Back when I was in fourth grade my school had an all school writing contest. It goes with out saying that when it comes to a 4th graders writing project they are, at best “real-life stories”, or not-so-thinly disguised fan factions or assigned topic stories. My story was something different, and had it not been for the intervention of my parents, it would have been a cut and paste version of Star Wars. Mom had suggested I do something with going back in time to witness events of the past, and dad had mentioned a movie called Back to
Save episodes of a short lived animated series based on the films and a few clips on TV here and there I had never really seen Back to the Future before that time so I set my story aside for a while as my family went for a trip to the mall. Back then I loved visiting one of my favorite stores, the now long defunct video store known as Suncoast. Looking through the racks I found a VHS copy of Back to the Future. We took it home and popped it in the VCR, and the minute that DeLorean time machine rolled out I was hooked. No, I didn’t rewrite the movie, but I was inspired to write my own time travel stories because the concept was just too much fun to pass up.
The Back to the Future Trilogy is perhaps one of the greatest modern time travel stories to grace the silver screen. Director Robert Zemeckis said that he felt that the three best time travel tales were HG Wells The Time Machine, Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. I humbly submit that the duo or Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, together with producer Steven Spielberg managed to craft a story worthy of being listed in the same breath as those three time travel luminaries of Wells, Dickens, and Capra. It almost didn’t happen as a number of studios took a pass at it, but Spielberg believed in the project, even going to bat with Universal Studios over the title, and helping to negotiate with actor Michael J. Fox’s agent and the producers of Fox’s show Family Ties to get Fox to star in the film.
The story is based around a pretty simple concept, what if you could go back in time and actually see what your parents were like as kids. The young man who goes on this journey is Marty McFly. Marty is often late for class, taunted at school, his band is rejected from performing at the school dance, and his family life is miserable. His principal calls Marty a slacker and discourages him from auditioning his band for the school dance and tells him no McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley, something Marty takes as a challenge when he tells him, “History is about to change.”
Then Marty is called up by his friend Dr. Emmett L. “Doc” Brown to meet him at the Twin Pines Mall early the next day.. In the parking lot, Doc reveals his latest and greatest invention: a time machine built out of a 1985 DeLorean DMC. A group of Libyan Nationalists attacks them, and Marty dives into the car, and accidently ends up traveling back in time to 1955. Without meaning to, Marty interferes in his parents meeting as his mother develops feelings for him. Stuck in the past with the help of a younger Doc Brown, Marty works to get his parents together and evade the town bully, Biff. He and Doc also work to repair the machine in hopes of sending Marty “Back to the Future” in a film that is equal parts comedy as it is a sci-fi coming of age story.
One of the things that made the movie is the “perfect storm” in terms of its cast. It has been well documented that actor Eric Stolz was cast in the role of Marty McFly but was replaced with first choice Michael J. Fox so there is little need to go into the details here. Fox’s Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown would become one of the most iconic duos in film history. In an age where we complain about “origin story fatigue” we never got, nor do we need to know how or why Doc Brown and Marty McFly became friends. The performances of Lloyd and Fox and the rapport they have on screen are more than sufficient to make us believe in their friendship.
Joining Fox and Lloyd, is Thomas F. Wilson as the film’s dimwitted antagonist, Biff Tannen. He’s cruel, unrelenting, and picks on everyone from Marty, to George, to even small children. He’s also known for butchering ordinary figures of speech to hilarious extremes, such as “make like a tree, and get out of here.” There is just something about him that reminds you of the kind of bully you probably encountered and as such you can’t help but cheer when he gets his comeuppance either through landing in manure or getting punched out by Marty’s dad.
Playing father was character actor Crispin Glover. Much as Wilson played a quintessential bully, Glover was perfect as the nerdy George McFly. George was awkward, neebish, and yet did not come across as a subhuman freak as nerds often did on other TV shows and movies of the 80s like Saved by the Bell. George was just a little shy, goofy, yet earnest and likable at the same time, and easily flustered around the girl he loved. In many ways for many of the nerdy guys who watched the movie he was an all too relatable character, and thus, when he finally stands up to Biff, they can’t help but cheer.
Lea Thompson rounded off the cast as Marty’s mother Lorraine Baines-McFly. She did a good job not only playing the older version of Marty’s mom but as the young Lorraine who, in classic comedy of errors fashion, is suddenly smitten with the young time traveler that she knows as “Calvin Klein”. She would go on to not only reprise the role of his mother in the sequels but play Marty’s great-great grandmother Maggie McFly in the third film of the trilogy.
However, the true third character in the film after Doc and Marty is the DeLorean time machine. In the original script Zemeckis and Gale wanted the machine to be a refrigerator and have Marty go back to the future via a nuclear explosion at Los Alamos, but Spielberg vetoed that idea. Instead they went with the car and it worked perfectly. The DeLorean was chosen of all vehicles due to its sleek futuristic design, stainless steel silver frame and it’s gull wing doors that made it look like it could fly. This was a huge pay off in the end when the car finally flies on its way to the year 2015 via hover conversion. After the time machine featured in George Pal’s adaptation of HG Wells classic story it is easily one of the coolest and most iconic time machines. In fact while most car guys may tell you that the DeLorean was the least reliable car, the movie was what made it famous.
While most film franchises, like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or The Avengers tell separate but connected stories in their sequels, The Back to the Future movies are more of one long story split into three parts. Zemeckis and Gale do a good job structuring the whole trilogy. While he would be the first to admit that he felt spread too thin on the second and third film in the trilogy, Robert Zemeckis was one of the only directors, up until a certain director from New Zealand decided to adapt the Lord of the Rings into a film, who dared to film multiple films at the same time. Under his skill Marty isn’t the typical teen slacker but a well rounded teenager who grows over the course of three films, even outgrowing his need for personal validation when being called a chicken. Further, he effortlessly blends the teen comedy aspect with the sci-fi of time travel, and the coming of age narrative that flows through the series.
More recent time travel films, like The Butterfly Effect series have tended to take a dark, gritty, realistic and cynical tone, often bordering on all out nihilism. Back to the Future, however, is the exact opposite. It would even be fair to say that Back to the Future is like Marvel’s The Avengers while The Butterfly Effect is like The Dark Knight trilogy or The Man of Steel. Does Back to the Future take time travel seriously? Yes, but it never once stops to have fun along the way.
In fact while Back to the Future, and it’s sequels have a fairly realistic depiction of the 1950s, 80s, and the 1880s, it remains firmly optimistic, like a Frank Capra film. Even in the dystopian alternate universe version of 1985 from Back to the Future II, it never once looses it’s sense of optimism. Marty and Doc are both dreamers, and fueling these dreams is there persistent, never say die attitude to fix the problem. Along the way they remind us that the future isn’t set in stone and destiny can be changed, even made better.
Driving the pulse of the film is not only some excellent period music that helps set the tone for the 1980s and the 1950’s but a great score by Alan Silvestri. Alongside the John Williams scores for Star Wars and Raiders, Silvestri’s Back to the Future theme is one of the most iconic films of the 80s. It is fast paced and unrelenting and makes us feel we are racing down the street at 88 MPH as we cross the barrier of time.
This year, Back to the Future celebrates 30 years. This year was also the exact year Marty traveled to in the film’s sequel. The film was not expected to be a big hit but has gone on to become a classic, to say nothing of the memes that sprouted from the series and the decades long desire for flying cars and hover boards. But on a personal note much as small events in the film had a huge ripple effect on the lives of the heroes, so did this film. I wouldn’t be who am without that trip to the video store to buy the movie.
It was because of that movie I was inspired to write my own time travel story for the school writing contest. My story in turn won first prize for my grade level. This got the notice of my teacher who recommended me for a Young Authors Conference later that spring that happened to be held at Bethel University. Visiting that campus was a huge game changer as attending that school became a goal of mine that guided me throughout Junior High and High School. Then during my time at Bethel I would meet my friends, and my mentor who would help shape my life as I’d fine tune my craft as a writer.
Where this will lead I don’t know. But as Doc tells Marty at the end of Part III,
“The future is whatever you make of it. So make it a good one .”
Wise advice Doc. I plan to do it. And Happy 30th Anniversary Back to the Future!
Photo credit: All Photos 1985 Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment.