40 for 40 – #1. Back to the Future
Here it is. #1 in the 40 for 40. My favourite film of all time.
A staple of comedy / adventure movies, it’s an all-round cinematic masterpiece that I cannot praise highly enough.
So make sure your Flux Capacitor is… fluxing… because this is it. There’s no turning back.
Unless you’ve got some spare plutonium…
#1. Back to the Future (1985) Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.
If you’re as old as me, you’ll remember there used to be a thing called Drive-In Theatres. Yes, kids… Drive-Ins. People would literally drive their cars into an empty field, hang a speaker off their partially-wound-down windows and watch a film projected up on a massive movie screen.
In 1985, I saw Back to the Future at a Drive-In and it changed my life forever. Needless to say, since this is the final entry in this 40 for 40 series, this movie is my favourite of all time and has been for decades.
Jaws, The Dark Knight, Goodfellas, Die Hard, Rocky… none of them hold a candle to Back to the Future in my mind, and I doubt any other film will ever come close.
Why? Because to me, this movie is perfect. It’s fun. It’s got humour. It’s got heart. It’s got heroics. Its characters are amazing, the music is awe-inspiring and the overall story is simply brilliant from top-to-bottom. It truly is a family film for all ages, with high-concept sci-fi elements, at times mixing a brilliant adventure story among the all-important laughs.
I love that for a time-travel movie, the entire film revolves around the very concept of time in one way or another. Even the first shot of the movie is one of clocks, with a nicely foreshadowed man desperately hanging from one. (Don’t worry, I’ll get to more of this movie’s outstanding setups and payoffs a little later.)
Adding to the all-round time theme, is the fact that almost every facet of the story runs on a ticking clock schedule. Everything has a deadline or is a frantic race to the finish.
As far as the story goes, it’s wonderful. The idea of a teenager travelling back in time to interact with his parents (now the same age as him) has so much potential, and thanks to director, Robert Zemeckis and writer, Bob Gale, Back to the Future capitalises on that potential to the Nth degree.
Most of the success of the story is because of the incredibly-executed clinic this movie delivers in terms of setup and payoff. Almost the entire first fifteen minutes of the film subtly set up moments that will have thrilling or amusing payoffs later in the story, but it’s so seamlessly done, we don’t even notice we’re being fed exposition until later.
We see a television reporter mentioning a stolen supply of plutonium in the movie’s opening moments, as well as the terrorists thought responsible. As Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) enters, his skateboard rolls into a case of the very same plutonium and instantly, we know it’s going to be important.
Using the ticking clock motif early on, Marty then races to school (after a highly-entertaining accident with the world’s largest guitar amplifier). But this scene isn’t just an introductory one for our hero. It’s also a lesson in exposition. Not only does it reveal Marty’s talents for skateboarding as he hitches a ride behind various vehicles, but we get to see the entire layout of Hill Valley’s town square, a location we’ll need to become very familiar with later.
Marty’s run-in with high school principal Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan) provides another tease, when, after admonishing Marty for being a ‘slacker’, he goes on to describe how, “No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.” To which Marty replies, “Yeah, well, the history’s gonna change…”
How right he is.
Marty’s band audition (complete with a jovial cameo by Huey Lewis), Mayor Goldie Wilson’s re-election campaign and of course the “Save the Clock Tower” lady, all add pivotal-yet-delicate little setups for plot points that will pay-off greatly… uh, in the future. I mean, the past. Whatever.
And then there’s the scene at the McFly home; the movie’s greatest setup moments of all. Marty’s parents are certainly far from perfect. His mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an overweight drunk, and his father, George (Crispin Glover) is nothing short of a loser, forever walked over by perennial bully, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson).
The McFly home also provides us with the pivotal setup for George and Lorraine’s history. Lorraine’s tale of how her father hit George with the car, leading her to take care of and fall in love with him, capped off by their first kiss at the (soon to be infamous) Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, is presented as nothing more than a middle-aged woman reminiscing about her past and somewhat reflecting on where things (may have) gone wrong. However, as we soon learn, this information is crucial to the entire plot of the movie.
Most time-travel stories employ the use of a time-machine, yet Back to the Future’s is solely unique. There’s no elaborate time portal or some overblown tunnel effect, but rather, instantaneous transportation via an outdated DeLorean that works just as well as a joke as it does as a MacGuffin.
Which brings me to the film’s special effects. I believe they still hold up, even after all these years. When the DeLorean disappears that first time (one minute into the future), it’s a genuinely-surprising moment. Especially if, like me, you were six years old when you first saw it.
I also love the ‘science’ behind this movie’s time-travel. Unlike other fantasy films, where time-travellers inexplicably find themselves in Medieval England or on board the Titanic, Back to the Future reminds us that we’re travelling through time. Not space. Everything is the exact same location. Only the year changes.
The DeLorean’s Time Circuits Display is another clever idea that helps get the point across to viewers. But in true setup fashion, they also seed the story as (after explaining his toilet-related discovery of the Flux Capacitor), Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) accidentally leaves the date of November 5, 1955 up on the destination display, which soon triggers Marty’s journey into the past (at 88 miles per hour, no less).
For my two cents, Marty is the perfect movie protagonist. Smart. Charming. Funny. He’s also insanely likeable and oddly relatable. The initial trip to 1955 really showcases Fox’s comedic talents and timing. Him screaming at the scarecrow head and then screaming again before crashing into the Peabody barn still makes me laugh out loud to this day.
As does Fox’s awkward pratfall when Peabody tries to shoot him.
Marty’s accidental tour of Hill Valley’s 1955 town square is straight out of The Twilight Zone, and from a storytelling perspective, it’s done so well that there’s enough mystery to keep us from being too far ahead of Marty. We discover things with him as opposed to waiting for him to catch up, unlike many movies of today.
I especially enjoy the fact that what really drives his situation home is seeing the Clock Tower in perfect working order, again signalling its importance to the narrative.
Every hero needs a mentor, and Marty’s is one of the best.
Christopher Lloyd was always a terrific character actor (see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Who Framed Roger Rabbit or the sitcom, Taxi), yet Doc Brown is his greatest role ever. It’s funny to see upon repeat viewings how Doc is initially portrayed as mysterious and also a little nefarious, especially with the almost-foreboding entrance of the DeLorean. But then, Doc pops out of the car. We see his crackpot appearance and we can’t help but love him right away.
Interestingly enough, Lloyd based Doc on both the obvious Albert Einstein, and the more subtle reference – acclaimed composer of Fantasia fame, Leopold Stokowski.
Heck, 1955 Doc looks almost exactly like him, and that’s even before he starts with the overblown, symphonic gestures.
Personally, I appreciate the clever back-story that the thirty-year-task of building the time-machine has cost Doc almost everything. In 1955, we see he owns a massive mansion, surrounded by acres of land, yet in 1985, that’s all gone. Only his garage remains. A newspaper clipping at the beginning of the movie mentions how the mansion was destroyed by fire. Did Doc pull a crafty insurance scam to fund his life’s work?
Lloyd delivers in every scene. When we first meet his 1955 counterpart, his angered reaction to Marty’s preposterous claims (mostly about Ronald Reagan) lead to one of my favourite moments, when after hearing Marty retell the story of the toilet and the Flux Capacitor, Doc simply unlocks the door and sticks his head out with a look only Lloyd could produce.
It brings me great joy to rewatch the scenes in which Doc uses information from the future Clock Tower lightning strike to help drive his warped genius. The most predominant is his now-famous response to learning he needs to generate “One-point-twenty-one gigawatts!”
Not to mention his comical expressions during the semi-disastrous model test.
At this point, I have to mention the wonderful music of the film. Besides Huey Lewis’s Power of Love (which played at my wedding after being pronounced Man & Wife) and Back in Time, the score by Alan Silvestri is nothing short of amazing. That little twinkle that permeates certain precise moments of the movie remains one of my all-time favourite sounds, and the rousing main theme is another tune I’d go to war to, much like the score from Rocky.
If we now return to this film’s engaging characters, let’s look at Marty’s parents…
Marty meeting the teenage version of his father, George is brilliant. The similarities between the two bleed through from the screen, as Marty slowly realises how similar he actually is to his old man. Then the young Goldie Wilson appears to remind us of cause-and-effect, technically creating a grandfather paradox right before our eyes.
Glover is faultless as George. Awkward and clumsily unsocial. Plus he does a terrific job of showing how he is Marty’s father with subtle nods like the, “I don’t know if I can take that kind of a rejection…” line. Marty’s Darth Vader from Vulcan ruse (powered by Van Halen) still makes me laugh, and George’s false confidence in the diner is a cringe-worthy car-crash you just can’t help but stare at.
When Marty saves George from being hit by that car, we get the funniest meeting yet when we see young Lorraine, now nothing more than a girl with a crush on a boy (who unfortunately happens to be her son).
The best thing about Lea Thompson’s performance is that she plays it absolutely straight. There are no winks to the camera or hammy, played-for-yucks kitschiness. She plays Lorraine with one hundred percent honesty and as such, it makes her performance all the better.
Marty’s parents are shown to be pretty pathetic people in 1985, but in 1955 we soon see how they still have a chance to avoid their fate. Especially Lorraine, whose character (unlike George) is night and day in the two time periods. It’s fun to see how promiscuous and eager to drink she is in 1955 after preaching against that kind of behaviour in 1985.
Unfortunately for him, Marty can’t help (accidentally) impressing Lorraine. First by scuffling with the much larger Biff in the high school cafeteria, and secondly, skateboarding through the town square to escape Biff.
As a villain, Biff is perfect. His accidental catchphrases, “Hey, McFly!” and “What’re you lookin’ at, butthead?” have almost become as synonymous with this movie as the DeLorean, itself. Biff is your classic, stereotypical fifties bully. Large, loud and intimidating. And dumb as a bag of hammers. Wilson makes Biff completely unredeemable, yet we love to hate him all the same.
Around the halfway mark of the film, we realise just how incredibly fast-paced the story is. It moves from setup to setup, to payoff to payoff, then shifts into the meat of the story when Marty realises that by interacting with his future parents, he has endangered his existence. Now the stakes are twofold: Marty needs to reunite his parents and fulfil their destiny, all within a week to make sure he can catch the bolt of lightning back to the future.
All of these aforementioned components ultimately end up providing the movie (in my opinion) with four of the greatest cinematic highlights of all time.
HIGHLIGHT #1: The skateboard chase.
As the exciting score fuels the adventure, Marty becomes a myth-like figure as he skateboards through the town to avoid Biff – something none of the gawking, awe-struck 1955 teenagers have ever seen before. Biff in particular is marvellous in this scene. Look at his face. While his friends are cackling and giggling in the car, he is focused and outright murderous.
The scene climaxes in the best way, as Marty scales the car to perfectly land on the skateboard. But then the movie reminds you it’s a comedy as well, as Biff crashes into a manure truck; a memorable moment in a movie filled with them. It’s the perfect comeuppance for Biff.
HIGHLIGHT #2: George stands up to Biff.
The plan with George to win over Lorraine is a perfect, old-school comedy mix-up idea. So, of course it all goes wrong when Biff becomes the spanner-in-the-works. But that leads to the inspiring moment when George overcomes his fear and lays out Biff with one punch (inadvertently altering the future time-line).
It’s such a heart-warming moment, no matter how many times I’ve seen it. And I’ve seen it a lot. Lorraine of course, falls in love with George there and then, since he now embodies everything she wants in a man (as she detailed to Marty earlier in the movie).
At this point, the movie sneakily moves into setup mode yet again, this time preparing us for the 1985 finale. When Marty tells Doc about George defeating Biff, Doc’s reaction hints that he realises history really is about to change for the McFlys.
HIGHLIGHT #3: The Enchantment Under the Sea Dance.
Everything about Marty finally getting to play guitar and perform in front of people is wonderful. The perfect payoff to the earlier downtrodden scenes involving his failed band audition. Earth Angel is forever etched into my brain thanks to this movie, as is Johnny B. Goode, and in true 80s fashion, I still love to watch Marty go overboard with his not-so-subtle nods to legendary guitarists, Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and obviously, Chuck Berry, before uttering another hilarious comedic line.
And the Marvin Berry phone call gag just adds a cherry on top.
Which bring me to this…
HIGHLIGHT #4: Marty goes home.
Zemeckis is still an underrated director in my opinion, since in recent times, he has focused on developing and pioneering animated films. But the Clock Tower sequence in Back to the Future is some of the best directing of his career. He expertly builds the tension (while the laughs continue), as obstacle after obstacle fall before Doc, not to mention the DeLorean’s penchant for not starting at the most inopportune times.
Nothing beats watching this final race against… uh, time, as Doc has to hastily fix the downed cabling before the lightning strikes. Thankfully, Doc’s daring-do slide leaves us with one last moment of heroics, and he successfully repairs the damage to send Marty home in a cinematic spectacle for the ages.
But we’re not done yet. Since Doc tore up the letter Marty wrote him to warn of his future demise, when Marty travels back to 1985 ten minutes early to save his friend, it brings out my love of sci-fi. Mostly, the concept of Marty seeing his other self travelling back into the adventure from which he has just returned. It’s a brilliant piece of writing from Zemeckis and Gale.
And just when we think Marty has failed, and Doc has been killed again, the eccentric inventor sits up, blinks, and reveals he knew all along (with what is perhaps Lloyd’s best line in the entire franchise).
Note for those who always ask, “How did Doc collect all the pieces of the letter?”: He doesn’t throw the pieces to the ground. He puts them in his pocket. Watch it again.
The epilogue of the movie gives us that perfect 1980s ending. Thanks to his interference in the time-line, Marty returns to a present where George is a successful author, Lorraine isn’t a drunk, his siblings are no longer losers, and Biff has become a mild-mannered buffoon. Although why George and Lorraine have anything to do with Biff after what he attempted in 1955 is still a mystery. But hey, for the comedic value alone, seeing 1985 Biff as a pathetic wimp is entirely satisfying.
Then there’s that theory that George is aware of Marty’s time-travel all along. But that’s a tale for another time. Just watch George closely in those final scenes and get back to me.
Finally, as Marty is reunited with Jennifer (Claudia Wells), Doc arrives to end the film with one of the best cliff-hangers ever. As the DeLorean lifts into the air with its new flying mode, it’s one final uplifting joke in a movie with more than I can count.
If we’d never got the sequels (and I love them, too), I’d still be entirely happy with that ending, as for years afterwards, it forced us to merely imagine the further adventures of Doc and Marty. And what’s wrong with a little imagination, kids?
Well, that’s it for the 40 for 40. I hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing it to you. Now all that remains is to relax, sit back and reminisce, perhaps even rewatch even more memorable films of the past, but most importantly, just like Doc Brown, keep one eye of the future.
Because now I’m 40.
Help me, Doc.
Rating: 88 out of 88 miles per hour.
Favourite Moment: The skateboard chase.
Honourable Mention: “Damn damn!”
And if you’re like me and can’t get enough of this movie, give our podcast Episode 6 a listen!
Come on, let’s do something that really cooks. Make sure you grab an Unfunny Nerd Tangent shirt! Mon Milfma goes perfectly with purple Calvin Klein underwear, won’t hit you with the car or threaten your existence in the space / time continuum!
Support us on Patreon! — SUBSCRIBE in iTunes! — SUBSCRIBE via Google Play! — Favorite us in Stitcher! — Listen via TuneIn Radio! — Follow us on Soundcloud! — SUBSCRIBE to our YouTube Channel!