Thirty years plays heavily into Back to the Future. Marty goes back 30 years in the past mid-way through the film, Doc Brown goes 30 years into the future at the end of the film, and the film itself, inexplicably and unfathomably, has just turned 30 itself.
Why inexplicable and unfathomable? Because the film by all rights should feel dated. It is unequivocally set in 1985 for half the film, and has all the trademarks of an ’80s film, right down to the catchy, Top 40 soundtrack. But when you watch it today, it still feels as fresh and vibrant as the day it was released. It is a time travel film that has achieved timelessness.
The reason why the film holds up so well is because all of its moving parts mesh together almost flawlessly. What makes this even more special is that the parts we got were not all the parts the film started out with.
By now, the fact that Eric Stoltz was originally cast in–and shot quite a bit of–the lead role of Marty McFly has just about become a Hollywood legend. Michael J. Fox was the original choice, but he was two years into his superstar turn in NBC’s Family Ties, and the show’s producers did not want to release him from the show to do the movie. Stoltz was getting a lot of positive buzz for his role in the forthcoming Mask, so producers decided to cast him instead. Stoltz, a theatrically trained actor, approached the role with a very serious, and somewhat stiff, approach. It soon became apparent to all parties that Stoltz wasn’t right for Marty. He was amicably fired, and the film’s producers made an arrangement to get Fox. Fox would shoot Family Ties during the day then speed over to the Back to the Future set to film that at night.
Thank goodness that arrangement was made, because the film would be half as good with anyone other than Fox in the lead. He brought the right level of anxiety and awkwardness to the role. You felt for him as he got frustrated dealing with his loser parents and the curves life gave to him. His panic when he arrived in 1955 made the plot point all that much more believable. And Fox had the natural charisma and screen presence to make audience root for him, even when he was exhibiting traits that would not lead to sympathy from the audience. Eric Stoltz is a great actor, but if he stayed on, the film wouldn’t be as light and joyous as it is.
Of course, Fox is helped by the fact that he is surrounded by a cast who are giving career best performances. Christopher Lloyd is brilliant as Doctor Emmett Brown, delivering a layered performance that is only truly appreciated upon repeat viewings. Crispin Glover portrays George McFly as a human twitch, oozing weirdness out every pour, showing it with every gesture or body posture. Thomas Wilson presents one of the best archetypal villains ever to appear in film, making Biff Tannen switch from being a buffoon to a serious threat and back seamlessly. And if you didn’t have a crush on Lea Thompson in this film, even with the Oedipal context to her relation to Fox’s character, you didn’t have a pulse. She delivers a solid performance in a difficult role.
And it also helps that the script is one of the best scripts written in the 1980s. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had collaborated on three scripts prior to this on, 1978’s I Want to Hold Your Hand, 1979’s 1941, and 1980’s Used Cars. It appears that the fourth time was the charm. Just look at the opening scenes of the film:
This backtracks a bit, but bear with it, because I have a point about it:
This is a great opening. Christopher Lloyd does not appear in this scene, but that doesn’t keep us from being introduced to Doc Brown. From the slow pan across the room, you are intrigued by all the questions the scene asks (What’s the deal with all the clocks? Why are the coffee maker and automated system opening cans of dog food still activated when no one is there? Did someone leave in a hurry? And why is the teen hanging out with an older inventor anyway?) and all the information it provides (Obviously, Doc Brown is an inventor, but not a successful one by looking at the run down nature of his inventions. The news clippings tell us that he once had money, but had to sell his land to get more. And the perfect segue from the news item on the stolen plutonium with the pay off of Marty’s skateboard hitting the box of said plutonium) draws you into the story and the character. It teases you with who they are and what they are doing and makes you want to find out more. Sheer brilliance.
Same goes for Marty’s introduction. The scene with the guitar sums up a fundamental aspect of his personality–he wants to be cool, be better than he is, but life conspires against him to make him look foolish. All that shown by a pratfall into a shelving unit have an amp overload.
The same intelligence continues throughout the movie. Writing time-travel films is tricky, as this week’s Terminator: Genisys can tell you. It’s a genre that seems to have plot holes built into it by design. Zemeckis and Gale keep it as simple as they can as a way to avoid this. And they take great pains to introduce what the audience needs to know as the film progresses in a definitive way, yet in a way that doesn’t seem like wordy exposition. When you first see that annoying woman shove the “Save the Clock Tower” flyer in Marty’s face, you think it is just comic relief, but it really is the way Marty will be able to get back from 1955. And that is just one example. This all adds up, in my opinion, a darn near perfect film.
The film was followed by two sequels that, fairly or not, didn’t quite live up to the original. It also spawned a video game and animated series. Some of you might be amazed that Hollywood hasn’t remade the film yet. You have Zemeckis and Gale to thank for that not happening. Both men have said that they will not allow a remake of the film during their lifetime. Instead, the pair are working on a stage musical based on the first movie. The musical was scheduled to open on London’s West End this year to correspond with this anniversary, but the project was delayed until 2016 to give the pair more time to work on it.
Back to the Future is one of my favorite films, and I must have seen it 200 times over the last 30 years. I enjoy every viewing and, more often than not, I find something new that I either missed or forgot that makes me love the film even more.I love the fact that it has survived the test of time and new audiences are discovering it and falling in love with it like I did. This renewing fandom will allow the film to travel 30 years or more into the future. This is a very good thing.