Back to the Future (1985)

★★★★

Back to the Future PosterDirector: Robert Zemeckis

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.

Back to the Future - Doc & Marty 2

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

Back to the Future, Back in the Cinema

Back to the Future - Doc & Marty

It’s the franchise that was never supposed to grace the silver screen again — director Robert Zemeckis has said so himself on many occasions — but the Jaws 19-decrying Back to the Future trilogy zoomed back into cinemas all over the world on Wednesday, breaking its own steadfast rule as a result. Great Scott! Heavy indeed.

But fear not. Zemeckis’ insistence that there shan’t ever be a Part IV is still set in stone, and as such Back to the Future’s legacy will remain firmly intact for the foreseeable, um, future. The trilogy’s re-release arrived as part of a wholesale cinematic celebration and moviegoers seemed to lap it up, attending screenings in their droves. October 21st, 2015 is a date that has been permanently marked in all of our calendars ever since Marty McFly and Emmett “Doc” Brown ventured from their 80s-set suburban existence through time, before landing in a world of self-tying trainers and hoverboards. The former has come to fruition in real life. Sadly, we are still waiting on the arrival of latter.

Back to the Future - Jaws 19

Variety is reporting that the trilogy garnered a respectable $4.8 million worldwide from its one-day rendezvous, a total comprised of North America’s $1.65 million domestic gross and an international intake of around $3.2 million. Those are heartening figures, especially when you take into account the day of the week (i.e. that it wasn’t a Friday or a weekend) and the pretty demanding near six-hour runtime for those sitting through all three films.

By comparison, Ghostbusters gained an extra $3.5 million in domestic revenue when it embarked upon its 30th Anniversary encore last year, and we all know just how highly regarded that outing is. Zemeckis, who coincidentally had to face off against himself at box office on Wednesday, will presumably be delighted that his franchise — produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment — is still held in such high regard after 30 years. That’s the power of love.

For those few of you out there who aren’t up to speed on the madcap world of Hill Valley, California, the trilogy follows the trailblazing exploits of Marty (Michael J. Fox) and Doc (Christopher Lloyd) as they invariably travel backwards and forwards through time in order to influence a whole host of life events. Hilarity, unsurprisingly, ensues. Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, and Elizabeth Sue also star in one of cinema’s most endearing products.

Back to the Future - Mum & Marty

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Universal Pictures

The Walk (2015)

★★★

The Walk PosterDirector: Robert Zemeckis

Release Date: October 9th, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Adventure; Biography; Drama

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Charlotte Le Bon, Ben Kingsley

In 1896 the Lumière brothers screened one of their debut films, L’arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. Legend mischievously has it that audience members, shocked by the sight of a steam locomotive moving towards them, fled from the vicinity with vigour. It’s one of those historic stories draped in romanticism that you desperately want to believe, and films such as The Walk give credence to stories such as those. The Walk isn’t as authentic as James Marsh’s brilliant Man on Wire, but then that documentary never dangled us 1,350 feet above Lower Manhattan.

Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) does not believe in “getting a permit”. He can say that again. After biting into a sugary sweet, the French street performer scuttles over to his local dentist and then moans about having to struggle through two hours of toothache as he waits for an appointment. He ain’t the only one squirming for two hours; if you don’t get along especially well with heights, things might get a bit tetchy. Petit’s pain-stricken time at the dentist acts as a catalyst for what he would later call the “artistic coup of the century”: a tightrope walk between the Twin Towers.

But before we can ascend, there is stuff to do. Narrative, or set-up, or something. The visuals down on ground level are oddly ropey. It’s as if the film is trying to mix a Toy Story-esque texture with real life, and it doesn’t quite work. The objective is clear and sort of understandable: to evoke a fairy tale quality that supports Petit’s impossible task, one bearing mythical connotations. But the uncanny aesthetic funds a light, sprightly momentum when perhaps something grittier would have been more interesting — the real Petit, for instance, has never shunned away from acknowledging his foolish qualities. In fairness, Joseph Gordon-Levitt does energetic vanity well.

Writer-director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne do at least shed some light on Petit’s stubbornness. The performer’s selfish mantra in the pursuit of artistic merit places unfair stress on his friends and family, a sentiment also explored in Everest. As such Petit veers exceedingly close to unlikeable, which would be fine if the film wasn’t so hell-bent on trying to sell him as the dream-conquering saviour of New York. The screenplay takes liberties with specific true events. In Man on Wire, Petit admits to cheating on his girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) immediately after achieving his goal, but the film shies away from this revelation and the alternative it proposes is unsatisfactory.

Petit’s characterisation could be bolder. In an interview on the Empire Podcast, Zemeckis revealed why he chose to selectively colour his lead: “The character I thought the audience could identify with is the one that I portrayed”. His reasoning is fair, but the director is underselling his audience’s willingness to empathise with shades of grey. Towards the end, one of Petit’s comrades suggest he has finally given soul to the Twin Towers, which might also be a fabrication. But at least this is part of Zemeckis’ attempt to pay homage to the World Trade Center post-9/11, and the idealistic notion is actually quite sweet.

Back in France we occasionally rendezvous with Ben Kingsley, playing tutor Papa Rudy, who sports a non-specific European accent — it’s all over the place and nowhere in particular. One of the team members recruited by Petit to fulfil his self-penned destiny suffers from vertigo, while another, who spends the film intoxicated on drugs, jokes about the height of the stunt (though to be fair, the latter’s Shaggy from Scooby-Doo demeanour is quite amusing). Petit himself donates to this atmosphere of farce with statements such as, “I whisper so the demons won’t hear me”.

It is all quite ludicrously caper-ish. Ocean’s Eleven atop the world’s tallest building. As the team plans Petit’s vertical-turned-horizontal heist, the tightrope walker dawns a number of amusing disguises: reporter, construction worker (foot impaled by nail included), tourist, businessman. Composer Alan Silvestri even occasionally treats us to Mission: Impossible’s famous vacillating whistle. The soundtrack also borrows from Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash, fielding a cantankerous drum and jazz beat aided by the prevailing tension. Thankfully there is no rushing during The Walk.

Inevitably, the outing has to wade through a sea of invasive anticipation. Most of the events that occur during the opening two-thirds are fine, but we’re only really here to trial the fearful majesty of high, high, high-wire walking. Following Petit’s lead — his calming influence is a saviour — the first time we peer over the edge of the World Trade Center an undeniable rush of exhilaration and terror ensues. This is where Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography really comes to fruition, at night unveiling a wonderful neon carpet below, and during the day capturing the voluminous bustle of New York City. The towers look incredible too; it’s nice seeing them relayed in such a positive light.

But is the walking part of The Walk just a stunning gimmick, or is it a genuine cinematic experience? Probably a bit of both. As Petit steps onto his wire you brace yourself in much the same way someone would prior to pelting down a steep slope on the world’s fastest roller coaster, but the sequence also incorporates classic movie tropes: burgeoning threat, visual amazement, a visceral personal reaction. There is one moment involving a seagull that almost ruins the spectacle (it’s ridiculous and unnecessary) but thankfully that dissipates quickly.

If 3D is one of modern cinema’s aggravating realities then this is the way it ought to be used. For around half an hour, the format contributes to the genuine awe you feel when balancing between the towers. Zemeckis has set a new benchmark in three-dimensional movie-making. Upping the ante? That’ll be a tall order.

The Walk - Charlotte Le Bon & Joseph Gordon-Levitt

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): TriStar Pictures

Flight (2012)

★★★★

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Release Date: November 2nd, 2012 (US); February 1st, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Thriller

Starring: Denzel Washington, Kelly Reilly, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood

It does not take long for Robert Zemeckis’ Flight to race into full throttle and deliver the intense plane crash scene from which much of the buzz surrounding the film has emanated. However, the film quickly switches gears and ends up spending most of its time delving into a more subtly intense story about a man’s plight against addiction — a ruthless concoction of lies, alcohol and drugs succinctly summed up by the lead character’s quip, “Don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking”. It becomes a dramatic character study rather than an event-driven thriller, and with each extra lie that Denzel Washington’s Whip tells, or additional drink he swigs, you just want to give him a shake and remind the heroic pilot that he can be a decent human being.

Whip Whitaker is a seemingly disenfranchised airline pilot who spends his evenings with co-workers (more specifically, air hostesses) in hotel rooms partaking in substantial alcohol consumption and drug use — and that is only on pre-flight nights. He awakens from his extravagantly unprofessional routine one morning both sleep-deprived and lumbersome, before heading out to captain a flight to Atlanta. After successfully, and somewhat surprisingly, manoeuvring his plane through a bout of rough turbulence, an alcohol-influenced Whip is forced to execute an emergency landing in a field. A plane crash is a once-in-a-thousand-lifetimes event that, for the vast majority of us, is something only experienced through the likes of news reports or documentaries. Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess do a nail-bitingly horrifying job of emulating the chaos, destruction and terror of such an event, far eclipsing the director’s tumultuous Cast Away aviation incident. Washington’s poise is both unsettling and admirable as a captain who is just as dependent on booze and drugs as his passengers are on his flying skills.

Whip awakens in hospital a hero to the public but quietly uncertain and continuously seeking reassurance over his role in the crash. “My [condition] had nothing to do with the plane falling apart,” is often closely followed by, “Nobody could’ve landed that plane like I did”. The film does not shy away from making clear that the doomed aircraft was a result of mechanical failure, but a combination of Whip’s pre-flight misdemeanours and post-crash internal conflict raises doubt. Is there the possibility that Whip’s demons lead to the accident? Zemeckis’ direction plays a role in casting this ambiguity over proceedings, however Washington’s depiction of a man unravelling creates doubt not where there should be none, but where there is none.

The Academy Award winner has the stench of alcohol protruding from him throughout the film and stands out, in particular, in two scenes of mental jousting. The first, soon after cleansing himself and his life of all toxic substances by way of sink or toilet, sees a fidgety Whip down his first drink in the knowledge that he is facing potential criminal prosecution. The second comes towards the end of the film where Whip is surrounded by people, but more alone than ever as he juggles morals in his head. It is testament to Denzel Washington’s acting abilities that he ensures Whip commands sympathy in spite of all of his negative traits. Perhaps this is partially down to those traits tearing away at nobody but Whip himself — “What life?” is how highly he regards his existence. It is eerily fitting that said traits, which without aid are leading to the downfall of the man himself, are also responsible for saving the lives of many others.

Flight is not without faults. The film does an excellent job of creating the Kelly Reilly character, Nicole, who sets off in the same place as Whip but ends up moving in the opposite direction. Reilly is convincing as a manipulable heroin addict trying to turn her life around, and she shares an intriguing if not entirely believable relationship with Whip (although this lack of believability is probably the point). However her character fails to really go anywhere. There is also a very noticeable comedy element which rears its jokey head every so often, and every so often it fails to fit in with dark nature of events. Or at least is should fail. Bizarrely, the humour provides some welcome light relief, with John Goodman often the vehicle of funny. Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood succeed in their semi-conflicting roles (both are there to help Whip, but only one shows affection towards him). James Badge Dale also makes a scene-stealing cameo as a dying man in the hospital and delivers film’s best one-liner after receiving a carton of cigarettes from Whip.

Ultimately, Flight sets out to tell the story of a man struggling through addiction while encased in special circumstances, and it does this very well. Denzel Washington’s engrossing performance at times teeters on the incredible, and just like the Coke can that follows Whip around his hotel room reminding him of what he cannot have, Washington’s prominence on screen provides another reminder of just how great a performer he is. Not that anybody needed reminding.