The most popular film of 1985 was “Back to the Future,” which grossed close to $100 million in domestic rentals. Undoubtedly, it's the most commercially successful small-town film ever made. As is the case of other blockbusters, technical (special effects) and artistic (high-quality acting) distinction can only explain in part its immense success. Ultimately, though, its the film's issues touching a chord in the collective consciousness that catapult a film to such level of popularity.
It's plausible to hypothesize that the movie's unusual appeal derived, at least in part, from its Freudian assumptions. For example, the failure of many kids to believe that their parents were once young like they are. Or children's wishful thinking that they are brighter, more knowing, and more in control over their fates than their parents were at their age. At the same time, children would also like to believe that their parents were smart and strong, or at least not dumb.
In actuality, kids can't choose their parents, but they can wish or fantasize that their parents were different. Back to the Future cashes in on a universal wish fulfillment: what happens when children possess the power to choose their parents and transform them into ideal role models.
Back to the Future was not the only film to deal with this fantasy: Coppola's Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), which is concerned with similar issues, was dubbed in Hollywood “Back to the Future for Adults,” despite the fact that its screenplay had been written prior to Back to the Future.
Both films examine small-town life from two time perspectives, past and present. Both are comedies in the vein of Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), borrowing from the latter central ideas and motifs. The two movies also share similar setting, California in the 1950s. Back to the Future is set in l955, and Peggy Sue in 1960. The age of their protagonists is also the same: in Back to the Future, Marty is 17; in Peggy Sue, the heroine goes from her early forties to age l8.
Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the hero of Back to the Future, is a student at Elmdale High School. A media-minded kid, he owns all the recent technological innovations. We see on his desk all kinds of electronic tools and toys, including a cordless telephone. The walls of Marty's room are covered with posters of rock stars and cars (Camaro Z-28).
Marty's parents are victims of suburban stagnation and easy, but uninspired, life. What was the suburban dream of the 1950s has turned into a nightmare in the 1980s. Marty's house is in a development called “Lyon Estates,” a row of boring, monotonous houses, stretching toward the high-tension lines on the horizon. The suburban strip includes McDonald's, Dunkin' Donuts, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and outings of the other food chains.
There is one exception, the house of the lunatic Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and an old Victorian house in the midst of homogenous buildings. Doc is the last vestige of individualism when it comes to living quarters, lifestyle, and personality. Wearing a white sanitation suit, he is proud of his dog, a huge St. Bernard, named Einstein. Doc's car, a sleek, stainless steel Delorean, has been remodeled, looking like a toy from Star Wars. At precisely 88 miles per hour, an atomic reaction is triggered, precipitating a miniature nuclear explosion. Caught by terrorists at the shopping mall, Marty jumps into the car, and through Doc' magic, is transplanted into another world.
Marty lands in an unknown country: the Peabody farm. Its owners believe his car is a flying saucer from outer space, a reference to a popular phobia in the l950s. Marty finds himself on a two-lane highway, on which a lit billboard proudly states: “Step Into the Future with the All New l955 Studebaker.” Its Saturday morning, November 5, 1955. Tuning in to the radio, Marty listens to a commercial advertising “the best value in the 48 states,” and to Perry Como singing “Papa Loves Mambo.” President Eisenhower has just announced he would seek reelection. “Holy shit, l955,” claims Marty, “I haven't even been born yet!”
Marty is shocked to realize that his father is a Peeping Tom. Watching with his binoculars from up on a tree a naked girl in the second story, the branch breaks and George tumbles into the street, just as a car is approaching. “Dad, look out,” cries Marty, knocking his father out of the path; the car hits him. Rather characteristically of his father, instead of helping Marty, he leaves him there unconscious. Taken to Lorraine's bedroom, Marty awakes up in bed wearing no pants. “They seemed a little tight, so I took them off,” she explains, calling him Calvin, because that's the name (Calvin Kline) written on his underwear.
At the end, against great odds, Marty fulfills the ultimate fantasy of every child to control the fate of their parents and supervise their own birth. Moreover, Marty transforms his parents from losers to winners. It's in this motif that Back to the Future is most grounded in its immediate political and ideological context: Reagan's obsessive stress on economic success, upward mobility, and good family life.
Indeed, in the last scene, George and Lorraine, dressed in their tennis outfits, carry themselves with confidence and self-importance. They project the image of a happily married couple. When Marty protests that he can't go to the lake tonight because his father's car is wrecked, his father corrects him, “There's nothing wrong with my car, Biff is out there waxing it right now.” In another extreme role reversal, the loutish Biff is now diligently waxing a new Lincoln Continental; his rough edges and arrogance have obviously subsided. A uniformed maid brings French toast, as George is talking about his new house and the new car for Marty. The movie also transforms the black hand at Lou's cafe into a politician running for mayor.
In its up-beat philosophy, Back to the Future shows children's wishful desire of redefining their–and their parents–reality. It reflects the (subconscious) desire of children to play an active part in bringing their parents together and in their own conception.
For an American film, the narrative comes amazingly close to portraying incestuous relation between Marty and his mother, one that would have threatened his own birth. But with all its energy and optimism, the movie can't conceal the fact that in 1985, the town lacks moral center and plays no role in the lives of its dwellers. It's every man for his own, no more social involvement in community life.