Out of all the movies discussed this month, few will have rooted themselves in the year of release as hard as Back To The Future. I mean, it’s a time travel movie, I presumably don’t have to draw you a road map here – Marty starts off in 1985, then travels back to 1955; any reasonably smart director is going to do some work to make the differences between time periods clear, and Robert Zemeckis, like so many of his contemporaries in 80s blockbusterdom, was a skilled professional who knew exactly what he was doing.
Back To The Future shares a solid dramatic construction that so many 80s blockbusters held themselves to; what makes the movie distinct is that it has no overall emotional arc. Of course, there’s the subplot of making George McFly grow a spine, but Marty himself learns nothing and doesn’t change a bit. He doesn’t struggle with old age like Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan; he doesn’t overcome trauma like Ripley in Aliens; he doesn’t grow into his potential like Luke in the Star Wars trilogy. He simply gets himself out of one bad situation and into another – his closest contemporary is Indiana Jones.
This is what makes him a fun blockbuster protagonist – it’s easy to empathise with him as a reasonably intelligent guy just trying to keep his head above water, and it’s fun to feel his sense of triumph and fear as he does so. Michael J Fox is perfectly solid as Marty, getting across a nervy confidence who is believably on edge but capable of kicking ass when he needs to, and the surrounding cast have all the room to breathe life into their characters, from Christopher Lloyd’s relentless mugging having a real character to base itself around, to Lea Thompson’s teenage girl trying desperately to find someone hot to fuck. Crispin Glover, as you’d expect, is the weirdest, delivering a nerd eccentric even by weird nerd standards, an attractive guy under the sweat, and the core of strength that saves the day when things get tough.
That solid dramatic construction is also what leads to a very 80s sense of mystery that’s fallen out of fashion. Exactly how did Marty and the Doc start hanging out? A remake today would spend at least five minutes, and perhaps the whole first act, explaining that Marty happened to see the Doc working out an experiment, got pulled into it, and then began working with him more and more. Zemeckis wisely skips over all of that – all we see is Marty entering the Doc’s house in the opening and start using equipment like he belongs there, and later having Marty film the experiment as if that’s what he’s supposed to be doing.
I chose this movie because I have a specific relationship to it, one that rose to prominence at the right time and right place for me and seems to be falling out of favour. I was born in 1990 and raised in a small town of maybe five hundred people, three hours away from any cinema; if I went out to the movies, it was a special event where I watched something that had to appeal to my whole family (or worse, my whole class). My day-to-day relationship with film wasn’t the vast shared experience of cinema, it was the small, intimate experience of video.
Like many, I’d grown up watching a variety of Disney, Spielberg, and other family and blockbuster films; like some, I’d seen one movie that dug into my brain and made me want to talk and think about movies in depth (in my case, The Matrix). In 2001, my parents bought a PS2, and began building a collection of these newfangled DVDs, and the very first DVD they bought was a box set of the Back To The Future trilogy.
Having these particular movies presented to me in this particular way at this particular time was a case of uncanny luck. A surface glitz of spectacle and science fiction, an emotional journey simple enough for a child to follow, and hours upon hours of Making Of footage. The BttF films were great for me because they had cool special effects (from the Delorean’s time travelling to actors playing multiple characters in the same scene), but also because Bob Zemeckis filled the movie with tiny jokes that you could only see upon careful rewatch, or as I did through the obsessively detailed subtitle track that showed every reference, joke, and fact about the movie.
(My favourite joke will always be this: when Marty first goes to the mall to see what the Doc is calling about, it’s called Twin Pines Mall; when he gets there, Doc comments that the whole area used to be a pine tree farm. Marty travels back in time, and indeed it’s all pine trees, and when he escapes a farmer with a shotgun, he accidentally runs over one of a pair of pine trees. When he returns to the mall in 1985 at the end, it’s called Lone Pine Mall.)
From Independence Day, I had learned that films were things people made. From The Matrix, I learned that movies could mean something to you emotionally. From Back To The Future and its spectacular DVD release, I learned the detail-oriented process of filmmaking, from acting (Zemeckis discusses Lloyd’s choice to speak with his hands in imitation of the conductor from Fantasia, describing him as “conducting the world”) to props (Zemeckis chose a Delorean because it was the kind of thing the unstylish Doc would choose) to script (the original time machine being a fridge, rejected out of fear that children would lock themselves inside fridges imitating the movie). Importantly, I learned that movies were made up of choices on the part of the director, and that these choices could be significant and could have a secret, interesting meaning.
The way I first watched Back To The Future ended up setting the tone for my relationship with films for a very long time, where I’d obsess over the one film for about two or three days as I’d watch it, watch the special features, watch it again, watch it with director’s commentary, and probably watch it a few more times until I got sick of the whole thing and it was permanently seared into my brain, and this is something the rise of DVDs enabled.
I don’t have children, but I have friends and family who do, and I notice those children tend to watch movies on Netflix and other streaming service on their iPads; the upshots of this being that they have an even more intimate movie-watching experience than I did, and they lose out on all those bonus features; on the other hand, they have access to both a library of films and a very different set of online communities than I did at their age, and they can download instantly what took me hours or even days. Back To The Future is on Netflix, and I cannot imagine what it will mean to today’s budding film nerds.