At one point Marty asks Doc, “So how far ahead are you going?” to which Doc replies, “’Bout 30 years. It’s a nice round number.” My has it been that long. I don’t think anyone, not even Doc Brown, could’ve predicted the film’s staying power. Such represents the durability and sheer timelessness of Back to the Future, which is what makes today extra special. Thirty years ago saw to the film’s theatrical release – a number imbued within the fabric of the movie itself. A nice round number indeed. To commemorate this special anniversary, I’ll be revisiting a film that I never got the chance to review. Call this my own time-traveling DeLorean if you will. Without further ado, here’s my review of Back to the Future.
Leave it to a film about time-travel to stand the test of time. But what’s even more surprising is how the film uses time as a storytelling tool. For one, director Robert Zemeckis exercises a lot of patience. The opening shot is one extended take, panning across Doc’s madly inventive playhouse. And yet, we never actually see Doc himself. We hear a news report about a plutonium theft and seconds later, Zemeckis skillfully directs our attention to a mysterious case beneath Doc’s bed. He does all of this in one take. Zemeckis trusts that we’ll make the connection without having to verbalize it. Most of all, he trusts us to remember this background information knowing somehow someway it will enter the foreground.
Zemeckis and cinematographer Dean Cundey love toying with background and foreground. For example, when Doc sends Einstein a minute ahead into the future, both Doc and Marty alternate positions either towards the camera or away from it. The movement is subtle, but we notice it due to the way these characters alternatively pull our focus. Here, Marty stands to the left of the frame, looking slightly off camera and perplexed by what’s going on. But we’re really paying attention to Doc who, in the distance, is explaining what just happened. One frame, yet there are so many layers, like looking down an alleyway. And later in the scene, the Libyans arrive to square away the plutonium business with Doc. Background switches places with the foreground and vice-versa.
Zemeckis goes on to repeat this composition, which is wholly classical in nature. What makes it so classical is its simplicity. Zemeckis never does anything fancy with the camera to make things interesting. He knows what’s happening in the frame is interesting enough and allows the scene to unfold. His job then, is to place us in the immediacy of it – an interesting juxtaposition considering the story takes place in the past, yet we are caught in the present moment alongside Marty. Fortunately for us, there’s a lot at stake for him, though it’s not so much a problem of getting back to the future; it’s making sure he exists in the future.
This film could’ve easily taken some dark left turns, but the humor keeps things moving at a brisk pace. And the humor comes in spades, so much so that we don’t stop to think about the bullying that George had to endure in his life, nor do we wonder about the gross implications of Lorraine being infatuated with her future son. The humor disarms us. At the same time, it encourages us to go along for the ride. Zemeckis even rewards us for our commitment by letting us in on the punchlines. Take for example the dinner scene with Lorraine’s parents. Marty acts understandably awkward and leaves. Lorraine hardly notices because she’s smitten, and her father makes a remark that kills me every time: “Lorraine, if you ever have a kid that acts that way I’ll disown you.”
Having funny lines isn’t enough. You need actors who can sell them. Thomas F. Wilson as Biff Tanen, in particular, is a comedic genius. He plays the right kind of bully, and a charming one at that. Who else can sell this line so effortlessly: “Why don’t you make like a tree and get outta here.” An actor like Christopher Lloyd doesn’t need dialogue to be funny. His face is his most diabolical weapon of all. Whether he’s reminiscing about old man Peabody’s fascination with pine trees, or watching Loraine fall head over heels for Marty, his facial expressions are priceless. But no one is more charming than Michael J. Fox. He gets away with things that would get most actors crucified. He lip syncs Chuck Berry’s rock n’ roll classic, “Johnny B. Goode,” and he even commits an atrocity by stringing both Star Wars and Star Trek in the same sentence. But it works because of Fox’s endless charm.
This movie is so damn charming all around. I still smile like an idiot when George sucker punches Biff, and, holding his hand out to Lorraine, asks, “Are you okay?” And my heart swells when he tricks us into thinking that he’s walking away, then swoops in at the last minute for a kiss. I smile because of what the film says about these seemingly small moments, that even a night at a school dance can travel through time.
So what is it about Back to the Future that makes it such a timeless movie? The concept? The story? The characters? Whatever it is, it’s certainly worth revisiting time and time again. Perhaps we should be grateful that Hollywood hasn’t decided to reboot it (Zemeckis has his own thoughts on the matter). They don’t need to because this film is a time capsule. You watch it and you’re immediately transported elsewhere. That’s the timeless appeal of cinema, which suits the mythology of Back to the Future just fine. I’d like to think that Doc and Marty are still out there, traveling through time. But who am I kidding? It’s been 30 years now. They already have.