The 5th in our ongoing series of Rick’s 52 Favourite Movies is “Back to the Future,” which stars Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, as if you didn’t know that.
“Back to the Future” was released in 1985. As I was going through the first 20-30 movies on this list, I noticed that the vast majority were from the 80s and early 90s. There’s a smattering of more recent films, and older films, but the 80s and early 90s are very over-represented. At first that concerned me; I thought maybe I wasn’t opening my eyes quite wide enough. Then a few things occurred to me:
- It’s my damn list and I’ll put anything I want to on it, and
- Isn’t this to be expected? I was born in 1971. OF COURSE a lot of my favourite movies will be from about the time I started understanding what movies were (Star Wars, in 1977, is the first movie I can really remember seeing in a theatre) to about the time I started getting too busy in life to watch a lot of movies.
I think it’s generally true that people’s formation of what they like in art is usually set between the ages of 12 to 25, depending on the person. I’m no different, and why should I be?
That said, let’s examine “Back To The Future.” Now, in the last few entries (1, 2, 3, 4) I introduced you to the first rule of how I examine movies; “Does this movie do what it intends to do?” I’d like to introduce a second:
“Is this movie timeless? Does it seems dated, or does it stand the test of time?”
I guess you think I chose “Back to the Future” to introduce this rule because the movie is literally about being dated; it’s about a kid from 1985 who has to navigate the world of 1955. Over and over he finds himself being a fish out of water, often to hilarious effect. But actually I just realized the connection halfway through writing this, believe it or not. I chose Back to the Future as my example movie because it ISN’T dated. 32 years later, the movie looks fresh as hell. If you wanted to completely remake the movie in 2017, with the protagonist going back to 1987, you’d have to change a lot of the jokes and clothing styles, but you could make the same movie with the same production values and it’d work just as well.
I loved movies in the 1980s, of course, but a lot of them look long in the tooth now. 1980s movies are often typified by:
- Cheap production values. This isn’t always true, but it does pop up a lot, especially in things as simple as credits and title cards.
- Rampant misogyny. I’m not saying women are treated especially well in modern film but the use of women as sex objects in 1980s films approached idiocy.
- Gratuitous nudity. I like nakedness as much as the next fella, but when I say “Gratuitous” I mean in the literal sense of the word; they just throw in boobies to be able to say they did it
- Synthesizers instead of orchestral scores.
Other stuff too. Movies like “Vacation,” “Gremlins,” “Flashdance,” and pretty much every slasher film of the time look dated today; you think “gosh, they could make that movie WAY better now.” (In the case of Vacation, apparently they tried and failed.) Conversely, some movies aren’t dated at all – “Raiders of the Lost Ark” looks as good now as it did then, for instance. And “Back to the Future” looks fabulous.
In retrospect this is one of the most miraculous successes in the history of film. It really should not have worked. Few of the actors you see on screen were supposed to be there; Fox famously replaced Eric Stoltz halfway through the production, and that story is well known, but additionally, Christopher Lloyd was not the first choice to play Doc Brown (John Lithgow was) and Tom Wilson wasn’t the first choice to play Biff Tannen. The movies had to be shot mostly overnight, because Fox was working on Family Ties during the day, and the shooting schedule nearly killed everyone. The movie’s release date required around-the-clock editing and special effects work down to the very last minute. And, really, the story is just a silly sci-fi romp. It absolutely should have been just another 80s movie, but what emerged was one of the best movies of the year; I would say in total seriousness that “Back to the Future” is a better movie than at least three of the movies nominated for Best Picture that year, including the one that won (“Out of Africa.”)
Movies are insanely complicated things to make; just coming up with a half decent movie is a huge achievement both artistically and logistically. The complexities of a major motion picture are mind boggling. If you’ve ever wondered why the ending credits have so many people in them, well, the short answer is that they needed all those people. Pick any movie that’s not great, just mediocre; it’s a Herculean effort to get THAT good. To get to be great requires a touch of true genius.
Why is Back to the Future so great?
Obviously, everyone is wonderfully cast; by accident, they got exactly the right people, and they’re all amazing. Robert Zemeckis, the director, is just one of those people who can pull this stuff together. He turned a terrible book called “Forrest Gump” into a great movie called “Forrest Gump.” Guy has a Midas touch, I dunno.
There’s luck, too. They made the right editing decisions, used the right shots, and a formula that had been thought of years ago just worked out at the right time. Even some of the difficulties worked out; I’m convinced Michael J. Fox’s insane work schedule helped his acting, as he spends the entire movie visibly baffled, panicked and worn out, as his character should. His performance was, quite honestly, Oscar worthy. It’s one of the funniest and most human performances I’ve ever seen in a movie like this; he brings a stunning realism to Marty McFly’s reaction to ridiculously impossible events.
But I’m going to point out that the script is, if not the best ever written, right up there. When people think of “script” in movies, they tend to think of dialogue. That’s quite incorrect. Actually, dialogue is a small part of what makes a movie’s script great. A script is a storybook, a guide for telling the audience a tale through the magic of sound and sight. the most important element of a script is not the dialogue, but the sequence of scenes and events. You can have neat dialogue but a mediocre script all the same (“In Bruges”) and you can have mediocre dialogue but a terrific script (“Star Wars.”) Back to the Future is two hours long and every scene counts, and they are in the perfect order. Almost every moment of the movies leads to the next, and the next, and the next, and then calls back to the last. One of the reasons the movie took off and was the top grossing movie of 1985 was that it’s just an incredibly exhilarating watch; you have to pay attention the entire time and you’re rewarded for doing so. It’s wonderfully paced so you’re never exhausted by too much going on, times the jokes perfectly, balances the action, the key plot points, but never is there a wasted scene. There is never anything that contradicts anything else logically, thematically, or atmospherically.
I don’t know how you could possibly improve on this movie. If you have not seen it, you really, really need to; it’s one of the more fun movies ever made.