Monday, June 01, 2020

McFly Binge: Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future and its sequels concern the subject of family, and the inexorable passage of our generations. Specifically, the trilogy involves the cycle of falling in love, marrying, and raising children.

Whether we are riding horses in the Old West or hover boards in the far-flung year of 2015, the things that matter remain identical, no matter the calendar year. 

To quote Huey Lewis and the News, that’s the “power of love,” right?  

It’s the universal condition that exists regardless of our historical epoch or specific technological know-how.

Intriguingly, Back to the Future’s leitmotif is not a common one, either, for a Hollywood-made time travel film. 

Historically, movies about time travel concern bigger, more “event”-oriented issues. 

What if a man went to the future and discovered the end of the human race? That was the subject of The Time Machine (1960), for example.  

Or what if the U.S. aircraft carrier Nimitz went back in time to the hours before the attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1941 and its crew had the chance to turn the tide of the war on the day it began? That was the subject of The Final Countdown (1980).

Back to the Future differs from the vast majority of time travel movies because of the stakes. The danger suggested by mission failure, simply, is not Earth shattering. 

What’s at stake instead is a personal apocalypse, the “negation” of one’s self because the right prospective family members didn’t connect in the past, and therefore didn’t forge the present that makes you…you.

The danger in all three Back to the Future films is of time being rewritten in a fashion, that, broadly-speaking, does not influence a lot of people, but dramatically influences a few individuals…a family. 

Indeed, the film playfully charts this idea by revealing how Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) does change the course of time on a micro-basis, and how largely, those changes are inconsequential. 

Unnoticed even.

Twin Pines Mall in Hill Valley becomes Lone Pine Mall because a pine tree is accidentally destroyed in 1955. But the location and existence of the mall remains the same.

If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to notice, does the time line care?

The overall lesson, perhaps, of Back to the Future is that time both connects us and separates us from those we love most. 

Though we may all be at different points on our individual journey or chronology, we have all been -- or one day will be -- the person attending his or her first school dance, or the one who grows up fearing rejection.  

Thus, Back to the Future is about seeing and understanding that parents, children, and even grandparents are all the same, even if the trappings that we believe define them are so very different. 

Back to the Future is, therefore, a generation gap movie that decides, in the end, that there is no generation gap at all, just the passage of time that blocks us, somehow, from recognizing how similar to one another we all are.

“That was the day I invented time travel…”

In 1985, eccentric scientist Doc Brown (Lloyd) unveils to his teenage friend, Marty McFly (Fox) a time machine that he has invented. Equipped with a “flux capacitor,” Doc’s time machine is actually a car, a DeLorean that will break the time barrier when it accelerates to 88 miles an hour.

Marty, who has an unhappy home life because his father, George (Crispin Glover) is constantly being bullied by a thug named Biff Tannen (Thomas Wilson), ends up in the time machine when Libyan terrorists attack and presumably kill Doc Brown.

Marty inadvertently travels back in time to 1955, the year his parents fell in love and shared a first kiss at the Enchantment under the Sea dance. 

But Marty accidentally interferes in their relationship, preventing Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and George from falling in love.  

Marty consults with the Doc Brown of 1955, who determines that a bolt of electricity can get the DeLorean back to the future, and suggests that Marty must play Cyrano for George, so as to restore Marty’s personal time-line.

But even in this era, Biff is a danger to the McFly family, and the family’s fear of rejection could destroy everything.  

Meanwhile, Marty must also determine if he should share with Doc a foreknowledge of his apparent death in 1985…

“Whatever you need to tell me, I’ll learn through the natural progression of time.”

It is apt, perhaps, that the central symbol of Back to the Future is a broken clock; the clock that decorates Hill Valley’s Courthouse.  

As the film opens, the clock has been stuck in place for thirty years, inoperative. It thus no longer performs its intended function: to tell time (though it is still right twice a day.)  

Instead, the clock commemorates an event that everybody remembers. a storm that hit Hill Valley.

In a sense, this is how Marty exists too. 

He is “stuck” in a present that is not entirely happy or satisfying. His father, George, is bullied by his boss, Biff, and his mother, Lorraine, seems to have given up on herself and life. Even Marty’s siblings don’t seem able to realize their potential. Not a one of the McFlys seems to possess any self-confidence at all. 

The stories that George and Lorraine tell about their high school years, and the way that they fell in love, similarly share a “stuck” feeling. Those moments in 1955 are frozen, as if in amber, heard again and again, unchanging, and don’t seem to inform or impact the present. The stories sound more like the beginning of a prison sentence than of an epic love story

If George and Lorraine love each other so much, why don’t they try harder to be happy, to help their children, or to make something of their past? Why they didn't imbue their children with the notion that the future is unwritten, and they can make it whatever they want it to be (to paraphrase Doc in Back to the Future Part III)?

Marty then goes back to 1955, and sees all these (personally) historic and significant moments not as frozen in amber, forever unalterable...but as infinitely malleable; as ones that point a future in one direction, or in another. 

In the end, Marty finds he can tweak the future so that his parents aren’t stuck in the same rut. Through practical experience, in fact, George realizes he doesn't have to be afraid.  He stands up for himself to Biff, in order to save the girl he loves, Lorraine.

The only unfortunate side-effect in the movie, artistically-speaking, of this character trajectory is that it comes down -- in very 1980s fashion -- to money. 

Marty returns to his present and finds that he owns an expensive new pick-up truck, and that his parents are newly fit, youthful, and confident.  His Dad is a best-selling author.

The signs of their success in this time line are, alas, largely monetary. Even Marty’s brother (Marc McClure) has been assimilated into mainstream “success,” dressing in a business suit and tie instead of a fast food restaurant’s uniform.  

The overall point here is a good one: if you can overcome your fears of rejection, or learn to stand up for yourself, you can succeed in life.  It's great that Marty teaches his Dad that lesson, and learns it for himself.

But in a sense, the message plays out in Back to the Future like a yuppie fantasy. Change the past in your favor and you’ll be welcomed back to the present with an upwardly mobile life-style.

The later films, perhaps conscious of such a (presumably unintended) message, travel in a different, and wholly more worthwhile direction. Marty overcomes his fear of being called “chicken” but is not rewarded with money or rock-and roll-stardom, only the knowledge that he will avoid a crippling car accident.  

Thus the two sequels to Back to the Future seem more in line with the lyrics of “The Power of Love,” which state “don’t take money; don’t take fame, don’t need a credit card to ride this train” because love is not about those things that money brings you. It is about the things, instead, that “might even save your life.”

Despite the unnecessarily materialistic outcome of the film's valid and worthwhile message, Back to the Future is exceptionally clever (though its first sequel is even cleverer, frankly…), in the way it diagrams Marty’s journey as one of personal discovery and knowledge.

The things that he might not have really taken the time to care about, like the history of Hill Valley’s Clock Tower, or the Enchantment under the Sea Dance where his parents first kiss, are actually crucial elements that give rise to his very existence. They are as important, in a sense, to his psychic gestalt as his DNA is. 

One thread gets pulled out, and everything falls apart for Marty. He suddenly must also reckon with his Mom and Dad not as parents, but as real, honest-to-goodness people; as vulnerable, flawed human beings.  He sees that Lorraine was not "born a nun," but a young woman looking to buck authority and find love.  He sees that his Dad, like him, is fearful of rejection, and that he assiduously hides his real passion: writing science fiction stories.

The later Back to the Future films deepen significantly the friendship between Marty and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), and so further enhance the idea of personal connection as the motivator which makes new and better futures possible, but the same idea is also here, with Marty forced to reckon with his parents as impulsive teenagers.  He has to care for them, as friends.

This viewpoint gives him a new perspective on them, and also on himself. When the moment comes, Marty is able to perform in public, on stage, and not suffer from his familial fear of failure, because he has seen how his dad cowers in the face of a challenge.

Yet -- and here's the rub -- to see and recognize this particular foible in his father, Marty must see George (Crispin Glover) as a young man; as, roughly, a contemporary. 

It’s all too easy to gaze at a middle-aged parent, perhaps and draw the conclusion that age -- thus time itself -- separates you from him, when the contrary is true. Our parents (or our children contrarily), are not alien beings separated from us by strange ways. They are…us, only at a different point in their lives.

The movie actually literalizes this clever idea n-- of generational differences making people seem like aliens -- through visual imagery.

Marty can only get through to his stubborn father by becoming, actually, an E.T., an alien. He dresses up in a bio-hazard suit as "Darth Vader from the Planet Vulcan," and in that guise, is able to make progress with his dad.

Commendably, Back to the Future is one of those films that gets better once you factor in the sequels. Although the critics hated Part II in 1990, I find it to be the strongest of the three films; the Empire Strikes Back of this particular saga.  

But taken as a whole, the three films, by depicting the McFly/Tannen generations of 1885, 1955 and 2015, reveal how the the same story -- the power of love -- gets repeated, one generation to the next.

Every era has its chase in the municipal square, involving either horses, skate-boards or hover-crafts, 

Every era has a karmic (and manure-laden...) comeuppance for a bully.  

Every era involves a love story (Clara and Doc in 1885; Lorraine and George in 1955; Marty and Jennifer in 1985 and 2015), and every generation reveals how places and things change despite the fact that the story of life -- the power of love -- remains the same.

We see the life of the Clock Tower, from construction to damage, to intended re-construction. 

We see the birth of Lyon Estates as a great place to live, and then, years later, dinged by grafitti. 

We see the same in terms of Hilldale, the new development being built in Hill Valley where, in 2015, Marty and Jennifer will live.

The overall idea is, again, simply, that though objects, instruments and trends change radically, the essence of human life, and family, remains the same.

The great thing, of course, is that these ruminations about generations are set against rollicking action scenes (like the rousing skateboard chase), romantic interludes (like the first kiss at the dance), and, of course, a great sense of humor.  

On that final front, Back to the Future is extremely funny, whether pondering the journey of Ronald Reagan -- from Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) to winning the White House again in 1984 -- or imagining that the perfect vehicle for time travel is a DeLorean

As I noted above, these days I actually prefer Back to the Future Part II, but it was this 1985 film that started off the franchise, and proved a gigantic box office hit in 1985. I believe Back to the Future resonated with audiences then (as with now), because Marty's story is not so much about time travel, as the way that time travel can help us bridge a generation gap.

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