I can’t tell you the last time I saw Back to the Future. That’s a shame, because it holds up as possibly the best blockbuster film ever made. It’s certainly my favorite. It’s the rare blockbuster that puts a half-dozen genres into a blender, and the smoothie that comes out doesn’t taste like shit. A pastiche of teen comedy, period piece, sci-fi adventure, and romance shouldn’t work—but it does! A movie that starts out with a main character getting machine-gunned by terrorists shouldn’t stay funny—but it does! It even has a musical number that’s pivotal to the plot, a skateboard chase, a fantastic Huey Lewis & The News song, and a shitload of product placement that somehow doesn’t distract from the story! Combine all that with perfect casting, great direction by Robert Zemeckis, and some truly fantastic editing by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas. I ended up watching it twice, a 150 Films First™.
As I watched (the first time), I tried to pull back and be objective. No easy task, since Back to the Future has both familiarity and an indelible link to feelings of pure childhood joy, but I knew going into it that I’d have to ask The Question: Does this movie actually work, or do I simply love it because of the good vibes?
I can’t claim true objectivity, but I do think the movie works, in a big way. It comes down to two major reasons: characters and universal appeal. Now, let me explain the latter first. “Universal appeal” is a loaded Hollywood buzzword that often means nothing; when it means something, it tends to mean “dumb it down.” Back to the Future doesn’t dumb things down, but it appeals to a wide audience by crafting a plot that hinges on a handful of thoughts I believe all American teenagers have had: I wonder what my parents were like when they were teenagers. Were their parents as clueless and out-of-touch? Were things really so different that they can’t understand what I want from life?
The question of what a person wants informs the other major reason for success: the characters. The two most important questions a writer can ask about characters are, “What does my character want?” followed immediately by, “Why?” Truly successful fiction goes deeper than what the character wants in terms of plot—for instance, to get back to the future—and into more existential wants. In this case, more than anything Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) wants to succeed as a musician, but he’s plagued by self-doubt. In an early scene, he complains to girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) that he’s afraid to send his demo tape to record labels because he’s worried they’ll tell him he’s “no good. I don’t know if I can take that kind of rejection.” That’s an intense, resonant fear, and when Marty’s father George (Crispin Glover) echoes the sentiment later, it’s a moment of epiphany. Hearing his own words parroted back by his own father not only explores the notion of familial patterns (Marty is told by Principal Strickland (James Tolkan) that “no McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley,” and we get a sense of the reason in this single apprehensive statement from both generations of McFly), it forces Marty to realize that having a little confidence and taking a chance is better than doing nothing. Marty gives George the advice he himself needs to hear—and you’ve all probably seen the movie, so you know how it impacts the future.
I can’t overstate the importance of this sort of cosmic “want” for a character. Side-tangent: right now, I’m reading a book called Curious Notions by Harry Turtledove, the second in his Crosstime Traffic series. These are young-adult novels Turtledove wrote to introduce his brand of alternate-universe fiction to a younger audience. I’m not a fan of YA in general, but I love Turtledove and wanted to read something short, snappy, and fun; the first book in the Crosstime Traffic series, Gunpowder Empire, fit the bill. It’s set in a not-too-distant future where Earth’s resources have been largely depleted, but physicists have discovered a way to travel to various “alternates,” which our universe exploits to bring resources back home.
Gunpowder Empire centers on a family who travel to an alternate in which Rome never fell, and two thousand years later has only advanced modestly (a result, Turtledove insinuates, of superstition, comfort, and bureaucracy). The main characters are teen siblings Jeremy and Amanda, who both have layered desires: Jeremy wants to show his parents he can succeed as a trader on his own, and Amanda wants to show this world that women can do it for themselves. I’m not saying these are goals for the ages, but they are existential conflicts challenged by the setting. How can either kid prove themselves in a world that refuses to take them seriously? That’s a resonant conflict even in the real world, made all the more intense by transplanting modern teens to a version of Ancient Rome. Then, in terms of plot, their mother’s appendix burst, the parents are forced to leave the kids on their own while they return home for medical help—and then their link to the home timeline gets cut off. They’re on their own, and they have to prove themselves in order to stay alive. Meanwhile, government officials pressure them for the secrets of their wares (they sell old Swiss Army knives, mirrors, and pocketwatches—antiquated in their timeline, but highly advanced and coveted among the Romans), and rumors of a war between Rome and the Lietuvans (Lithuanians) ratchet up the tension.
So that’s great. Read Gunpowder Empire. The second book, Curious Notions, is a major disappointment in comparison. Set in an alternate in which the Germans won World War I, took over Europe, and slowly conquered the entire world, a teenage boy, Paul, accompanies his father (a huge asshole, for reasons I can’t quite figure out) to a crumbling San Francisco to sell electronics and gadgets in exchange for produce. Both the Germans and the Chinese triad are obsessed with these electronics: how are they made, what are their secrets, and how can a father-and-son operation in San Francisco’s Chinatown produce these magical items on their own?
An interesting wrinkle Turtledove introduces is a teenage character native to this timeline, Lucy Woo, who has her own theories about the Curious Notions shop—theories that might land a little too close to the truth for Paul’s comfort.
Curious Notions is basically an espionage/suspense story with the alternate universe conceit as a backdrop/MacGuffin. Fine. But what about the characters? What does Paul Gomes want, and how does the setting and story challenge those goals? What does Lucy want, and how does her knowledge that parallel universes exist challenge that? Turtledove gives them plenty of plot-related short-term goals, but their characterization beyond that is very thin. That makes the characters dull, it makes a story that should be exciting dull, and several times in this very short book I’ve considered just skipping to the next in the series and hoping for something better.
Getting back to Back to the Future, as a blockbuster, it gets right what far too many get wrong. It crafts a plot in which time travel becomes necessary to almost every aspect of the story, but more importantly, it impacts the characters. The early 1985 scenes are so important to Marty’s journey, showing how George and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) portray themselves to their kids, versus the reality. Timid nerd George is a peeping tom who writes science-fiction stories; chaste Lorraine is a wannabe sexpot who drinks and smokes. It’s eye-opening for Marty.
Equally eye-opening is Doc Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) discovery that he “finally invented something that works”—it’ll just take him 30 years to do it. Marty’s arrival in 1955 gives the bumbling, eccentric scientist a sense of purpose. As played by Lloyd, he has a palpable sense of joy knowing that he will someday succeed, even if that’s the only thing he’ll allow himself to know about the future.
Even George and Lorraine have these lingering internal conflicts, which Marty’s presence helps them overcome. George learns to stand up for himself (as well as Lorraine), laying out soon-to-be rapist Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) in one punch. Lorraine, who develops a crush on Marty and has to be convinced to give George the time of day, realizes that maybe she wants someone a bit more well-rounded than a pure tough guy. Considering we’re dealing with ’50s teenagers who have ’50s values, learning that living down to the “bad girl” stereotypes of the day to land a man who’ll treat her like dirt is progress.
Back to the Future is so much fun, and so funny, it’s easy to forget that its screenplay operates at such a high level all the time. Yet, that’s what makes it so great, and so much more than just a fun sci-fi comedy. It’s a blockbuster with substance. Robert Zemeckis has made a number of great films, but I’d call this his masterpiece.
Keep or Sell? Keep!
Up Next: Back to the Future Part II (1989)