This is the latest part of our new series where we watch the iconic and popular films that have passed us by and find out what all the fuss is about. Today I look back at Back to the Future, back in 1985, when Back to the Future II and Back to the Future III were in the future. I say look back, but that implies I’ve looked at it before, which I haven’t.
Young Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) is friends with an ageing mad scientist (how they met is never really explained) who has just made his greatest invention: a time machine built into a Delorean. It runs on plutonium, and when the Syrians he bought it off track him down, Marty is forced to flee alone into the 1950s, where he has to work with the younger professor to send him back to the future. But things are complicated when he stumbles upon his shy parents, and his mother falls for him, inadvertently threatening his own future. Can he fix his parents’ relationship and find his way home?
In spite of Back to the Future‘s enduring popularity I knew incredibly little about it, but watching it now I can see why it’s so loved. It has an upbeat energy to it that’s often missing from the more serious blockbusters we’ve come to expect nowadays, and packs more excitement into its remarkably svelte and self-contained plot than you get in the most sprawling and bloated modern box office behemoths.
Time travel is something it’s hard to get right in a film, and it’s at its best where there are clearly defined goals and limited parameters (see Terminator and Looper). Once things get too big it stops making sense (see Star Trek and the later Terminator films), and Back to the Future does a great job of keeping things focused, with a timeline that links the past and the present closely so the cause and effect can be felt. This neat screenplay ties up all the loose ends that need tying up, and brushing over those that don’t.
It teaches James Bond what a cool car really is with the time travelling Delorean, showing that a barmy inventor and a kid who looks about 30 can be cooler than the slickest gadgets and the sharpest tux. Ironically the film’s use of digital watches and contemporary music to set the “modern day” bits apart from the olden days bits serve to make the film look more dated now, as it’s at pains to show that the modern bits are in the 1980s. It’s also now as long since the film was made as Marty travels back in the film. While it’s funny to see him playing rock music at a 50s school dance, it’s equally funny to see them using a phone book in the 80s. I guess it means that instead of feeling like the smug, technologically advanced 1980s people laughing at the 1950s, we can laugh at how stupid they all were, meaning it’s only improved with age.
But perhaps there’s a lesson here: don’t laugh at how people lived in the past, because one day people will look at you the same way. Except that’s not the lesson. The lesson is in how to have a good time at the cinema.