Despite the fact these days that it’s a truth universally acknowledged that Back to the Future is one of the all-time classic movies of the science fiction genre – of which I was a huge fan, especially in the 1980s – there’s nothing particularly unusual or especially noteworthy in the revelation that it was a film I completely missed out on seeing at the time in the cinema. The same thing happened with Raiders of the Lost Ark after all, and in both cases I ended up seeing their sequels on the big screen years before finally catching up with the originals. In fact it took me almost 20 years before I finally got around to watching the first Indiana Jones film properly; and the truly horrifying admission is that it’s taken be almost twice as long to finally get around to cueing up Back to the Future for viewing.
I’d always intended to watch the film one day. It’s just that ‘one day’ didn’t come around until this week, nearly 35 years after the film’s original theatrical release. And it’s not like I have a good excuse for my tardiness: the film has been endlessly rerun on television and easily available on home media for decades. As a result of cinematic osmosis over the years I’ve become familiar with all its key ingredients: from Marty McFly to Doc Brown, the time travelling DeLorean and the flaming tyre tracks, the small-town square with the eternally stopped courthouse clock, and the accidental invention of rock ‘n’ roll at the school dance. In fact in many ways I ended up knowing the film too well despite never having seen it. Instead I developed a version of it in my own mind that was exclusive to me: it was just something that we used to do things back then, in the days before ubiquitous home media availability made that sort of memory reconstruction and retention surplus to requirements.
Perhaps that partly explains why ‘one day’ was pushed further and further back, for fear that watching the real thing wouldn’t measure up to the idealised version that lived in my head. But still, I’m the first to admit that leaving it 35 years was really getting a bit ridiculous. It’s a longer gap in time than Marty McFly travels into the past in the film itself! So this week I retrieved the Blu-ray that’s been sitting on my shelf for the last ten years (and which in turn had replaced an earlier, similarly unwatched DVD boxset), inserted it into the player and finally pressed ‘play’ with crossed fingers that after all this time and anticipation it wouldn’t turn out to be a crushing disappointment.
Well, spoiler* alert: it really didn’t. It was just as much fun and as thoroughly entertaining as I’d always hoped and to be honest really expected it to be. In fact the biggest surprise is that the age of the film made no difference at all to how fresh and vital it all feels, even watching from the vantage point of 2020 (further into the future than the sequel went!) and the personal perspective of middle-age rather than as an impressionable teenager. Helpfully, the restored high definition Blu-ray version I watched this week made the film feel like it was only made a few weeks ago, perhaps just before the start of the coronavirus lockdown took effect.
That’s not to say that it’s exactly the same film that I had pre-visualised from all the clips and articles I’d seen and read about it in the intervening decades. For one thing, I’d always assumed that the film opened with Alan Silvestri’s now-iconic fanfare theme that’s almost as popular and immediately identifiable as John William’s score for Raiders. Instead the titles play out against a background cacophony of ticking clocks, and the whirring of Doc Brown’s unattended automatons carrying out their allotted daily tasks even in the absence of their creator. In the background, a television news bulletin is reporting on the theft of radiative material from a nearby laboratory, as the camera casually pans down to show the shielded case of the purloined plutonium kicked under a table. And then Marty McFly walks in.
One of the most surprising things about Back to the Future is how much its success hinges upon Michael J Fox. It’s a role that’s almost entirely reactive and therefore everything depends on a performance which is natural and believable, likeable and sympathetic, charismatic yet down-to-earth and not too self-knowingly starry, and which can constantly deliver laughs while balancing the need for credible threat and high stakes drama. Quite often, the film demands all of the above in the same scene and at times even in a single shot. That’s a huge ask of any actor and I can’t think of anyone, then or in the three decades since, who could have pulled this off – arguably not until the emergence of Spider-Man’s Tom Holland.
Famously the film did start production with a different actor in the lead role, but surviving footage shows that Eric Stolz’s take on the character simply wasn’t working which is why shooting was halted. Director Robert Zemeckis made a final attempt to secure the services of first choice Fox despite the actor being already committed to his starring role in TV sitcom Family Ties, and a deal was struck whereby Fox would film one by day and the other by night and at weekends, catching half an hour of sleep here and there when possible. Perhaps this less than ideal situation even contributed to his humorously dazed and disorientated performance as the ‘fish out of water’ Marty once he’s transported back to 1955; I’m just surprised he wasn’t actually falling asleep mid-line and bumping into the scenery by the end.
The original inspiration for the film’s story came to a young Bob Gale (who co-wrote the screenplay with Zemeckis) when he happened across his parents’ own college year book, and mused whether he would have got on with them if they had been at school together. Here, that spark leads to a first act setting how such an impossible encounter could be accomplished with the unveiling of Doc Brown’s temporally augmented DeLorean in the parking lot of Hill Valley’s Twin Pines Mall. Naturally there follows the entirely predictable arrival of a bunch of comedy Libyan terrorists in a camper van shooting off machine guns and guided missiles, which results in Marty being accidentally hurled back in time by 30 years, alone and bewildered, with no way back home.
He decides to track down a younger version of Doc Brown to help him get the stalled time machine back up and running. While the necessary repairs are made, he encounters his father George as a high school student, just as dorky and weak-minded as he is in 1985. When Marty instinctively saves George from being run down by a car in the middle of the street he inadvertently changes history, as it means his father never meets his future wife, they never go to the school dance and kiss and fall in love, never get married and have children – thereby jeopardising Marty’s very existence. His efforts to put this right transform the middle section of the film into a sweet period coming-of-age teenage comedy romance, before a final act which has the same joyful exuberance of all the very best action-adventure films of the 80s as he and Doc Brown battle both time and elemental setbacks to be ready for their one and only chance to send Marty back to the future.
Even when they succeed, there is a subtle portent when Marty arrives back in 1985 at the parking lot he departed from: the sign now calls it the Lone Pine Mall, as a result of the DeLorean having ploughed into one of the titular trees on arrival in 1955. It’s an early indicator that Marty’s trip has materially affected history, and the extended epilogue details the effect of those changes closest to home – although fortunately they’re of the life-affirming wish-fulfilment variety that would surely have met with whole-hearted approval from Frank Capra. Those sorts of twisty timey-wimey convolutions would have gone down well with Steven Moffat if he had been watching this film as an aspiring young writer, and maybe given him a few ideas for stories he might very well try out if he were to ever find himself in charge of, let’s say, a major science fiction franchise at some point in the distant future.
While Marty is the star of the film and in virtually every scene, most of the overt humour is delivered by Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown and Crispin Glover as George McFly. Both give very exaggerated performances: Lloyd in particular seems determined to never knowingly underact, and his cartoonish take on a madcap, wild-haired Albert Einstein has been copied, cloned and caricatured so often over the years that it’s impossible to appraise objectively anymore, it’s such a thing of its own power and magic. That said, Lloyd also gives the over-the-top portrayal moments of serious intensity, and towards the end he does a little shriek of horror when his plans fall apart that encompasses the perfect blend of laugh out loud humour and deadly serious bark of utter despair.
Glover is almost as much of a lampoon as the weak, cowardly kid in the class who is perennially bullied by the jocks led by Biff (Thomas F Wilson). George is an intentionally irritating and infuriating character, and judging from the way that I just wanted to shake some sense into him every time he was on screen you’d have to declare the performance a complete success. Glover does at least get to essay an ‘alt history’ version of George that is a world away from the one we see in the rest of the film, which helps show just how much the earlier performance had been a carefully crafted and immaculately delivered construct.
Similarly, Lea Thompson gets to play with multiple personas as Marty’s mother Lorraine. Initially we meet her as a prim and proper middle-aged housewife, overweight and depressed at the way her life has turned out since marrying George. The obviously fake prosthetics she has to wear in these scenes are – ironically – pretty much the only bits of the film that have aged badly. When we meet her again in 1955 she’s lively and vivacious, and proves to be anything but prim as she sets her sights full bore on seducing stranger-in-town Marty, whom she has no idea is her son from the future. It’s this hint of incest that resulted in the script getting a hard pass from Disney when Zemeckis and Gale were shopping around for a production deal from a major studio, before finally hooking up with Steven Spielberg who eventually came on board as executive producer.
You can really see all the hard work that went into constructing the film’s very clever plot, and how much effort it then took from all involved to conversely make the final result as light and fun as air. It would be easy to dismiss Back to the Future as a bit of insubstantial lightweight confectionary, like spinning candyfloss out of thin air, but you’d be very much mistaken in that assessment. Something that ephemeral would never have survived the test of time over all these years, and to be accepted as one of the most loved and lucrative motion pictures of the 20th century.
And I feel I can wax lyrical about the film precisely because it’s taken me this long to get around to seeing it. I’m not beset by wearing rose-tinted glasses of golden nostalgia and can look at it completely afresh. Conversely, the fact that we’re even further forward in time from 1985 than the film was from 1955 when it was made adds a whole new level of meta-context when watching. The ‘present day’ scenes in the film have greater genuine warmth and appeal than the scenes set in a 50s small town America that I never knew outside of Hollywood productions, but a world of skateboards (no, I was never any good on them) and bleeping digital watches is a place I associated with immediately. It succeeded in putting me in my warm and happy place, despite never having watched the film before.
As a result, I didn’t regret not getting around to watching Back to the Future until now for a single minute; rather, I felt rather blessed to be able to watch this perfect little gem of a film for the very first time right now in these difficult days, as something of a glorious lockdown treat. In fact I’m almost sorry for all those people who’d rushed to the theatres back in 1985, and who will never have a second chance to see it fresh today, because to do so in 2020 it really is something rather special and well worth any wait.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
* If you seriously think I’m about to do a spoiler warning for a 35 year old film then you’re clearly out of your mind. After all, if even I have finally got around to watching the film – surely the last human being left on the planet to do so – then you only have yourself to blame if you’re even more inept at this sort of thing than I am!
Back to the Future is available pretty much everywhere in every conceivable home media format, and has been for a very, very long time. The Blu-ray viewed here was the Ultimate Collection released for the 25th anniversary of the initial release, which includes all three original films and a wide selection of extras including a new six-part documentary entitled “Tales From The Future”, plus feature commentaries and additional archive material.