Back to the Future (1985) Movie Retro Review by Stephen McLaughlin

Back to the Future Review

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Stars: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson

It’s fair to say that not only is “Back to the Future” one of my all time favourite movies. It is also a film that is etched in my mind until the day I die. I think i can recite all the lines and even down to the finer details of the opening shot of the clocks ticking (homage to George Pal’s The Time Machine Film from 1960 starring Rod Taylor) yes i’ll admit I am a “Back to the Future” fanboy and proud of it.

It’s hard for me to contemplate now that back in 1985 as a nine year old I was more excited about the upcoming fourth film in the Rocky Franchise (an okay film) than this movie with weird and nonsensical title….how can you go Back to the Future? As a young boy I wasn’t yet familiar with Christopher Lloyd who was just as famous on our television screens at this point as Reverend Jim Ignatowski in Paramounts comedy series “Taxi” as I was a little too young to appreciated the sitcom. I did however know of Michael J Fox who was on our television screens here in the UK as Alex P. Keaton the young conservative upstart in the classic sitcom “Family Ties”. This would also be my introduction to unknown actors as far as I was concerned in Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover and Thomas F. Wilson who would play such most memorable iconic characters in Lorraine, George and Biff. Although Crispin did appear in a few episodes of “Family Ties” I can’t say it was that memorable.

Last year I reviewed the documentary “Back in Time” which was more of a celebration of the franchise than a blow by blow account of the now classic trilogy. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience in watching this as it inspired people and over the decades has brought the fans together in conventions all over the world who can meet and discuss everything that is Back to the Future. It is hard to believe that several studios rejected the original movie as at the time it felt a little “sci-fiy”, “soft” and “out of place” in a time that the movie studios where trying to pitch a more raunchier comedy movie to that age group. Also, the very notion that the Mother in the movie falls in love with her own Son resulted in Disney slamming the door in both the writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale (The Bobs) faces for what they saw as a disturbing storyline that no one would or should touch. Enter Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg understood that this film could and would work and although there is a science fiction element to it, he understood the character development and relationship that was under the surface of the time traveling adventure. The Bobs had their reservations though. Because they both had attached Spielberg in their previous last 3 flops they knew that they would be finished in the industry if “Back to the Future” didn’t succeed. In the Words of Doc Brown….”We Must Succeed” It wasn’t until Zemeckis finally had a hit in Romancing the Stone (1984) that they now had a credible Director who could go to one of the biggest names in Hollywood and the rest they say is (pardon the pun) history.

That opening scene just before Marty realises he is late for school is an important part of what Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is about and what his character is. There are newspaper clippings pinned to the wall explaining that the Doc lost almost everything including his mansion in a fire some time in the past and we also get to see a box of plutonium under his bed hidden away that is an integral part of the story and even more so a important piece in making time travel possible.

So Marty McFly (Michael J Fox) is a 17-year-old student at Hill Valley High School and is labelled a slacker by the Principal Mr Strickland played by the brilliant James Tolkan. Strickland’s interactions with Marty early on indicate that The McFly’s are basically a bunch of losers who have never amounted to anything. “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News is a pivotal piece of music in the movie and it’s hard not to associated the track with the movie anytime is is played over the airwaves even to this day. The combination of the music and Marty skating (and catching a lift) by Skateboard is classic 80’s filmmaking and the scene opens up to reveal Hill Valley Square and Clock Tower. If like me, you were watching this for the first time and you are around my age the scenery may look familiar. It is of course the backlot to Universal Studios and was used the previous year in “Gremlins” as the centre stage. The iconic landmark has been used in numerous film and tv productions as well as a few music videos but I can’t help relate the set to the home of “Back to The Future”

Marty really is the master of ceremonies in the film. He is the audience almost as he carries us through one scenario to the next. From his interactions with Strickland and failing at the High School Music auditions to walking in on his Father George (Crispin Glover) being bullied in his own house by his work superior Biff Tannen (Thomas F Wilson) telling him to write his report whilst returning the family car trashed and not accepting responsibility for his actions shows an exasperated Marty who is almost embarrassed by his wimp of a Father and his Mother Lorraine (Lea Thomson) is hardy a role model either. She comes across bored and bitter towards the family unit and appears to have a drink problem. It’s fair to say that Marty being the youngest seems to be the one who is more together than his siblings Dave (Marc McClure) and Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber) and his parents. He has aspirations to succeed as a musician.

We are first introduced to Doc Brown who up to this point we have only heard by telephone at the beginning of the movie and again waking Marty up to meet him at Twin Pines Mall. This is where the movie gets going after the first 20 minutes or so is really building up the relationships of the characters in an entertaining way that allows the audience to distinguish what these characters are all about and who is who in 1985 and what they are like. Christopher Lloyd’s introduction to the film is great. Reversing a DeLorean out of his truck we see Marty is excited and you can almost tell he is ready to ask Doc if he can borrow it to take Jennifer (Claudia Wells) to the Lake for the weekend by asking the Doc does it run on regular unleaded gasoline? to which the Doc replies It requires something with a little more kick. Plutonium. It’s a great set up to understand that the car is in fact a time machine and hearing Doc explain how he enquired the Plutonium is brilliantly funny and emphasises a slight madness in the character. The Twin Pines Mall scenes are a key to understanding how Time Travel operates and using an unpopular car at the time to achieve this is a little in joke that really tells us that the DeLorean doesn’t matter, it’s what it does that counts.

Reaching 88 miles per hour is the key to this and running this on the Plutonium upset the ones The Doc stole it from resulting in The Libyans gunning the Doc down and leaving Marty no choice but to escape from the terrorists in the Car. Reaching the required speed and not having taken the rest of the Plutonium results in Marty going back in time by 30 years and being stranded in 1955 Hill Valley. His arrival is met by a comedic response crashing the car into a barn. Old Man Peabody’s barn to be precise and the farmer and his family inspect the crash to see what the believe to be an alien spaceship. Again Marty is threatened with a gun and narrowly escapes the irate farmer. The first clue Marty receives that he has time traveled is driving along a country road only to notice the advertising board on the lay-by advertising homes of the future to be built on the land. Marty realises this is where his future home is yet to be built. After the enjoyment of Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” in the begging we are introduced to Hill Valley Square 1950’s style and there is no better soundtrack to compliment this than “Mr Sandman” by The Four Aces. The song captures a time in American history that most people in the UK imagine it must have been like in 1950’s US. The classic cars, the music, the gas stations with service and of course the classic diner scenes.

From what I believe the set designers captured this look and went to work on building a 1950’s feel and look to the Universal Set and once principal photography on the 50’s scene where complete they went back and “dirtied” the set to age it in time for the 80’s scenes. The sets in “Back to the Future” are important and I feel the set department pulled this off with it authenticity and small detail to really make you believe you travelled with Marty to 30 years in the past. Although the story and the film is contained within that Town Square for most of the movie at no point does it feel claustrophobic or contained.

At the time Michael J Fox was working 18 hour days as he was contracted to Family Ties during the day and most of the scenes in Back to the Future where filmed at night. Fox admits that it was gruelling but added the bewildered character of Marty in a strange time surrounded by young versions of the people in his life. In truth, Fox was almost running on empty and exhausted physically and mentally confused the actor to a point. I’ve always been a fan of The actor and Fox has a natural instinct in comedy timing. The man over the years I have admired for his courageous battle against Parkinson’s and raising awareness in the illness is noble and heartbreaking at the same time. I recently read his “Lucky Man” Autobiography and thoroughly enjoyed getting into his mindset and understanding where his courage comes from and highly recommend to anyone to read this inspiring story.

It is almost just as important to understand that Fox wasn’t the original Marty McFly. A good part into the filming of this movie young actor Eric Stoltz portrayed the likeable youngster before the Producers sensed something was wrong with the actor. Not that Stoltz was a bad actor, his career over the past 30 years has proven what an incredible actor his is. The tone of his comedic performance wasn’t what the Producer Bob Gale or Director Robert Zemickis were looking for and cut their loses and admitted it was a heartbreaking decisions to let Eric go to save the movie. To be honest you can’t think of anyone other than Michael J fox portraying this role now.

Crispin Glover as George has always been my favourite character in the first film. The characters transformation from beginning to end is something else. The dorkiest version of him from a mid 40’s husband and father is cringe and pathetic to witness and his younger self isn’t exactly exuberayting confidence and self assurance. Marty’s guidance in bringing out the best in George is also a lesson for Marty too in “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything” which George then passes on to his son in the future, which in a way is almost a paradox within itself. Glover despite what you may have heard regarding contract negotiations on the sequel shouldn’t be regarded in his performance on the first movie. His genuine contribution and care to the character really hit home. No matter how many times I see the scene where he finally stands up to Biff and knocks him out I still get the same satisfaction I got the first time. His relieved and nervous breathing after he executes the punch adds to the moment which must have been the bravest action George ever took in his life. Glover also had concerns over the end scenes in regards to rewarding the son with a car. You have to remember that the 1980’s were a materialistic time and this was a common trait in movies also. I can’t disagree with Glover on this, the ending is perhaps a little shallow in that sense and I share a more spiritual conclusion and satisfaction should have been more the line. Nevertheless the less Glover may not have reached those heights again but he would change some laws in filmmaking later on which I will get to in my next review on this series.

Lea Thomson as Lorraine is great to watch. Playing two versions of the same character showed tremendous maturity for a young actress at the time. The older Lorraine is bitter and twisted where as the younger version is spritely and optimistic. Her infatuation with her own son could have been a disaster from start to finish but her portrayal of Lorraine is sweet and innocent and it is not until she kisses Marty she then realises something is very wrong. Of course in the sequels we get to see different roles for Lea Thomson and versions of Lorraine but in the original movie, like Glover she understands the character and what is required. Lea Thomson was such a great choice for the character of Lorraine Baines / McFly and is an integral part of the supporting cast.

Tom Wilson as Biff isn’t exactly a cardboard cut out villain. Don’t get me wrong those first scenes with George in the beginning of the movie cemented the character as a nasty piece of work and a bully boy. But Wilson’s comedy also shines through and in particular the young version of Biff. His idiotic mixing of well know phrases are hilarious and his annoyance towards Marty is just as funny. Yes there are lighter moments with Biff in this sense but also there is a darkness to this character and his intentions with Lorraine that were thankfully thwarted by George’s intervention. Like Thomson, we would see Wilson’s acting capabilities expanded in the sequels and I’m grateful for the actor for making Biff one of the most memorable villainous characters in film history.

Alan Silvestre’s famous score actually didn’t stand out to me the first time around. Well I was nine years old at the time and I was in awe over other things in the film at that point. Everyone knows the Back to the Future score of course as much as they know the Superman theme by John Williams. I felt Silvestre’s music was better used in the second part of the trilogy and using it as the introduction music is what made it stand out more this time. I think it’s fair to say that Huey Lewis and the News and The Four Aces were unintentionally more memorable sound pieces in the story and I am not trying to do the score a disservice. I just felt it was more background music in the original.

Zemekis and Gale caught lightning in a bottle with this movie. Their character development and grounded storytelling is what makes Back to the Future timeless. The science fiction behind the story isn’t overshadowing at any point and only serves as plot devices in much the same way the Delorean is used as a transporter from leaping from one year to the past or future. At the time of the films release they never envisioned making sequels and the ending of the movie was intended to be a joke and nothing more. Overall “Back to the Future” is now a classic movie and 33 years on it remains timeless and still relevant in today’s society. The cast selection and the storytelling is the success in a fairly simple plot (if you can get your head round the time traveling elements) I still revisit this film from time to time and still enjoy it. I can’t recommend this film enough.

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