Back to the Future
It’s ironic that a movie so precisely scripted (well, give or take the odd wrinkle, mostly in the final moments) should be so esteemed by the likes of Russell T Davies and the ex-Tarantino. After all, the former’s concept of structure is whatever he scribbles on the back of a napkin the night before delivering his first and final draft, while the latter led with scenic indulgence and minimum stricture of form. Indeed, it’s nigh on inconceivable that, were it made today, Back to the Future would come in under two hours. It would take full advantage of the bloaty opportunities suggested by a stay in 1955 (Marty spends a brisk 45 minutes-ish there prior to the clocktower climax). There’s often a picture in a filmmaker’s arsenal that stands qualitatively apart from all other contenders, and in Robert Zemeckis’ case, given how he has plummeted so dramatically in form over the last two decades, that’s Back to the Future by a country mile.
Although, it goes without saying, the first sequel is also nothing to be sneezed at. The main thing to be stressed here as a preliminary is that Russell T and Quentin aren’t wrong. Back to the Future is a classic and highly significant as an example of the perhaps-undeserved Midas Touch status of Steven Spielberg as executive producer; there’s this and Gremlins – both share Frances Lee McCain as a mother – and if you want to stretch it, The Goonies, but most of his ’80s claims were much more modest. And by the time of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a Zemeckis picture didn’t need to be sold on the Berg.
The casting is spot-on, following the slight hiccup of Eric Stolz failing to be Michael J Fox (who is, it should be stressed, an effortlessly gifted comedic actor, making it look all so easy). Christopher Lloyd is hamming it up and mugging to the max, but his blend of Herman Munster, Einstein and Cosmo Kramer lands smoothly and seamlessly. Crispin Glover is just extraordinary as George McFly, peeping tom and aspiring SF writer, along with his adult self, both the dishevelled doormat and the relaxed silver fox. Glover was later famously to cast aspersions on Spielberg’s hallowed status, so evidently not part of the in-crowd, particularly after Back to the Future Part II, although he did work with Zemeckis again.
The real laurels go to Lea Thompson, though, navigating treacherous incest territory – of which more shortly – with a light touch, and making mum Lorraine convincingly tipsy and world-weary (possibly a bit too jowly, but that’s the makeup department’s fault) and her young self vivacious and nicely naughty. A performance like this today would set her career as an instant A-lister, but it wasn’t to be. In spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles to Lorraine falling for dweeby George, such is Zemeckis’ acumen, Alan Silvestri’s soaring score (he runs the gamut of twinkly, sinister and inspiring), and that of his players, you completely buy into, and approve of, their eventual pairing. Dean Cundey, perhaps the great unsung DP – he has never won an Oscar – also does a masterful job, subtly distinguishing eras.
Sid Sheinberg may have given Terry Gilliam shit over Brazil – the director intimated too that all the Rube Goldberg devices at the start of Back to the Future appeared after Spielberg had seen similar in Brazil – but aside from the “preferred” Spaceman from Pluto title he said was nonsense, he clearly offered some sound advice (Doc instead of Professor Brown, Lorraine instead of Meg, a dog instead of a chimp). Some of the Chekovian guns of the first act are a little clumsy on umpteenth revisit – all those elements requiring a historic contrast/ gag/ payoff – but the section itself doesn’t drag at all. I didn’t recall that the “To Be Continued” was only added for home video, probably because I only saw it the once at the cinema (in 1986; it wasn’t released in the UK until December 1985. It was also, as I recall, the first sell-through movie on video – as in, one priced for about a tenner – I bought).
Glover later worked with dead David, of course (and based George on Jack Nance in Eraserhead). He evidently disputes co-writer and co-producer Bob Gale’s claim that he asked for Fox’s salary on the sequel, citing a history of disagreement with Zemeckis over content (it seems the original Stoltz-shot ending featured – possibly black – help as a sign of status) and performance (he was cowed into providing a subdued older, richer George, albeit as I suggested above, I think that was a good mode, so more power to Zemeckis, if so). There’s another mooted reason for Crispin’s absence from Parts II and III, but you’ll have to check out the Part II review for that.
Glover’s take certainly makes it sounds as if the writers were angling to make George suffer penance in the sequel for his performer’s outspokenness, if he was willing to return (he implies they didn’t want him), hence the upside-down neck-brace thing. He’s on the money with his comments about the implied materialist takeaway of the ending, at very least, suggesting it would have been much more appropriate to have concentrated on George and Lorraine in love, rather than everything that goes with it.
It’s one thing for George to be successful, quite another to flaunt the signs of this (the tennis club, Marty’s 4×4, the Merc, Marty’s siblings now successful in business and/or with boys). I always assumed the novel we see was just George’s latest, because: where did he get his easy confidence and status otherwise (perhaps simply laying out Biff)? Whatever the background to the situation, their living in the same house does seem peculiar (it’s a necessity of the payoff in respect of Marty’s surprise, rather than making any narrative sense), and as has been pointed out, would George really keep his wife’s attempted rapist around to shine his car?
But those cartoonish points (punchlines, effectively) rather mirror the cartoonishness of the conceptual conceit. In this take on time travel, you really have no choice but to accept the multiverse timelines idea (that each choice creates an alternate and existing timeline), if there’s to be any coherence to what happens. The cleanest method would be for Marty to wake up as the Marty who has always existed in the “successful” 1985 (if we’re to allow for the gradual catching up with his reality element, which admittedly works better and aids narrative tension than a sudden sharp shock change; of course, even if Marty vanished instantly, say, when George punched out Biff, you’re still faced with the paradoxical problem that he’d have been unable to go back and put events leading up to that in motion because he now never existed).
My understanding is that, when it comes to actual time travel, there is no multiverse, and that, if you travel back from the future you create a new expunging timeline. How the potentially paradoxical part resolves itself in practice is something I’m unclear on, though. But then, no one said causality was easy. Starlog ran an article based on the multiple Martys theory between Back to the Future Parts II and III, and they were evidently much too smart for Zemeckis and Gale, as the final chapter proved conceptually not just light but wafer-thin in terms of the goods.
A final note on Glover: it seems Zemeckis took him on for Beowulf on Neil Gaiman’s suggestion, and they got along fine, but Bob was initially reluctant. I mean, Glover’s a weirdo, so that should be little surprise, but Zemeckis had been regularly working with an adrenochrome fiend at that point, so strange Crispin ought to have been a relief. Unless Bob himself is suspect…
On the materialism side, you only have to look at all that product placement (Pepsi, Calvin Klein, Delorean, BMW) and trendy stuff (body warmers, skateboards, Raybans, er… Tab) to see what was going on here. Added to which, you have Fox, the embodiment of retro-materialist chic in Family Ties (and then again in The Secret of My Success) shooting up the ranks of teen idol/box-office draw (his only competition was Tom Cruise for a few years, who would Top Gun him). Fox as Marty navigated rarefied cool-status waters previously seen only with Harrison Ford and Indy/Solo, but he was also crucially catering to a specifically youth-factor market. Even Zemeckis admits to the ending’s corporate inclination (although Gale is in denial). Thus, while the themes of confidence and destiny – or density – are resonant ones, they’ve very much clothed in the paraphernalia of their era, and the visibility of status.
And let’s not kid ourselves. This is the era of Rambo. Violence does solve problems; witness George’s one-in-a-million punch. And we also have a movie that is consciously embracing many of the paradigmatic devices/ tropes that confirm and impress upon us the system’s preferred feet forward of the era. Zemeckis was expressly invoking a Capra-esque, movie-history milieu, so why should that be otherwise for his present’s lore? Not only are there deadly Libyan terrorists – inept ones at that, so the underlying case is that they’re no match for resourceful Americans – but they’re after nukes and so must be put down. Time travel requires the nuclear age to sustain itself (which would logically imply that, since nukes are a lie, so is time travel, but that’s the way of Hollywood). Indeed, the original ending had a Los Alamos-set conclusion, in which an atom bomb’s power is harnessed to send Marty home (this seems most bizarre, in that the struck clock tower ending is so conceptually perfect, albeit requiring absurd levels of timing even Doc has to remark upon, it’s difficult to believe they initially had something so shonky).
Pauline Kael called the movie “ingenious; it has the structure of a comedy classic and it’s consistently engaging”. Alas, though, “I’m not crazy about movies with kids as the heroes”. Astutely, however, she suggested Back to the Future “represents a culmination of the fifties’ appeal to the youth market. Teen-age tastes now dominate the mainstream moviemaking, and that’s where Zemeckis and Gale are working, (The movie is their fantasy about becoming mediocre – i.e. successful)”. She also considered – doubtless this would earn Glover’s approval – of the ending that “the film’s idea of happiness in the eighties… should be a satirical joke, but isn’t”. (Tim Pulleine, in the Film Yearbook Volume 5, suggested the early family resembled “a cross between Norman Rockwell and Charles Adams”, while their transformation “may recall that between the real home life of Billy Liar and the one he fantasises about”).
The picture, in its way, sums up the progression of manufactured teen culture and with it the disintegration of the family unit; to reintegrate it, Marty must go back to the birth of such social engineering. But is he too late? Such is the corruption already inflicted on the youth that incestual impulses have become second nature.
The incest subtext, in its coyly acceptable way, despite not saying this at all, obviously, may be insinuating that it’s completely okay to have sexual feelings towards your children (yeah, I know Lorraine announces she’s not keen when she eventually kisses her son, but it’s all about trickle effect with Hollywood). Along such lines, Jay Dyer is all-attention to any hints of depravity – “Why is Doc hanging out with high school teens in his creepy garage, by the way?” – but the Doc/ Marty relationship doesn’t offer even a sliver of an innuendo in that regard, unless Marty referring to the younger Doc as his uncle counts. Besides, just how famously are they friends? Doc knows Marty well but not that well, if he has never confided his abiding thirty-year obsession with building a time machine.
With the emphasis on time pieces, Dyer perceives that “Spielberg and company see the world of creation itself as a kind of programmed Golem. In a mechanistic, determined, causal chain of events measured as ‘time’, we see so many world religions seeking to slove the dilemma of man through some form of escapism from time, viewed as a temporal prison” (you can guess where that is leading for Jay). Dyer discerns a “cabalistic milieu” in all this, with tech saving us from our gnostic fall and elevating us onwards and upwards (there’s probably something to this, although he has a habit of making it all seem a little rote and wearisome). He notes the town’s background adult entertainments and occult leadings – third eyes – whereby “The contradictions of puritanical Americanism and consumerism are contrasted with the equally bizarre promotion of over-indulgence and plastic commodity fetishism…”
Dyer also asserts the message, via Marty’s guise, is that “the entire alien phenomena is not what it seems”, which it isn’t… In part (Marty is, after all, a human from the future informing a ’50s human he is an alien…. Just like the Greys). Dyer, espousing a (at least on the surface) Christian ethic, cannot countenance the idea of actual aliens, or time travel, or anything that may be cloaked as SF. Unless it suits him, that is.
Jay is also big on the film’s 9/11 predictive programming, as are some notably for the sequel, with its clock tower as the twin towers (hmmm) and Twin Pines Mall being renamed Lone Pine Mall (plus the 1:16am, “And, it does read 9:11 if read upside down”, scene of a terrorist attack). For me, plausible as they are, such morsels amount to something and nothing (enough to attract mild attention, but not enough to make you really sit up).
One of our other conspiracy theorists of profile, and one untutored in disinformation, would have it that Fox, who obviously hasn’t faked his own death, did fake his own Parkinson’s, just like Chris Reeve faked paralysis. Now, it seems Miles Mathis is generally accurate with his fake deaths, just not so much anything out about their reasons or background. So it may well be the case that Reeve and Fox played/ play their roles for the reasons suggested, but Reeve seemed convincing enough to me in that “role”, despite not being “that good of an actor. In fact, he wasn’t good at all…” (I don’t disagree, although he was effective in his signature role/s, but Miles can’t have it both ways, nor plucking “facts” out of the air like Village of the Damned being a “huge and famous flop”. Hardly, it came and went and no one remembered it was even there, like John Carpenter’s career generally during that decade). But the point of all this? Per Miles “Like the Michael J. Fox illness with Parkinson’s, it was used to promote embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and other morally questionable or repugnant medical procedures”. And sure… I could buy that.
Talking of morally questionable or repugnant, Mary and Doc famously inspired the highly successful time-travelling cartoon series Rick and Morty, which many seem to revere for some unfathomable reason. Should Back to the Future have been left at that, one and done? Well, it’s painfully evident Zemeckis and Gale had no idea for a sequel – the excruciating attempts to come up with something coherent in the first twenty minutes of Back to the Future Part II, so as to justify the original’s ending, attest to the same. Luckily, it rights itself subsequently. And the ending of the original, even without that “To Be Continued”, shows they were completely on board with a cash cow.
My “on balance” response would be that, much as I like the first sequel, the playful pastiche redundancy of the third (which is lazily enjoyable, but still) rather cancels it out. The key point is: there wasn’t a natural story to tell after this, and it rather shows (“No one calls me chicken”). Zemeckis would have been increasingly enamoured with effects over storytelling after this too, of course. I had to remind myself he also has a screenplay credit on many of his recent pictures. Maybe the Bob Gale collaboration was the key?
Either way, he’s very busy at the moment. Without having checked, I’m going to assume this Bob is the real Bob (unlike the Oscar-nominated director of The Fabelmans), but his imprint on material has been increasingly anaemic, since before his decade-long dalliance with motion capture and probably back to somewhere around Contact, where you got the sense he was no longer investing in storytelling as a first priority. He has another movie with Hanks’ clone/ brother (Here) scheduled, and his aptitude for artifice will doubtless hold him in good stead amid Hollywood’s current tumbleweed-blown wasteland.