Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads

Some time ago, a friend of mine became aware of my blog on Facebook. The first thing he did after that was request that I review Back to the Future (1985). As it is on the 1001 I said I would ‘soon’ (this was somewhere between 6 and 12 months ago). So here are my thoughts on the film, unfortunately not quite as quick a turn around as I was hoping for.

I can understand why that was my friend’s first thought when seeing my blog. Zemeckis’ film is a really formative one for many people, me included. Even though I was born after the film was released, it is still a film that along with a very select group of others (James Bond films, Jurassic Park (1993)) helped to engender the love of film that still resides within me. What is it that makes it such a formative film? It is a combination of many elements and no doubt I cannot pin down them all. For starters it is a family film, so is able to be seen by anyone and it also has that perfect balance of aspects that appeal to young and old alike. It is also a phenomenally well made film, unsurprising given the filmmaking chops of the aforementioned Zemeckis and a producer you may have  heard by who goes by the name Steven Spielberg. Then there is the endlessly quotable dialogue, the adventure aspects of it and so on and so on. It also kicks off what I think is one of the better trilogies film has produced and you could easily build a claim that any of the three is the best. My personal favourite is Back to the Future II (1989) which incorporates a lot of sci-fi stylings, but I am also a big fan of the generically western Back to the Future III (1990).

And I am also a massive, massive fan of this, the first film. I love it dearly. Funnily enough, for a time travel film, this is a film about time. The film opens with a shot of a wall filled with a myriad of clocks. Old newspapers and photographs also populate this first scene. On paper it sounds clumsy and ham fisted, but in practice the referencing of time here works perfectly. It is an interesting way to approach the film, with the notion of time in the back of your mind as it shows how far the concept permeates deep into the film. All aspects of it, the passing of it, the ravages of it, the inescapability of it, our attempted manipulation of it, but also its positive aspects such as its healing qualities and its ability to bring us to new experiences and loves. The whole experience of the film is rendered with just the right amount of ‘tude. This is not a very precise or scientific term, but there is just a certain attitude that imbues all of it. Doc ripping the plutonium off from the Libyans, telling Marty that when the DeLorean hits 88 miles per hour he was going to “see some serious shit”, Marty fronting the band of Marvin Berry and delivering a rendition of “Johnny B. Goode; I could probably give you 50 similar examples. It is all of these little touches which help elevate this film from the realm of good family flick to something much more.

The film is expertly made. Spielberg is the greatest populist filmmaker of the modern era, and you could make the argument he is the best ever. You can see his producer’s touch all over the self-assuredness of this movie. I am a big fan of Robert Zemeckis as a director, and this admiration extends to his current focus as an innovator of motion-capture filmmaking. I know the plan is for Steven Spielberg to return to the director’s chair for the third Tintin feature in his and Peter Jackson’s current series, but I would love to see Zemeckis have a shot. That adventure style narrative is right up his alley, and A Christmas Carol (2009) showed what he could do in the mo-cap world he has been working so hard on. Aside from the two great filmmakers behind it, the film also benefits from an exceedingly good script and performances. The screenplay was written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale and they have crafted a real work of art in what they have achieved. The achievement is twofold in that they have crafted a great narrative and also filled it with memorable, quotable dialogue. The great danger in a time travel story is to have it get too convoluted and complicated. This film embraces that by having rectifying one of these complications the central narrative thrust of the 50s set part of the film. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly inadvertently interrupts the meeting of his parents, leading to the distinct possibility he will never be born. So he must put all his energy into ensuring that his nerd father, and flirtatious mother hit it off (not before a couple of awkward incest moments). What also develops through this section of the film is a really sweet reverse teacher father/son relationship between Marty and his teenage dad, with Marty shepherding and protecting him through this challenging stage of his life. Then of course there is the dialogue, from all parties but especially Christopher Lloyd’s peerless Emmet ‘Doc’ Brown. “This is heavy”, “Are you telling me this sucker is nuclear?”, “1.21 Gigawatts!” “Flux capacitor fluxing”, I could go on. The film also trades in that classic Hollywood technique of setting up for a sequel (or two). But this is not done in an annoying way; rather the film sets up multiple layers to be returned to later in the series. And it also ensures that the central narrative of the film is resolved at the end of the film rather than just leaving it half done.

The film in many ways was intended as a star vehicle for the (until then) T.V. star Michael J. Fox. You can see why there was such a desire from the studio to create some sort ideal role for him, because he gives such a wonderfully assured and joyful young performance in this film. The wrong actor in this role would have completely derailed the film, but Fox’s turn helps to ensure it is a classic. Of course Lloyd’s Emmett Brown is delightfully over the top, managing to be just unhinged enough to endear himself without grating. Lloyd’s physicality, the use of his facial expressions and entire body in his reaction to the events unfolding around him, are what manage to achieve this. Lea Thompson and especially Crispin Glover are also excellent as Marty’s parents. They manage to convince and engage when playing awkward (or promiscuous teenagers) and as middle-aged parents disappointed with the actions of their own teenagers. Glover’s is close to the best performance in the film, and one of those giving him a run for his money is Thomas F. Wilson as the bully Biff (Wilson is also phenomenal in the later films, managing to play Biff from a teenager to an old withered man excellently). He is equal parts intimidating hard man and bumbling buffoon, the latter seen when his car ends up covered in manure, setting up one of the series’ best recurring jokes. Shit, everyone is good in this film. Even the bit parts with only have couple of lines are really well acted.

Quite early on in the piece I was intending on using one of the film’s classic pieces of dialogue as the blog’s title. I settled on the one above after much conjecture, because I think it encompasses much of what the film achieves in my opinion. This is a mainstream, family adventure film, but it is quite possibly the best one ever made, and definitely one of my favourites. It literally transcends and is on a higher level, than most everything of a similar vein. 

Verdict: Longneck of Melbourne Bitter

Progress: 51/1001

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