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Entries in Back to the Future [1985] (1)


Back to the Future (1985)

Tougher than Diamonds, Stronger than Steel

Three weeks ago, I attended a special 25th anniversary screening of Back to the Future at Naperville’s Hollywood Palms Cinema. Not only would I get to see the movie on the big screen for the first time since I was eight years old, I would also get to meet stars Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, James Tolkan and Claudia Wells; they were on-hand for Q&A’s and autograph sessions during three days of sold-out shows.

As some of you may know, I’m a convention-goer. I attend several horror cons and some comic book shows throughout the year, so I came prepared to pay for each autograph I wanted (three, exactly, on my pristine original one-sheet for Back to the Future Part 2). While standing in line, talking with my dear friend, Brian, about pricing, a guy interrupted us. He didn’t realize that he would have to pay to get signatures on the DVDs he’d brought—even though the theatre’s Web site clearly stated that there would be a “nominal fee” for each celebrity. He raised a bit of a storm, and his incredulity rippled through the rest of the crowd, who apparently hadn’t done their research either. I shrugged him off, figuring that those unsatisfied with the situation would either suck it up or leave. To my knowledge, nobody stormed out.

I was a bit put off by the theatre’s charging $20 each for a photo with the guests, until I found out that the four actors were actually on a tour of the country, raising money for Parkinson’s research; all of the weekend’s proceeds—from the tickets to the autographs and photos to the dollars pitched into a big, bronze donation cauldron—would go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

The cast was all very nice—save for who was on the chillier side of pleasant—and gave each person in the very long line a couple of minutes each to chat.

Following the signing, we entered the auditorium, which was like no other screening room I’d seen. Our theatre had a Wizard of Oz theme painted and sculpted on the walls. The main area looked like a college lecture hall: long bar-height tables that stadium-stepped down to a small presentation area in front of a gigantic screen. Instead of traditional theatre seats, each person had a swiveling executive office chair. The Hollywood Palms, you see, serves a full dinner menu to the patrons while the movie plays. By the time we were seated, the only places left were in the second row; fortunately, we sat off to the side and—with the aid of our reclining seats—had a perfect, comfortable view of the screen.

The cast came out for a brief Q&A, and I was reminded once again of the difference between convention people and non-convention people. As a rule, it’s best not to waste your celebrity question—asked of a person whom you will likely never again meet—by posing something that could be easily answered by reading that celebrity’s Web page or Wikipedia entry. And if there are more than three hands raised in the room, for Christ’s sake, don’t bother with, “What’s your favorite movie?”

This detracts from someone else’s opportunity to ask a better question (though I’ll cop to letting out a “Woo-hoo!” when Lea Thompson answered, “Harold and Maude”). The worst example of this nimrod-ery happened at the BTTF screening, when someone—an adult, mind you, who sincerely wanted to know—asked, “What’s it like to live in California?”

When the movie started, I knew right away that I was watching an actual film print, and not a projected DVD. All the pops and scratches were there, along with that lovely, fine grain texture; I was amazed at the brightness and detail in the picture, which—especially since it was magnified—looked better than what I’ve seen on home video.

The movie itself is just wonderful. It’s one of the rare 80s sci-fi films that holds up perfectly today. For those of you who have not yet seen Back to the Future—and I know at least one—you owe it to yourself to seek this movie out.

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a nice, kind of awkward teenager who lives in a completely average California suburb called Hill Valley. He aspires to be a rock musician, though his over-eagerness and penchant for deafening guitar solos prevent him from getting into his high school’s battle of the bands. Adding to his frustrations are a pair of unhappy parents: his bumbling, spineless father, George (Crispin Glover) can’t stand up to his pig of a boss, Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), and Marty’s mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), is an alcoholic who wears a lifetime of mistakes on her face and in her hunched shoulders.

Enter Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an old, eccentric inventor and Marty’s best friend. “Doc” has been teasing Marty with a series of hushed, cryptic phone messages lately, and finally asks him to meet him at the Twin Pines mall at one in morning. At the rendezvous, Marty learns that Doc Brown has developed a time machine in the form of a DeLorean—which is fueled by plutonium canisters that the mad scientist stole from a group of Libyan terrorists. Immediately following a quick test of the car’s abilities, the Libyans show up and execute Doc Brown. Marty jumps into the car and escapes, unwittingly rocketing himself and the DeLorean to the year 1955.

Because Doc Brown hadn’t loaded extra canisters into the car, Marty finds himself stuck in the past. He runs into his parents, who are now teenagers, and proceeds to alter the fate of the universe by attracting his mom’s attention. Marty looks up the 50s version of Doc Brown and asks for help in sending him home. The two devise a scheme to channel the energy from a bolt of lightning—which is scheduled to strike Hill Valley’s clock tower in a week—and use it to charge the DeLorean with enough juice to get Marty back to 1985. Of more pressing concern, however, is Marty’s mission to draw his mother away from himself and towards George, to ensure that he has a future to return to.

Writer Bob Gale teamed up with director Robert Zemeckis to create the story of Back to the Future as a really smart, really exciting adventure that could be enjoyed by everyone. Unlike most current films aimed at drawing in the audience of the television shows on which the main stars appear, Back to the Future is a real movie about science, destiny, love and friendship. The dialogue is sharp, and it’s easy to tell that Zemeckis and Gale took pains to really consider the culture shock of a teenager wandering around a world whose technology, mores, and points of reference are absolutely foreign to him.

Take, for example, the scene where Marty tries to order a sugar-free soda at a diner. He asks for a Tab. The manager says he can’t give him a tab unless he orders something. So, Marty asks for a Pepsi Free; the manager barks, “If you want a Pepsi, pal, you’re gonna pay for it!” Back to the Future is packed with these brain-ticklers that are sometimes funny and sometimes deadly serious (as when Marty laments having to return to a future where Doc Brown is dead).

Aside from the writing, the cast really sells this movie. Fox and Lloyd are so believable that their back-story—as fascinating as I’m sure it is—becomes irrelevant. We instantly buy their bond and want to see what weird things they’ll do together. Glover and Thompson as the parents are superb; both actors bring the surprises and arcs of the screenplay to life, alternating between being pathetic caricatures to fleshed-out human beings—even triumphant ones; so much so that their characters feel as though they truly have been altered by the events of history, rather than the manipulations of an A-to-B script. I should also give praise to Thomas F. Wilson, whose Biff is, for me, the definitive brutish, dumb bully; as written and performed, he starts off as just kind of a douche bag, but is shown to be more pathological than that.

I’ve seen Back to the Future, I think, five times in my life, and only three times all the way through. It hasn’t lost any of its wonder or excitement because there’s something new to discover every time. Perhaps it was designed to appeal not only to people of all ages, but to people at different stages in their lives. When I was eight, it was a cool time travel movie. At thirty-two, it’s as much about the importance of friends and family as it is the special effects. Who knows what I’ll think of Back to the Future thirty years from now? Whatever I see in it then, I’m fairly sure it’ll be just as magical as the first time.