RogerBW's Blog

Back to the Future 28 February 2022

1985 science fiction/comedy, dir. Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd: IMDb / allmovie. You built a time machine? In a DeLorean?

I don't think any reviewer can (or, really, should) be objective, but this is a very hard film for me to review. When it came out I was coming up on 16 years old, squarely in the target audience; I loved it uncritically; and to the best of my recollection it's the first film I watched multiple times in the cinema. But I don't think it's just my feeling of nostalgia for it that leaves me feeling kindly towards it now; probably fortunately, I've never been the sort of enthusiast for something who believes that it's without flaw and builds their own self-worth on top of that belief.

This is another film that could easily have happened differently. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had been working on the basic story for a while, wanting to get away from the conventional filmic time-travel approach that the past is basically immutable; they wanted a past that did get changed, and a future that changed along with it. (One element that I'd have loved to see retained from the original idea: that the power needed for the return trip would be gathered by putting the machine in an A-bomb test.)

But Zemeckis wasn't much of a name to conjure with in the early 1980s. He was Spielberg's buddy, but the films he'd made had been unimpressive at the box office; when he tried to shop this idea around, the studios rejected it, because what they wanted for a comedy slot was the next Porky's or Fast Times at Ridgemont High: if it's not going to be raunchy, they said, go to Disney. (Who rejected it because it was "an incest picture".) What's more, The Final Countdown and Time Bandits didn't make much money, so the standard accounting approach said that time travel isn't a thing people want to see and therefore we won't fund time travel films.

Spielberg was interested, but Zemeckis didn't want to be That Guy Who Only Gets Work Because He Knows Spielberg; fortunately, he directed Romancing the Stone, which made enough money to get him taken seriously. Then he had lots of new friends, but then he felt he could go to Spielberg, who was no longer making the only offer in town.

And then the production team spent half the shooting schedule with the wrong leading man, Eric Stoltz, whose style was too serious for what they wanted. (Apparently much of the two-camera footage, cutting back and forth between Marty and someone else, is from the other actors playing against Stoltz rather than Fox.) Marty isn't much of a character, since like some romance heroines he's mostly there to be a viewpoint for the watcher of the film – but his reactions and attitudes are still important cues.

But what was released mostly works. Lots of things do double-duty: there's a load of information to take on board in the first act, but everything doubles as something else. The clock introduction is fun to watch, but it also gives you the "Brown Mansion Destroyed" clipping and the plutonium theft, and the fact that the owner has clearly been absent for a few days. The "Save the Clocktower" woman interrupts Marty's snog with his girlfriend and gives the information about the lightning strike. By the standards of film writing, this is clever stuff.

Fox was the star, of course, but on this re-watch I realised what a great job Christopher Lloyd does: he deploys a very mobile face to the point that it spoiled me for other people doing it less well, but also the rapid cycling between mania and depression that's clearly part of who Doc is rather than a lovable quirk pasted on later.

On the other hand I'm not a big fan of cruel and embarrassing film, and there's a lot of that, particularly when we first meet Marty's family: wimp dad, alcoholic mom, loser children, rubbed in until it leaves scratches. These days I also notice the triumphal ending: yes, the family is happier and has more stuff, but they keep Biff around to degrade. There's still dominance behaviour, it's just flowing the other way. (This part in particular is why Crispin Glover, doing that turned-in lip thing he'd make a trademark, didn't return for the sequels, quite apart from any questions of payment.) For that matter the triumphal moment for George is expressed as a matter of basic physicality, with George not out-thinking Biff but simply punching him. Ah well; in my memories of the film there's a lot more of the Marty and Doc double act, and a lot less of George being hopeless.

Meanwhile a white dude invented rock and roll. And I believe it would actually have been illegal to have a black band playing at a white high school dance in California in the 1950s. There's racism here ("a black man as mayor, that'll be the day") but it's lovable comedy racism. And the women are barely there, mostly simplistic prizes and comic relief obstacles rather than distinct characters.

But in spite of all that I enjoy this film a great deal: the plot holds together (granting that time travel is basically fantasy anyway), the characterisation always works and feels natural, and even the score lingers. (I don't suppose anyone says "I must have Alan Silvestri for this film, nobody else will do" – the man's a jobbing composer – but his music sticks in my mind much more than the contemporary pop did.)

The film has its problems, certainly, and I'm glad to be a person who can see them. But I think there's more than nostalgia working for me in its favour.

More of my witterings can be had at Ribbon of Memes.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:58pm on 28 February 2022

    By strange coincidence Classic FM was playing Alan Silvestri film music at the weekend and saying how under rated he is.

  2. Posted by David Malcolm at 02:38am on 01 March 2022

    Looks like the year in the Ribbon of Memes URL is wrong, and that the URL should be:

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 09:05am on 01 March 2022

    Fixed - in fact I'd forgotten that the blogging engine doesn't allow dashes in generated filenames.

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