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The Future is Back: Revisiting ‘Back to the Future’

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“Great Scott, Marty, it’s been thirty years…..!!”

On July 3rd 1985, Robert Zemeckis’ Back To The Future split movie screens wide open with a time travel action adventure that’s yet to be equalled. A film’s film if you will, and a movie so complete in its box ticking it’s almost unbearable. One is inclined to wax complimentary about this masterpiece in hushed tones given the current onslaught of mostly tepid and utterly pointless remakes and reimaginings. One can also only hope that the hacks that some day decide upon remaking this most sacred of cows will find themselves mysteriously crammed into a DeLorian one dark and stormy night and swiftly eighty eighted back to a time where they can do no harm.

So, where to start with a movie this good? Everywhere you look there’s treasure in abundance. Blessed with a phenomenal cast, production and score, BTTF gives generously. But the jewel in it’s crown is it’s remarkable narrative. And herein lies the technical splendour of Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’ dazzling screenplay. A screenplay, it should be noted, that was rejected no less than forty times. It’s one of the most intricately woven multi layered pop screenplays ever written. Simple as.

It effortlessly taps broad archetypal plot motifs, from quest, voyage and return, through comedy, love and a kind of working class familial tragedy – there is a wonderfully subtle scene in which Fox’s Marty, upon returning back to the 1955 of his mother’s parent’s home, drops a great line when seeing his then uncle Joey as a baby behind the wooden bars of a playpen, an uncle that will go on to spend substantial bouts of time behind actual prison bars. It’s a funny line, but it’s trumped by the line given directly after by Marty’s Grand Mother – a line that is at once funny but weighed down by a kind of leaden prophecy that is as tragic as it is humorous. All fans who may have forgotten said lines and the newbies to the film get thee to a dvd player and seek them out. For all it’s pop and fizz dialogue, BTTF doesn’t shy away from the failed American dream and there are subtle allusions to this throughout the movie. And they need to be there, or the dynamics of a coming of “ages” tale (both young and old are on journey’s towards discovery and creative self expression), science fiction, fact and farce, the birth of adolescence, teen spirit and it’s inevitable death by conformity, friendship, infatuation and pure uncut adventure, loses it’s full currency. It’s a screenplay anchored in an imperfect world wherein perfect things can and do happen.

Of course when it comes to time travel, the physics and fog of Hollywood science partner up extremely well, wilfully asking us to abandon rational enquiry because in the final analysis, such considerations don’t make an ounce of difference. Time travel is necessarily the domain of the utterly bonkers, and Back To The Future lays out it’s proviso in dealing with this beautifully. Before you know it, the movie has finished and you’ve not questioned a thing. And even if by some momentary fall from make believe you find yourself subtly plagued by the niggling discrepancies inherent in time travels “how the hells!!” halfway through, they are quickly abandoned because it all makes a kind of gloriously crazy sense, and crazy works.

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BTTF effortlessly let’s us in. And for all it’s technical plotting complexities it never feels like it’s making you work for it’s rewards. This conceit is wonderfully illustrated by the relationship between Doc and Marty – perhaps the tightest buddies in movie history,with Chewy and Han a close second. The former pairing immediately come across as the very best of friends and what’s established between them from the very start is the trust and respect for one another that powers it’s way through every frame of the film shared together.

Sublime.

These guys are heavy…

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Doc’s associative likeness to Albert Einstein isn’t just a broad token mascot to the archetypal mad professor. On more than one occasion, Doc alludes to a kind of failure to find that eureka moment, spending years grafting within the hard shadows of the elusive equation that’s always just one clever step ahead of him. This fate, along with gravity defying hair, was of course practically invented by Einstein and it strengthens the films intellectual property. Doc, like Einstein, is both a complete authority and hopeless novice and Lloyd plays that in the perfect key throughout.

Michael J Fox’s portrayal as Marty is equally breathtaking in the believability stakes. A performance that demanded a deceiving amount of range. Fox is tasked with providing so much in the way of nuance it’s easy to miss the subtleties it took to pull it off. His character has to be so much, to so many, so often. Fox achieves this effortlessly, giving less or more of his “Martyness” to each and every character he meets accordingly. It’s no stretch to suggest that Fox was one of the finest physical actors of his generation too. He is incredibly easy to watch in this film. It’s a complete joy to fall over with him. He bounces between an awkward elasticity and a sort of aerodynamic ease as and when the scene demands it. It’s easy to imagine him having carved out a similarly successful career as a stuntman. On top of all this is his extreme likeability. We’re totally with him and the adventure he is shaping with each fumble and easy foot forward, or back.

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Back to the supporting cast. It’s often cited that the quickly established chemistry between Fox and Lloyd helped to hone and heighten the performances given by the other actors around them. True as this may be, one can imagine that both Fox (predominantly a TV actor) and Lloyd knew they had to be on the very top of their game with the likes of James Tolkan, Crispin Glover, Francis Lee McCain, Lea Thomson, Thomas F. Wilson et al chewing up the scenery in spectacular fashion.

Everyone did their homework and it shows. Every frame of BTTF is a testament to film making at it’s very best and thirty years since it’s inception has simply tightened it’s overall quality and sense of urgency. And this above all else is perhaps why it is still so revered. With the aforementioned exception of the brilliant sequel that followed if four years later, cinema is woefully starved of movies this good. Movies that can traverse neat conceptual ideas by way of broad thematic and highly savvy and imaginative screenplays that are peopled by ensemble casts that perform out of their skins.

The current and continuing rise and reign of the “McMovie” power vomiting out of our cinemas today pales in comparison to such undeniable quality. But whilst Back To The Future singles itself out as the finest adventure time travel movie ever made, it arrived in a gilded decade of film when the family adventure movie was in exceptionally rude health. And this is why we still love them so much. These films are still there whenever we need them of course and BTTF is one of the worthy leaders among them, just want more of the same please.

– Paul Donovan


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