Big Screen Streaming: Back to the Future

Big Screen Streaming: Back to the Future

-In his monthly column, Roger Market explores the magic of the Back to the Future Trilogy-

On October 21, 2015, fans of the Back to the Future trilogy will be able to watch the films in select theaters for one night only. This event commemorates the 30th anniversary of the first movie’s release. The date was planned to coincide with an event from the series: Back to the Future Part II’s destination date when our heroes travel from 1985 to 2015. Why does a thirty-year-old movie have so much staying power and influence? A time travel story on the surface, Back to the Future is really more about taking control of one’s destiny, making something of yourself, and not letting the world get you down. Most viewers can relate to these themes. Short, teenage Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is decades younger than the white-haired Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), but they are a compatible duo whose constant friendship takes the film to new heights. And the writing, at least for the first movie in the franchise, is downright inspiring.

The creative team behind Back to the Future makes expert use of foreshadowing throughout the movie. During the intro, viewers are treated to a video tour of Dr. Brown’s lab, complete with hundreds of clocks, various inventions that fail to work properly, framed photographs of inventors, a car commercial on the radio, and a TV news report about plutonium theft. As those who have already seen the film know, all of these elements will be important.

The setups keep coming, oftentimes with comedic effect. Marty strolls into Dr. Brown’s home to use the guitar amplifier and sound system. A hopeless fan of loud 80’s music, he ramps the volume, unintentionally destroying the speaker in the process. Moments later, he receives a phone call from Brown. “That reminds me, Marty,” Dr. Brown says after a brief initial exchange, “you better not hook up to the amplifier. There’s a slight possibility of overload.” As Marty stares at the irreparably damaged sound system, he says he’ll “keep that in mind.” When the clocks in the lab all strike eight o’clock at once, Dr. Brown reveals that they are exactly twenty-five minutes slow, and thus begins the movie’s infatuation with time and disobedience: Marty is late for school, and his principal has it in for him. Guess who gets detention?

During that opening-scene phone call, Dr. Brown asks Marty to meet him at the local mall later that night. When Marty finally arrives, Brown reveals the reason for their meeting, blowing Marty’s mind: He has created the world’s first time travel device—from a DeLorean, a “classy,” though somewhat impracticle automobile that runs on plutonium. The source of fuel? Brown has stolen the radioactive material from a group of Libyans who wanted him to build them a bomb. Suddenly, all of the setups from the opening scene fall into place. When the Libyans show up to kill Dr. Brown, a distraught Marty takes the DeLorean as his getaway vehicle and inadvertently disobeys the laws of nature, traveling back to 1955, the year his parents first met, kissed, and fell in love.

Now, the movie begins to employ dramatic irony for both suspense and comedic effect. When Marty accidentally disrupts his parents’ courtship, he shifts his teenage mother’s attentions from his father, George McFly, to himself. Thus begins Marty’s seemingly never-ending quest to get his parents together. To track his progress, Marty inspects a photograph he brought back from the future. His siblings, pictured in the photograph, are slowly disappearing, evidence that he has disrupted the time-space continuum. If Marty can’t get his parents together, as they were destined, eventually he too will start to disappear from the photo and then from reality. Luckily, he has contacted the 1955 version of Dr. Brown to explain his predicament. Doc, elated to learn that he has finally invented “something that works,” promises to help Marty fix history and get “back to the future!”

During Marty’s quest, he continues to disobey the rules, putting him in hot water at every turn and earning him an enemy in local tough guy, the young Biff Tanner. One of these early confrontations is the now-classic chase scene in which Marty zips along on a “board with wheels” while Biff follows in his car. In the end, Biff eats Marty’s dust—along with some other organic matter. Marty’s mother, Lorraine, looks on with unknowingly incestuous admiration.

Failing to get his parents to fall in love initially, Marty hatches a Hail Marry plan to take his young mother to the high school’s Enchantment Under the Sea dance, at which he’ll “take advantage” of her so that George can step in to defend her. With any luck, George will win her love, and they will have their first kiss at that same dance, just as they are supposed to (the present Lorraine recounts this story back in 1985 to the annoyance of Marty’s sister, who had already heard it “a million times”). Meanwhile, Dr. Brown works on a plan to transport Marty safely back to 1985. The last act of the film is an incredible example of cinematic suspense, with Marty, George, and Dr. Brown thwarting each new obstacle only to find another one in its place.

The epic time gap that allows Marty to meet his parents as teenagers contributes to the film’s popularity both on its release and thirty years later. Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, and Christopher Lloyd turn in stellar performances as Lorraine, George, Biff, and Dr. Brown, respectively, in both 1955 and 1985. The movie’s twist ending is fun, too, allowing these actors to shine once again. Adding to the popularity of Back to the Future is the film’s fantastic soundtrack. The track list includes “The Power of Love” and “Mr. Sandman,” as well as a performance of “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” at the school dance by the fictional band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters. The pièce de résistance, however is Marty McFly’s anachronistic and shocking rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” when the band needs an emergency guitarist. Although Fox did not record the vocals himself, his stage presence is legendary, and the performance is unforgettable.

While Back to the Future became a classic for many reasons, viewers will especially remember the movie’s lightning-struck clock tower and, of course, the comically souped up time-traveling DeLorean. Indeed, the fate of these two iconic symbols is yet another example of the screenwriting mastery at work in the film: Several early references to the clock tower’s 1955 demise eventually lead to the lightning strike itself, which the 1955 Dr. Brown identifies as the only way to generate enough power to send Marty back to the future in the absence of plutonium to fuel the time machine. It’s easy to see why stakes this high and writing this entertaining could never be contained in only one movie. Consequently, dedicated fans of the Back to the Future franchise will be in for a long night on October 21, when the exciting triple play hits theaters for a limited engagement.

Check back in early October for my reviews of Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III, just days before the anniversary screenings!


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