Great Scott! A Heavy Revisit of “Back to the Future.”

Back to the Future Theme Week

biff and gang harass george mcfly

There’s point in denying that Back to the Future is a classic.  The film, and the rest of the series, would become permanently ingrained in our pop culture and has been endlessly referenced over and over again in various other mediums.  So, what makes this simple time travel comedy so iconic?  What it is about this 1985 film that makes it so eternal and something that, even when the number of times you watch it enters the double digits and you know every line and every scene by heart, makes it so endearing and timeless?  Well, to celebrate our Back to the Future Week, I decided to sit down and re-watch the film (for the umpteenth time) and give this classic a fresh review…but it’s not like I really needed a reason to watch this one, I literally watched it a week before I watched it this time–but this time it was for research!

doc brown and marty mcfly

Chances are, if you’re reading this, you know the story of Back to the Future, however, for any younger readers who have parents that haven’t showed them the films (they clearly don’t love you, by the way), the film revolves around the unlikely friendship of eccentric scientist and inventor; Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and high school attending potential slacker Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox).  One night, Doc reveals to Marty that he invented a time machine with a DeLorean.  When the car reaches 88 mph *BOOM* it’s a sweet journey through the time/space continuum.  After an accident leaves Marty alone in the DeLorean, he accidentally travels back to 1955, the year his parents met in high school, and quickly finds himself stranded.  After seeking out a younger Emmett Brown, Marty is forced to not only have Doc try to figure how to generate the inconceivable 1.21 gigawatts needed to power the flux capacitor but he needs to make sure his parents fall in love at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance at their school because, if they don’t, Marty gets wiped from existence.

Seriously, where do you start with this film?  There’s practically nothing about this film that is lacking so where do you choose to start to talk about it?  I guess I can start with the story.  The concept in BttF is simply but it tells a story that is packed with humor and just enough emotion.  Surprisingly, the story made the executives at the studio a tad uncomfortable and the film nearly never saw the light of day.  The fact that Marty’s mother, back in 1955 (played by Lea Thompson), ended up having the hots for him made the suits nervous and they thought it was venturing too close to incest.  Sure, when you think about it too much, there could be an argument for that but, if you don’t overthink it, you remember that Lorraine didn’t know that Marty was from the future and her son and, at its core, its a situation meant to create uncomfortable laughs and it does it well.

As far as the comedy goes in Back to the Future, it’s never a laugh riot that makes your side hurt but it’s still hilarious.  The film is very amusing and endlessly entertaining but the humor has always been a tad more subdued (with the exception of Biff Tannen crashing into the manure truck).  The humor comes from the situations and the characters, there’s few extravagant comedic sequences and nearly no slapstick.  Laughs are provided by dialogue and interaction.  What makes the comedy in this film stand the test of time is the fact it refrains from doing a lot of cheap time gags.  Sure, there are moments when the citizens of 1955 are taken back by Marty’s fashion and there’s a joke that references sodas that no longer exist that feels dated but writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale didn’t write the characters like time travel made them lose their higher brain functions.  In the rare time travel comedy, we always get the throwaway jokes where we see the person as a fish-out-of-water and see them forget that the technology they had in their time doesn’t exist here and they seem to fail to fully grasp this realty.  Nowadays, this results in iPod and cell phones jokes like in something akin to Hot Tub Time Machine (which, coincidentally, starred Marty’s father Crispin Glover).  We don’t see this that much in this film and it makes for a movie that has comedy that won’t go stale after a decade of replays.

Marty McFly fades from existence

Even the special effects hold up after 30 years.  Sure, the part where Marty is starting to fade away after the potential for his parents to miss their first kiss suddenly rears its ugly head when the dude cuts in on George McFly’s turf comes off a little awkward due to the tell-tale signs of compositing but, overall, the effects hold up–additionally, it’s not like this is a special effects heavy film.  So, what it has works and will work for another 30 years.

Finally, and it’s probably the biggest reason I love the film so much, the friendship between Doc and Marty comes off so naturally.  Both Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox have a real chemistry together and it makes their interactions–the way they talk to each other or the looks Doc gives Marty while he’s interacting with his mother in 1955–really showcase a friendship that feels authentic and makes both the characters even more charming and likable.  The way that both Doc and Marty need each other is one thing that really helps move the story and if Lloyd and Fox didn’t look natural or their friendship came off stiff and wooden, it could have hurt the film exceptionally bad.  However, Doc and Marty really come off like two friends thanks to the chemistry of the two actors and their exceptional acting and it helps solidify that this film isn’t about cheap time gags and is more about fun characters and the hilarity that is produced through them.

The only thing I don’t like about the film–and it’s something I’ve never enjoyed about it–is the make-up effects on the older Biff, Lorraine, George and Doc.  To put it simply, I think the make-up looks bad.  And Odin help you if you watch it on Blu-Ray and your focus suddenly notices the horrifying wrinkles on Doc Brown’s neck.  The make-up crumbles together and moves strangely.  If the film wasn’t so much fun, it could easily destroy the scene but growing up and watching it on the more grainy medium of VHS this was never an issue.

enchantment under the sea dance

Could a film like Back to the Future work if it was made today and be as successful?  Maybe.  However, as it is, the film will live on for another 30 years.  The characters that surround Marty are all over-the-top (but in a controlled and fun way), the comedy is solid, the story is great, and the film is filled with so much detail that, even after 30 years, you might still find things you never saw before.  For example, when Marty leaves 1985 the mall is called the Twin Pines Mall but after fleeing Old Man Peabody’s pine farm when he travelled to 1955, Marty ran over a pine tree and the mall ends up being called Lone Pine Mall.  These bits and pieces were half the fun watching this growing up because, remember, we didn’t have an IMDb Trivia link to show us all these tasty morsels.  We had to work to find our Easter Eggs on our own.

I’ve watched Back to the Future about as many times as the number of years its been in existence.  The film is overloaded with iconic imagery, music that makes you instantly think of it when you hear it anywhere else (heck, even the film’s main theme is iconic), and characters that quickly worked their way into your heart and refused to leave.  There’s a reason the film is a classic and a bigger reason that it’s never going to lose that status.  This film deserves all the thumbs and will keep those thumbs for a long time.  3 Thumbs Up, Baby!

The highest rating on The Robot's Pajamas.

The highest rating on The Robot’s Pajamas.

Rev. Ron is a semi-retired stand up comedian, a wannabe Shakespearian actor in a drunken Shakespeare troupe, an amateur movie critic, a propane and propane accessories salesman, a man with serious opinions on why peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are the greatest sandwiches ever invented and a full-time geek who loves all things comic book, video game, TV and movies.  You can read more of his reviews at his blog at RevRonMovies.BlogSpot.com.