Review: Back to the Future
Typical teen Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) pays a visit to his crazy inventor friend and mentor ‘Doc’ Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who claims to have invented a time travel device from a DeLorean car. While they’re testing the device out, tragedy strikes and Marty is forced to get inside the time machine to escape grave danger. In doing so he ends up going back through time and landing in 1955. With not enough plutonium fuel to get back to 1985, Marty needs to seek out the 1955 ‘Doc’ to come up with another plan to get back home safely. In the meantime he needs to ward off the amorous advances of his own then-teenage mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), and try to get her to fall in love with his father George McFly (Crispin Glover) or else he and his siblings will be erased! Thomas F. Wilson plays George’s tormenting bully Biff Tannen, James Tolkan plays the hard-arse high school principal, and Billy Zane plays one of Biff’s sycophants.
People seem to love this movie. Love it. Certainly they seem to enjoy it more than I do. However, it’s impossible to dislike this 1985 Robert Zemeckis (“Romancing the Stone”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Forrest Gump”) time-travel comedy. I think part of the reason why I don’t love it the way others do is because the first sequel was so bad it may have tarnished the original a bit for me. Still, it’s Zemeckis, Spielberg, Huey Lewis, and Michael J. Fox. That’s a pretty irresistible combination, and it’s a fun adventure.
Fox is ideal and perfectly amiable, just as he was the same year in the underrated “Teen Wolf” (another film with an awful sequel). Huey Lewis and The News give us the massive hit ‘The Power of Love’, a good song even if I personally prefer their ‘Happy to Be Stuck With You’…or anything by Billy Joel, for that matter. Still, it’s a good song and many will tie it to this film. I’m pretty sure that’s Lewis himself in a cameo as a guy who complains about Marty’s band doing what sounds like ‘The Power of Love’ overlaid on their average garage band metal jamming sounds.
Aside from Fox and the sounds of Mr. Lewis and his News, the other iconic things about this are Christopher Lloyd, the music score by Alan Silvestri (“Flight of the Navigator”, “Young Guns II”, “Forrest Gump”), and the DeLorean time machine. Lloyd has never been better before or since this film in his most identifiable role. When people think of mad scientists in movies, it’s Dr. Frankenstein (or Dr. Fronckenshteen if you prefer) and Doc Emmett Brown. In what is surely one of the loudest movies ever made (not a complaint), Silvestri’s score is an iconic standout, and surely one of his best-ever scores. It helps give the film a real energy and excitement. Meanwhile, in addition to being one of cinema’s coolest vehicles, the DeLorean is also a great joke for those in the know: While cool-looking, DeLoreans are infamous for…uh, not being very good cars. It makes perfect sense though, for an egghead to build a time machine out of a dud car, when you think about it.
A wild ride, for me the best thing about this film is its pace and energy. It gets off the ground and running early, barely stopping. Any slower and the audience might end up laughing at the wrong things. Smaller pleasures come from the turns by James Tolkan, Thomas F. Wilson (who was unbearable in the next film), and Crispin Glover. Playing Marty’s nerdy, wimpy father George, the idiosyncratic actor is perfect, but (depending on who you believe) being a gigantic pain in the arse and criticising the ending of the film, he ended up ruining any chance of being in the sequels. I think Wilson’s best work is in “Part III”, but he plays Biff well here nonetheless, without going too far over-the-top that he stomps all over everyone and everything like in “Part II”. Lea Thompson is OK as the young Lorraine, but the makeup on the older Lorraine was and still isn’t convincing, nor is Thompson’s performance.
To be honest, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of fish-out-of-water comedy, and there’s a couple of groaners in this one. Why in 1955 would someone mistake a DeLorean for an aeroplane or UFO? It’s from the future but it clearly has wheels. It’s obviously a car of some kind. So that was dumb. Meanwhile, for someone who already knows what the DeLorean is and does, why does Marty not immediately realise where and when he is when he travels back in time? That didn’t work for me at all. I also don’t think the whole idea of Marty’s teenage mother in the 1955 timeline inadvertently falling for her own son (i.e. 1985 high-schooler Marty) is anywhere near as funny on repeat viewings I must say. Lorraine calling Marty ‘Calvin Klein’ still gets a laugh from me, though. BTW, just why is Marty wearing lilac coloured underwear anyway? Just sayin’, Marty. I also liked the bit involving a young Jason Hervey (everyone’s favourite/least favourite older brother on “The Wonder Years”) where Marty realises he’s seen a TV episode before and they haven’t done re-runs yet. The other fish-out-of-water gag I actually did like was 1955 Doc (looking no younger, mind you) asking Marty in 1985 who the president is. It was likely even fresher at the time, but the gag still holds up. I also think Marty lip-syncing to ‘Johnny B. Goode’ is more memorable than ‘The Power of Love’.
The film doesn’t always convince in time travel logic terms, but that doesn’t prevent the film from being a fun watch, even if it’s more ‘fun’ than ‘funny’ for the most part. Besides, time-travel is nonsense anyway and Doc at least mentions the butterfly effect, albeit after Marty has already stomped the crap out of dozens of butterflies by that point. So it’s not entirely useless on that front either. In fact, all of its flaws are pretty much just nit-picks anyway, like what was the deal with the terrorists? Did we forget about that, Mr. Zemeckis? And what kind of Libyan terrorists drive a VW van anyway?
Make no mistake. I really like this movie. Scripted by an Oscar-nominated Zemeckis and Bob Gale (co-writer of the sequels and Walter Hill’s underrated urban crime-thriller “Trespass”), it’s a really good movie and lots of breathless fun. It’s a minor classic it best though, but what’s wrong with that? I may not love it like you guys do, but it’s impossible to hate this film surely. High energy, genial lead actors, a great music score, and some enjoyable nostalgia plus a few laughs really sell this one. Fox and particularly Lloyd are ideal and immensely likeable, this is one of the better comedic time-travel films out there. Such a shame they went back to the well a couple of times too many after this one.