You know what movies get a bad rap these days? Happy movies. Everybody thinks that to be high art, you have to have angsty characters with dysfunctional families in a grim and gritty universe, viewed with cynicism. All of a sudden, just because a movie is light and soft instead of dark and edgy, it blows. I blame the new Batman trilogy for equating grim and gritty with dollar signs in the eyes of executives.
Things weren’t always this way. Back to the Future is a movie from the bygone year of 1985. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a normal kid of the 80’s, interested in skateboarding, girls and loud rock’n’roll. He’s friends with local mad scientist Dr. Emmet Brown, who tells Marty to meet him in the parking lot of Twin Pines Mall at 1:15am to show him the success of his latest experiment. Marty meets him there with a videocamera to witness the unveiling of… the DeLorean. Is that a surprise to anybody but Dan by now? Dan (you can look him up in the characters list) has somehow gone his entire life without seeing this movie. God, what a tool.
The DeLorean also happens to be a time machine, by the way, in case you were wondering when that would show up[, Dan]. In Doc’s words, if you’re gonna build a time machine, why not do it with some style? Libyan terrorists that Doc ripped off crash the party in revenge for getting a dud nuke. The flux capacitor is powered by plutonium, by the way, Dan. In any case, they kill Doc and to escape, Marty gets behind the wheel of the DeLorean. It hits 88mph, and Dan is the only person who doesn’t know what that means. Marty is sent back in time at almost 90mph, all the way to the year 1955.
1955 was a big year in this movie. Doc invented time travel, Marty’s parents fell in love at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, but with Marty’s arrival, he unwittingly dooms their romance. He has to set it straight by the night of the dance or the paradox of his existence ripples through time and destroys him. People who don’t know this yet: Dan. Will Marty succeed? Can he save Doc back in 1985? How do paradoxes work in Hill Valley? Surprisingly enough, over the course of this movie, you learn the answers to all of those questions.
I say this very often, but I should emphasize that I never say it lightly: I love this movie. It’s an indelible part of the fabric of my childhood. Before that makes you think that I’m seeing it with rose colored glasses, so was Space Jam. This movie is a fantastic work of cinematic brilliance. Space Jam is cartoons and Michael Jordan playing basketball against aliens. I like to think I can tell the difference.
This movie does more than succeed at being a time travel movie. It set its sights on not only being a great science fiction adventure but also being a great family comedy. I think the MPAA have got a serious 2×4 up their asses recently. Quotation: “If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.” “SHIIIIIIT!” Entertaining for everyone doesn’t mean vaccinated against anything approaching realism. It means just making a good movie. Robert Zemeckis, an under-rated talent if ever there was one, understands this. This movie has engaging characters, a well-told story, functional time travel mechanics and hilarious jokes. And to think, all of this in a “happy” movie–who’d’ve thunk it.
Michael J. Fox is probably the most famous part of this movie as the codifier of the slacker hero, Marty McFly. This is a kid who’s more interested in his girlfriend and his guitar than he is in showing up at school on time. Marty as played by any other actor would likely be an asshole. Interestingly enough, they actually fired Eric Stoltz from the role after shooting had begun because that’s how he came off. Fox is inherently charming. Some people are just gifted like that, I suppose. A slacker hero should be charming and roguish–it distracts from the fact that they’re mostly assholes. The 80’s were a pit, and they got Michael J. Fox. We get Michael Cera. I feel ripped off.
Christopher Plummer is at his comic best as Doc Brown. Embracing every kooky mannerism he can, running around with the enthusiasm of a schoolboy, you can taste the fun he’s having. The same goes for everybody’s favourite creep, Crispin Glover as Marty’s dad, George. There are certain actors who can chew scenery in a manner that doesn’t seem over-the-top. Shatner worked and worked to become one of those; Crispin Glover just has that ability. Again, some people are just gifted like that, I suppose.
Getting his parents together consists almost entirely of a plot to get George McFly to ask his mom, Lorraine Bates, to the dance. The complication is, Marty accidentally got his mom to fall in love with him. Yes, Dan, you read that right. Few filmmakers can pull off a plotline with such distinct Oedipal overtones with the grace and good humour that Zemeckis can. Lea Thompson also deserves credit as Lorraine. Few actresses would seduce the guy playing their son with such gusto.
I said at the beginning of this review that happy movies these days are automatically seen as inferior to their angsty and arty counterparts. A movie like Back to the Future seems entirely impossible in the social climate of today. The most widely praised comedy of recent years was The Hangover. Not to be too down on Hangover all the time, but that’s a warmed-over retread of the same things we’ve seen in “guy movies” since 2000. Comedies can’t be science fiction movies or action movies anymore. It’s all the same gross-out shtick we got accustomed to after seeing Animal House once. A film where three dudes walk around and stuff happens to them isn’t impressive. A hard science fiction movie that doubles as a family comedy and triples as an accurate period piece while avoiding every time travel cliché yet written? That’s impressive. FOUR STARS