Sunday, 3 October 2010

Reel Retrospective: Back to the Future (1985): Future Present

Great Scott! Robert Zemeckis' classic Back to the Future is 25 years old! It remains of course the essential time travelling family flick, taking great joy in ripping apart the space-time continuum, and re-writing narrative events with glee. Of course, it's laced with poignant, retrospective irony from our current standpoint, as the movement of time from 1985 to 2010 has seen us march inexorably into the very notion of 'future' speculated on in the film itself. Confusing? Well, just as the time travelling technicalities were largely incidental to the film's entertainment value, sit back and enjoy instead this straightforward appreciation of a bonafide popcorn classic.


Faced with a production schedule crammed full of night shoots, fearsome technical challenges and the eventual sacking of its initial star (Eric Stoltz), it's a wonder that director Robert Zemeckis completed Back to the Future at all. But complete it he did thanks to sheer bravado, accomplished nuts and bolts film making and, crucially, some nifty juggling in the casting department that saw him finally nab the leading actor he'd wanted in the first place: Family Ties star Michael J. Fox.

Fox stars as archetypal 80s skateboarding teenager Marty McFly. More devoted to girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells, to be replaced by Elisabeth Shue in the sequels) than to his schoolwork, McFly's home life is marked by a sense of dissatisfaction: his father George (Crispin Glover) is a wimp and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is a borderline alcoholic. So when bug-eyed, Albert Einstein-styled mad professor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) invents a time travelling Delorean, McFly seizes the moment to travel back in time, in the words of Huey Lewis and the News, to the 1950s, and make a man out of his cowardly Pop. There are problems: he's faced with Brown's eventual murder by a group of Libyans in the present, and comes up against Thomas F. Wilson's boorish Biff Tannen in the past, the person largely responsible for making his dad's life hell.

Under the paternal eye of one Steven Spielberg, who'd believed in the project from the off, Zemeckis was able to forge beautifully manic chemistry between Fox and Lloyd, chemistry that bristles with the same carefully honed poise and control that earmarks the entire film, almost in spite of the difficulties inherent in its creation. Fox' tragic struggle with Parkinson's in the intervening years means his exuberant performance meanwhile is unwittingly undercut with pathos. Perhaps most important when considering Back to the Future's success however is its brilliantly confident, multi-faceted and witty script, one that Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale had despaired over for years - and that was before the studios started turning them down.

Glib catchphrases have entered the lexicon - 'This is heavy'; '1.21 Gigawatts!'; - but to diminish the film to such a level is to ignore its numerous achievements. For one, the narrative is wonderfully edgy for a supposed family comedy - the oedipal crisis that emerges when McFly realises his mother 'has the hots for him' is brilliantly creepy but, to the filmmakers' credit, skirts just the right side of taste. There's also genuine wit on display: everything from the casting of the famously unreliable Delorean as the time machine itself to McFly's hysterical entrance from the Peabody Barn like something out of the 1950s sci-fi that was just emerging at the time of the film's setting. Dean Cundey's astute cinematography helps enormously in both these more outre moments and the more straightforward ones where the devil's in the 50s details.

Then there's Lawrence G. Paull's immaculately rendered vision of 1950s Hill Valley, a world of soda bars and chrome cars, invaded by a thoroughly modern (in 1985 terms) teenager who brings his Star Wars knowledge to bear on his wimpy father by masquerading as Darth Vader in one of the funniest scenes. It's not hard to see the influence of Zemeckis contemporary George Lucas' American Graffiti on the art direction, although the former is a far more accomplished narrative technician, threatening to have Fox rubbed from his existence in the future due to his interference in the past.

Consequently the writing skirts on a knife's edge throughout, building a remarkable degree of tension that culminates in the famous clock-tower climax. Zemeckis shows real integrity to the development of his cinematic world, dropping the Huey Lewis and the News marketing plug 'The Power of Love' early on, instead focusing the remainder of his efforts on Alan Silvestri's brilliantly constructed score, one which builds the main theme carefully over the duration, and adds a degree of manic, off kilter energy to proceedings (performed by, at the time, the largest orchestra ever assembled, trivia fans).

But away from its obviously impressive cinematic tendencies, there's also an intriguing meta-narrative running throughout, proposing a rift not only in the space-time continuum of cinema but in life itself, opening up ruminations on the very nature of time. If you had a chance to forge a stronger bond between your parents, would you? Would you risk your very existence in doing so? And is the future always more important than the past?

The latter is an especially apt question when viewing the film retrospectively from 2010; after all, time is something we're only able to defeat in the more optimistic world of cinema itself. The relentless march of it in real life renders such fictional commentaries all the more fascinating, and our helplessness all the more poignant. Regardless, one thing is guaranteed: were we ever able to travel back courtesy of a time travelling Delorean, never would we risk rubbing the residual impact of Back to the Future from our memories. Our present future is a much better, richer place with the film still in it.

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