenagers believe is that their parents were never teenagers. Their parents were, perhaps, children once. With that said, how could they have ever been teenagers, and yet not understand their own children? Back to the Future argues that you can travel back in time to the years when your parents were teenagers, and straighten them out right at the moment when they needed help the most. The movie isn’t just fun…it’s fun at the speed of light — a whiz-bang time-travel adventure.

The most modest of Steven Spielberg’s forays into production, Back to the Future, is also one of the best. It’s due in no small measure to the dandy direction of Zemeckis. The movie begins present-day with a teenager named Marty McFly (the incredible Michael J. Fox). Thrust into the spotlight in recent times due to illness, Fox established himself here as quite simply the most charming screen presence of the ’80s.

The opening sequence — with McFly cheekily hitching a ride to school by hanging on to backs of speeding cars and trucks (to the music of Huey Lewis) — summons up the breezy optimism of the age like nothing else. Marty’s parents are hopeless nerds. Dad tells corny jokes, and Mom guzzles vodka in the kitchen. All that keeps Marty sane is his friendship with the nutty Dr. Brown (Christopher Lloyd) — an inventor with glowing eyes and crazy white hair. Brown believes he has discovered the secret of time travel.

One night in the empty parking lot of the local shopping mall, he demonstrates his invention. In the long history of time travel movies, there has never been a time machine quite like Brown’s (it is a customized DeLorean). When the good doctor soups up the DeLorean into a plutonium-powered time-mobile, the kid embarks on the ride of his life. McFly is sent back into 1955, where he unexpectedly encounters his own parents as teenagers.

Back to the days when the shopping mall was a farmer’s field, Marty wanders into town still wearing his 1985 clothing. The townsfolk look at his goose down vest and ask him why he’s wearing a life preserver. The neighborhood where he will someday live hasn’t even been built. The town’s movie theater is playing a Ronald Reagan film, and when Marty announces that Mr. Reagan will be President some day, he is met with a stare of disbelief. While keeping the film well-stocked with similar witticisms and giving the production the well-groomed look of 1950’s advertising and television, Mr. Zemeckis keeps the film firmly anchored in McFly family history.

Dad (Crispin Glover) is a nerd, while Mother (Lea Thompson) is a beauty. There is now a danger that they will never meet, particularly since Marty’s arrival has permanently altered their history. Because the movie has so much fun with the paradoxes and predicaments of a kid meeting his own parents, I won’t discuss the plot in any detail. I won’t even get into the horrifying moment when Marty discovers his mother “has the hots” for him.

There are occasional lapses in the general lightheartedness. The Libyan terrorists who set the main plot in motion are hardly a laughing matter. But there’s simply too much fun on hand to be particularly spoiled. Adding to the pleasure is an attractive, energetic young cast. As his soon-to-be mom, Thompson walks a hilarious line between diffidence and lust. Crispin Glover is “nerdism” personified as her reluctant beau. Thomas F. Wilson is suitably menacing as a town bully who gets a gratifying comeuppance. However, it’s the iconic Christopher Lloyd who walks away with the movie in a gloriously uncontrolled performance that redefines the mad scientist for modern movie audiences. I mean, aside from time travel, we can thank Doc Brown for bringing the phrase “Great Scott!” back into the American lexicon.

There’s also Alan Silvestri’s lovely score. It’s a plethora of memorable set-pieces. Silvestri was masterful with Marty’s premature invention of the skateboard as he rips the top of a young kid’s box-cart. Silvestri orchestrates an introduction of rock ‘n’ roll. It ultimately develops into a Hendrix-style guitar solo (“Maybe you’re not ready for that,” McFly admits, “but trust me, your kids are going to love it.“). There are also nods to other sci-fi movies. From music, TV shows, and amusement park rides, to Halloween costumes and philanthropic efforts, Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic has left a mark on pop culture.

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