30 Years Outatime: A Review of the “Back to the Future” Series
Few films attain an iconic status that allows them to stand the test of time and remain relevant to each successive generation so that it becomes a cultural institution that transcends time and has a shelf life which extends long beyond its initial release.
Given its subject matter, it is perhaps appropriate that Back to the Future fits into this exclusive club.
Set in 1985, film features a California teenager named Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a 17-year-old high school student in the town of Hill Valley who is out of his luck. He’s chronically late to school, has run-ins with the principal for being late, and while he displays an active passion for rock and roll, he’s deemed not good enough to make the cut at an audition. One of the only people who believe in him his is girlfriend Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), with whom he has a date on a lakeside the next day.
That plan becomes foiled when he returns home to discover that the family car has been wrecked by his father George’s supervisor Biff Tannen. It is clear that George McFly (Crispin Glover) is a complete push-over and wimp who cannot stand up for himself against a bully like Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), who not only demands that George’s insurance pay for the damage he caused but also wants his cleaning bill (resulting from spilled beer on his coat) paid by George as well. George is also tasked with writing a report for Biff and doing it in time so that Biff can re-type it, and George meekly acquiesces.
At dinner, we see Marty with his older brother Dave, a Burger King worker, and sister Linda. Then there is their mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), who appears to be an alcoholic and unhappy with how her life has become since her marriage to George, the paper pusher who is oblivious to his wife’s fond account of how they met and eventually realized they would spend the rest of their lives together.
That night, Marty meets up with his eccentric friend Dr. Emmet “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who reveals his latest invention: a time machine in the form of a converted DeLorean car. Via remote control, he runs the car up to 88 MPH to send his pet dog Einstein one minute into the future for the first experiment. But in order to obtain a nuclear reaction to generate the necessary electrical power – 1.21 gigawatts – Doc explains that he needs plutonium, which he got from Libyan nationalists who stole a case of it from a laboratory and for whom he promised to build a bomb but instead filled a bomb casing with pinball machine parts. Not amused, the Libyans find Doc as he’s about to go time traveling and proceed to shoot him. Marty dives into the car and pushes it into full gear to escape the terrorists.
The mall parking lot instantly changes to a farm, and Marty manages to escape from a gun-wielding farmer who thinks that he is a space alien (due to wearing a radiation suit) – only to find that his own suburban neighborhood has only begun to be constructed. With the DeLorean out of plutonium and unable to start, Marty hides it and walks to Hill Valley, where he enters Courthouse Square to the tune of Mr. Sandman. The area is virtually unrecognizable to him, for it is pristine and well-kept with the X-rated theater now featuring a clean flick with Ronald Reagan and Barbara Stanwyck, the Texaco station offering full service, and all of the buildings occupied and brimming with business.
However, the biggest shock is hearing the courthouse clock tower striking on the half-hour, for it is not supposed to work, having been frozen in time after being struck by lightning. Finally, he picks up the Hill Valley Telegraph which features the date as November 5, 1955 – nearly thirty years in the past.
Dazed, confused, and still believing that he’s dreaming, he goes to a café where he meets his 17-year-old father, who just as in 1985, is being bullied by Biff Tannen into doing his work – his homework – for him. When George leaves, Marty follows him and finds him with binoculars on a tree branch watching a girl undress in her room. But George falls from the tree and into the path of a car, and Marty reflexively reacts by pushing his father out of the way and taking the hit for him, which knocks Marty out.
Several hours later, Marty finds himself in the care of his 17-year-old mother, Lorraine Baines, who clearly shows a more than friendly interest in him, and this is seen during dinner when she grabs his leg under the table while asking her parents if he can stay. He excuses himself and finds Doc Brown, who in 1955 lives in a mansion on an estate which includes the garage in which he lives in 1985. He tells Doc that he is from 1985 via the time machine that he invented and that he needs his help getting back.
An incredulous Doc doesn’t believe him and laughs off the idea that Ronald Reagan is President of the United States in 1985 (and that Jane Wyman is the First Lady). Marty then attempts to tell 1955 Doc the story that 1985 Doc had told him about how he invented the concept of the flux capacitor – the device that makes time travel possible – on exactly this day in 1955, and this gets Doc’s serious attention. The pair go to the DeLorean, where Doc shows Marty the drawing he had made earlier that day of the flux capacitor, and Marty shows Doc the real thing in the car. Doc – having realized that he has invented something that works – is ecstatic, and he and Marty attempt to work out a way to get Marty home.
The problem is that in the rush to escape the Libyans, Marty left the stolen case of plutonium in 1985, and the only way to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity to power the capacitor is a bolt of lightning, which is unpredictable as to when and where it will strike. However, Marty is armed with the knowledge that in one week, a bolt of lightning will strike the Courthouse Clock Tower at exactly 10:04PM, and Doc dedicates himself to finding a way of harnessing the lightning and channeling it into the flux capacitor to send Marty back to the future (hey, there’s the title!). But when Marty admits that he has already “bumped into” his future parents, Doc immediately suspects that Marty has tampered with the “space-time continuum” by disrupting the meeting that takes place between his parents.
As Lorraine says in 1985, when George fell from the tree (ostensibly while “bird-watching”), her father hit him with his car, and it was he who came around in her house. In a case of the Florence Nightingale Effect, Lorraine develops feelings for George, who takes her to a dance at school where they kissed and knew they would spend their lives together. Marty takes George’s place and becomes the object of his mother’s affections. George and Lorraine never become a couple, never get married, and never have children, and this is shown with the gradual disappearance of Marty’s brother Dave from a picture of the McFly children as if he’s being erased from existence. Eventually, this will happen to Marty.
Over the next week, Marty attends Hill Valley High School (with the same principal as in 1985, Mr. Strickland) alongside his parents and attempts to pair them. But Lorraine continues to show eyes for the more confident and casual Marty instead of the awkward and wimpy science fiction nerd George, who writes sci-fi stories but doesn’t believe that anyone wants to read them. He is so insecure, he refuses to ask Lorraine out to the dance, and this forces Marty to take drastic measures – posing as Darth Vader in the dead of night and threatening to melt George’s head off (with a hair dryer) – to change his mind.
Genuinely terrified for his life, George seeks Marty’s advice on asking Lorraine out, and at the downtown café, he nervously begins to strike up a conversation with her, but Biff Tannen and his crew show up to bully George. Marty intercedes by tripping up Biff and causing him to fall flat on the floor, which leads to a chase through Courthouse Square with Biff and his minions in his car in pursuit of Marty on the “first” skateboard, which results in them running into a manure truck that dumps its contents onto them.
This exploit turns Lorraine’s affections for her future son into lust, and she follows him to Doc’s place to see if he will ask her out to the big dance – saying that she although she likes George, she believes a man should be strong and able to stand up for himself and the woman he loves. Marty goes along with it, but comes up with a plan for George to end up with Lorraine – a scheme where Marty will “take advantage” of her while parked outside the school and George will ride in on a white horse to “punch out” Marty, save Lorraine, and whisk her away to the dance where he will kiss her and save Marty’s existence.
That night, Marty and Lorraine drive into the school parking lot, and he is clearly perturbed with the idea of sitting alone with her. As he waits for George to show up, he becomes increasingly nervous, knowing that what he’s about to do will leave a bad taste in his mouth – literally. But it is Lorraine who makes the first move by planting a big one on him and attempting to make out, only to pull back after sensing that something is wrong and stating that it was like kissing her brother. Suddenly the door opens, and Biff – drunk and angry about the damage to his car costing him $300 – hauls Marty out and into the arms of his henchmen, who dump Marty in the trunk of the car carrying the guest band for the dance.
George shows up to find Biff, not Marty, having his way with Lorraine, who pleads for George’s help. Biff tells George to leave, but George – for the first time in his life – feels the need to stand against Biff. He attempts to punch Biff with his right hand, but Biff catches it, and proceeds to put him in a world of hurt by twisting his arm. Lorraine tries to pull him off of George, but Biff throws her on the ground – maniacally laughing in the process. This incenses George – for it was one thing to mistreat him, but to mistreat a girl was too much, and as Biff looks down at Lorraine, George knocks out Biff in the face with his left hand. He picks up Lorraine and takes her into the gymnasium where the dance is being held.
Meanwhile, Marty is rescued from the car trunk, but in the process, the leader of the band – Marvin Berry (“cousin” of Chuck Berry) – injures his hand while using a screw driver to pick the lock since the keys were in the truck with Marty, who offers to play Berry’s guitar for the slow dance portion of the night – the critical part where Lorraine and George must kiss. By this time, only Marty is left in the photo as his siblings have vanished. As Berry sings Earth Angel, George and Lorraine dance, but another boy cuts in and takes Lorraine, and a dejected George begins to walk away. Marty looks helplessly as he begins disappearing from both the photograph and from the stage as his hand becomes transparent.
Then George comes back, shoves the guy down on the floor, and then proceeds to embrace and kiss Lorraine. Marty springs to life as he and his brother and sister are restored to the photograph. He smiles and looks down on the new couple whilst George looks up at him and waves – in a reassuring manner almost as though he knew Marty was his future son and saying: “It’s alright.”
With his existence saved, Marty is ready to return to 1985, but Berry encourages him to play something else on the guitar. He performs the rock and roll oldie (by 1985, anyway), Johnny B. Goode, which everyone catches on to as this new age of music begins, but Marty gets carried away as he gets too loud and loses himself in the style of a 1980’s rock and roll performer, which results in glares and stares at him as he realizes the awkwardness of the situation but predicts to the crowd that their kids will like it.
As he leaves, he runs into Lorraine and is relieved to know that George will be taking her home (and to a life together), and both she and George thank him for everything he’s done.
Time is now critical as Marty meets Doc Brown at Courthouse Square, where an elaborate plan is in place to return to 1985. Doc rigs a cable from atop the clock tower to a pair of lampposts on the ground, and the plan is to have Marty drive the DeLorean – with a large pole attached to it – down the street and through the lampposts. At precisely the correct time, the lightning will strike the tower, sending the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity through the cable, and as the DeLorean passes through, the pole will connect with the cable. This will activate the flux capacitor and power the time circuits to send Marty back.
But as the wind from the storm picks up, a tree branch falls and disconnects the cable from atop the tower. Doc has to reconnect the cable and goes to the top of the tower do so, but then the cable becomes disconnected from the light pole on the ground because of being under the weight of the tree branch. He manages to reconnect that in time for the spectacular lightning strike at 10:04PM – at which time Marty has accelerated the DeLorean to 88 MPH and receives the jolt to get back to the future.
There, Marty rushes to the mall to see Doc shot again and to watch himself escape from the Libyans as he goes to 1955. To his surprise, Doc is alive via a bullet-proof vest. He reveals the letter Marty wrote to him in 1955 which warned about the incident, which he tore up due to his belief that no one should know too much about their destiny and over concerns about damaging the space-time continuum.
With the day being saved (and both of their futures secured), Marty and Doc drive to Marty’s house, where the pair part ways as Doc – with Einstein – travels thirty years into the future.
Marty awakes in bed to believe that he had been living through a dream, but heading into the kitchen, he finds that the house is very different from when he last saw it. It is cleaned up and has new furniture. His brother Dave is in an office suit, and sister Linda is popular and getting calls from multiple boys.
But the real surprise comes from George and Lorraine, who walk in from a golf game. Lorraine is thinner and healthier than she was in her initial 1985 appearance, and George has dispensed with his excessive hair oil for a more natural, eased, and confident look. Marty finds that not only was the family car not wrecked by Biff Tannen but that Biff is outside waxing it (and no longer his father’s supervisor). George is a successful author, having just written his first sci-fi novel, which arrives in the mail that morning.
Marty finds a Toyota 4×4 truck in the garage, which has been waxed and shined for his date at the lake with Jennifer, who joins Marty, and he – having technically not seen her for a week – embraces her.
Suddenly, the DeLorean thunders into the driveway, and Doc implores Marty to come back to the future – saying it’s an urgent matter regarding his and Jennifer’s kids. In the street, Marty warns that they don’t have enough road to get to 88MPH, to which Doc says, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”, before taking the car into the air and flying off.
Back to the Future is one of those films that automatically draws people of all ages into watching it again and again. It is sci-fi mixed with comedy, action & adventure, drama, and a bit of romance and nostalgia so that it offers something to everyone without losing its way through a compelling and fast-paced plot.
That plot was the brainchild of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, the latter of whom had discovered his father’s high school year book, found that he had been class president – something he didn’t know beforehand – and wondered what it would have been like to attend high school with him.
From here, the pair wrote a script in the early 1980’s that was rejected by every major studio and producer who – in the age of teen sex dramas – deemed it wasn’t raunchy enough. Disney rejected it because it deemed it was too raunchy, not least because of the incestuous nature of Lorraine’s pursuit of Marty. Their friend Steven Spielberg, by now an established director making forays into producing, liked the script and offered to produce for them, but they were concerned about their previous films flopping with Spielberg as producer, and that another poor showing would finish their careers.
The script was shelved until Zemeckis directed Romancing the Stone, a surprise hit romantic comedy, which gave Zemeckis the clout he needed to not only film BTTF but to do it under the production of the only man who believed in him and Bob Gale – Steven Spielberg – and the rest is history.
Going on from fantasy of almost every kid to meet their adolescent parents, the film explores the generational gap as Marty is exposed to life as his parents lived it and is surprised that the gap isn’t that wide. Far from being the prudish martinet who protests at girls chasing boys and sitting in parked cars with them, Marty finds that his mother in 1955 is in fact quite vivacious and zealous in her pursuit of boys (including him) and has no qualms about making out in parked cars. His father may be as much of a wimpy nerd in 1955 as he is in 1985, but Marty discovers that George’s story about bird watching when he fell out of the tree was a ruse to cover up for watching Lorraine taking her clothes off.
Indeed, Marty finds that his parents are not that different from him, and that he can relate to them. His father is an aspiring writer just as he aspires to be a musician, and also like his father, he needs encouragement to make his dreams come to fruition. Ironically, it is Marty who becomes his father’s mentor in the pursuit to bring him and Lorraine together, and – as George believes he can’t do it – Marty tells him: “if you just put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” This inspires George to not only stand up for himself against Biff and get with Lorraine but to also go forth and publish his writings, which culminates in his first novel at the end of the film, and he gives Marty the same advice Marty had given to him in 1955, which in turn was advice Doc Brown had given to Marty in 1985.
In this sense, the film is about generations learning about and from each other and from the perspective of the younger generation – understanding where their own traits and personalities come from. Marty goes further by actually using future knowledge about his parents combined with his own wisdom so that they can become better versions of themselves. George’s change in personality and temperament has knock-on effects for him and Lorraine. Instead of living together with little or no chemistry in middle age, they are very much still in love at the end of the film, and this has positive effects for Marty and his siblings – especially with regard to relationships and believing in themselves.
Thirty years on, the film is relevant in part because of the intergenerational dynamics and is applicable today for teens and young adults whose parents were around the same age in 1985. It’s set in 1955 not only because it was in living memory for the vast majority of Americans but because it represented the birth of the modern teen culture in which teens acquired and exercised economic and social power and have done so since. By concentrating on this era, they were taking a nostalgic look into the time when hallmarks of teen culture – cars, rock and roll, and going out – were taking shape and doing so from the perspective of the 1980’s when the culture had continued to develop along the lines of what was started. Now, the film can be used as a tool for nostalgia for the 1980’s as much as does for the 1950’s.
That nostalgia was partly the result of the faithful recreation of the 1950’s itself. The producers sought a real town they could transform back into the 1950’s, but no locality would allow the control required by the film crew. So they used the Universal Studios back lot in California to create the Courthouse Square area, where they would have complete freedom in mocking it up for the 1950’s and 1980’s sequences.
For the 50’s, the set designers used the names of noted companies (such as Bank of America) on the store fronts to give an air of continuity and familiarity to the setting. Texaco went so far as to provide its 50’s equipment to help the designers re-create this world, which was done in an effective manner helped by the fact that they could control the area in a way they could not in a real town.
One of the remarkable things is the contrast between the appearance of Courthouse Square in 1955 and 1985. In 1955, it’s clean and well-kept – almost as if in a dream world where everything is perfect, and this is amplified by the cheery tune, Mr. Sandman. But as with virtually all downtown centers following the 1950’s, the area declines, and the decline begins with the destruction of the clock tower by the lightning strike. It was never repaired, and the area suffers from the exodus of people and businesses to the suburbs, resulting in closed and boarded-up shop fronts, and the area becomes unkempt as less respectable establishments – pawn shops and adult theaters – make their way in.
For this, the filmmakers filmed the 1955 scenes first, then messed the place up for 1985, and this – the decline of the downtown area –makes the contrast to 1955 so great, which makes for nostalgia as a central theme in the film, along with that of the passage of time. The McFlys change, and we also see that Doc Brown was once a man of great fortune – one that was built by his family, which allowed him to live in a mansion and obtain an outstanding education. But his scientific endeavors – often resulting in failure – caused him to squander the family fortune, sell off his estate to be torn down by developers, and live in his garage, which further adds to his reputation as an eccentric crackpot inventor.
In this regard, Christopher Lloyd was the perfect choice for Doc. The veteran Emmy Award-winning actor from the TV series Taxi had, the producers felt, the facial expressions and mannerisms that were perfect for the role, but Lloyd almost didn’t do it because he dismissed the script before even reading it. Thankfully, his agent urged him to read it, and he eventually signed on to bring Doc Brown to life in a way that no one else could – complete with a hair style befitting that of a scientist, like Einstein.
Another great casting call that nearly wasn’t was Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly. At the time, Fox was playing the role of Alex Keaton in the NBC hit sitcom Family Ties, and though he was the first choice, his agent was adamant that he could not do both. The producers then casted Eric Stoltz, but after 4-5 weeks of filming, they concluded that he wasn’t the right fit insofar as he was not producing the laughs they needed. Midway through production, Stoltz was let go, and the filmmakers practically begged for Fox, and an agreement was reached by which Fox was cast for Back to the Future but on the condition that Family Ties would take priority. On most days, Fox taped Family Ties during the day and was whisked off to film Back to the Future at night, and got by with a few hours of sleep in between.
Recasting Marty McFly meant reshooting several scenes on an already tight-schedule, but it was worth it because Fox made people like and root for him by being a funny person with an easy-going personality.
This is in contrast to the nerdy and somewhat eccentric personality that is used by Crispin Glover for the role of George McFly, which was done to great effect to show George as an insecure and quirky geek who is a complete wimp. His voice in particular suggests a person who is weak and unable to stand for anything and who is not comfortable in most social situations. He’s certainly not (for the most of the film) comfortable dealing with Biff Tannen, whose portrayal by Thomas F. Wilson just made you hate him and want him to get what’s coming to him, which happens in a most supreme way.
Lea Thompson was superb in her role as Lorraine Baines McFly – from the “morality” mother at the beginning, to the vivacious and naughty teenager, and finally as a more sensible mother at ease with her son’s dating life. In particular, she deftly and delicately portrays teenage Lorraine as a diffident girl who leaps to make advances on her own son and then has an instinctive realization that kissing him is a bad idea (and how Marty is without emotional scars in beyond me). She certainly makes you believe that there is an intrinsic bond between people that is not entirely understood but causes reason to pause.
The casting was made better with the use of make-up to age the characters of George, Lorraine, and Biff to a best projection of how they would look in thirty years. According to one website, it turns out the artists did a bang-on job with their time predictions compared to how the actors appear today.
Indeed, it would be remiss to not discuss the sci-fi element of this film – the concept of time travel, which has been thought of as one of final frontiers in science. It is explored as one of those “what if” questions, with a focus on how the future plays out if the past is changed. In the film, we see how one change has detrimental effects so that Marty threatens his own existence and is in a race against time to repair the damage to the space-time continuum. While Marty’s family changes for the better, the overall message is that time-tampering – even for good intentions – leads to adverse consequences.
In the world of real science, people such as noted physicist Michio Kaku have remarked on how time travel is theoretically possible, but that major advances stemming from theories on quantum gravity will be necessary if we are ever to get as close to Doc Brown’s dream coming to a reality.
In the film itself, we are not only given a theory by Doc on how time travel works but also a vehicle to make it happen: the DeLorean (DMC-12). To mock it up, the filmmaker’s visited places like military surplus stores to obtain aircraft parts, tubes, pipes, wiring, and coils and also fitted it out with panels featuring colorful/blinking buttons to give the appearance of a vehicle that had been cobbled together by an inventor like Doc Brown. The car itself had been a commercial failure and production had stopped, but its use for traveling through time in style had revived the car into the beloved icon it is today.
But all of this would have been for naught without the music, which was written by Alan Silvestri, who would go on to collaborate with Robert Zemeckis on other projects such as Forrest Gump. His score required a 90+ piece orchestra, which was the largest used for a Universal Pictures production at that time, and with them he produced some of the most powerful sounds in film history, including the main theme that is instantly recognizable. There was also the brilliant song by Huey Lewis, The Power of Love, as well as classics from the 50’s such as the aforementioned Earth Angel and Johnny B. Goode.
Only nine weeks elapsed between the end of filming and the release of the film during the July 4th weekend in 1985 – just over 30 years ago. In fact, it was supposed to be released in August, but upon viewing the first test screening, the President and COO of Universal Pictures, Sidney Sheinberg, saw what he believed was a winner and had the release date pushed forward for maximum exposure.
It turned out he was right, for the film topped the box office on that weekend and for 12 weeks afterward and went on to gross $383.87 million worldwide – making it the top film in 1985. It achieved a bigger status when President Ronald Reagan quoted it in his 1986 State of the Union address when he said, “Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’.”
Despite ending with Doc taking Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer to the future (and leaving an apparent cliffhanger), there was no plan to film a sequel. After the stunning success of the film, two sequels were filmed and released in quick succession: Back to the Future, Part II in 1989 and Back to the Future, Part III in 1990. Neither quite matched the box office performance of the first film, but they were successful and popular films in their own right as well as part of a trilogy spanning 130 years and resulting in a franchise with novelizations, toys, action figures, cartoons, video games a Universal Studios ride, and a West End musical.
And to think, all of this came from a script that very few gave attention to, and it really is a representation of the advice given in the film – that one can accomplish anything if they put their mind to it. Thank God that Zemeckis and Gale did not abandon it, and as it turned out, it resulted in much more than they had expected or had reason to expect. Back to the Future, with its contradictory title, may have done well to satisfy studio executives and the filmmakers but not much else. However, it achieved more than that, and in 2007 its immortal status was confirmed when it was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Within that description sums up the reasons why this film remains relevant after 30 years. It is culturally significant for its development of themes and quotes that are known to virtually everyone, along with its reach to a wide swath of people from all generations and backgrounds who could find something to like about the film as well as some meaning in their own lives. It is historically significant for its nostalgic look back at the 1950’s as well as for its vaunted place in film history. Lastly, it is aesthetically significant for the tremendous amount of work in the set design, particularly with regard to the 1950’s setting and the retrofitted DeLorean car as well as for the efforts involving make-up, costumes, and music.
For these reasons, it is a must see film that can be watched again and again and will always stand the test of time.
By Earl Chatham