When Back to the Future came out in 1985, who knew that a movie about a teenager from the 1980s ending up in the 1950s and kissing his own mother while taking her to the school dance would become such a hit? Of course, there is more to it than that brief synopsis. What makes it so good is that it captures the spirit of two different decades, although the later one was trying to be like the older one in many ways. I will not be delving into the cultural and political ramifications of this, but I think its skill in doing so is why this film is remembered so fondly, despite it being really weird when you think about it, aside from being a story about time travel.
Back to the Future starts with main character Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) letting himself into the home of local eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Marty is some sort of assistant for Doc Brown, but finding the aged scientist away, Marty carries on to school, but not before rigging up his electric guitar to a powerful enough amp to blow him across the room with one strum. He also receives an urgent message to meet his friend early the next morning at the mall parking lot. In between, we meet rest of the McFly family: the shy, nerdy father George (Crispin Glover); the alcoholic mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson); brother Dave (Mark McClure); and sister Linda (Wendie Jo Sperber). They live in a slowly decaying suburban home, trapped in a prison of a lack of ambition, and all bullied by Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). The outlier here is Marty, who wants to make a go of his music but is held back somewhat by his family’s latent timidity. He becomes friends with Doc Brown because he sees in the older man an active imagination. That is rewarded when Marty arrives at the mall parking lot and learns that Doc Brown has contrived a working time machine housed in a DeLorean (a car that looked quite futuristic in 1985, but really was a piece of junk). Unfortunately, the inventor had swindled Libyan terrorists out of plutonium, and they show up at the rendezvous as well and shoot Doc Brown. Marty manages to slip away from them and jumps back in time to 1955. He ends up then on the very day when Doc Brown conceives of the idea of the time machine. Unfortunately, Marty also becomes entangled with his parents and ends up replacing his father for a time as the focus of his mother’s rather forward attentions. This begins to become a problem when Marty glances at a picture of his family he carries with him and notices they are beginning to fade. The implication here is that he is messing with the natural course of events given the crush his own mother has developed for him. Complicating matters is the fact that in 1955 there is not a source of power strong enough to get Marty, ahem, back to the future. The solution that he and the younger Doc Brown come up with is to harness a bolt of lightning they know will strike the city hall’s clock tower in a couple days. Now under a time crunch, Marty must get his even more awkward as a teenager father and sex-crazed mother together and get back home. His accomplishment of these tasks are some of the more classic moments in the last forty years of cinema.
What Marty really wants to do in Back to the Future, aside from preserving his own existence, is prevent his friend from being killed by the Libyans. Just before he is about to go, ahem, back to the future, he pens a note to the younger Doc Brown warning him of the impending shooting in thirty years. Initially, the scientist wants nothing to do with it, warning Marty that any alteration to past events can have enormous consequences for the future. In the end, though, he keeps the letter and thus prevents his death. However, this is not the only change that happens. Clearly, Marty was not originally part of the story of how his parents met and fell in love (or is he? I do not know. You can twist your mind around in many directions thinking about fate). Marty’s plucky confidence imbues his parents with a bit more backbone going forward, and when he finally gets, ahem, back to the future, he finds his family’s fortunes much improved. Fate is a funny thing in a Christian sense, and there have been many divisions over the centuries about the nature of free-will and whether or not there is such a thing as predestination. Whatever the case, the implication in the film seems to be that you can improve your lot through seeming magic. God gives us all we need to, as the old saying goes, pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. Doc Brown’s intelligence testifies to this concept. And he uses it to help his friend Marty as well, which is certainly commendable. The point is that they use their talents not simply for their own aggrandizement.
There are a few suggestive scenes in Back to the Future, but nothing too out of the ordinary for a movie rated PG. I think it is a safe movie for the family to watch some evening, and there are some genuinely fun moments in it as well. If nothing else, it will answer the question for the next generation (assuming they have even encountered it by now) as to where came the phrase, “Hello, McFly?!”