DT Moviehouse Review: Back To The Future

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Today I take a look at the 80’s classic Back To The Future.

(1985) Directed by Robert Zemeckis

Screenplay by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

Tagline:  He was never in time for his classes…He wasn’t in time for his dinner…Then one day, he wasn’t in time at all.

What it’s about:

In 1985, high school senior Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) living with his listless alcoholic mother (Leah Thompson), put-upon, oblivious nerd father (Crispin Glover), and loser siblings, dreams of escaping his hometown of Hill Valley and playing guitar in a rock and roll band. One night Marty’s friend, the eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) asks him to videotape his most important scientific experiment, a plutonium charged time machine he has created out of a DeLorean. When an accident occurs that sends Marty back in time in the DeLorean to 1955, he accidentally disrupts his family’s timeline, causing his mother to fall for him instead of his father.

Whoa, this is heavy…

This creates a paradox that will eventually cause him and his brother and sister to cease to exist. He hunts up the 1955 version of Doc to help him return to his own time, and plays a frenetic matchmaker to his parents before he fades out of existence.Why I bought it:

Back To The Future is without a doubt one of the best, most beloved movies to come out of the 80’s. Even if there hadn’t been a pair of sequels, it would remain a popcorn summer classic.

It’s a seamless, lighting-struck-the-clock-tower combination of comedy, romance, adventure and science fiction, with likeable characters and a perfectly constructed script with about as much fat on it as Bruce Lee at the height of his powers.

In rewatching it, I was delighted by how well crafted the story was. Every single minute element introduced contributes to the whole.

During Marty’s dinner with his 1985 family we are bombarded with important facts in rapid succession – Lorraine describes her first meeting with George and the moment in time when they fell in love, a kiss during a high school dance, George watches the very same episode of The Honeymooners the Baines family will be watching for the first time in 1955 – AND it’s an episode where a character disguises himself as an alien, something Marty will do to motivate his father later on. The woes of his brother and sister are established, so that even with their bare minimum screen time we understand their ultimate reversal of fortune in the end with only a few lines of dialogue. Everything plays out so naturally, we don’t even recognize it as exposition as its happening.

Similarly, Doc shares the story of how he came to be inspired to invent the time machine with Marty, enabling Marty to have the knowledge to earn ’55 Doc’s trust with little physical proof. Everything Marty takes into the time machine (rad suit, Walkman, etc.) comes into play later.

Marty is of course the hub character around which the movie revolves, and Fox was at the top of his game when he took a break from his hit sitcom Family Ties to do BTTF (replacing a miscast Eric Stoltz). Yet he plays a character the polar opposite of ultra-capitalist Young Republican Alex (his character on Family Ties). Marty is very cool and charming, but flawed enough to still be relatable. We first see him blowing out Doc’s massive speaker with his electric guitar in an MTV-esque ‘woe dude’ moment, and then he skateboards all around town, hanging onto the back of a jeep and waving to the ladies’ aerobics class in a classic and tone setting sequence to the tune of Huey Lewis’ hit single ‘Power of Love.’ But the very next time we see Marty pick up his guitar to audition for his own high school dance, he is promptly rejected as being too loud (amusingly, by a disguised and nerded up Huey Lewis).  Marty’s fear of rejection and lack of self confidence becomes a lesson he has to learn vicariously through his own father’s romantic woes in the past.

Speaking of George McFly, I can’t imagine anybody but Crispin Glover playing that role. George’s weird, breathless way of speaking (as if it takes a supreme effort for him to say a single thing to anybody) and oddball, un-self conscious (look at the way he dances by himself in a wonderful little shot at the beginning of the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance) body movements inform a sympathetic portrayal of a born outsider who comes in from the cold, eventually finding his own strength and self-confidence in the movie’s most memorable and cheer inducing scene.

Likewise, Christopher Lloyd brings an infectious, frantic enthusiasm to Doc, the antithesis of the slow talking burn-out character Jim that made him a star on Taxi. You’re taking a chance with a character who is so passionate he literally howls at the sky and dances with unmitigated joy when he realizes he’s finally invented something that actually works. It could easily come off forced and silly, but with Lloyd it doesn’t. He’s the same sort of outsider as George, but with a self-confidence that he instills with Yoda-esque wisdom in Marty (and thus, in a roundabout way, to George too). This makes for a great rapport between Marty and Doc, with Doc acting as kind of a surrogate father (seeing as how 1985 George is such an abysmal failure as a role model, being bullied by Biff even as an adult).

The rest of the cast definitely picks up the slack. Leah Thompson displays a lot of talent going from her boozy and tired 1985 version of Lorraine to her wide-eyed romantic ’55 counterpart. She doesn’t just let the aging makeup do the work, ninety percent of it is in her voice (shown in the scene when Marty wakes up after being hit by his grandfather’s car and his mother’s voice in the dark lulls him into thinking his time jump was all a dream). Then, when Marty alters the timeline, she manages to pull off a changed older Lorraine, still in love with life but more mature.

Glover also does an admirable job in that respect, altering his way of speaking and toning down the nervousness as adult/author George. When you consider that both actors actually played three different versions of their characters, you have to single out and applaud their work.

I’ve also got to say something about the very talented and often overlooked Tom Wilson who plays Biff Tannen, George’s (and Marty’s) longtime nemesis. Wilson deftly juggles bonehead comedy and real menace in the character, and like Thompson and Glover, pulls off a humorous turn as an aged, cowed bootlicker who’s got his comeuppance in the final reel (but yet, is still dangerous and conniving – something that comes out in the next installment, which he and the rest of the cast picks up almost perfectly after a four year hiatus).

Finally, there’s the score by Alan Silvestri, who composes an instantly recognizable theme that is as beautifully evocative as anything in Star Wars or the Indiana Jones movies.

Is there anything at all off about Back To The Future? Hardly anything. Claudia Wells, who plays Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer doesn’t ever have a lot to do, it’s true. She’s more a representation of what Marty’s trying to get back to.

The only other thing I would bring up is the Johnny B. Goode sequence. Biff’s gang throws Marty in the trunk of the all black band’s car, and the guitarist cuts his hand jimmying the lock to get him out, forcing Marty to take over lead guitar (because if George and Lorraine don’t kiss during the dance, Marty will still fade away – and he nearly does when that kid from Children Of The Corn cuts in.). After George and Lorraine kiss during ‘Earth Angel,’ the band convinces Marty to place one more tune – something that really kicks.

Johnny B. Goode is one of the quintessential early rock and roll songs, and it is very significant that Chuck Berry, an African American, is the guy who did it. In rewatching BTTF, I did have a brief moment’s trepidation at the scene where Marvin Berry holds up the phone to his cousin Chuck as Marty plays, implying that a white kid from 1985 California is the real inventor of rock and roll.

Strickland’s not ready for this.

Other than that, the movie remains a knockout. I watched it with my eight year old and she excitedly asked what was the matter with Marty’s kids in the future and insisted we watch the second and third movies in one sitting (and has since asked to watch them again).

As for me, I saw this movie in the theater with my mom when I was ten years old, and I fondly remember sharing laughs and cheers with her and a packed moviehouse. I imagine a lot of kids took to skateboarding from watching this flick (I tried, but I could never even stand on one of those things). I remember being totally mind blown at the scene where Marty returns early to the mall and sees himself – this was my first exposure to the idea in science fiction of the time travel paradox. I wanted so bad to be as cool as Marty, and to have the same personal triumphs as George.

It’s just a movie that makes the heart soar, makes you appreciate your parents a little more, and is totally on the ball and uncompromising in its setting and story, and yet is flat out fun.

Best bit of dialogue:

In the original unaltered timeline, Doc cons a group of Libyan ‘nationals’ out of the stolen plutonium to power the time machine. The Libyans surprise Doc and Marty on the night of the testing of the DeLorean at the mall and machinegun him to death.

Throughout the movie, Marty wrestles with telling 1955 Doc about his impending death in 1985, even though Doc warns him not to inform him about any future events, pointing out that Marty’s interference in his own continuum has been thus far disastrous.

In a last desperate attempt to save his friend’s life, Marty writes out a warning on diner stationary and seals it in an envelope marked Do Not Open Until 1985. But just prior to leaving 1955, Doc finds the envelope and tears it to pieces.

Marty sets the time circuits for a ten minute early return to personally go and warn Doc, but after the time jump the DeLorean stalls and Marty spends the extra ten minutes running across town to the mall, where he helplessly witnesses the death of Doc a second time. After watching his earlier self jump to 1955 in the time machine, Marty runs down to Doc’s body only to find him very much alive, having reassembled Marty’s yellowed letter with scotch tape and donned a bulletproof vest to save himself.

“What about all that talk about screwing up future events? The space time continuum?” Marty asks.

Doc grins and shrugs.

“Well…I figured…what the hell?”

Best scene:

When I was a kid, the hands down coolest sequence for me was the one where Biff and his gang chase Marty all around the town square on his improvised skateboard. I still get chills when Biff gets Marty hung up on the grill of his car and tries to ram him and Marty runs up on the hood and through the open car, leaping perfectly onto the skateboard as it emerges from underneath the rear of bumper. The musical cue is spot on perfect, the expressions of the actors are great, and the stunt is awesome.

BUT

Seeing the movie again through adult eyes, nothing tops the emotional crescendo of the scene when George punches out Biff in defense of Lorraine.

Wilson is at his darkest and most imposing, glaring up at George from the depths of the car and the ruffles of Lorraine’s dress (“Wrong car, McFly”). Glover shifts masterfully through a range of emotions, beginning with disappointment and fear when he realizes that it’s Biff and not Marty as planned, reluctant resolve (“No Biff, you leave her alone”), terror when Biff bends his arm back, to righteous outrage when he sees Lorraine shoved to the pavement. I love that change in his face in the moment before his fist balls up and he slugs Biff into oblivion. Then, that nervous little laugh as he looks with disbelief at his own hand, remembers Lorraine, asks her if she’s alright, and pulls her to her feet.

Would I Buy it Again? In a heartbeat.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE:  Back To The Future Part II

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Great review. I love this trilogy. One of my top “feel good” movies.

    • Thanks Barry. Maybe it’s the time travel aspect, but it’s pretty ‘timeless.’ Holds up very well.

  2. Great review! Now I want to go watch it again.

  3. Well, we all know how much *I* love Back to the Future :p And, yes, the scene where George lays out Biff gives me chills every time. I still tear up now and again watching that scene. I want to BE George in that scene.

  4. Me TOO! It’s the most vicarious scene in the movie for me, with the skateboard chase a close second. My daydreams throughout middle school were so much like Back To The Future….

    Everybody, Greg is co-writing a very cool and very meticulous timeline of ALL the Back To The Future media (the movies, animated TV series, etc) for Hasslein Books, which you’ve got to check out. I think it’s due out in November.

    Rich Handley over at HB was nice enough to share and respond to my BTTF review over at their site this morning.

  5. To clarify, there are TWO BTTF books coming from Hasslein. Rich Handley is authoring the Lexicon and THAT one is due out November-time. I’m writing the Timeline–and still writing–but I anticipate wrapping that up late this year for publication early(ish) next year. And, yes, both books are exhaustive and should satisfy any die-hard BTTF fan. Special plug–the art for the book is done by Pat Carbajal who’s doing the art for Ed’s own Merkabah Rider Book 4! How’s that for cross promotion!!

  6. Suh-weet! And I swear on my soul, totally unplanned, believe it or not.

  7. Mom took the three of us to River Oaks on a dark and rainy night to see the movie. That’s one of the movies I remember very well seeing at the theater when we were kids. It was at the smaller of the three River Oaks theaters when we saw it, the one actually in the mall (back when it was still an outside mall).

    Definitely one of the all-time greats.

    • I saw it at River Oaks too, Chris! Though I seem to remember it being that brown brick one across the street from the big one by the river.

      Actually, I remember Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome came out at the same time and I really wanted to see either that or Back To The Future, but I couldn’t decide so I let my mom pick. I actually wandered away from her as she bought the tickets and didn’t look at the marquee because I wanted to be totally surprised by whatever she picked. Looking back on it, I guess I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised…but it was a cool thrill seeing the titles come up and for an instant not even knowing what movie you were about to see.

      • You were my gateway to Mad Max, among many other loves of my life as well.

      • Yeah I still remember seeing Dune in your basement on cable for the first time. Kull wahad!

  8. It was at my house you saw Dune for the first time? I had no idea. I still love the Lynch version and despised the Sci-Fi channel version. The Lynch, though not completely accurate or true to the source material, was superior in both style and acting in my opinion.

    The Sci-Fi Channel version was too brightly colored and the acting was horrible. It was very accurate to the source material though and for that alone I give it props.

    • Yeah I prefer that one too.

      However, did you see the Sci Fi sequel, Children of Dune? It was excellent, I thought. Much improved on their Dune.

  9. I didn’t. After the technicolor disaster that was the first movie, I didn’t even have the gumption to attempt the second.

  10. Wonderful review.. Many people underrates or forgot the actor’s performances in this movie, but they were absolutely Great!!!
    And yes, the script is seamless but articulate and full of funny little details.

    I think everyone who saw this movie as a kid is bound to Love it for Life…
    I saw if for the first time on tv, when I was nine.. I couldn’t talk or daydream about anything else for weeks.
    Now, as an adult,it remains one of my favourite movies of all time.

    I think a movie have to make you feel inside its scenes, make you want to be inside it, and make you dream … at all ages.

    • For certain, redapple! The best ‘movies’ are the ones that ‘move’ us in some way emotionally, be it sadness, humor, or inspiration, never mind the spectacle or the technical achievement or the plot. The ones I go back to all the time, like Back To The Future, are the ones that get in my chest and bubble up there while I’m watching.


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