As the quintessential buzz-cut bully, Biff Hannen, Thomas F. Wilson’s utterance of “Think, McFly! Think!” is as iconic as Sylvester Stallone’s “Yo, Adrian!” or James Earl Jones’ “I am your father!” While it may not have ingrained itself in American culture in quite the same way as the others, it’s a memorable line of dialogue. Twenty-five years since its original release, a digitally-restored edition of Back To The Future has made its way into theaters. Thankfully, no alterations have been made. There are no CG characters, no dance numbers, no flashbacks to Marty at age eight when he sets fire to the living room rug.
To review the film itself would be superfluous. By now, hundreds of film critics have dissected the story and at least a third of the world if not more has some idea of Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and his adventures through time with Doctor Emmett E. “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Instead, as someone who has viewed the film hundreds of times and memorized, by now, every single line of dialogue—as have countless others in my generation, I would imagine—I think it’s important to elaborate upon the numerous factors that made this film a flawless, instant classic, and not by accident.
There’s a lot happening in every scene. The introduction to the McFly family, gathered at the dinner table, establishes every character and manages to slip in a commentary on marital disconnect. Watch the luster in actor Lea Thompson’s eyes turn to a lacquer of resignation as she reminisces, “It was then that I knew that I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.” Then, not a beat later, George McFly (Crispin Glover) is laughing at Jackie Gleason on TV. The camera cuts abruptly back to the family, and Lorraine’s expression, unchanged, takes on a bittersweet yet almost comical tone.
Christopher Lloyd’s crazed scientist, Doc Brown, is part Leopold Stokowski, part Einstein, all nuts. To wit: The only invention of his that ever works is a time machine. Watch Lloyd’s pause and then emphasis in his speech when he says, “Old Man Peabody owned all of this. He had this crazy idea about breeding… pine trees.”
The entire film is stocked with pitch-perfect performances. Note the subtle change in Lea Thompson’s gaze after the skateboard chase. Her friends ask of Marty McFly, “Who is he? Where does he live?” She replies determinedly, “I don’t know, but I’m gonna find out.” Her facial expression seamlessly transforms from delight to obsessive predation.
There’s a good deal of social commentary in the film that might be easily overlooked because the story wisely focuses on Marty’s temporal troubles. There’s no ham-fisted exposition that would bog down the narrative. But pay close attention: The film jokes about former actor, Ronald Reagan being elected President. In 1955, the movie theater is running Cattle Queen of Montana, starring Reagan and Barbara Stanwyck. In 1985, the same theater is showing a porno. Downtown Hill Valley is a sign of the times: Storefronts are boarded up, a Goodwill shop sells used clothes to the poor, and even the Hill Valley Courthouse (a famous Universal backlot facade used in To Kill A Mockingbird and countless other films) is now the Department of Social Services. By contrast, 1955 seems an optimistic time. The American dream is epitomized by the introduction of suburban tract housing as we see the billboard for Lyon Estates, the gates of which are scrawled with graffiti thirty years later. Yet, as we soon see, this is a thin veneer cast over not-so-innocent times as our parents or grandparents would have us believe: Lorraine swipes booze from her mother’s liquor cabinet. Lou, of Lou’s Diner, can’t believe that the world would ever see a “colored mayor.” Biff’s gang foolishly slurs a group of black musicians. The film’s climax is preceded by an incident in which the otherwise merely annoying Biff transforms into an implied, yet unsuccessful, rapist.
The humor of the film makes it easy to write these moments off, but such characterizations and settings don’t appear in a film by accident. Granted, Mr. Gale and Mr. Zemeckis may not have made a conscious effort to make a statement, but their interpretation of the 1950’s and 1980’s arises out of certain social mores that undoubtedly influenced their story. Mr. Zemeckis’ further commentary on the turbulent 60’s and 70’s in Forrest Gump is good evidence of a social awareness in his work. Gump‘s message, however, was far more forced.
Many past reviews focused heavily on the film’s astonishing visual effects and science-fiction concepts, including consultant Ron Cobb’s and production illustrator Andrew Probert’s legendary time machine, based on the DeLorean DMC-12. However, the breadth of the film’s technical achievements isn’t always fully appreciated. Cinematographer Dean Cundey made incredible use of the frame, frequently pulling characters into the foreground, as if stepping outside the proscenium arch for asides before the Thousand Yard Stare became cliché. The editor, Harry Keramidas, employed formal composition at a fast pace—sudden close-up inserts to a facial reaction, then to a hand to imply action, abruptly cycling back to the primary shot for the follow-through.
If the technique is informed by Welles, then the storytelling is informed by Capra. There’s a sensibility at work here that’s missing from modern teen comedies which fail to demonstrate any respect or comprehension of their teenage protagonists. The film’s greatest achievement is not merely its bridging of the generation gap, which in today’s cinema is confused for tiresome product placements disguised as glib references to popular culture. Rather, Bob Gale’s and Robert Zemeckis’ ultimate genius was the creation of a genuinely likable, optimistic teenage protagonist whom parents and their children could appreciate for the same reason. It’s a timeless joke that never gets old: One day you will grow up to be your parents and they’ll have the last laugh. The innovation here was in telling the joke backwards.
Footnote: A funny side-effect of bringing back this movie is that, much of the 1985 culture yet unknown to the people of Hill Valley in 1955 is again unknown to the teenagers of today. Take sodas, for instance: Tab has been resurrected in some fashion but I guarantee a teenager working at the movie theater would express puzzlement if you asked for a Pepsi Free. Most certainly, the pay phone at Lou’s Diner would be a complete novelty to them. Perhaps most striking, and rather scary if you think about it: Marty writes a letter to Doc… by hand.
The digitally-restored edition of Back To The Future is playing tonight at select AMC Theatres in the United States for a limited engagement, and will be released in a trilogy box set tomorrow on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Dolby and the double-D symbol are registered trademarks of Dolby Laboratories.