Release Date: July 3rd, 1985 (US); December 4th, 1985 (UK)
Genre: Adventure; Comedy; Science fiction
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd
From the moment Dean Cundy trails his camera around Emmett “Doc” Brown’s (Christopher Lloyd) cantankerous home, clickety-tickety gadgets clicking and ticking in all directions, you just know Back to the Future is going to be a film that values wacky invention and rich characterisation. The plethora of loud clocks, the iffy tin openers, the monster amps, they all reflect Doc’s personality: budding, buzzing, and entirely unpredictable. And we haven’t even met him yet.
It’s Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) whom we first encounter, tripping over Doc’s seemingly infinite housebound bits and bobs, somehow looking both uncomfortably out of place and at ease with his bonkers surroundings. We know then that the pair share an uncommon bond and that, for the remaining two hours, its lack of plausibility doesn’t matter. These opening 10 minutes, penned by director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale, are brilliant. Those that follow are pretty good too.
We initially find ourselves slap-bang in the mid-1980s, Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” beefing up the Zeitgeist with pop rock verve. The special effects are goofy but in charming sort of manner, electric lights fizzing and squawking. When we shift to the 1950s soon after, the visual palette takes on a post-war retro tint: glass bottles of Coca-Cola, tall chocolate milkshakes, unabashedly shiny vehicles. Doc and Marty are to blame for said shift, the former having transformed his DeLorean into a time travelling machine and the latter having taken the time-sensitive plunge.
Marty is a bit cocky, a bit arrogant. He’s a rebel with a cause: to change history. Zemeckis and Gale set up the various pay-offs early on — Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), the adult bully who needs some comeuppance; the Hill Valley Preservation Society’s attempts to save the town clock tower that, coincidentally, was struck by lightning 30 years ago. We know how story facets such as these will play out, but other rules are established only to be rewritten. In 1955, Marty takes his father George’s (Crispin Glover) place in a car accident, blacking out and subsequently awaking in his mother’s teenage bedroom. She, unaware Marty is her son, tries to seduce him.
The aforementioned notion would provoke cringe in many other outings, but Back to the Future gets away with it because the air is so madcap. Michael J. Fox’s nervous energy around his young mum Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is both hilarious and touching: “You shouldn’t drink because… you might regret it later in life,” he informs his mother, a future alcoholic. Crossover traits from the 50s and 80s afford Marty a freshness in both settings — traits such as booming teenage culture, motor car appreciation, and the imminent popularity of rock music. The film even paints Marty as the brainchild behind Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, and you can’t help but admire its odd legitimacy.
On the other hand, Doc is introduced under an air of mystery. We hear his voice, eccentric and agitated, over the phone long before we meet him in person. The barmy inventor reverses noisily on-screen, smoke pillowing wherever there is space, his frazzled hair and radioactive suit vindicating our original preconceptions. Christopher Lloyd unveils an intense stare that promotes excitement rather than intimidation. His character is like an affable Count Olaf, if Count Olaf was a mad scientist and affable. You accept Doc and Marty’s offbeat camaraderie as standard practice because the two actors have natural, unkempt chemistry. They drive the film with as much intent and enthusiasm as they drive the DeLorean.
Elsewhere, Back to the Future spends time taking potshots at 1950s culture and politics because doing anything else would be against time travel law. In a not-so-solid burst of intuition, Marty decides the only way to convince past Doc (there are a few incarnations of one or two characters which can be a tad confusing) that he has arrived from the future is by reeling off 1980s characteristics, and subsequently names Ronald Reagan as the current US President. “Ronald Reagan, the actor? Ha!” Doc shoots back, a response that probably would have held weight back then, when Reagan was more likely to be found on a Hollywood movie set than inside the Oval Office.
It is practically impossible not to enjoy this film. With almost as many quotable lines as Casablanca, it’s essentially Grease on physics-defying wheels. Zemeckis creates a heightened ambience that encourages nothing but authentic, irreverent chaos. Suburban madness was a movie-making norm in the 1980s, and Back to the Future is as wonderfully mad as it gets.
Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures