It’s time to go back to Back to the Future!
Back to the Future is one of the most iconic sci-fi time travel films around and there are 1.21 giga-reasons listed below as to why audiences have flocked to this film for over 35 years.
The trailer for this film is accompanied by the “wacky comedy trailer narrator.” Marty is trapped 30 years in the past and has to help his mother and father get together. Doc Brown is the only one that can help him fix his DeLorean time machine. It’s a laugh riot! The trailer does make it seem like this is more of a crazy comedy than the film will really be, but it does introduce a number of the elements up front to get audiences excited for the ride.
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a teenager in 1985 with a number of problems. He’s late for school, his band is not chosen for the Battle of the Bands competition, and his family car is wrecked which will prevent him from going to the lake this weekend with his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells). To top it off, his family doesn’t seem to pay that much attention to him. His father George (Crispin Glover), is nebbish and scared of his co-worker Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), is overweight and depressed. Marty’s only friend appears to Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) who asks him to be at Twin Pines Mall at 1:15am this evening.
When Marty arrives, Doc Brown shows him a time travel experiment utilizing a DeLorean DMC automobile and his dog Einstein. Doc demonstrates the car leaping one-minute into the future as Marty looks on incredulously. Doc’s plan is to travel 30 years into the future. But before he can enact that dream, they are interrupted by Libyan terrorists looking to punish the scientist for reneging on their deal to build a nuclear weapon. Doc is shot dead in front of Marty who jumps into the DeLorean to escape. When he hits 88 miles per hour in the car/time machine he is accidentally transported to November 5, 1955, 30 years in the past.
Marty evades a farmer who mistakes him for a space alien and tries to shoot him. He stops the car outside Hill Valley at the entrance to Lyon Estates, his future neighborhood, which is just breaking ground. Unable to start the car again, Marty hides it behind a billboard and walks into town. Instead of a dirty and rundown town square, Marty is impressed by the vitality that Hill Valley offers. Entering the local malt shop to find out where Doc Brown lives in 1955, Marty runs into his father, who is still being harassed by Biff. Following the younger George, Marty accidentally interferes in the first meeting between his parents.
Marty finds Doc Brown’s mansion and tries to explain who he is and where he’s from. Doc finds the story amazing, especially the part about Ronald Reagan (the actor) being President! But Marty reveals how Doc got the bump on his head, which convinces the eccentric scientist that the boy is telling the truth. He helps Marty make a plan to get back to the future, but first he tells Marty they must repair the relationship between his parents, lest Marty never exist. Marty pretends to be a space alien to scare George into meeting Lorraine and asking her to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. While George is attempting to make the date, Marty again interferes to protect them from Biff, which puts him on the bully’s radar.
Lorraine is still enamored with Marty, whom she thinks is named Calvin Klein after the text on his underwear, so Marty concocts a plan to make George seem like a hero. At the dance, Marty “parks“ with Lorraine and makes a move on her which George will interrupt and “save” his future wife from. Unfortunately Biff gets there first and locks Marty in a trunk. When George arrives, he has to stop Biff, which seems unlikely, but when George sees the fear on Lorraine’s face he summons the courage and knocks Biff out. The two still need to kiss to save Marty from being erased from existence, so the young McFly hops on stage and shreds a rocking guitar solo to save himself and provide a moment for his parents to kiss.
Satisfied that his parents have connected and his life is safe, he returns to town square where Doc Brown is setting up a “weather experiment” to channel the necessary 1.21 gigawatts of power needed to make the time machine return to 1985. Marty tries to tell his friend about the assassination on the night he left, but Doc wants nothing to do with future knowledge, lest it upset the timestream. At precisely 10:04 lightning strikes the clock tower (as history always had it) and the DeLorean is able to return to 1985. Marty sets the time circuits to arrive early, but through fate, he doesn’t make it back to the Mall until his past self is already leaving.
Amazingly Doc is still alive, having decided to have read Marty’s note about the terrorists. Relieved Marty returns home. Awakening the next morning, he is surprised to find his father a successfully published author, his mother happy and skinny, and Biff running an auto detailing business and at the beck and call of George. Marty has inadvertently improved his life and his family’s life by altering what appeared to be an inconsequential meeting between his parents. As he and Jennifer are about to leave for the lake, Doc shows up in the DeLorean “from the future.” Marty and Jennifer’s kids are the problem and the trio must go back to the future.
“Wait a minute, Doc. Are you telling me that you built a time machine out of a DeLorean?” – Marty McFly
History in the Making
Back to the Future is considered one of the most iconic and genre defining time travel movies of all time. It definitely made a splash in the mid-80s, yielding multiple sequels, spin-off series and merchandise that continues today. It catapulted a number of its actors to greater heights making them pop-culture icons. It’s not only the basis for many sci-fi film and television ideas about time travel over the last 35+ years, but also ideas about alternate worlds and timelines. Back to the Future also successfully merged humor with the sci-fi elements without resorting to a parody of time travel films. Its use of details in the two time periods highlights the differences and similarities of 1955 and 1985, while still always focusing on the human elements, which is Marty and his family.
Back to the Future took the idea of time travel in a new direction. Creators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis decided that the how and why of time travel would feature as a major plot device in the film. Not since the iconic The Time Machine film in 1960 has time travel been so integral to the plot. In that film, HG Wells creates a time machine that allows him to travel into the far-flung future. Since that time, other time related films have dealt with phenomena or devices that transport the characters forward or backwards in time, but never really addressed the way in which the transport took place. Timerider: The Adventure of Lyle Swann shares possibly the closest resemblance the backbone of Back to the Future in that the main character travels back in time, is able to move about using present day technology (his motorcycle), and interacts with a distant relative creating a grandfather paradox where he literally becomes his own grandfather. Marty’s predicament is much more at the forefront of the film, with the audience knowing that he is interacting with his parents meeting, and the visual depiction of his literally ceasing to exist through the clever use of the photo showing his siblings (and eventually himself) fading away. It’s ability to present the oddities and philosophical aspects of time travel in an easy and fun way for the audience is probably what has made this film so endearing. It also presents a deeply layered film which allows for the audience to rewatch multiple times, allowing them to pick up many small details put in by the filmmakers.
The film is a standout and breakthrough moment in the careers of at least Robert Zemeckis and Michael J. Fox. Zemeckis had made three films prior to Back to the Future, two of which were more cult comedy classics with fans. I Want To Hold Your Hand and Used Cars showcase the eccentric humor and physicality that the director chose to put in his films. His immediate previous film, 1984s Romancing the Stone, heightened his technical filmmaking to a level of action and adventure, while still maintaining the eccentric humor but also adding in a love story (the “romancing” of the title). It was one of several films that attempted to cash in on the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but also created a film that was much more within Zemeckis’ style, using the camera to enhance the action and humor, as he moves it around the scene. These technical aspects were elements that Zemeckis used in Back to the Future as well, whether it was characters moving closer or further from the camera, or the camera moving around the space to change the aspect of the scene. Fox also was no stranger to audiences by 1985. He was currently seen on the TV series Family Ties (every week since 1982). He also had made a couple of appearances in movies, including the 1980 Midnight Madness, where he played the younger brother to the lead actor. His spare time to make films was limited while starring on the television series yet found time to film Teen Wolf (released a month after Back to the Future) at the end of 1984, and Back to the Future between January and April 1985–both shooting concurrently with his “day job” of Family Ties. All that hard work paid off as Back to the Future elevated Fox to the role of movie star, having two films in theaters concurrently at the end of Summer 1985. After this his time was at a premium as he continued to make movies and television series.
As stated above, Back to the Future created a new template of what a time travel film was supposed to be. Instead of a story primarily about a fish out of water (which the film cashes in on as well), now there was a real inherent danger to time travelling. It was no longer just about the adventure of time travel, where the biggest question is “will the hero get home?” The Time Machine, Time After Time, Somewhere in Time, and Timerider all follow the hero into time with the main conflict of the film being the character getting home alive; with the additional element of stopping a mad Jack The Ripper in Time After Time. The only time travel film to raise the stakes, at least as far as Sci-Fi Saturdays is concerned, is The Terminator. In that film the audience is at the receiving end of time travel, with the character coming to the present time. The stakes there are the murder of an innocent woman (from the audience perspective) and the potential domination of an AI army at some point in the future. Back to the Future raised the stakes by presenting a threat to the timeline itself.
Marty’s time travelling exploits were as accidental as was Lyle Swann’s in Timerider or the crew of the Nimitz in The Final Countdown. In all these films, the protagonist does not overtly choose to time travel. They just all happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The film’s usual plot is that he must find a way to return home. But Back to the Future elevates the stakes by having the teen interrupt the original meeting between his parents, disrupting the natural flow of the timeline. At that point, even if he were to go home, his interaction has changed events so that he would not exist. From there, the path of the film changes to: first, fix the timeline, then return home at a predetermined time. The clock is now ticking, literally and figuratively, for Marty to complete the necessary tasks to save his life and return to 1985 since in order to return home he must be at a precise location at a specific moment in order to get hit by lightning, which will activate the time machine. From this point forward many time travel films would adopt a similar idea that the timeline is a fragile and malleable construct and paradoxes can easily be created. These paradoxes would also be played for laughs or fun moments in many of the films, just as Back to the Future had done. The film created a new visual style and language to explain the time stream, paradoxes, and time travel which other creators, both in film and television, were eager to take advantage of. Back to the Future also was the first time travel film that indicated Free Will was in play in the timestream and not just Fate. More on this in a moment.
An additional element from Back to the Future that was fresh and inventive is the use of details in one time period to explain and inform similar elements in another time period. Sometimes these elements are purely easter egg material, as with the advertisements for Mayor Goldie Wilson in 1985 and Mayor Red Thomas in 1955, the phone call to Marvin Berry’s cousin Chuck when Marty performs “Johnny B. Goode”, or the movie marquee for Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana and Doc’s disbelief when Marty tells him who the President is in 1985. Many of these details, which is something that time travel films did not really contain up to this point, are only understandable after multiple viewings of the film. Often time travel films had repeatability built into the story so that multiple viewings were not necessary. Here Zemeckis and crew loaded the film up with nods to history and longevity of brands (Twin Pines Mall named after the farm which existed on the property, or the Texaco gas station that is part of the town) as fun elements to illustrate something akin to a real world, and drive audiences to re-watch the film for clues. However, some of these details were necessary to the plot, such as the 1985 movement to “save the clock tower” or the way the first meeting between Lorraine and George is described by Lorraine at the beginning of the film. These moments are repeated numerous times to ensure that the audience is following along with what the characters need to accomplish. Shows like Quantum Leap, in which a man time travels into other people’s bodies within his lifetime (similar to the science of Trancers), had similar nods and winks to historic events and characters, while allowing Sam, the protagonist, to correct once went wrong.
Films like The Terminator, Somewhere in Time, or Timerider all dealt with paradoxical elements of time travel. But these films are all about predeterminism (ie. Fate) and regardless of the characters actions things turn out as they always had. For example: John Conner’s parents are Kyle Reese and Sarah Conner and sending Kyle back in time to stop the Terminator allows that union to happen as it always has. Or, Richard Collier sees his name in the hotel registry and knows that he must succeed in time travelling, since he’s already stayed there. Additionally, Lyle Swann sleeps with his grandmother in his travel to the old west and literally becomes his own Grandfather paradox. In Back to the Future, Marty is able to change the outcome of his future, mostly due to his initial mistake and his correction of the timeline. His Free Will allows him to change the person his father is perceived as which enables George’s confidence, and thus in the return to 1985, George is a different person, altering Marty’s life for the better. The idea that time is malleable and that past errors (or failings) can be corrected was a new concept, at least in film. Stories of time travellers altering the time stream had been around in sci-fi comics and books for decades. As with the concept of the Butterfly Effect, originally presented in a 1952 short story by Ray Bradbury called “A Sound of Thunder,” one insignificant change to the timeline can have large and inconceivable effects. In that story, the killing of a butterfly on a time travel expedition to the Cretaceous period, yields drastic and irrevocable effects on the future/present day. Here, Marty’s interference with the pre-written destiny of his parents’ encounter yields a lesser, yet still consequential, alteration of the future.
Some of these changes force unexpected outcomes on the characters’ lives. For example: Marty is depicted as a character that lacks confidence, much like his father. His lack of belief in himself leads him to blame others for his shortcomings. Once he has helped his father achieve self-reliance (involving knocking Biff out at the school dance), Marty still needs to get his parents to kiss for the first time. He takes control of his fate (via Free Will) and performs Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” for the awestruck teenagers as the band leader Marvin Berry calls his cousin Chuck to share “that new sound” he’s been looking for. Marty succeeds in his parents kissing, thus ensuring his survival, but what else has he changed? The end of the film shows that the one event of George punching Biff at the dance has allowed George to succeed in his marriage, become a published author, have more money that they did originally, and Biff has now become an auto detailer, no longer having George do his work for him. This improves Marty’s life immeasurably, but what about the damage done to Biff’s life? As he’s the protagonist, not much thought is given to that aspect. What about rock n’ roll? Did Marty, a white boy from the suburbs of California invent the song attributed to a pioneering black artist? Possibly, but as with many other elements of 1980s film and pop culture, this was not considered, let alone addressed. Another change for the better is the prevention of Doc Brown’s death. Throughout the film, 1955 Doc reminds Marty, and the audience, it’s not good to know too much about your future, lest something gets altered for the worse. Doc rips up the letter that Marty writes to warn him of his assassination by the Libyans. However, when Marty returns home he finds Doc very much alive, having used a bulletproof vest. When asked why he decided to change the course of events, Doc replies, “well, I figured, what the hell!” How does this change the timeline in the future? The filmmakers are saying it really doesn’t matter, as everybody has a choice about how to live their lives, even if news from the future says differently.
Back to the Future also contains many circular elements and callbacks throughout the film. Like Marty’s self-confidence issue above mirrored in his father, the two also share several mannerisms throughout the film. One memorable shot is the reveal of young George in 1955 sitting next to Marty, both with their heads bent and their right hands on the back of their neck. This leads to another repeated motif, of Biff entering a scene, calling out “McFly,” and then asking young Marty, “what are you looking at butthead?” Both phrases are callbacks to a scene in 1985 at the beginning of the film. In fact, the entirety of the Back to the Future trilogy builds on these repeating motifs and phrases, each one taking place in a different time with different circumstances–yet each one referring to an earlier event witnessed by the audience. The circular or mirror motif is a tool used by Zemeckis to draw parallels and attention to the fact that many characters don’t change, even over 30 years. Biff, George, and others are stuck in their own little time loop, unable to escape the people who they were in high school, even 30 years later as adults. It’s a sad commentary on human nature, but also one that’s used to provide some laughs within the film.
The Science in The Fiction
Back to the Future utilizes a highly technical and scientific backdrop to the plot of the film that certainly has some sense of plausibility to it. There’s intricate talk of the finer points of time travel, flux dispersal, and of course the device that Doc Brown spent 30 years and his entire family fortune building–the flux capacitor. Presumably it could have been installed into any device to allow the user to time travel, but as Emmett mentions, “if you’re going to build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style.” The fact that the time machine is mobile adds for some interesting thought experiments about fourth dimensional travel. These ideas are explored more in Back to the Future part III but some of the progenitors are visible here. For example, when Marty time travels by getting up to 88 miles per hour in 1985 driving through the Mall parking lot (which used to be farmland as far as the eye could see), he arrives in 1985 and crashes through a scarecrow and into a barn. These items weren’t in the present day, but existed there in the past. Certainly a much more exciting and filmic presentation of time travel than sitting in a chair and having the world change around you.
The film is also famous for its usage, or mis-usage, of the word gigawatt. In 1985 people were familiar with smaller levels of numeric prefixes, like kilo and mega. Computers had kilobytes, energy came in megawatts, but the giga prefix was something that was not in the normal parlance. Of course in the early 21st Century there’s tera and peta notations used for computing and other digital applications. For whatever reason Christopher Lloyd decided to pronounce giga as jig-a. Specifically, one-point-twenty-one jig-a-watts; which just sounds hilarious coming from him. This magical number, along with the car having to travel at 88 miles per hour, is what triggers the flux capacitor circuit to initiate the time travel event. The bolt of lightning that struck the clock tower on Saturday, November 12, 1955 (at 10:04pm) then becomes the way to harness that energy, since Doc was unable to load more plutonium into the DeLorean before Marty took it for a ride. Presumably the plutonium was making a fusion reaction to generate the power in 1985 when Einstein took the short trip in the Mall parking lot. And of course by the end of the film Doc has made an upgrade in the future by getting not only a hover conversion (allowing the car to fly) but to also have a Mr. Fusion installed (a small, portable fusion reactor based presumably off the Mr. Coffee appliance).
As crazy as the scientific elements of the film are, they do remain internally consistent. The explanations of how the time travel process works, and what is required to generate the power to move the car through time-space. The explanations, at least within the context of this story, all seem plausible and are served by the story. The audience was told of the lightning strike that froze the clock in the time square early on in the film. When 1955 Doc Brown wonders how the necessary 1.21 gigawatts can be generated, he mentions that he believes that only a lightning strike would be able to generate that kind of power. And of course, no one can know where lightning will strike–except Marty, who has a flyer to prove it. Disregard that it wasn’t necessarily at 10:04pm exactly, and could have been technically anytime in that minute, or at any time actually if the clock was not set accurately. But this is fantasy, so for all the other coincidences in the film, this one is the least egregious!
The Final Frontier
The 1985 of Back to the Future was reality at the time of the film’s release. In the sequels Marty and Doc would later travel to 2015, 1955 again, and 1885 but never get anything close to the magic that happened in this film. Its two sequels were shot back-to-back in the late 80s and released six-months apart in 1989 and 1990. Using this film as the template, those films served as the continuation of a convoluted ride through time and space as Marty and Doc again went on to break, and attempt to fix, the various timelines. In just four years, Zemeckis and his team had the ability to put together some truly mind blowing sequences using new motion control and computer graphic capabilities allowing for multiple versions of characters to share the screen in a single shot. Besides these films, Back to the Future has inspired animated television series, theme park rides, documentaries, comic books, technical manuals, and probably the coolest element, fan-built DeLoreans. The legacy of Back to the Future is one as strong as some of the largest sci-fi franchises such as Star Wars and Star Trek. Fans still discuss and dissect the film. There are toys and media still being produced for adoring fans. And the true mark, which shows the success for any genre property, Back to the Future has been parodied numerous times on The Simpsons.
Back to the Future has endured because at its core, it’s not really a film about time travel and the science behind it. That’s a part of it, but it really has to do with family and friendship, which is one of the most endearing things films can be about. It also serves as a film on nostalgia. The yearning for the past as a more glamorous or simpler time. It relates the struggles of the parents to similar struggles by the children, and shows that life is not so different. There may be physical differences in the locations of those struggles, but the human element is always the same. The film’s action moments, its comedy, and the quotability of its lines help the film attract and keep viewers, but at its heart, the film is all about its humanity, and its concept of shared experiences throughout time.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.