Part I: Intro and Plot Synopsis
Thirty-Five years ago saw the release of the classic time traveling adventure film Back to the Future. It has stood the test of time (no pun intended) because of its endearing characters and wonderful adventure. The film is fun for all ages, and has cemented itself as an all-time classic. The movie works in so many ways that it is hard to put into words as to why it works so well. Not that it would hurt for me to try though. I also love this movie despite a few of its minor hiccups. It is a great work of a fun and simple time travel story and its narrative craft. It is remarkable in its mastery of setup and pay off as well as its narrative about the past and Marty McFly’s dynamic.
The film centers on juvenile delinquent Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) who is friends with a rejected Scientist named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The doctor is killed after stealing plutonium from Libyan nationalists. Marty travels back in time to thirty years in the past to…get back to the future (title drop). He accidentally gets hit by his grandfather’s car and his mother in the past nurses him back to health and starts to fall in love with him. Marty obviously want to stop it from happening. He tries to hook up his dad from the past with his mother so that he would not disappear from the timeline. He convinces the past Doc Brown to help him. The race is on for him to make sure his parents get together and for him to get back to the present.
Part II: Set up and Pay off / Foreshadowing
The movie is excellent in its use of set up and payoff. It is a screenwriting technique that does exactly what the name implies. It sets up a detail that seems like an inconsequential detail at first only to then give a great payoff as a reward for paying attention to the details in the beginning. The opening of this movie is the quintessential introductory set up. The T.V. in the background mentions how plutonium was stolen from the Libyan embassy. It seems like background noise for a first-time viewer. In a second viewing it acts as foreshadowing for Doc Brown stealing the plutonium from the Libyan rebels. Marty attempts to audition for the school dance with his band by playing a rock song. The judges reject him for being too loud. This acts as setup for him playing “Johnny B. Goode” during the Enchanted Under the Sea Dance when he plays it loud and leaves the audience speechless. What Biff said to George McFly is what he says to him in the past. It is also built up to what the malt shop keeper told him that if he keeps taking it like that than people will walk all over him. In the beginning of the film some women were raising charity to save the clock tower since the lighting storm. It is there to serve as a set up for the climax with its impeccable foreshadowing. It is the perfect contrast between the beginning and the end of the film. This scene is set during the day in clear weather while the climax has stormy weather with night. It is only one of the many reasons the climax works.
Part III: The Thirty-Year Nostalgia Rule and the Film’s depiction of the Past
There is an unwritten rule that after thirty years there will be a resurgence in the artistic works that were popular thirty years prior. Nowadays, there are many forms of media that borrow the atheistic of the 1980s since that was the popular culture three decades ago. It makes sense because artists tend to replicate the media they grew up with in their youth (Metzger, Feb. 13, 2017). This pattern is shown here in the premise of this film with Marty literally going back thirty years during the filmmakers’ youth. The time period is predictably romanticized which is to be expected in a nostalgia trip. It relies on the iconography for its setting from the malt shop to the costume design.
Its historical reverence is obvious, although it does have a few critiques as well. The nostalgic admiration takes centerstage though the negative observation of the time period is shown in short bursts. Biff bullies George McFly calling him an “Irish Bug”. This is not just an inane insult. It is a reference to the discrimination of the Irish immigrants a century prior. They were not considered to be real Americans for a long time. It serves to not only show George McFly’s character arc, but it also shows Biff’s prejudicial nature. It is strongly implied that George’s family are descended from Irish immigrants who were historically not considered to be “real white Americans”. The malt shop scene also has a black clerk named Goldie who shows support to George. He shows his solidarity with George because he is in a similar economic class. They are both part of historically oppressed groups which explains why he gives him advices George that if he lets people walk over him then he will be walked over his entire life. Marty reassures Goldie that he will be the future mayor much to his bosses’ skepticism. He even says, “a colored mayor, that will be the day”. Goldie vow to prove him wrong which is the films acknowledgement that the racial politics of the 1950s were wrong.
The film depicts high school life in the 1950s or at least Hollywood’s depiction of high school life in the 1950s. It has the trademark fast cars and high mannered schoolgirls contrasted with the muscled jocks. The movie depicts a more cynical view on this classical dynamic with the revelation of Lorraine’s alcoholism and Tobacco addiction. Lorrain further defies expectations of the time with her sexual nature. Throughout the past segments she is trying to sleep with Marty despite their familial ties. To be clear this is in the past, so she does not know that Marty is her son from the present. The Hays code forbade any mentions of sex which gave a romantic version of youth culture. When it lifted in 1968, American filmmakers took full advantage of the looser restrictions. This is not a deconstruction of patriarchal values because it is only for a moment. Its transgressive nature is still not unnoticed. One complaint I do have is that in the climax Loraine does loose her agency to further George’s character arc. She later becomes a prize won by him and she becomes more docile in the new timeline. The filmmakers had good intentions showing her good new nature, but it was at the cost of her agency in the story. The film’s depiction of the past is best exemplified in the major players of this time traveling tale.
Part IV: Marty and Doc Brown the Unlikely Friendship
In many ways Marty is the archetypal teenage protagonist of the 1980s. He defies authority and is an expert at skateboarding. He is rebellious with a heart of gold and physically active. He has conflicts with his parents like many of his famous counterparts in John Hughes films. Even though he shares many qualities of those teenage delinquents, he also has unique traits that make him stand out. He is a delinquent although he is not the jock archetype. He is physically fit but not overly muscular. His facial structure is not even part of the typical Hollywood small eyes and nose convention with his big eyes and nose. He gets into conflict with his parents, but he still respects them enough. His determination to see his parents get together in the past isn’t just to prevent himself from vanishing, it is also to make sure his parents are happy together. Marty is even more expressive than many of the stoic 1980s heroes. He is more vulnerable than the other heroes as well since he is just like any other kid. He still has his own sense of morality since he stands up to Biff for Loraine. He stands his ground when he sees authority figures like the malt shop owner or Biff. He is willing to lend a helping hand even if it is inconvenient for him. This is evident when he is trying to boost George’s confidence throughout the film. More will be addressed in George’s section later. It is most apparent when he helps the band members finish their show at the dance. Time was of the essence, yet he still goes out of his way to help despite his hesitation at first. His tendency to help others at his own expense was when he tried to warn Doc Brown about his death when the climax is reaching its end.
Doc Brown is perfect contrast to Marty and yet he compliments him to. Doc Brown is the intellectual to contrast Marty’s every man persona. The 1980s under the Reagan administration was a time when anti-intellectuals went into full effect again. This was done to push the narrative in popular films that the “real” heroes are everymen who takes matters into their own hands. Doc Brown defies this notion as being one of the emotional cores of the film. Many 1980s action heroes have an antagonistic relationship with the intellectual character. There is no such animosity between Marty and Doc Brown. Marty ground the situation in a relatable way while Doc Brown gives him the needed advice on how to work the flux capacitor. They are both frowned upon by the upper echelon at Hill Valley. Marty for his delinquency and Doc Brown for his atypical mannerisms. Their kinship is rooted in that and it could be a father/son relationship. In the opening timeline, George is a reluctant dad which makes Doc Brown the closest thing to an active father that Marty has. Despite their difference in IQ Doc Brown does not look down on the other citizens at Hill Valley or Marty. He still has respect for the people of hill valley and especially Marty.
Part V: George McFly and Biff Two different kinds of men
Biff Tannen played by Thomas F. Wilson is the quintessential bully in movies. The type that picks on the nerds and reveals in the pain that he gives to other people/ he is the bully that Nelson from the Simpsons was made to be a parody of. The writers are aware of Biff as a bully archetype and have fun with it. Wilson’s performance adds some camp to an otherwise archetypal antagonist with his dimwitted attempts to one up Marty. What makes Biff stand out is that he would have been the protagonist of a 1950s teen movie. He is physically active and rides hot cars. He is a delinquent with a gang of his own who would have gotten the girl in a popular movie at the time. The film is catered in Nostalgia for the 1950s, but it also has some negative observations about the tropes at the time. Not just his prejudicial nature as stated in a section earlier. His machismo is framed as villainous since he consistently makes advances on Loraine without her consent. He attempts to reaffirm his dominance by beating up Marty and assaulting Loraine. He is like Danny Zuko from Grease if the film was aware that his behavior is unacceptable. When Danny groped Sandy, it was framed as an innocent mishap, in this movie it is correctly framed as a horrific act (I am not really a fan of Grease despite my brother playing Danny in a production. I will explain why in a future article).
George McFly is the opposite of Biff. He is in shape but not conventionally attractive. He is the archetypal nerd who would have been nothing more than the comic relief in the teen comedies of yesteryear. This movie defies the expectation of the time by taking George’s passion for writing Sci Fi seriously. His attraction to Lorraine is physical at first but when they got to know each other than it becomes more emotional. He is timid and learns to stand up for himself from Marty who is his future son. The movie acknowledges that George is the true underdog as the son of Irish immigrants who ultimately stands up to the embodiment of American machismo. He is scared in the beginning of the film but ultimately learns to fight back against injustice. By standing up for himself he becomes a more attentive person to everyone else’s needs. The one complaint I do have about his arc is that he does lower himself to Biff’s level by resorting to violence to get together with Lorraine in the end. His present self in the new timeline makes him conventionally attractive which did cheapen what I liked about his character in the past timeline. It doesn’t ruin the movie for me or George’s character arc but it is a black mark in an otherwise good moment.
Part VI: The Masterful Climax
This movie has one of the most impressive climaxes in all of cinema. It managed to perform an impressive juggling act with its multiple ticking clocks and its intensity. A ticking clock is a screen writing tool for the protagonist to hurry up to achieve their goal. The climax has not one but three ticking clocks. The first is getting George and Lorraine together so that Marty and his siblings would not poof out of existence. The intensity is exemplified when Marty plays “Johnny B. Good” fulfilling the set up from the beginning of the film. The intensity is based on taking a detour that could detract from his goal of going back to the future adding a wrench to his plans. The guitar solo is energetic which is fun to watch and is also a visual representation of Marty’s urgency to finish it to complete the task. The second ticking clock is to go back to the future. Anything that could have gone has with Marty, not starting his car on time to Doc Brown desperately trying to connect the cables. The lighting is only there for a moment to get the 1.21 gigawatts needed to generate the flux capacitor. Doc Brown and Marty only succeed at the last possible moment against all odds with the score getting louder and the extra cuts emphasizing their shocked expressions. The final ticking clock is Marty going back in time again to warn Doc Brown about his future assassination. The scene is intense enough with Marty gong against his own interest to warn Doc Brown about is death when time is of the essence. It is exemplified when Doc Brown refused to listen was that he would not create a time paradox. The conflicting interests adds more intrigue to an already masterful climax. With so many things against Marty and Doc Brown it caused so much relief when things finally go right for them in the end.
Part VII: Conclusion
Back to the Future is an excellent time traveling adventure. Its characters are timeless with their charming relationships and endearing personalities. It embraces the past with 1950s nostalgia while shinning a small spotlight on the negative aspects of the time. The climax is phenomenal, and it expertly fulfills the set up and payoff screenwriting tool. There are some dents in the armor but that is not enough to diminish an otherwise timeless classic.
Metzger, Patrick. ” The Nostalgic Pendulum: A Rolling 30 Year Cycle of Pop
Culture Trends”. The Patterning. 13 Feb. 2017. Accessed 13 August 2020 https://thepatterning.com/2017/02/13/the-nostalgia-pendulum-a-rolling-30-year-cycle-of-pop-culture-trends/