Back to the Future

(Dir. Robert Zemekis, USA, 1985)

[part of a BFI essays collection]

This hugely successful film includes one of the wittiest moments in time travel cinema. Marty McFly has travelled from 1985 back to 1955, and is forced to spend some time with his then-teenaged mother, Lorraine. After discovering some uncomfortable truths about her habits, Marty finally issues a reprimand; she responds with Bob Gale and Zemekis' brilliant line: "Marty, you're beginning to sound just like my mother". Only a time travel film could deliver such a fully rounded payoff line, relying for its humour, as it does, on details of character, plot and situation - past and future - leading up to this moment. The sequence is reprised obliquely for the film's 1989 sequel, and aptly highlights why time travel is such a ripe subject for comedy.

However, unlike Terry Gilliam's 1981 comedy Time Bandits, Back to the Future, is not really about time travel per se. Instead, the clever script, marred only by the clumsy conceit of Marty's photgraph of his fading family, draws much of its plot, and virtually all of its humour, from the consequences of a single jump in time. Having unwittingly prevented his parents meeting as history says (will say) they should, Marty has to spend a week in the film's lovingly created 1955 Hill Valley. The famous set is now a tourist attraction on the Universal Studios tour. During his week, Marty has to straighten out the crooked time-line before the town clock is struck by lightning, giving him the 1.21 gigawatts of power needed to sent him and his time machine back to the future.

The time machine itself is created from the (in)famous DeLorean sports car. The initial concept of a refrigerator time machine was scrapped for fear that this would be copied, and America's fridges would be filled with suffocated children (a concern clearly not still held 23 years later for Indiana Jones' atom bomb escape in The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - or is this an homage?). Both the car and fridge are throwbacks to the cinematic joys of George Pal's glorified sedan chair in The Time Machine (1960) and Dr Who's police telephone box. The theme is thrown forward into Back to the Future, Part III (1990) when Marty's friend - and inventor - Dr Emmett Brown appears in steam train time machine. Key to the success of this archetypal mad scientist is, the controlled eccentricity of Christopher Lloyd's performance. Familiar characteristics are visible in his Klingon commander, Kruge, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), but perhaps originally gleaned on the set of his first film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). Lloyd's larger-than-life potrayal is, however, balanced by a brilliant cast of character actors, headed by Michael J. Fox. Both Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover offer faultless support as Marty's parents, whose understated comic-book personae meld seamlessly with the dialogue, the art direction, and Industial Light and Magic's then cutting-edge special effects.

Less laudible, however, is the film's waste of Claudia Wells' character, Jennifer, Marty's girlfriend who spends most of the film out of sight in 1985. Otherwise, Zemekis doesn't miss a trick - notably the witty musical links. Marty plays Johnny B. Goode in 1955 with Chuck Berry's brother, and Huey Lewis cameos as the school teacher who tells Marty - who is playing one of Lewis' own tracks - "you're just too darn loud".

USA; Universal; 111 minutes; UK cert. PG; Panavision/Dolby
Producers: Neil Canton & Bob Gale; Writer: Bob Gale & Robert Zemekis; Cinematographer: Dean Cundey; Editor: Harry Keramidas & Arthur Schmidt; Music: Alan Silvestri, Chris Hayes, Johnny Colla; Design: Lawrence G. Paull; Art Direction: Todd Hallowell; Visual Effects: Ken Ralston; Special Effects: Kevin Pike (ILM).
Cast. Marty McFly: Michael J. Fox; Dr. Emmett Brown: Christopher Lloyd; Lorraine Baines/McFly: Lea Thompson; George McFly: Crispin Glover; Biff Tannen: Thomas F. Wilson; Jennifer Parker: Claudia Wells. Mr Strickland: James Tolkan.

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