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Back to the Future (1985)

by on 2011/01/01

Time is of the essence . . . and the time in question was the mid-to-late Eighties.  Approaching the twilight of my teens, I bloomed late, discovered angst, and quickly made up for lost time.

Coincidentally the synthetic cheer of the decade was slowly consumed by new trends in pop culture:  combat punished its survivors, science fiction adopted horror, Caped Crusaders became Dark Knights, and even the Moores got Daltoned.

All of which may suggest why — if someone had asked me to choose my favourite of the  Back to the Future trilogy — I would have said the second, dystopic one.  But as we learn in the series itself, times can change, and so they have.

The initial film begins in a courageous way, for Hollywood.  I wonder whether director Robert Zemeckis had to fight to retain the first scene.  This relatively low-key five minute stretch is marked by a long pan over the contents of a vacant room.  To the sound of myriad clocks, we are guided through the treasures and trinkets of the absentminded mad scientist, Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd).

I never before appreciated the, er, density of this opening shot before.  Not only do we learn of the doctor’s preoccupation with gadgets, with schedules, with timing — his intricacies and exactitudes, already running off the rails — but various props and mementos allude to the past and future alike.

Into the scene explodes, literally, seventeen year old Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox).  He’s got a date with, let’s say, fate.  (I already made the “destiny” joke.)  The Doc’s latest invention will send him thirty years into the past, short-circuiting his parents’ relationship and — if he can’t hook them up again soon — undo his own existence.

Heavy.

It’s a textbook case of a geeky premise making it big in the mainstream.  Most will chalk up its success to Michael J. Fox, then a massive TV star in Family Ties, but what if the movie is Just That Good?  It spins its web of plot and causality with surprising elegance.  Efforts packed with this much detail rarely flow so easily.

The now-and-then details are more than plot points, like the clock tower, or amusements, like the Lone Pine standing.  These contrasts demonstrate all manner of themes:  the discrepancies in Principal Strickland’s rules, Goldie Wilson’s ascent from janitor to mayor, and Lorraine McFly’s admonishments as an adult versus her actions as a teen.

However, the strength of this piece goes beyond staging.  The acting is iconic.  Though it’s common knowledge Michael J. Fox was not the original Marty (Eric Stoltz was), it’s frankly difficult to imagine anyone else in his, or any other, role.  Watch how Fox and Lea Thompson handle moments which, to be clear, border on incestuous.  Lorraine is played wide-eyed while Marty is slapstick evasive.  And yet neither of their approaches are suggested by the dialogue.

Meanwhile, Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown channels an amalgam of Boris Karloff and Colin Clive (both of 1931’s Frankenstein), as well as Albert Einstein, all wild-eyed, wild-haired, manic, and forgetful, screaming “It works!” as if to suggest “It’s alive!”  Even beyond the buffoonery, he demonstrates the value of good acting to take a pedantic role — a mentor explaining theory to his sidekick — and reshape it into a performance, entertaining in its own right.

Still, without any doubt, especial success finds Crispin Glover as Marty’s dad, George McFly.  With or without makeup and props, as a father or peer to Marty, he manifests his role by sheer force of will.  For those viewers who have seen his antics on a certain late night talk show, his performance here may come as a surprise.

Watch him in the background as bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) accosts Marty in the 1955 diner.  Without saying a word, George shows his spinelessness in readily shifting loyalties to Biff’s gang, turning on Marty to protect himself.  Watch the periodic flexing of his hands, uncomfortable with conflict.  Plus, protagonist or not, his character is responsible for arguably the single most cathartic moment in the story.

Okay, okay, so it’s easy to laud a successful effort.  What about critique?

Uh, there’s a moment of imperfect compositing, when the time machine sets the ground under Doc and Marty aflame?

The 1985 makeup is less than ideal?

American Psycho didn’t convince you of the value of Huey Lewis?

Enough said.

The upshot is clear.  Back to the Future absolutely holds its own against any reasonable standard of measurement.  Its pieces fit well, mechanically, and yet move smoothly, unforced.  The craft is such that even upon rewatching, knowing the outcome, the sense of suspense is unflagging.  A good tale, well told, with a cast of depth and substance.  These elements form the flux capacitor behind a science fiction classic and, for what it’s worth, my new favourite of its trilogy.

* * * *

Rated PG for adult situations, disturbing scenes, and violence

116 minutes

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