Directed by Robert Zemeckis
I suppose what makes Back to the Future so fun, beyond just that it’s fun, is that it’s surprisingly humanist, at least outside of Biff Tannen. It’s the story of a teenager with a mad scientist best friend (their friendship is never explained, but that makes it all the better) who gets stuck thirty years in the past and must make sure his parents, as teenagers, fall in love as they’re supposed to so that he can ensure his own existence.
Everything important happens in the span of a week, and the suggestion here is that these small, individual moments all have huge ripple effects for the future. If Marty’s (Michael J. Fox) dad doesn’t get hit by his mom’s dad’s car, if they don’t have their first kiss the following Saturday night, etc. Though this makes sense for how movies work, with concentrated moments of impactful change and evolution, it implies that the future is rather fickle.
So it’s a time travel movie in which the future is fickle and the characters are bruised and just looking for a little help. It’s their son, from the future, who gives them a hand.
The humanity of the film extends to the idea that your parents were once kids too, that they were bullied or had hobbies or unrequited crushes or the like. There’s something weirdly soothing about all of this, about watching Marty befriend his father George (Crispin Glover) and act like a guardian angel, just as there’s something disturbing and hilarious about watching his mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) become infatuated with him. Eventually she will kiss the horrified Marty and calmly explain that “something’s not right.”
Marty is so focused on assembling the future in all its present chaos, like putting together a puzzle that might be missing a few pieces, that he can never really relax. He is, in a way, a more literal manifestation of what his parents are going through and what we all really go through in our youth, be it high school or beyond.
You’re putting yourself together, trying to ensure the survival of some imagined version of who you are and want to be. You’re trying to preserve things, people, ideas with no real sense of if they can even be preserved. So Marty’s story might just be a much more heightened version of what it feels like to be a teenager. You’re fighting for the survival of something that doesn’t quite exist, or if it does it’s only in your mind.
I’m not entirely sure, but it feels apt, that chaos, energy and confusion. I guess Marty McFly is like a giant hormone, tirelessly bouncing off walls and fighting to save an idea, though to him it is more than an idea.
From there you could get into a discussion of time travel theory, and the sequel gets more into this, combining the idea here (that ripple effects can magically alter the future, like in Looper) with the idea of multiple timelines, as the sequel will introduce. It quickly gets messy.
Back to the Future Part II spends more time with Marty and Doc (Christopher Lloyd), but in this first film Marty is more often than not by himself or just with one of his two parents. They are different movies, and the latter seems more like the one that has lived on in pop culture. That’s the image of the two broad characters running like crazy through time and space whereas this first one is a bit more calm, even if silly, and focuses on one character helping two others become the best versions of themselves. He’s a life coach is what he is.
Up Next: Escape From Tomorrow (2013), Yella (2007), State and Main (2000)