Jul 6, 2010

Back to the Future, twenty-five years on

"New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael had a problem with Back to the Future. She found many things to admire, tagging it a “likeable screwball comedy,” and praising Zemeckis and Gale’s “wit in devising intricate structures that keep blowing fuses.” But the fact remained. “I’m not crazy about movies with kids as the heroes.” She must have had a tough time of it in that summer, for 1985 was the year E.T. finally showed up in Hollywood’s bloodstream; having been broken down into its constituent enzymes, just as Jaws had, and now showing up everywhere in the form of suddenly-sprouted magical forests, and kids riding BMX bikes, and cherubic alien visitors. And not just Spielberg-productions like The Goonies, or The Explorers. Mad Max III; Beyond Thunderdome also boasted a small squadron of “lost children”, while in Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood encounters a little girl who finds a friend in the heavens. The day Dirty Harry starts pram-sitting, you know something is up. “When the causes of the decline of Western civilisation are finally writ,” wrote Variety, “Hollywood will surely have to answer why it turned one of man’s most significant art forms over to the gratification of high-schoolers.”
There’s no getting around this one. Back to the Future really is a movie about a teenager, and not just that, but a movie about a teenager who travels back to the fifties — the very birthplace of the breed — in order to visit the condition on his parents, too. If you are looking for a movie which perfectly symbolises the state of arrested development which is American cinema, Back to the Future is your movie: an episode of Leave It To Beaver as scripted by Feydeau, a teen sex farce with no sex, a family comedy that contemplates incest, and as sturdy a disquisition on man’s place in the webbings of his fate as any movie with Huey Lewis on the soundtrack has ever quite managed to be. The moment you realised just how fully Back to the Future was going to distinguish itself from all the other Spielbuggies zooming around that year is relatively easy to pinpoint: it is the point at which Marty McFly, having seen Doc Brown gunned down by Libyans, and flown back to 1985 in the DeLorean suddenly finds it completely useless, there being no plutonium in 1955 with which to power it. It is hard to overstate the importance of this quietly devastating piece of news. In film after film, in 1985, teenagers were using their science class to invent magical devices that granted them their every wish — to travel through time, whizz through space, secure a face-to-face meeting with Kelly le Brock — but here was Zemeckis’s biggest effects gizmo, his time-machine, suddenly rendered as useful as an orange-press. “Back to the Future has this reputation for being this big special effects movie, but in fact there are only about 30 special effects in it,” says Zemeckis, “and they’re mostly lightning. But because of the nature of the story, everyone thought it was loaded with effects.” Today, nobody bats an eyelid when the Wachowski brothers allow Trinity to download whatever helicoptering skills she needs to extricate herself from a jam in the Matrix movies — a quite astonishing cheat — but once Marty has been whisked back to 1965, all he has to get him back are his own powers of ingenuity and the quarter in his pocket, which he naturally uses to phone a friend.
It is the first of many such drop-ins on Doc Brown in the series, which — appropriately enough for a movie written by two men who locked themselves together in a room for three years — has a terrific feel for affable, loose-fitting male camraderie. The series’ take on romantic attachment is a snatch of pure comic-book — the affections of Marty’s mother zing from person to person like a ping-pong ball, while Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, spends much of the second movie asleep — but no matter what historical era Marty finds himself in, or what manner of fix, he can always put in a call to the guy with the perma-stare and the afghan-in-a-wind-tunnel hair. Christopher Lloyd’s performance gets even better when you find out what a pussycat the guy was: he would turn up for rehearsals, not say a word to anyone, and then, the moment the cameras rolled, explode into a mad fizz of limbs and pseudoscientific exposition — all the braininess of the script coming to a boil, and running over into affectionate self-satire. The Doc is a direct descent of that “gentle lunatic” Charles Goodyear, pawning his possessions in pursuit of odorless rubber, and all the other amateur inventors, toiling away in the backyards of America to bring better ball-point pens to the nation. “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and there are few better mousetraps than Back to the Future, as great a tribute to old-fashioned American ingenuity as could be imagined — a very different thing from mere cleverness. All of Zemeckis and Gale’s previous films were as fiendishly clever as Back to the Future, giving their characters the runaround like rats in a maze, but this was the first of theirs to invite their protagonists in on the joke, for Marty is both pinball and player, and even has his own Wizard. “There’s nothing you can’t do if you don’t set your mind to it,” he tells his father — much the same conclusion that Sarah Connor came to at the end of The Terminator — “There’s no fate but what we make”, in her rather tone-deaf rhyme. “God a person could go crazy thinking about all this,” says Sarah Conner at the end, and for the most part she eschews thinking too hard about it, instead choosing the more sensible course of driving away from the it, at speed, in a hot-wired car. Together, though, the two films form a small but distinct sub-genre. All around them, in movies like Working Girl, Flashdance, and Top Gun, characters were chasing their dreams, making it count, getting involved wioth small ghost-collection start-ups other such eighties activities; but The Terminator and Back to the Future were the only movies whose protagonists chased their tomorrows to quite so literal a degree — time-travel-movie as self-improvement-manual.

This is probably not what H. G. Wells had in mind when he wrote The Time Machine; what he had in mind was something a little sterner, with a distinct rap of the lectern to it. Well’s novel was basically a whither-Western-civilization lecture, whipping through historical periods like a slide show to demonstrate just how quickly and remorselessly Western Civilisation was going the way of the dodo. The notion that our lives are stuck fast in preordained grooves is, however, a curiously European hang-up, at its heaviest over Russia but still discernible in the fog that clung to Wells’s London, and it has never exported that well to America; needless to say, it is entirely absent from the brash, acrylic surfaces of Back To The Future, which strips time travel of its world-historical duties, and instead drops it into the gleaming chassis of a teen sex farce. Wells delivered a dire warning, which flattened his narrative into placard; Zemeckis gives us a pep talk, with Marty playing his fate like a craps game. Zemeckis was at one point to have made a biopic of Houdini, which makes sense, for few modern directors’ names so cry out for the prefix “the Fabulous and Amazing” to be attached to it, but like most directorial hobby horses, probably best left unridden, for there is no higher tribute to the art of escapology than Back to the Future, which piles up difficulty around its hero like coils of rope, and then sits back to watch him wriggle free. "

— reprinted from my book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (2004)


  1. typos: "but once Marty has been whisked back to 1965" - it was 1955.

    Sarah Connor, not Conner.

    And, the July 5 thing is a hoax:

    Other than that, a fine piece from your splendid book. I love the image of Hitchcock sighing in relief at its focus on story.

    (Also, the "Revolutions" in the third Matrix referred to vynl-like cycles rather than uprisings, but that's another story...) :)

  2. Also, E.T was released in 1982, not 1985.

  3. Also, E.T was released in 1982, not 1985.