Back to the Future - 1985
This review marks my 100th attempt to talk about why I love movies. Ever since I started writing about my passion for film, the same question has been asked on multiple occasions. Well, more than one question, with “When are you going to stop?” being the painfully consistent one, but a close second being “What is your favorite movie?”. I feel like this question is a challenge to prove my knowledge of film or it’s them measuring my taste to see where I fall against theirs. The answer has always been and probably will still be Back to the Future, and this comes to a surprise to many since they don’t think of it as an all-time great, but instead just a fun movie. While I 100% agree that this move is fun, I find this movie to be one of the best films of all time. This review will be on the, well, large size since it’s my 100th and I have watched this movie a minimum 50 times, and I have had this review or a version of it in my head since I was nine-years-old. So, please allow me to indulge a little here and try to prove why this movie deserves to be viewed as an all-time great.
A little backstory before I talk about the actual film:
Back to the Future is the brainchild of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, stemming from the idea Gale had while looking at a picture of his father from high school. Gale wondered if they met at the same age would he be friends with his father. This movie is primarily an exploration of the generation gap between a father and a son, that happens to be wrapped up in a time travel plotline. The duo had a hard time shopping the script to the studios as they didn’t have the credibility needed to bankroll this original blockbuster. It took the banking of Steven Spielberg and Zemeckis’ success with 1984’s Romancing the Stone for Universal Studios to finally give the go ahead.
Getting a green light from a studio wasn’t the only hurdle this movie had to overcome. Once they were up and rolling, Eric Stoltz was cast in the leading role of Marty McFly and was famously re-cast after filming for five months. Michael J. Fox got the part as they needed an actor with better comedic timing and he had demonstrated his abilities during his stint in the TV show, Family Ties. While this re-casting fixed the problem in front of the camera, it added more problems behind it due to the complicated schedule Fox had from his commitment to Family Ties. Fox had to work 18-20 hours a day, shooting during the day for Ties and at night for BTTF. I was watching an interview in where Fox stated that while watching the movie for the first time, he was shocked at the number of scenes he had no recollection of filming.
BTTF went on to be a massive success at the box office, making $210,609,752 domestically and $381 million worldwide. If we adjust it for inflation, the domestic is closer to $522 million, for an original sci-fi movie. This is entirely unheard-of in the Hollywood we currently live in today. This massive success leads to two sequels and a legion of fans that grow as new generations find this classic on their own.
A quick note before I get into the actual film: in an interview Spielberg said that one of the studio heads hated the title of the movie because in his eyes it didn’t make sense. He suggested that the film be named “Spaceman from Pluto.” I don’t have anything to add, think about that name and if you would’ve seen that movie.
With all that out of the way, how about we talk about the actual film, and I won’t hold back with spoilers. This movie has been part of the zeitgeist for 32 years; please watch it if you haven’t at this point.
Gale and Zemeckis wrote one of the smartest scripts ever put to film. No moment within its runtime is not designed to move the plot forward, especially in the opening act. The duo set up all the events that would unfold later in the movie within the first 30 minutes of the film. Marty’s love for music in the talent show played in the end when he saved the “Enchantment Under the Sea Dance” so his parents can fall in love. Marty’s skateboard skills, while utilizing a moving car so he can get to school in time, plays to his big action scene versus Biff and his goons. The flier about the clock tower being struck by lighting is even used as the sole reason he can get back to the future. Even something as simple as the episode of the Honeymooners his father is watching during dinner comes to play when he meets his grandparents. I could honestly go on but let’s move on to the next point.
BBTF not only has a fantastic screenplay, but it’s also a masterpiece of visual storytelling. The best example of this comes in the opening sequence. During the opening sequence, we are introduced to Doc Brown without ever actually meeting the character. We open to a shot of multiple clocks all running at the same time and photos of great scientific minds. The next couple of shots we see numerous inventions (automatic toasters, coffee brewer and dog food dispenser) all of them working but not being attended too. We now know without a single word spoken that this man is an inventor and a scientist that idolizes the old giants of the industry and hasn’t been in his home in a long time. We later see Marty come in and we gain even more from his interactions with the Doc’s equipment, one of them being that he stole a case of plutonium that the news reports say has gone missing.
A great screenplay would be nothing if a director can’t execute it to its fullest potential. The beauty of Zemeckis’ style is his use of blocking (working out the details of an actor's moves with the camera.) in almost every scene. He used every second and filled every frame with information. Whether it’s Doc Brown in the background reacting to Marty being hit on by his mother or the Biff goons reacting to Biff’s insults, nothing was by mistake. One of my favorite use of this technique comes from the first time Marty meets the younger version of his mother. They are both sitting in the bed and Marty is slowly pulling away as he feels his mother’s advancements. Marty falls off the bed, and his mother turns to the camera realizing her mother is calling them down for dinner. As Marty starts to get up, still hazed from his experience and the car that just hit him, we see his mother throw him his pants and give him a big smile through the mirror behind Marty without the camera cutting away from one moment. This scene feels like a dance that has been rehearsed many times to perfection.
I’m going to close out this gigantic review that nobody asked for with a quick talk about the acting. Michael J. Fox as Marty had incredible chemistry with every single character in this movie. He was in charge of reacting to the events unfolding in front of him since he was pretty much having a fish out of water experience in the 50s. Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown gives an over-the-top energetic physical performance to every single word his character has to speak, delivering the famous line of 1.21 gigawatts so perfectly that it now lives in millions of t-shirts and stickers. Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson are lovely in their dual roles as Marty’s parents both young and old. Glover’s nervous and erratic persona around Biff and Marty is both impressive and hilarious. Lea’s old tired line delivered in the opening of the movie is beautifully contrasted by the youthful and hopeful persona of her younger counterpart. The rest of the cast is correctly cast as well with not a single hole in the bunch.
While I can honestly go on for a thousand more words, I don’t think it’s fair for my reader (thanks Mom) for me to continue. Back to The Future is a cinematic masterpiece that benefits from a tight original screenplay, inventive directing, stellar acting and beautiful set designs (yeah, I skipped this aspect for the sake of brevity). This movie can always be enjoyed as a fun movie and nothing more, but if you dig in a little bit, you will be pleasantly surprised at what a masterpiece this movie truly is. Back to the Future is and probably will always be why I love movies.
Back to the Future is currently available for purchase everywhere. If you don’t watch this movie, you are a slacker, and no slacker has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.
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