WFTB Score: 16/20
The plot: Young misfit student Marty McFly is astounded when his eccentric friend Doc Brown’s claim to have built a time machine out of a DeLorean sports car is proved right. Marty inadvertently becomes the first time traveller and he lands in 1955, right in the middle of his mother and father’s tentative courtship. When Marty takes his Dad’s place in ‘Mum’’s affections, can a younger, disbelieving Doc put everything back in place?
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my childhood memory sometimes gets the better of me (I call it the Superman II effect), but in the case of Back to the Future (seen due to a 25th Anniversary re-release) I would have bet my house that I’d be sitting down to a bona fide classic. As it turns out…well, all in good time.
I’d be amazed if anyone doesn’t know the set-up, but here it is anyway: keen guitarist but less keen high-school student Marty (Michael J. Fox) is having trouble making a go of his life in the dilapidated town of Hill Valley, California; for while things are cool with girlfriend Jennifer, school life is made a nightmare by his headmaster, while alcoholic mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and nervous father George (Crispin Glover), suffering under overbearing boss Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), ensure that home life isn’t much better. Marty’s best friend is time-obsessed mad scientist Doc Emmet Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who summons Marty to the mall car park early one morning to record footage of his time machine, a DeLorean powered by ‘borrowed’ plutonium and a gizmo called a flux capacitor. Incredibly, the machine works, but before Doc can use it a busload of Libyans turn up looking for the plutonium and revenge. Marty escapes all the way back to 1955, where he saves a young George McFly from being run over. However, that collision brought George and Lorraine together, and Marty taking his place – with Lorraine getting the hots for her future son – obviously has horrendous implications; so Marty calls on the 1955 incarnation of Doc to tell him of his achievement and Marty‘s predicament. Doc refuses to hear about his own future but works on getting Marty back to 1985 whilst Marty – trying to avoid Lorraine and a younger, even more bullying Biff – gets George to man up and ask Lorraine to the ‘Enchantment under the Sea’ rhythmic ceremonial ritual. If either of them fail, Marty is history.
Watching Back to the Future with an adult sensibility, a few things surprised me and a few things were just as I thought. The biggest surprise is just how unsophisticated the movie is: the unfathomable science of time travel is boiled down to two numbers – 88 mph and 1.21 gigawatts – and in the same way, the plot is a simple matter of ’you’ve come back to 1955, let’s get you back to ’85 without mucking up your whole family.’ Although you imagine that the film could (and maybe should) be both twistier and turnier, somehow its uncompromising simplicity works in its favour (like other 80s movies such as Splash!, it doesn’t strive to explain itself); it’s certainly less effects-driven than you might expect from a time-travel film. It’s not a film of huge laughs either; it has nice jokes, particularly the one about Reagan, but overall it hasn’t got the smarts of (for example) a Ghostbusters – though this could reflect my personal preference for snippy and sarcastic, rather than manure-based, comedy.
I hadn’t remembered, either, the density of the exposition, which ostensibly deals with Marty and Jennifer’s assignation at the lake but actually unleashes a truckload of vital information relating to the mayor, the town, the clock tower, the Mcfly’s undistinguished family history, so on and so forth. It’s done cunningly enough never to feel clunky, but it’s hardly subtle.
On the other hand, there’s a satisfying depth to the bits I remembered. Doc’s presumed murder by the Libyans gives a strong emotional pull to the film throughout, and no matter how many times you watch it, the dramas of the dance and the traumas of getting Marty back to the future are absolutely gripping and expertly choreographed. The film looks terrific, beautifully contrasting the clean, optimistic Hill Valley of the 50s with the seedier town of the mid-80s; it sounds good, too, with a stirring theme and the upbeat sounds of Huey Lewis and the News propelling the action. Best of all, there’s the gloriously uneasy issue of Lorraine’s attraction to her own son. For a younger audience, it’s funny and icky; for an older one, it brings all sorts of Freudian considerations to mind, quite apart from the time travel complications. Speaking of which, the film skates confidently over the plot’s inevitable paradoxes, though it’s odd that the ’successful’ Mr and Mrs McFly aren’t completely freaked out that their youngest son turns into the spitting image of the kid who brought them together in high school.
Performances throughout are really good, not least the masterful casting of the DeLorean in the TARDIS role (it’s cool in the 21st Century and would have looked truly alien in the 1950s). Lea Thompson is wonderfully naughty as young Lorraine, spooking Marty with her sexual forwardness, and Crispin Glover has fun with George’s geeky mannerisms, especially his laugh. Fox, of course, is cute, smart, and affability itself; but the film really belongs to Lloyd’s Doc, a whirlwind of energy and eccentricity with his big, bug-eyes and sudden ejaculations of ‘Great Scott!’
If you’re determined not to like Back to the Future, you can pick up on the dated, if persistent, notions that pecking order is best settled with fisticuffs and that happiness is best quantified by consumerism (Marty gets his shiny new car!). You’d have to willfully ignore an awful lot of entertainment to be so negative, however. Watching the movie with a close eye may reveal that it’s not quite from the top drawer (though I reserve the right to change my mind), but it’s undeniably one of the iconic films of the decade. Time flies when you’re having fun, they say; and Back to the Future makes two hours disappear in an instant.