By Landon Holder, Friday, July 5, 1985
I watched Back to the Future opening day this past Wednesday, the evening before our offices closed for the Fourth of July holiday. The next day my family held their annual backyard cookout, a tradition we’ve observed as long as I can remember.
My father, 54 now and still holding onto all the hair that 1955 Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is ecstatic to see intact on his old self, grilled what has become known as his Famous Neighborhood Burgers. The occasion was the same as it’s always been, with one key difference. I often take time to reflect on a movie before I sit down and review it, and as Dad flipped those sizzling patties, my mind wandered.
There is a scene early in Back to the Future where Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is sitting around the dinner table with a family so unfortunate and dysfunctional they might as well be cartoon characters come to life. Marty’s mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) sips vodka and stares into the middle distance, eyes empty and dead. She scolds Marty about how his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) has loose morals compared to her prim and proper upbringing.
Marty has grown up listening to these stories over and over. When he is marooned in 1955 he not only learns that his 17-year-old mama was as hot in the pants as every other teenager, but the reason his father George (Crispin Glover) ended up struck by his future father-in-law’s car wasn’t a consequence of bird watching.
Now reflecting during the cookout, I remembered that I was often subjected to those same stories and lectures. “Kids weren’t like ‘that’ at all in 1948,” my parents often said, balking at the way Elvis danced or James Dean rebelled without a cause. But after returning from Back to the Future, I couldn’t help but wonder.
Back to the Future has an interesting running theme about the nature of our memories, and how they can end up being distorted, half-truths or outright lies to protect the kids. When 1985 Lorraine recalls the story of how she and George met for the umpteenth time, the truth is all over her face. She’s whitewashing it for her jaded audience, but beyond that she is obviously lying to herself.
How does Marty end up in 1955? Lacking a sense of direction or father figure, he has become a lab assistant and friend to the aging Doctor Emmett Brown. Played masterfully by Lloyd, ‘Doc’ combines the classic mad scientist with a benevolent, hospitable, jovial, sly and deceitful old man.
Doc has spent his entire family fortune to realize a vision of inventing time travel. And what a time machine he ends up creating, a DeLorean DMC-12 crisscrossed with jumbled wires and exhaust jets on the back. There’s something immediately striking about the DeLorean time vehicle, which hangs somewhere between ingenious craftsmanship and a clever child’s science project. What’s even more interesting is that the DMC-12 model has been written off as a failed experiment for a few years now, its chief designer and namesake tried and found not guilty on a drug trafficking charge.
I predict that this movie will mythologize the DeLorean for future generations. To those who might stumble upon this review in the future, I want to state that as iconic as the DeLorean time machine may or may not become, the actual cars were not the most reliable. I like how its biggest problem ends up being the ignition switch.
But the machine works, albeit on one condition. To generate the power needed for its time traveling capability Doc must trigger a nuclear reaction. To that end he has stolen plutonium from a Libyan terrorist group. Since he didn’t take into consideration that terrorists have connections, he is surprised when they show up for revenge. No sooner is Doc’s invention revealed than he is dead and Marty is in the DeLorean in a high-speed chase, and in a flash accidentally drives the car 30 years into the past…without taking any plutonium with him.
Our hero emerges in a world that would be alien to kids these days, although downtown ’55 Hill Valley is on par with what I remember from childhood. I do have one issue, however. The theater has Cattle Queen of Montana playing, an obvious joke and nod to our current President. This requires a bit of artistic license; that particular Ronald Regan movie was released one year and a few days short of I Died a Thousand Times, the first movie my parents took me to see on November 9, 1955. Other than that, they have done a good job of recreating a bygone era here.
Poor Marty is woefully out-of-place. His pullover bubble jacket often gets him mistaken for a sailor, and his attempt to order sodas 30 years before they debut is a scene that shouldn’t be missed. His mission is to track down 1955 Doc, but before that can happen he interferes with his parents meeting, starting a chain reaction that will erase him from history.
The younger Doc Brown is still a brilliant scientist, but struggles with self-doubt from a multitude of failed inventions. He’s also living in a giant mansion as opposed to ’85 Doc, who lives in his garage following a house fire we learn about from opening shots. After the movie ended, some fellow critics and I discussed the possibility that Doc burned down his house to collect insurance money. Judging by the way he got the plutonium it’s not a far-fetched theory.
What follows is a brilliantly told, well-paced story with many intertwining threads. As Doc and Marty put together a mission to send the DeLorean back, Marty must play matchmaker to his parents, while at the same time trying to warn his friend about his future demise. Of course, Marty learns a lot more about his folks along the way, moreso than the dullards in 1985 were willing to tell him.
It turns out the only character to not have a falsified narrative is Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) a bully and misogynistic monster through and through, past to the present. As adult Biff bullies and berates poor adult George, teenage Biff becomes the displaced Marty’s chief antagonist and foil, undermining his progress every step of the journey. Unlike young George, however, Marty has the bravado and wits to stand up to Biff. This leads to complications I dare not spoil here.
I thoroughly enjoyed Back to the Future, both as a boy who was around to witness the actual 1950s and as a man who enjoys creative, well-written fare. Executive Producer Stephen Spielberg and writer/director Robert Zemeckis have proven to have an unmatched gift. They are able to take the wonder, naivety and magic of their childhoods and, much like the energy needed to power Doc’s time machine, channel it into a modern era without blowing it up.
HOLDER’S FINAL RATING: *** 1/2