When Time Travel Was Fun: Back to the Future at 30

Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future

Image courtesy of Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment

When Time Travel Was Fun:
Back to the Future at 30

| published September 11, 2015 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Want to feel really old? Remind yourself, assuming you are of a certain age or generation, that 30 years ago American movie theaters saw a slew of movies geared toward the ample expendable cash of teens and young people, vaguely defined by marketers and advertisers in those days as the 19-to-35 crowd (and yes, that means those same young people are now well into their “adult” years).

A few of these movies were of reasonable quality; a few were of the fair-to-middling stripe. National Lampoon’s European Vacation took the hapless Griswold family to the continent’s most iconic tourist sites; it’s quality fell somewhere slightly below the original Vacation (still a classic) and Christmas Vacation, now seemingly more popular than ever before. The Goonies was an immensely big hit at the theaters: with a mini-galaxy of young actors destined for bigger things (Josh Brolin, Sean Astin, Jonathan Ke Quan, Martha Plimpton, and everyone’s favorite kid from the 80s, Cory Feldman). The film has a little of everything: kids and teens, hidden treasure, monsters, pirates, criminals, teen romance, dangerous cliffs and dark caves.

John Hughes’ semi-classic The Breakfast Club tossed together five of the Brat Pack’s biggest names in a watchable but uneven teen introspective; Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Ally Sheedy, and Judd Nelson. The plot is maniacally simple: five teens from differing backgrounds are shoved into the high school library for a full Saturday of in-house detention. The film has its moments, along with flashes of good acting and well-meaning dialogue, but inescapable comparisons to its closest companion-film, Sixteen Candles, causes it to suffer somewhat. Depending on who you talk to, it was either the brilliant culmination of the Great 80’s Teen Flick, or a quasi-bomb which signaled the beginning of the end. The movie earned a pile of cash, and remained a staple of cable TV, film rentals and DVD sales for decades. One thing is certain, it was typecasting in the extreme. Just check with Paul Gleason’s agent.

And The Breakfast Club gained a slight boost this past summer on its anniversary when administrators with the school system in suburban Chicago—while cleaning out cabinets and purging old files—stumbled across a copy of the original treatment and screenplay for the film, dated well before shooting began and bearing the name “Saturday Detention Breakfast Club.” The discovery triggered a minor wave of nostalgia for the movie and jumpstarted a million Google searches for images of Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson.

There were scores of other teen market movies shoveled out the studio doors that spring and summer, and many of them were quite forgettable. The Brat Pack and other mid-80s youth cadres—meaning the six-degrees/concentric circle overlaps between “true” members of the Pack and those with close associations—were at their height of box-office earning power. Even vague proximity to the age category by actors and actresses—ranging from their early teens right up into the late 20s—meant a busy and profitable stretch of scripts, rehearsals, shootings and premiers. Besides the aforementioned Brolin, Astin, Hall, Ringwald, Sheedy, Estevev and Nelson, a wider legion of young actresses and actors seemed to be everywhere at once on screens and on cable TV reruns: Charlie Sheen, James Spader, Ralph Macchio, C. Thomas Howell, Rob Lowe, Matt Dillon, Andrew McCarthy, Demi Moore, Robert Downey, Jr., John Cryer, Corey Feldman, Corey Haim, John Cuzack, Joan Cuzack, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kiefer Sutherland, Eric Stoltz, Sean Penn, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, and Kevin Bacon (for whom the parlor game “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” can be most easily mastered by memorizing all cast members of John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House and Oliver Stone’s JFK).

But out of the morass of teen and youth celluloid came what may be the best comic-sci-fi adventure ever filmed, and arguably the most fun one can have with a time travel device built into a sports car: Back to the Future.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and directed by Zemeckis, Back to the Future tells the story of young Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox), a mediocre high school student with a talent for rock guitar, and Marty’s down-in-the-dumps, stuck-in-the-past family eternally mired in a comedic, unobtrusive middle class world. Besides his girlfriend, the restless young Marty’s only other close companion is an eccentric science professor and marginally successful part-time inventor, Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd).

Brown, as it turns out, has finally invented something which he believes will work: a time-travel device embedded in a working DeLorean automobile which uses something called a “flux capacitor”—powered by a small quantity of plutonium—to propel the car’s occupant through time once the car reaches exactly 88 miles per hour. Late one night, in the parking lot of the local shopping mall, Marty helps the Doc test the machine using Doc’s dog Einstein. The test is a success; but minutes later, when a group of Libyan terrorists show up, angry that Brown has bamboozled them out of the stolen plutonium which they intended to use to make a bomb, they shoot Doc, and Marty must make a hasty escape inside the DeLorean. Forgetting that the car will catapult him through time if it reaches a speed of 88 mph, Marty evades the Libyans, only to be suddenly tossed through time back to 1955—the exact year that Doc Brown first conceived of his flux capacitor.

Within minutes of his arrival in 1955, Marty discovers that the custom-made batteries which power the time-travel DeLorean have died, and Marty must now track down a much younger version of Doc Brown to convince him of several things: Marty is a bona fide traveler from the future; that Doc invented a working time-travel device; and that Marty must return to his life in 1985. It’s a tough sell: try explaining to an adult in 1955 that Ronald Reagan has become President of the United States. Or that Jane Wyman is NOT the first lady.

The comic possibilities of sending a 1980s teenager back to 1955—with its full service gasoline stations, proto rock and roll, black and white TVs, soda fountains and malt shops and sock hops—allows Zemeckis to employ a practically endless tool box of visual and audio gags. Zemeckis and Gale make full use of every imaginable time-travel sight gag, achieving a look both atmospheric and hilarious, and continuously placing Marty’s assumptions and misunderstandings in comic conflict with the realities of the mid-1950s.

The entire idea for the plot spilled forth from a meandering, abstract conversation in which Zemeckis and Gale—after happening upon Gale’s old high school yearbook upon a visit to his parent’s home in St. Louis—wondered aloud if he and his father might have been friends if by chance they were the same age and in the same school. Remarking upon those folks they hated or disdained from their own youths, the bullies and the socialites and the nerds, and contemplating the social mistakes they made and the life-choice do-overs—if only given the chance to go back in time—the story quickly flowed from imagination to paper.

Zemeckis, flush from his success with the enormously popular box office hit Romancing the Stone, sold the concept to a receptive Universal Pictures, which signed-on Spielberg as producer. Early incarnations of the script do not employ the DeLorean, but instead use a refrigerator as the implement for time-travel, its departures and arrivals taking place in remote Nevada, on land used by the Army for atomic tests in the 1950s and where ample residual radioactive materials could be found (if this sounds oddly familiar, it is because Spielberg lifted that never-employed plot feature, grafting it, decades later, upon his script for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).

Another interesting bit of trivia about Back to the Future: though Michael J. Fox was the first and always favorite choice of the directors and producers to fill the role of Marty, Fox was contractually unavailable at the time, and unable to leave the set of the wildly popular TV sitcom Family Ties, which aired on NBC. Zemeckis fell back on Eric Stoltz, one of several second choices. But roughly a month into the shooting, Zemeckis and Spielberg each came to the painful conclusion that Stoltz—while impeccably skilled at drama—was tone deaf to the unique complexities of comedic expression and comic timing. Stoltz’s rendering was steadily recasting the film as a sci-fi pseudo-serious drama, even to the point of blunting Lloyd’s imposing comedic presence. Stoltz himself reluctantly agreed he was miscast. Though it cost an additional $3 million to halt the project and restart principal shooting from scratch, Spielberg and Zemeckis felt it was necessary. The filming went into a brief hiatus until early 1985, when Fox’s schedule opened up long enough to allow for shooting.

The insistence by Zemeckis and Spielberg to recast their protagonist using Fox as Marty was perhaps one of Hollywood’s most famous game-changers. Fox so easily slips into the role of Marty McFly that most people assume the part was written with him in mind (and indeed, to a degree, it was). The chemistry between Lloyd and Fox proves at times to be one of the film’s best features, and Fox’s television-trained familiarity with the facial expressions, timing and physical rigors of comedy translate deftly into nearly every scene, situation and confrontation. Some aficionados of sci-fi and teen movies also like to point out that Fox was proficient with the skateboard, whereas Stoltz was not; Stoltz had to learn skateboard moves for the movie. A small point, perhaps, but try to imagine the film without Fox's adept moves and tricks.

Rounding out the ensemble cast: Crispin Glover, as Marty’s father George McFly, and Lea Thompson as Marty’s mother Lorraine, a pair who take on the roles in both the 1985 and 1955 incarnations. In essence, both Glover and Thompson had to play two parts: a young and old version of their characters. Glover’s intense method-acting mode gels neatly with his quirky and nerdish character, bullied just as often as a high school student as when he is in adulthood; Thompson’s portrayal of a frumpy quasi-alcoholic middle-aged mom of three required several hours of prosthetic make-up, whereas her incarnation as the young 1955 Lorraine is flawless when she appears in pristine period makeup and dress.

Adding to the 1955 and 1985 casts is Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tannen, the local bully who—along with his henchmen—terrorizes other young people, but most especially the passive and hapless George McFly. The Tannen character, as it turns out, was cleverly modeled after the gregarious studio executive Ned Tannen, and several of the verbal confrontations seen in the film were modelled after real-life incidents between (Ned) Tannen and studio colleagues. Also appearing in the film: James Tolkan, the hard-nosed, uptight high school Dean of Boys, Mr. Strickland, who—with Tolkan’s trademark shining bald head—seems humorously unchanged even 30 years later. Mr. Strickland was as much an arch-nemesis of the elder McFly as he is a pestering source of trouble for the young Marty McFly.

The plot of Back to the Future creates boundless fun with the whole space-time-continuum thing, injecting tension by constantly posing the key question of time-travel: if you were to go back in time, would not interference with the events of the past alter the outcome of the future? In fact, wouldn’t your mere presence in the past, in some way, alter all possible future events? And knowing this, would one gain anything by attempting to right the wrongs or correct the social mistakes of one’s youth?

That hundreds of science fiction books have been written on this subject, and that hundreds of movies have been scripted with these questions in mind makes no difference; Back to the Future approaches the conundrums of time travel with enough pure joy and comedic possibility that it makes the subject seem completely fresh. And the film demands little intellectually in the process, taking no stand on how time travel might be used for great good or great evil—the prevention of war, for example, or the prevention of an assassination (a topic of Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63). Marty, after all, just wants to get back to his modest town of Hill Valley in time for his weekend date with his girlfriend. Doc Brown merely wants to invent something of consequence—something that actually works.

As for the plot resolution, Marty and Doc must navigate a complex and ever-expanding set of variables and potential problems, not the least of which is a sudden love interest by Marty’s mother (Lorraine) in Marty himself, as Marty has now taken center stage by accidentally upending her first meeting with George and already disturbing the space-time continuum. This requires Marty and Doc to engineer a variety of social encounters between Lorraine and George to insure that they meet in a proper context and that sparks fly—all the while delicately circumventing the constant bullying of Biff, who has himself developed a crass, oafish lust for Lorraine. Meanwhile, lacking sufficient plutonium in 1955, Doc Brown must figure out a way to replicate the raw energy required to send the DeLorean time machine back, to the future (thus the film’s title) and safely return Marty to his beloved 1985. Using a small 1985 brochure regarding repairs to the town’s iconic clock tower as his guide, Brown correctly calculates that he can jumpstart the DeLorean’s power cells by channeling the energy of the massive lightning strike which famously damages the clock in 1955.

There’s no spoiler alert required for those who, by chance, never saw this classic sci-fi comedy adventure. Marty resolves the oedipal conundrum with his mother through one final matchmaking coup, linking George and Lorraine at the high school dance and sparking the romance of his parents. Marty makes his way successfully back to 1985, intact, and better for the wear, save for his new knowledge of the past, and his semi-creepy, deeply comedic look at his parents at the time they were mere teens.

But in time travel, there is always a wrinkle. The final frames set the stage for what would become the start of the franchise—a series of sequels, some better than others.

The film also had fun with the musical possibilities. Marty is, after all, a mid-1980s rocker and a fan of groups like Van Halen and Def Leppard. At the penultimate 1955 high school dance, Marty gets to display his guitar and vocal skills on stage, pinch-hitting for another guitarist whose hand was injured only minutes earlier. Marty performs “Johnny B. Goode,” the Chuck Berry early rock and roll classic. The teens in the auditorium respond enthusiastically to the infectious riffs. But when Marty begins to morph the performance into 70s and 80s hard rock—including feedback, guitar distortions, chord screeches, and even a Pete Townshend-style kicking of the amplifier—the 1950s era kids are stupefied and silent.

The movie also features as its title theme the Huey Lewis & The News classics “The Power of Love,” (written especially for the movie) and “Back in Time.”

Comparisons between Back to the Future and the Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) were inevitable. As some critics and film historians pointed out, the films share a remarkable number of scenes, themes and concepts. For one, the two fictional towns (Hill Valley; Bedford Falls) and their respective center squares bear a striking resemblance, and include the jarring paradox of dramatic changes to each—in Marty’s case because of a 30-year difference in time; in George Bailey’s (Jimmy Stewart) case, a city seen under the circumstances of his never having been born at all, a theme which overlaps with the imponderable outcomes of time travel. Each town features local cinema houses now converted for the purposes of pornography or lustful entertainment, just as each town features similarly changed gas stations, department stores and diners. Each film features a dumbfounded protagonist walking and/or running through the city center, aghast at the staggering changes set against the oddly familiar backdrop. Each film features a central character suddenly all-too-clearly aware of how their life impacts their world, for worse, for middling, for better—we hope.

Back to the Future, now 30 years old, was the surprise winner at the box office that year. It became the summer’s biggest blockbuster, edging out other high-value movies, including its closest comedy/youth rivals, The Breakfast Club, The Goonies, Weird Science, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Raking in some $389 million that year, it clobbered even the big budget mega-films Rambo, Rocky IV, The Color Purple, and the critically acclaimed Out of Africa. Back to the Future spent more than 11 weeks as the top box office film of 1985. The movie also became an enduring staple of VHS, DVD and Blu-ray sales, and replays often on premium channels, thereby keeping the revenue stream alive and introducing the adventure to subsequent generations of sci-fi lovers.

But its durability and legacy quickly proved greater than the sum of its numbers. Then-President Ronald Reagan quoted from the film twice during his 1986 State of the Union Address. The American Film Institute in 2008 ranked Back to the Future on its list of 10 best sci-fi films of all time, placing it on an elite par with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, E.T., and Blade Runner. And the Library of Congress declared Back to the Future a national treasure, placing the film in its coveted National Film Registry.

Back to the Future also proved that science fiction, comedy, and whimsy could exist comfortably on the same plane, while also producing a timeless classic. One criterion for a movie’s greatness is its durability among subsequent generations of movie-watchers. In that sense, Back to the Future has all the timeless qualities—endearing and relatable characters, universal themes of youth and age and romance, love of family and friends, and that strangely compelling human desire to see into one’s future, or to understand one’s past.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Six Movie Comedies That Made Me Wet My Pants; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; August 13, 2015.

Revenge of the Nerds: Science Guys on the Big Screen; R. Alan Clanton ; Thursday Review; January 20, 2015.