Saturday 17 September 2011

Back to the Future (1985)


What happens when you mix together time-travel, terrorism, high school, theft, science, murder, assault, attempted rape, incest, alcohol, drugs and rock n’ roll? You get one of the most beloved films in history, that’s what happens. You get a film that spawned two sequels, an animated series and a theme park ride, not to mention turning some weird-looking stainless steel car from Belfast into one of the most iconic vehicles in the world. It would also properly launch the career of a relatively unknown director, Robert Zemeckis, who had only a few films to his name at the time. With a guiding hand from Steven Spielberg, the film was the most successful film of the year of its release, and it’s a film that actually almost never got made. That film is Back to the Future.

In the year 1985, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) receives a message from his friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) that he needs help with his latest invention - a time machine built from a DeLorean and powered by plutonium stolen from Libyan Nationalists. After the Libyans gun down Doc, Marty escapes in the time machine, accidentally sending himself back to 1955. There, he meets both of his teenage parents, unintentionally interrupting their first meeting and endangering his own existence. He then finds the younger version of Doc and together they try to find a way to get Marty back home.

A few days ago, when talking about Away We Go, I asked to whether or not you had ever considered what your parents were like before you showed up. Well, as it turns out, this was the genesis of Back to the Future. Bob Gale, producer and co-writer of the film, was going through some things in his parents’ basement and happened upon his father’s high school yearbook. Finding his dad’s picture, and seeing that he was the president of his class, Bob wondered if he and his dad would have been friends had he met him in his youth. When Gale told his friend Zemeckis about his idea, they both began constructing a story. It would seem that in the beginning, it was a very different idea. The time machine was a fridge; the main characters were into pirating films; Doc’s pet was a chimp; and it required crashing an atomic test site to get home. It’s really difficult to try to reconcile those things into the film as it exists today.

Many of the main plot points were already in place (kid accidentally goes back in time and gets caught up in his parents’ courtship), but Gale and Zemeckis had problems finding someone to pick it up. Despite the stuff about the mother unwittingly falling for her son, most thought it was too light, citing the much more brazen antics of movie teenagers in the Porky’s series as an example of what was expected from such characters... I'll stop and let you get to grips with the creepiness of the implications of that. As it is, Gale and Zemeckis did not follow such examples, and the better for it. Over all these attempts to find the desired green light, the script was revised and altered to make things better or more cost-effective. The fridge became a DeLorean sports car; the characters became slightly less criminal… ish; the chimp became a dog; and the atomic test site was dropped altogether.

The script that would ultimately become the one we know today is some damn fine work. The characters are so well defined and memorable. Marty is actually cool as all hell, but he’s got his fair share of teenage worries and self-esteem issues, and his relationship with Doc Brown is kind of weird and yet makes sense, in that 80s movie sort of way. Doc Brown himself is brilliant and has become the standard definition of Zany Scientist – smart, absent-minded, enthusiastic, and just downright eccentric. The three different incarnations of George McFly, Lorraine Baines and Biff Tannen are excellent. In each reality we meet them, they are so different from the other, and yet so obviously the same.

And considering how easy it to stumble on time-travel, the story has been thought through with great care and consideration. There’s a dramatic principle that’s called Chekov’s Gun, named for playwright Anton Chekov, which says that if a gun appears in the first act, it should be used by the final act. Back to the Future uses this principle superbly, so every little thing has some significance to it, and most of it comes from such small, seemingly insignificant things. For example, the flier that tells Marty when the clock tower will be struck by lightning. The only reason he kept it was because his girlfriend wrote on it. If she hadn’t been going away, she wouldn’t have written anything on it, he wouldn’t have kept it, and so never have known about the lightning strike. But he wouldn’t have had that if some old woman hadn’t come up to him rattling a can about saving the clock tower, which was damaged because of the lightning strike. And there are the endlessly mind-boggling considerations, outside of the main plot, about how much of Marty’s reality was influenced directly by him, like Goldie Wilson deciding to become mayor, or the Twin Pines Mall becoming the Lone Pine Mall, or the invention of rock n’ roll. It’s all woven together so damn well.

Something to really appreciate about Back to the Future is that, although it is very much an sf romantic comedy, it takes so much of the story seriously. Beyond figuring out timelines and cause and effect issues, it remains a solid piece of work. If you removed all of the time-travel stuff, you’d still have something that works, and that resonates with so many people. It doesn’t mock its characters, it doesn’t belittle their plights, it doesn’t act like it’s all a bit of fun and that’s all there is to it. It acknowledges the darker aspects of things, which gives it all a greater sense of weight and purpose. When I said at the top about the murder and terrorism and attempted rape… all of that is in this film, and it’s not really shied away from too much either. However, the characters rise to their respective challenges. They all come good.

What makes Back to the Future so special, aside from the great blend of genres and themes, is that it all comes with a genuinely heart-warming central arc. And no, I don’t mean Marty. The real hero of this film is George McFly, who grows from someone who is virtually crippled by his lack of self-esteem to become an actual hero. He spends the whole film being so pathetic that you can only pity the poor guy, but he finds in himself the balls to stand up to his chief tormentor, and he does it when it counts the most. That’s the real test of a hero. I tell you now, if every bit of you isn’t one hundred percent behind George at his moment of triumph, you are dead inside.

Back to the Future actually had its 25 year anniversary last year, and so got a special digital re-release in cinemas, which I was most definitely there for. Now, I’ve seen the film more times than I can count, so watching on it the big screen, I was able to pay less attention to the story, and focus on the more technical things about the film. And by that, I mean Zemeckis’ direction. Good lord, it’s some fine work. He’s found such nice little touches here and there to help complete the world, and so much actually happens in the background. A lot of directors are content with working within the foreground of a shot, with the background filled random extras that either sit or walk and that’s about it. Zemeckis has got things going on back there. He’s not just directing his actors; he’s directing the film, and that’s so much rarer than you think.

One of the other things I was able to appreciate more was just how good everyone is in the film. No one is playing a role; they all simply are their roles. Pretty much every single person in Back to the Future is remembered for their work in it, and for damn good reason. Just look at the pretty much effortless cool of Michael J. Fox, how quickly it dissolves in front of 1955 Lorraine. Look at the wild-eyed, wild-haired eccentricity of Christopher Lloyd. And look at the multi-stranded performances of Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson. Wilson’s Biff is every inch an imposing guy, a real threat in both his original 1985 and 1955 forms; but his new 1955 persona is all awkward and softly polite. Thompson is superb as Lorraine, a very promiscuous girl in her school days, who can become either a rather unhappy and alcoholic frump or a lively and active older woman. And Glover is just peerless as George McFly. In his 1955 self and original 1985 self, he’s so ill at ease that he virtually apologises for existing in every gesture and waver of his voice. Then look at his new 1985 version, a completely confident and strong-willed guy.

Just to illustrate what kind of effect Back to the Future had at the time, there’s a story about what happened a little while after its release. Despite the film beginning on October 25th 1985, the release of the film actually came on July 3rd. Such was the overwhelming popularity of the film that, in the early morning of October 26th, the date of the initial time-travel, a group of people went to the Twin Pines Mall location to see if Marty would turn up in his DeLorean. Of course, he didn’t. And of course, no one actually thought it would happen… probably. However, that’s how much this film meant to people at the time. So much that a bunch of them would travel to some empty parking lot in the middle of the night on some October night on the pretence of seeing if the movie’s main character would blast into the night, leaving two lines of fire behind it.

And yes, I kind of wish that Michael J. Fox had shown up in a DeLorean just for the sake of it, too.

Back to the Future isn’t just one of those 80s films that hangs around because people are nostalgic about it. It’s a genuinely excellent film. The script is outstanding, the direction is great, Alan Silvestri’s music is spot on, the cast is on fire, and it’s a superbly engaging and wonderful watch. It really is difficult to think of a more inventive and joyous film experience than this.

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