Examining the Cultural Impact of Back to the Future

Back to the Future Theme Week

back to the future cosplay

Here we are in 2015: Rick and Morty, which began as a parody of Back to the Future‘s Doc and Marty, is about to start its second season; a $250 figure of Marty McFly sells out instantly; Japan has created an iPhone case based on Back to the Future II‘s DeLorean and it sells like wildfire at nearly $100. It’s been 30 years since Back to the Future came out but it still has a strong impact on today’s pop culture. Why is that? Why is a movie from 30 years ago (which is primarily set an additional 30 years earlier) still so beloved? And where else has it been felt within our culture today? We’re going to take a look at what in Back to the Future resonates with us and try to figure out why.

Above anything else, the reason Back to the Future stands the test of time is that it’s a good movie. It did well with both the audience (worldwide gross of $381 million off a $19 million budget) and it did well with critics (96% of critics gave it a good review, according to Rotten Tomatoes). But beyond that, it broadly addresses how fast pop culture changes and specifically allows us to see that through the lens of a teenager hanging out with his parents when they were his age. It’s such a simple idea that it allows all sorts of fun adventure and character-based humor. The fact is, the movie is very specifically set in 1985 and 1955 but instead of dating it, it makes it timeless because now we can in turn compare our present to their past and gain additional contrast in how pop culture has changed.

biff and gang harass george mcfly

The 1950s were really when the teenager came into existence as a target market as a consumer and it’s only grown more powerful from now until then. In the movie we see what they do for entertainment and compare the 50s to the 80s. Now we can compare that to the 10s. For instance, when Marty McFly first visits the 50s, he tries to order a Tab soda but the soda of that era is Pepsi. While Pepsi is around in the 50s, 80s and today, it’s interesting to see how quickly tastes can change based on fads. Tab isn’t really a thing anymore and Pepsi has increased competition from energy drinks like Monster or Red Bull that just didn’t exist 30 years ago. But the scene at the soda shop remains notable¬†because of the idea behind it. A teenager getting a beverage at their hangout of choice. In the 50s, it was the diner. In the 80s? We don’t really see but it’s more likely to be a fast food joint (we see Burger King fairly prominently in the movie’s “present”). But today it’d be a machine. Kids don’t need a physical hangout location anymore. They connect by Facebook and texts or have plans to do something specific. The fact that the movie shows us how things were and instantly makes us compare it to how things are today keeps it relevant.

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How about movies and TV? In the 80s, we see that the movie theater is playing an X-rated movie, compared to the 50s playing a Western. X-rated theaters are again a thing of the past because of the Internet, which just wasn’t a thing in the 80s. Now, movies are about sequels, remakes and 3D. Ironically, Back to the Future II accurately predicted this when Marty visits the “future” of 2015 and sees a holographic ad for Jaws 19. When Marty visits Lorraine’s family, they are excited about the family’s new TV, a black and white set. Marty remembers it as a rerun (which didn’t exist as a term in the 50s) and casually blows his host’s minds by saying his family has two TVs (which Lorraine’s father dismisses as a lie). Who doesn’t have two TVs these days? Or tablets or smartphones that they can stream shows and movies on? In the 80s, a videorecorder and VCR is high technology. Today, we have nearly limitless instant access to any pre-existing movies or TV shows. The term “content” didn’t share the same meaning back then!

Politics has changed, too. In the 50s, Doc Brown laughs at Marty’s statement that Ronald Reagan is the president. It seems absurd in that decade. A movie actor attaining the highest office? But that hardly phases us today. Movie stars like Schwarzenneger and Eastwood have been governors and mayors. Politics and acting are careers that people can jump between without barrier. In fact, the familiarity the public feels with actors helps give them a huge leg up in elections, before issues are even discussed and debated.

How about how the movie treats terrorism? Doc Brown swindled some Libyan terrorists out of plutonium to charge his time machine only for them to track Doc down and kill him. In the 80s, we had very clearly defined enemies: Middle Eastern terrorists and Soviet Communists. And we were totally comfortable using them as bad guys, in this case in a family comedy. It seems inconceivable that we could use domestic terrorists in such a casual way post 9-11. In the 80s, terrorism was something that happened overseas. These days, we think of it every time we use public transportation, watch the news, or even when we go to public gatherings like marathons or movie theaters. If the 80s thought the 50s were a more innocent time, we can look back on both of them as downright quaint.

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Marty returns to 1985 to witness the events he experienced a week ago

The reason the first Back to the Future movie remains especially relevant to our culture is that it didn’t predict the future, like the sequel did. Because while Back to the Future II is a funny look at a future generation as seen through the prism of the 80s and even got a few broad ideas right, it doesn’t look or feel right. But it captured its present and its past in a very accurate way. It’s a time capsule that allows us to continue to make the movie a part of our culture because it’s comparing generations and we get to continue to do that. The concept of wondering what it would be like to interact with our parents at the same age is a fascinating one. Would we be friends? How similar are we? What do we take for granted that they never even envisioned? Music, food, entertainment. It’s how we spend our free time but in very different ways. So it’s no surprise that those of us who grew up with Back to the Future then and have disposable income now would like to remember it. We’ll buy a flux capacitor watch even though a kid today may not know what it’s supposed to be. Maybe it’ll pique their curiosity and we’ll have the opportunity to introduce them to a great movie: Back to the Future.