JFR FEATURE 004 | Back to the Future (1985)
Updated: Dec 20, 2021
For the vast majority of my childhood, I wanted to be Marty McFly. I suspect I am not alone. I quite believe the character (admittedly, along with Brian May) is a key reason why I wanted to play the guitar. The sequence in which Marty 'invents' rock and roll at his mum and dad's 1950s high school dance by leading the band in an impromptu version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’ – with added Hendrix, Townshend and Van Halen choreography – was quite possibly the most watched section of VHS in my collection. The scene does very little to advance the plot (apart from almost making Marty late for his date with the future), but heck, if it isn't one of the most memorable, high-concept moments of 1980s cinema, in a film – and indeed, decade – bursting at the seams with high-concept ideas. Following these dreams of being a teenage time-traveller, for a short time I wanted to be a policeman. But that has nothing to do with Back to the Future (1985).
If it wasn't for Steven Spielberg, Back to the Future may quite possibly have remained unmade.
Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ script for Back to the Future had infamously been turned down by numerous uninterested studios as early as 1980. Columbia passed on it, and Disney – who, around that time, had been starting to test the waters with regard to more mature material – felt that the worryingly incestuous connotations of Marty's relationship with his teenage mum were problematic to release under their supposedly 'wholesome' banner. Like Decca Records rejecting The Beatles, these studios didn't know what they were missing – namely, the point. The basic premise of the film stemmed from screenwriter Bob Gale who, flicking through his parents' Yearbook, pondered whether he and his father would have been friends at school. From there evolved the story of a 17-year-old high school kid of 1985 who loves Huey Lewis and the News (and is a video pirate in the early drafts; another reason why some studios were initially sniffy about it), who is accidentally transported back in time 30 years and inadvertently causes his teenage mum to become infatuated with him. A literal race against time ensues, as he has to convince a younger incarnation of his friend Doc Brown (the man who has invented time travel) to help him get his parents together, enabling him to get back to the future (dependent on the required 1.21 jigawatts of power necessary for the trip) without endangering his own existence.
Early drafts of the screenplay included the time machine being a refrigerator (an idea that was nixed after it was feared that children might climb inside their own fridges in the hope of having a similar time travel adventure), and the only power source strong enough to transport Marty back to 1985 being an atomic blast in the Nevada desert. (There are many aspects of Back to the Future and its sequels that have become omnipresent in pop culture, but it is particularly amusing to note how elements of this unused idea found their way into the unfairly derided Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)). Abandoning these initial plot ideas, the film ultimately confines its entertaining time-bending sci-fi adventure to a fictional small town in California: Hill Valley.
If it wasn't for Steven Spielberg, however, who was arguably the most powerful figure in the fickle world of Hollywood at the time, Back to the Future may quite possibly have remained unmade. Having collaborated with Zemeckis and Gale on his own ill-fated war comedy 1941 (1979), Spielberg loved the script and wanted to champion the young talents who were yet to have a hit. Zemeckis and Gale's previous film, the Kurt Russell-led Used Cars (1980), had made a small impact, but was nowhere near the success needed to have their high-concept time-travel comedy automatically greenlit. Time, ironically, was running out and Zemeckis decided he needed to direct the next thing to come his way that looked like it could be a hit. Fortuitously, that turned out to be Romancing the Stone (1984), which was a massive success, making Zemeckis the talk of the town and providing the catalyst for rekindled interest in Back to the Future. So, that's it and the rest is history (or is it the future?)
Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Doc Emmett Brown is a masterclass in eccentricity.
Well, not quite. Even the Midas touch of Spielberg and co. couldn't make Back to the Future immune from teething troubles. The initial casting of Marty McFly landed with Eric Stoltz, a very versatile actor, but it was soon apparent to the filmmakers that he did not quite have the effortless comedic touch required for the part. Six weeks into filming, Stoltz was let go and it remains one of many curiosities that, aside from a few seconds of footage present in a recent 'making-of' documentary, his work as McFly has lingered on the shelf ever since.
It's true that Michael J. Fox had been in the minds of Zemeckis and the producers since casting began, but Fox's commitment to his role as Alex P. Keaton in the hugely popular sitcom Family Ties (1982-1989) had precluded him from taking on the lead role in a feature film at that time (despite having been freed up to film Teen Wolf (1985)). Second time around however, following Stoltz’s dismissal, Fox's services were secured, requiring him to shoot 'Family Ties' during the day and Back to the Future during the night, an arrangement that is generally well utilised in the film, though one which does produce the odd continuity error. Take the scene in which Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) are being reprimanded by Mr Strickland (James Tolkan) for being late for school ("Slacker!"). A cleverly out of focus background in most of the shots does the job of disguising the fact that it is pitch black outside. They are either very late for school or very early!
The other principal casting had been set from the beginning. Christopher Lloyd’s performance as Doc Emmett Brown is a masterclass in eccentricity. A familiar face, particularly to American audiences, Lloyd had become a household name as the drug-addled Reverend Jim Ignatowski in the sitcom Taxi (1978-1983). Various other supporting roles followed, in both film and television, including a memorable appearance as the villainous Klingon Kruge in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). But it took Back to the Future to give Lloyd a co-starring, and indeed star-making, role. Lloyd was initially reluctant to accept the part, but making exceptional use of his wild eyes and having donned even wilder hair, he was convinced, and consequently one cannot imagine anyone else as Doc Brown. (Go on. Try it. You can't, can you?) Needless to say, the energy and chemistry (or is that physics?) between Fox and Lloyd is electric and propels the film forward, so much so that one scarcely stops to consider what a strange combination the characters actually are. How did a teenager and an eccentric scientist become friends? This is backstory that is charmingly never explored. We do learn though, that Brown is the man who slipped, hit his head on a sink, came to and had a vision of what makes time travel possible – the ‘flux capacitor’. All he needed was a vehicle for his time travel experiments.
The DeLorean was also notoriously unreliable, hence the cheeky inclusion of scenes where the car refuses to start at crucial moments.
As much of a principal character as its human counterparts, Back to the Future provided a showcase for the notably futuristic DeLorean car, giving a short-lived (and ultimately futile) boost to the ailing car company and its disgraced creator, John DeLorean (which is a fascinating story in itself). Futuristic it may have been, but the DeLorean was also notoriously unreliable, hence the cheeky inclusion of scenes where the car refuses to start at crucial moments. (Plus, see if you can spot how many times Fox and Lloyd almost bang their heads on the sagging gull-wing doors). The additional design modifications by the film’s production designers are so intricate and creative that no matter how many times one watches the film (and for this viewer, it is likely in almost triple figures), there is always something new to spot amidst the blinking lights and disorganised chaos of the dashboard. It is a design icon of pop culture, synonymous with 1980s science fiction. The Back to the Future-styled DeLorean has turned up in commercials and cameoed in a raft of films since its first appearance, including as recently as Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2018) (a film replete with 1980s pop culture references), and alongside Doc Brown himself in a brief, surreal scene in Seth MacFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014).
In addition to the iconic lead characters, Back to the Future also works as an ensemble piece. From the pages of an idiosyncratic and watertight screenplay, honed and shaped down to the finest detail (and still used in film studies as a superlative example of the craft), emerges unconventional and quirky characterisation which also happens to be pretty much perfectly cast. Crispin Glover’s performance as Marty’s father George runs the gamut from pathetic loser to unlikely hero; weird and sweet in equal measure. Lea Thompson is pitch perfect as the boozing Lorraine McFly who has a brother in jail (“better get used to these bars, kid”) and claims never to have been in a parked car with a boy. (The actions of her 1950s counterpart may well suggest otherwise). Biff Tannen (impeccably portrayed by Thomas F. Wilson) is a meat-headed butthead bully with no redeeming features, and one of the most brilliantly unlikeable characters in cinema. The film takes utter delight in giving Biff his just desserts; whether it is covering him in manure or having him knocked out in one punch by the most of improbable of assailants.
No other film has had as instant and lasting an impact on me than Back to the Future.
Marty is in love with Jennifer Parker (played with appealing charm by Claudia Wells), and their relationship is punctuated by the amiable tones of Huey Lewis and the News’ mega-hit ‘The Power of Love’. (Lewis also has a very funny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo). In lesser hands, these supporting characters could come across as caricatures, but they feel integral to the detailed, and well-realised life of Hill Valley. A life that happens in the shadow of the Clock Tower, the centrepiece of the town (in reality, one of the many buildings occupying the Courthouse Square area of the backlot at Universal Studios, California). Early in the film, Marty and Jennifer are accosted by a lady fundraising to 'Save the Clock Tower' in what, initially, seems like a random piece of info-dump exposition. Ultimately, the fate of the Clock Tower plays a vital role later in the film, just one of many examples of the precision-cut setups and payoffs throughout the screenplay.
Zemeckis has gone on to make quite a few noteworthy and impressive films since, but Back to the Future remains his masterpiece as a razor-sharp comedy, remaining resolutely focused, utterly quirky and completely unique. No other film has had as instant and lasting an impact on me than Back to the Future. In a world where it seems no ‘classic’ film is safe from the 'modern update' remake treatment, there is some comfort in the knowledge that Zemeckis and Gale have stated that Back to the Future will not be remade in their lifetimes. I may be wrong, but I would suggest that the majority of fans of the trilogy are completely happy with that statement. There is something about the idiosyncrasy of Back to the Future and its sequels that means any remake would surely be folly. In the nearly 30 years since the conclusion of the trilogy, the nearest the series has come to a continuation of the story has been in the form of the short-lived Back to the Future: The Animated Series (1991-1993), which featured top-and-tail live-action segments featuring Lloyd in character as Doc Brown in most episodes. Various commercials (again featuring Lloyd) for companies such as Nike and Toyota have followed, alongside customary video games and what Gale has described as "pretty close to what a 'Part IV' could be like" in the involving Back to the Future: The Game (2015), by the now defunct Telltale Games. Crucially, all of these have had some involvement from the original creators, (with even Spielberg taking the role of 'creative consultant' for Back to the Future... The Ride (1991) at Universal Studios’ theme parks). The legacy continued with the premiere of ‘Back to the Future: The Musical’ (yes, you read that correctly) in 2020.
It defines effortless, blockbuster entertainment.
In all of these ventures though, the keeper of the flame and overseeing eye for all things to do with the legacy of the series is inarguably screenwriter Bob Gale. Not all of the decisions Gale and Zemeckis have made regarding the protection of the Back to the Future brand have sat well with some of fandom, or even some of the cast (perhaps don’t bring up the subject with Crispin Glover when you next see him), but I have to admire their steadfast pride in their creation. It is my considered opinion that the world would be a poorer place without the existence of Back to the Future. It is a film you can watch with your parents, your grandparents or your own children, such is the cross-generational appeal of the story, and I have yet to find a person who actively dislikes it. (I am sure they exist somewhere in the space-time continuum. Seems unlikely, though).
As Doc Brown enthusiastically declares before unveiling his time machine for the first time, "this is the big one, the one I've been waiting for all my life." Back to the Future is my cinematic first love and kindled in my childhood psyche a love of time-travel stories. It is the reason I love Doctor Who (1963 - ); it is the reason I found a deep connection with the Terminator (1984) franchise; and it is even the reason that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) is my favourite Harry Potter film. It is also the film that made me realise the power of music within film, as the majestic score by Alan Silvestri elevates the film further, with the heroic French horn and brass motif supported by the syncopated stabs in the string section, propelling the theme along. It perfectly evokes the whirling adventure of the film, whilst giving it the feel of classic Hollywood. Back to the Future is a film that inspires aspiring time travellers, rock stars and mad scientists alike. And for this viewer, it defines effortless, blockbuster entertainment, and is the greatest film in a most perfectly formed trilogy. And deep down, I think I still want to be Marty McFly.