Back to the Future (1985) Now on Blu-ray DVD

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Universal (Amblin Entertainment)

Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), the hero of Bob Zemeckis smash hit 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).

Trailer: www.youtube.com/watch?v=BH0BNbwqNK8&feature=player_embedded

Marty goes to school on a skateboard, wearing mirrored Porsche sunglasses and listening to a Walkman. Arriving late, Marty is confronted by the principal, Mr. Strickland (Donald Pleasance), a stern, humorless disciplinarian. “You’ve got a real attitude problem,” says Mr. Strickland. “You’re a slacker. You’ve got aptitude, but you don’t apply yourself.” The one thing Marty does not want to hear is that he is like his father. But the principal says: “Your father was a slacker too and look where it got him: Nowhere!”

Worst yet, Marty’s girlfriend Suzy tells him that, according to her shrink, “all of our emotional anxieties are a direct result of the influence our parents had in our childhood.” “In that case,” says Marty, “you can kiss me off right now.”

Marty’s balding father, George (Crispin Glover), age 47, wears an old suit he probably bought at Sears. A passive, defeated man, he can’t make any decision. “If I wait around for him to make a decision,” Marty observes,”I’ll be collecting social security.” “My shrink says a lot of parents are sexually repressed,” Suzy says. “That’s an understatement,” Marty replies, “If you listen to her (his mother), I must be living proof of immaculate conception.” George is the butt of everyone’s jokes, and, lacking any self-esteem, he also laughs at himself. Biff Tannen, a lout who wears gold chains and pinky rings, screams at George: “I can’t believe you loaned me your car without telling me it had a blind spot. I could have been killed.” Biff hits George at the chin, grabs his 20-dollar bill and walks out on him.

Marty’s mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson), who’s her husband’s age, is sloppy, overweight, and a bit alcoholic. They have two other children: Dave, 22, the eldest, who wears a McDonald’s uniform, and Linda, l9, who wears too much makeup. As most 1950s families, the McFlys dine on meat loaf, Kraftmacaroni and cheese, Bird’s Eye mixed vegetables, and French’s instant mashed potatoes.

Lorraine doesn’t like Suzy because of her old-fashioned morality. “Any girl who calls up a boy,” she says, “well, girls just shouldn’t do that.” And she advises Linda: “It’s terrible, girls chasing boys. Boys won’t respect you. They’ll think you’re cheap.” “It’ll just happen,” she tells her daughter, “like the way I met your father.” But Linda is outspoken. She thinks it was “stupid that Grandpa hit him (her father) with his car,” and, besides, she doesn’t understand “What Dad was doing in the middle of the street” “Bird-watching,” says the mother, their story was “love at first sight.” This scene contrasts sharply with what Marty (and the viewers) finds out about his parents (his father, a Peeping Tom; his mother, a sexual aggressor).

Marty’s parents are victims of suburban stagnation and easy, but uninspired, life. What was the suburban dream of the l950s has turned into a nightmare in the l980s. 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.” It’s Saturday morning, November 5, l955. 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!”

Looking around, Marty sees the Lyon Monument at Lyon Estate, but the vast ground is clear and there are many lots without homes. A billboard depicts an artist’s rendition of the American Dream: an idyllic brick home, nestled between magnificent oak trees, with a family of four standing beside their Cadillac. “Live in the home of tomorrow, Today!” it says in big letters, promising this “dream project” to be completed by the winter. “I can hardly wait,” utters Marty, knowing exactly how it would look. In 1955, the Elmdale Central Business District is booming, it’s a vibrant commercial center. The buildings are clean and freshly painted, and the local movie house (the Orpheum), is playing “Cattle Queen of Montana,” starring Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan. The town’s homes evoke a pleasant feeling: big front porches and white picket fences.

Entering the local cafe, Marty is struck by the menu: Hamburger for 25 cents, Hamburger and Cheese for 30, Chocolate Soda for 15! “Gimmy a Tab,” says Marty to Lou. “Kid,” says the impatient Lou, “I can’t give you the tab unless you order something.” Marty’s next question is even more perplexing: “Have you got any Sweet ‘N Low” Suspicious, Lou asks for the money, but he is shocked when Marty hands him a $20 bill: “What do you think this is, a bank” At school, the punky Biff torments his father, the class’s nerd, about getting his homework finished on time. And he plays the same old joke, telling George his shoe is untied, so that when he looks down, he can hit him in the chin. “What do you let that asshole walk all over you for” asks Marty. “What can I do” says George, “He’s bigger than me.” “Once a wimp, always a wimp,” Marty remarks to himself.

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 dinner, Lorraine’s family is watching TV–Jackie Gleason in the classic episode “Man from Space,” from “The Honeymooners.” Lorraine is excited about “our first TV set,” a brand new Dumont model, but unimpressed, Marty tells her “we have six of ’em.” “You must be rich,” says Lorraine. It makes no sense to them when Marty claims to have seen this episode on a rerun. But more shocking to Marty is Lorraine’s insistence that he spends the night there, putting her hand on his leg–under the table.

At school, Mr. Strickland not only looks the same, but also sounds the same, lecturing George about being a slacker. At the cafeteria, Marty sees how the young Biff and his friends humiliate his father, making him step on splattered mess and slip, showered by his own food. In a role reversal, it’s Marty who instructs his father how to court Lorraine. But when Marty suggests to Lorraine that she goes out with George, she is bewildered: “Me, hit it off with that chicken. Are you kidding He’s not my type. You’re more my type, because you stood up for him. Just like I know you’d stand up for me. I think a man should be strong so he can protect the woman he loves.” Similarly to George’s hysteria in It’s a Wonderful Life, Marty panics because he knows that if their parents will not go out to the dance together, he will never be born!

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. 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 backhand 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.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 4

Screenplay (Original) Sound Song: Power of Love, music by Chris Hayes and Johnny Colla, lyrics by Huey Lewis Sound Effects Editing: Charles L. Campbell and Robert Rutledge

Oscar Awards: 1

Sound Effects Editing

Oscar Context

The winner of the Original Screenplay Oscar was Witness, written by Earl W. Wallace, William Kelley, and Pamela Wallace. The Sound award went to Out of Africa, and the Song Oscar to Lionel Richie for Say You, Say Me, from White Nights.

Sequel Alert

Back to the Future spawned two sequels, Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1991), but neither is as good as the original.

Back to the Future II was Oscar-nominated for Visual Effects, by Ken Ralston, Michael Lantieri, John Bell and Steve Cawley; the winner was James Camerons The Abyss.