Any Time, Any Place: The Ageless Appeal of Back to the Future

Back to the Future poster

VHS Revival travels back in time with an ageless classic.

Back to the Future is about change, about fate and destiny and the possibility of a second chance.

Those sentiments may smack of mawkish wish-fulfilment, and Robert Zemeckis’ cultural phenomenon is nothing if not idealistic, but there are ways to promote such romanticisms without descending into the sickly slush of blueprint Hollywood, and in December of 1985 Back to the Future showed us just how creative Hollywood can be.

What makes the movie so special is that we are able to participate as an audience, foreshadowing every last quirky facet as the 1950’s threaten to swallow our protagonist’s whole existence. We are given the pieces of a puzzle, not just in terms of events, but in terms of altered familial perceptions as Marty’s observations reveal a very different history from the one he may have imagined.

Back to the Future 1

The first variation of 1985 reveals a McFly household of perennial underachievers. His mother is an alcoholic, his father a mousy nerd who lives in the shadow of his own failure and suppressed ambitions. And then there’s Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a colossal oppressor who treats George like they’re still at high school. Marty, a loveable rogue with ambitions of becoming a guitarist, seems to be the anomaly beset on breaking the McFly curse. And break the curse he will, but not in any way he ever could have imagined.

Marty – What, you smoke too?

Lorraine – Marty, you’re beginning to sound like my mother.

In present day Hill Valley, Marty’s mother is forever championing the virtues of her generation, a time when girls had standards and would never dream of making sexual advancements like those unscrupulous harlots of the ‘80s, but when Marty runs into the younger version of Lorraine, he finds out first-hand just how much we know about our parents and the extent of their hypocrisy. George too, a timid loner who seems to have stumbled onto his marriage by pure happenstance, was not the pitiful choirboy his son presumes, but a peeping Tom who was struck by Lorraine’s father’s car not by fate, but due to his spying on her through binoculars, a pastime that threatens to destroy the McFly family history.

Back to the Future 2

What is truly astonishing are the multi-faceted performances of an ensemble cast of mostly rookie actors. With an average age of 23, our youthful cast are tasked with playing different variations of the same character regarding both age and circumstance, a concept that would be explored even further in the movie’s sequels, and every one of them achieves those variations with a quite astonishing aplomb. Whether it’s a stammering George McFly (Crispin Glover), or a gloomy, vodka soaked Lorraine (Lea Thompson), each portrayal is as colourful and as stand-out as the next, while Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff Tannen gives us so many variations of the pig-head bully that it’s hard to recall such a memorable and endearing onscreen ignoramous in a genre brimming with them.

Biff is perhaps the truest example of fate in the entire movie. His relentless scourge is as star-crossed to the McFly clan as Romeo is to Juliet. Whether he’s uttering the ominous ‘McFly!’ or attempting to get fresh with the family matriarch, Tannen, whatever his age, form or generation, is an omnipotent presence in Marty’s family history, preordained as the inevitable force who will either make or break their entire existence.

Back to the Future 3

Holding it all together is Doctor Emmet Brown. Doc is the sentient lighting rod holding everything together, a zany, wild-eyed inventor who struggles to maintain pragmatism and logic in an environment completely devoid of it. Christopher Lloyd is the heartbeat of the entire movie, giving a career high physical performance that screams iconic. With his frazzled appearance and and wild-eyed revelations, he is the movie’s moral compass, his co-dependent relationship with Marty providing its emotional core as they race blindly towards one of many possible fates. Their ultimate destination may lack certainty, but we cling to their coattails with the zest and zeal of children strapped to a roller coaster, one with so many twists and timescale loops we are reduced to wide-eyed passengers with no option but to let go.

Biff Tannen – Why don’t you make like a tree and get out of here!

The movie’s plot, although tightly knit and clearly delivered, depends on so many variables that the possibilities seem endless. Time travel has never been the most graspable concept, much like anything beyond mortal comprehension, but as a plot device it is pure gold, and never has it been handled as exhilaratingly as Back to the Future.

Back to the Future 4

Of course, if you analyse the movie’s events with any seriousness, the whole thing falls apart. After George and Lorraine finally get together, it is Marty they have to thank for their union, to the extent that they even name their first child after him. When that child grows up to look exactly like their time-travelling hero, you would think one of them would notice the similarities. When Marty travels back to the future to warn doc of his impending death at the hands of plutonium-smuggling terrorists, there are two versions of Marty running around Hill Valley, which suggests that their loop is endless.

The movie refuses to treat this as a hindrance. In fact, it thrives on it, inviting you to strap yourself in and revel in the breakneck implausibility. The basic plot sends Marty back in time to warn the doc about his inevitable murder, but Marty’s mere presence in a time before he was even conceived threatens to unravel doc’s theory of the space-time continuum, and while other movies may have buckled under the burden of logicality, Back to the Future stabilises it with its clever parallels and comical quirks.

Back to the Future 5

Marty, the only character in the entire movie who is not plunged into time-altering chaos, alters time in ways that reach beyond the destiny of his family. Not only does he invent the skateboard and introduce history’s most infamous sci-fi villains to the public’s consciousness, he introduces rock ‘n roll music to a generation who will soon thrive on it, leading to one of the most memorable phone calls in all of cinema.

Marvin Berry – [on the phone, as Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode”] Chuck! Chuck, it’s Marvin. Your cousin, Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re looking for? Well, listen to this! [holds the receiver out]

Much of the movie’s humour derives from its two colliding generations, the gaudy extravagance of the ’80s invading a culture on the verge of liberation, but one still mired in the staunch conservatism of its elders, and one certainly unprepared for the likes of Marty McFly, whose impromptu Van Halen solo and Walkman-led proclamations about Darth Vader’s brain-melting capacities are both bold and relatable, extravagant and somehow within the realms of pulp plausibility (except maybe the notion that movie star Ronald Reagan will one day become the president of the United States of America).

Back to the Future 7

For those of us who were children at the time of Back to the Future’s release, this movie is the ultimate ’80s time capsule, capturing the decade’s decadence in all of its vulgar glory. Bubble jackets, skateboards and Calvin Klein underwear may have seemed futuristic to those citizens of the pre-rock ‘n roll era, but for the movie’s original demographic they speak of a time long ago, a notion that the movie will always continue to champion, even when the events of our generation are but a distant memory.

Cedric Smarts

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