17-YEAR-OLD MARTY MCFLY GOT HOME EARLY LAST NIGHT. 30 YEARS EARLY.
Robert Zemeckis’s highly entertaining movie Romancing the Stone (1984) obviously borrowed a lot from Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), although its hero wasn’t quite as noble as Harrison Ford. So I guess it was no big surprise to see Spielberg agreeing to executive-produce Zemeckis’s next movie, a time-travel fantasy called Back to the Future. It featured the kind of ingredients that Spielberg liked to include in his movies and Zemeckis made him proud.
The movie was a smash hit at the box-office, the critics loved it and the lead actor, Michael J. Fox, went from likeable TV star to bankable movie star.
Working on a way to travel through time
Marty McFly (Fox) is a typical teenager who lives in Hill Valley, a most typical American small town. But he has an unusual friend, Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a wealthy, old scientist who’s been working on a way to travel through time. One day he figures it out. He invents something called the flux capacitor, steals plutonium from Libyan terrorists and converts a DeLorean into a time machine that actually works. Unfortunately, the terrorists are on to him and on the night when Doc first shows Marty how the machine works, the Libyans turn up. They shoot Doc and Marty throws himself into the DeLorean and ends up in 1955. Things get worse (and strange indeed) when he runs into his parents who are the same age as Marty. They go to high school together but have barely spoken a word to each other. Marty’s very existence (and that of his brother and sister) is jeopardized when his mom (Lea Thompson) falls in love with the new kid at school. He looks up the young Doc Brown and convinces him that he really is from the future (telling Doc a movie star is president doesn’t exactly boost Marty’s case).
As Doc starts figuring out a way to make the DeLorean work without plutonium, Marty must focus on getting his mother and father together before he seizes to exist altogether.
Following its own logic
It’s a fanciful story that borrows its time-travel concept from H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine”, which states that it’s possible to travel through time but not space. You can go from 1985 to 1955 in one place, but if you’re in California you can’t travel to 19th century London. Well, that makes sense, and the movie certainly follows its own logic. The awkward “love story” between Marty and his mom is slightly risqué, but gets a logical conclusion; it’s also endearing to see George McFly (Crispin Glover), a clumsy, bullied dreamer, try to woo his future wife. Glover delivers a perfect performance, but Fox basically carries the film; he brings such energy to this kid. Lloyd is also right as Doc Brown. His appearance goes along the lines of what we expect from a mad inventor, with the wild eyes and uncontrollable hair, but would you expect this crazy, fast-talking eccentric to be stylish enough to choose a DeLorean for time-travel purposes?
Fox and Lloyd are great fun together, an odd couple, and the near-tragedy that occurs prior to Marty’s trip to 1955 gives their subsequent relationship an unusual, emotional aspect. It’s a sweet-natured, hugely entertaining film that gets a shot in the arm from Alan Silvestri’s larger-than-life score and Huey Lewis’s Oscar-nominated hit song.
The ending looks like a typical set-up for the two sequels, but that was not the idea. Still, the sequence is quite stirring. You can’t wait to hop into the time machine, head into the future and see if Rick Moranis is president.
Back to the Future 1985-U.S. 116 min. Color. Produced by Bob Gale, Neil Canton. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale. Music: Alan Silvestri. Song: “The Power of Love“ (performed by Huey Lewis and the News). Cast: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Emmett Brown), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Lea Thompson, Wendie Jo Sperber, Marc McClure… Billy Zane.
Trivia: Eric Stoltz was first cast as Marty. Followed by two sequels, starting with Back to the Future Part II (1989), and an animated TV series (1991-1993). Later a stage musical.
Oscar: Best Sound Effects Editing.
Quote: “There’s that word again; ‘heavy’. Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth’s gravitational pull?” (Lloyd, not quite getting the ’80s slang)
Last word: “Bob [Gale] and I knew our screenplay was really, really good, even though everybody rejected it, numerous times. It was just so tight, the kind of thing that I love. Everything is set up, everything is paid off. There’s only one scene you could argue isn’t propelling either plot or character, which is when the movie stops for Michael to play ‘Johnny B. Goode.’ But every line of dialogue, every beat, every cut, every shot is doing what movies are supposed to do, which is propelling the plot or establishing character. There’s not a single extraneous frame.” (Zemeckis, DGA)