Wednesday, June 03, 2020

McFly Binge: Back to the Future Part III (1990)


Back to the Future Part III (1990) has always been my least favorite film of the Robert Zemeckis time-travel trilogy.  

Although entirely amiable, the film abjectly lacks the mind-bending, satirical quality of Part II (1989), as well as the sheer freshness of the 1985 original.  

In every way, then, this third film is the metaphorical Return of the Jedi (1983) of this trilogy, to continue the Star Wars comparisons I have deployed in my other BTTF reviews. 

If not gone, the thrill seems at least diminished in Back to the Future Part III.  

Yet on a re-watch of Back to the Future Part III, I  must confess that I felt something different too. The film remains my least favorite of the three, but I can also detect that it possesses virtues worth championing.  

In terms of diagramming the Marty/Doc friendship, for example, Back to the Future Part III is certainly tops. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd seem to spend more time on-screen together in this sequel than they did in the previous entries, and it's a good match. Viewers get a  real sense for Marty and Doc's friendship, and why it matters to each character.

Additionally, the film’s final set-piece -- involving a runaway train, the time-traveling DeLorean and a half-constructed bridge to nowhere -- is not only suspenseful, but technically-brilliant to boot. This unexpectedly exciting action sequence grants the third act a sense of drive and excitement largely missing from the rest of the picture. Zemeckis possesses a keen understanding and mastery of film grammar and cutting, and he rises once more to the occasion, giving this third film a rip-roaring climax.

Also, I would be intellectually dishonest if I didn’t note that, upon the film’s ending, I felt a lump in my throat. 

Watching that magical, time-traveling DeLorean get pulped on the train tracks is a remarkably emotional moment, as is Marty’s realization that he will never see his friend, Doc Brown, again.  

Somehow, in my memory, I had managed to underplay the importance of such moments, and so I hope to correct that here, today. Back to the Future Part III may not reach the heights of greatness that its predecessors did.  But it is a good film.

Back to the Future Part III also adequately wraps up the story of the previous films, namely Marty’s troublesome future (involving a car accident) and the film even re-states -- through yet another town square chase involving a Tannen and a McFly -- the franchise’s central message about different generations experiencing the same events.  

So while I still prefer the first two films in the saga, I can nonetheless state that Back to the Future Part III  captures well the “heart” of the trilogy, and brings the narrative to a close with both thrills and pathos.  



“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a cowboy!”

Trapped in 1955, Marty McFly (Fox) learns that his friend from 1985, Doc Brown (Lloyd) was sent back to 1885 by a freak lightning strike.  

There, in the early days of Hill Valley, Doc opened up a shop in town as a blacksmith, and hid the time-traveling DeLorean in a mine…realizing that one day it could be fixed and could send Marty back to his present.

But the 1955 Doc Brown and Marty learn that the blacksmith of Hill Valley didn’t live a long and fruitful life in the Old West. Instead, Brown was killed by one of Biff’s (Thomas Wilson) ancestors, Buford Tannen, over a dispute involving eighty dollars.

With the DeLorean repaired, Marty goes back in time to 1885 to save his friend. 

There, in the past, Doc finds love with a spinster school teacher, Clara (Mary Steenburgen), and Marty must face his own fear of being called “chicken;” the very fear that will destroy his future.



“It’s the future or bust.”

Back to the Future Part III is the first film in the saga that, for much of its run, doesn’t seem to want to run at all. 

Much of the film involves the  love affair between Doc and Clara, and while that story is indeed sweet and gentle, it doesn’t create a lot of tension or conflict in the story.  

Similarly, Marty’s encounter with the McFlys of the Old West -- Maggie and Seamus -- doesn’t add much either.  

For the first time in the saga, Michael J. Fox playing “different” McFlys doesn’t pay off either in terms of comedy or drama.  

I suppose, at this point, it’s an expectation for him to don funny clothes, or put on an accent, but these moments play more like a box checking exercise than a legitimate or dramatic function of the screenplay.  

The sequel also finds trouble, I believe, from one key law of movie sequels in general, which states that follow-up story-lines must be more complex, and feature a multiplication of dangers. 

Back to the Future Part II lived up to this notion, bending itself around the original film and spinning out new ideas, and alternate universes.  

Back to the Future Part III, set in the Old West, feels straight-forward and simple to the degree that, in some way, interest in the saga is actually diminished.

The film makes up for this deficit, finally. 

The last act, which features Marty, Doc and Clara on a constantly accelerating train, is masterfully vetted. The tension builds, spikes, and finally crescendos beautifully.  The outdoor locale, the special effects (involving a last minute rescue with a hover board), and the stunts really succeed. In this scene, and its post-script in 1985, Back to the Future Part III seems to come bursting back to life, and remember the reasons why we watch these films in the first place.  

The Back to the Future movies are about time, but they are also about, oddly, racing against time.  The final train chase certainly recaptures the anarchic, anything-can-happen glory of the earlier two films in a palpable way. One missed train, one fumbled moment, and the future is unwritten!


Yet the film’s real virtue involves its handling of the Marty/Doc friendship. 

They know and love each other so much at this point that they have begun to talk like one another. There’s a great moment mid-way through the film where, without comment, Marty and Doc change catchphrases. Marty says “Great Scott,” and Doc deadpans “heavy.” This simple verbal gimmick, this simple twists, suggests that each personality has internalized some aspect of the friend to a great degree.  

Similarly, Marty’s sadness at never seeing Doc again, and Doc’s fear that Buford Tannen has killed Marty, are well-played and touching.  Indeed, the whole time-travel journey comes about this time because Marty is not content to let Doc die in the past. To use another franchise metaphor, Marty embarks on a "search for Spock," to recover a lost, beloved friend.

Much of the Back to the Future trilogy thrives on the chemistry created by Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd as these two central characters, and Back to the Future Part III features some of the best, most heartfelt exchanges between Doc and Marty, so that's a welcome quality to put in the film's "plus" column.

I’m not exactly certain quite how to put this, but here’s the core difference between Back to the Future Part II and Part III as I see it.  

The first sequel is about ideas, about a single event “rippling” and changing the time-line, and then the attempt to correct that catastrophic change. Part II is science fiction at the genre's best, in a sense, exploring futurism, alternate realities, and even, to some degree, the concept of paradox. 

Back to the Future III, by contrast, is a sweet story that relies on our affection for Marty and Doc Brown.  

In 1990, seeing Back to the Future Part III, I missed the sense of confident imagination so evident in the earlier entries.  Yet today, in 2015, I'm okay with Back to the Future Part III’s more laid back, gentle approach to the material. I still don’t prefer it, but I am okay with it. I think it works well enough, at least in terms of bringing the franchise to closure.

More than that, it’s a perfect movie moment, I feel, when Doc meets Marty for the last time in that Jules Verne, steam-punk contraption, and reminds him -- and by proxy, the audience too -- that the future isn’t written, so we must all write the best one we can.  

That is a beautiful moment that crystallizes the message of the picture and the trilogy, and reminds us each to be the hero in our particular adventure or “time.”  It’s a poignant moment because Marty’s time travel days are done, and yet he will still travel to the future, and still make choices about his behavior every single day.  

Just like the rest of us will.



Frankly, I don’t know that the series could choose a better or more touching note to close on. 

But I still hate seeing that De Lorean get shattered into a million pieces. For a lot of us, that vehicle has earned a special place in the Valhalla of sci-fi movie vehicles. It has been our carriage to adventures tragic, comic, exciting and emotional. The time train, though wonderful in conception and execution, doesn’t quite capture the sense of whimsy and familiarity we now associate with the DeLorean.  When the DeLorean is destroyed, we recognize -- as viewers -- that the saga is really at an end.


So Back to the Future Part III is less driven, less inspired, and less imaginative, in a lot of ways, than its two predecessors were.  And yet it succeeds nonetheless in bringing a sense of closure to the franchise by focusing not on velocity or acceleration, but on the characters we have come to love. 

As a young buck, demanding and expecting much from such a tent-pole film, I felt disappointed by the film's approach.  Today as an older and hopefully wiser viewer, I appreciate the focus on people instead of pyrotechnics or even high concepts.

How can I explain this change in perception? 

I think in 1990 I just wasn’t -- to quote Doc Brown -- “thinking fourth-dimensionally.” 

I wanted thrills and chills and big ideas. But today, I appreciate the heart and the poignancy of the last film in the Back to the Future trilogy a bit more.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

McFly Binge: Back to the Future Part II (1990)


Back to the Future Part II (1989) is the franchise’s own The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and therefore the finest film in the Zemeckis trilogy. 

This rousing middle chapter of the saga transforms the cheerful triumph of the 1985 picture into personal tragedy, thus taking Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) to his lowest ebb. The sequel also elevates Biff (Thomas Wilson) from school yard bully to Evil Incarnate, a kind of grotesque “lounge lizard” variation of Donald Trump only with a murderous streak, not merely bad hair.

This sequel also proves brawnier in terms of visual imagination and sense of humor than its critically-appreciated predecessor was, and includes some nice, amusing nods towards 1980s nostalgia. 

In fact, Back to the Future Part II even lives up to its featured Jaws 19 holomax tag line: 

This time, it’s really, really personal.


What that means, specifically, is that our hero, Marty, has not overcome the seeds of his own downfall, and, therefore, the future could still turn out quite badly for him. The black pick-up truck -- the first film’s valedictory symbol of his promising, successful (and yes, yuppie…) future -- becomes, instead, the vehicle of his ultimate destruction.  This dark middle chapter forms the emotional heart of the Back to the Future trilogy by forecasting the darkness in Marty, and increasing, by degrees, the trilogy’s narrative and intellectual complexity. 

For example, Back to the Future Part II’s remarkable final act not only goes back to 1955 and the events of the original film, it actually travels "inside" those events, and inside the frames and compositions of the previous entry. It inhabits that same milieu (and the Enchantment under the Sea Dance) with remarkable technological wizardry (forecasting Forrest Gump [1994]) and ratchets up the suspense, as events we think we know take new twists and turns.

If Doc Brown created the time machine to examine the “pitfalls and possibilities” inherent in human nature, Back to the Future Part II also serves that mission ably. The first film concerns how, via time travel, we can understand and appreciate our parents as people who were young once too...not just weird old folks. The second film, uniquely, pursues that same end, but reveals that the faults that plague us as teenagers have the power to totally destroy us as adults.  Life -- and time -- can be quite cruel.

Paradoxically, time has been anything but cruel to Back to the Future Part II. It was once critically-hated by the establishment, but now seems to be the film in the BTTF trilogy that everyone absolutely adores.

Better late than never...




“No one should know too much about their own destiny."

Immediately following his return to 1985 (from 1955), Marty (Fox) is confronted by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who warns him that something terrible will happen to his children in the future, in the year 2015.  

Accordingly, Marty, Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) and Brown time travel thirty years to a brave new world, to a Hill Valley of flying cars, hover boards, holomax movies and 1980s nostalgia. 

There, Marty must save his son from a future in jail, a future caused by Biff’s son, Griff (Wilson).  

After the future is restored, Marty purchases a Sports Almanac from the Café 80s, realizing that it features all the winning teams circa 1950–2000, and he can get rich gambling on them. 

Brown stops Marty from taking this road of greed and cheating, but elderly Biff has overheard the plan, and takes the DeLorean back in time to 1955, so his younger self can execute it.

Meanwhile, Jennifer visits her home with Marty in Hilldale in 2015, and learns that Marty was injured in accident thirty years earlier, primarily because because he couldn’t tolerate being called chicken. 

Worse, his boss in 2015, Needles (Flea), wants to engage Marty in an illegal activity, calling him chicken if he doesn’t comply. Marty succumbs, and is promptly fired from his job.

Marty, Doc and Jennifer return to 1985 in the returned De Lorean, only to learn that elderly Biff has changed everything.

George McFly is long dead, murdered by Biff, and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is married to the scoundrel.  Biff controls the police force, and has turned Hill Valley into a den of gambling and sin.  

Doc and Marty realize what has happened, and determine they must travel back to 1955 again, this time to prevent Biff from using the Sports Almanac that has altered the past, and can change everybody’s future.



 “Be careful in the future.”

Back to the Future Part II’s three act narrative structure is also, significantly, a three age or three epoch structure. 

The film goes from the adventure in 2015 to the dark passage involving Biff-World in 1985, to the tense and ultimately despairing span in 1955. 

Thus, in a subversive way, the film plays like Back to the Future in reverse, with every new challenge being met with a greater challenge, and any sense of closure or triumph proving, finally, impossible to attain...at least until the next sequel.

Specifically, Marty succeeds in saving his son and daughter in 2015, but his avaricious plan with the Sports Almanac is adopted by Elderly Biff, and rewrites Marty’s present. 

When Marty and Doc arrive at that present, in 1985, they are unable to beat it or over-turn the nightmare -- one depicted in endless night-time shots and punctuated by images of grave-stones, cemeteries and obituaries -- without traveling again, this time to 1955.  

And in 1955, crucially, the events that made Marty’s future “happen” (his folks’ first kiss at the Enchantment under the Sea dance) are intruded upon by a "new" version of Marty, whose object this time is not to assure or cement a high-school romance, but to steal back the item that has made Biff’s frightening ascent possible: the almanac. Marty is back in 1955 for business, not love. He must not only succeed in his quest, he must avoid being spotted by his Mom and Dad to be, and also by the version of him we met in Back to the Future.

In the final act, Marty attempts, again and again, to re-acquire the aforementioned sports almanac, but is vexed at every turn.  He thinks he gets it at one point, for example, but finds that it is just the dust jacket hiding a girly magazine. The second time Marty gets it, he loses it because Biff calls him chicken....and he can't let it stand.

And when he finally gets the almanac and burns it, Doc is zapped by lightning out of 1955, along with the DeLorean, trapping Marty thirty years out of his time, with his own future on the line.

And that future doesn’t look good, because we know that even if Marty sets the time line straight, he will be in a car accident, one caused by his constant and continuous inability not to take the bait when called “chicken.”

So where Marty went back in time and succeeded in his mission in Back to the Future, this sequel takes him from failure to failure, with no triumph or victory in sight, and personal injury and failure looming in his future.  

In both circumstances, importantly, Marty is to blame.  Using the Sports Almanac is his idea in the first place.  And the psychological foible involving being called a coward is also his own cross to bear.

Yep, this time it is really, really personal indeed.  Marty’s life is being erased because of himself, and his own failings. He may escape 2015 and Biff World, but can he escape his own nature?

This sly creative structure purposely subverts what we know about the Back to the Future saga up to this point.  As I noted in the introduction to this piece, the black pick-up truck -- a symbol of success -- becomes instead a symbol of Marty’s failures.  

Furthermore, the triumph at the Enchantment under the Sea Dance from the first film gets re-written as a tense action scene with the ultimate kicker being not that Biff knocks out Marty and takes the almanac, but that one version of Marty knocks out the other Marty.  

Again, Marty is to blame for his problems, and that moment -- with Marty #1 storming through a high school exit and knocking out Marty #2 -- is the perfect embodiment or visualization of that leitmotif.

Structurally-speaking, the middle part of any literary or film trilogy finds the hero at his or her weakest, and the forces of darkness gathering.  

The middle part is the point of highest danger, highest risk, and one can detect immediately how this is true in Back to the Future Part II. The film takes Marty to his lowest point, where Biff is strongest, but also to a place where Marty faces another nemesis: himself. What makes the film more than merely subservient to a standard formula, however, is the film’s increasing sense of complexity and despair.  

Events in the year 2015 seem to turn out well, with Marty’s son saved. But then we learn of Marty’s car accident, and his firing from his job. Then Biff rewrites the eighties. And then, finally, the moment of innocent romance and triumph we associate with the original film is broken up, spatially and event-wise -- intruded upon literally by new footage over old footage -- so that it becomes essentially, a battle-ground where paradox (and therefore the end of the universe) is possible at any moment.  

In this way, Back to the Future Part II starts out as being consistent with the mood of the 1985 film -- joyous and light -- but builds inexorably towards a sense of total catastrophe, or at least collapse.

Because Back to the Future Part II is the only film in the franchise that travels to the future, it has become the subject of articles describing what it gets wrong and what it gets right about film-going, circa 2015. We haven’t yet had 18 sequels to Jaws (1975), for example, but uniquely, the film gets right our march of technology in regards to entertainment. 

Today we don’t have Holo-Max, but we have I-Max, and that seems a close enough reckoning about our age, doesn't it? Consider together the Jaws name attached to a sequel, and the update of Holo-Max technology and you get an accurate comment on 2015 film-going. 

Basically, we’re saw sequels and remakes (Star Wars VII, Mad Max IV, Jurassic Park IV) instead of new cinematic visions, but they had a fresh coat of paint thanks to technology (I-Max and 3-D).  

So Back to the Future Part II gets the franchise and sequel number wrong, as well as the technological nomenclature...but it gets the idea absolutely right. In a sense, this idea is reflected, too, by the "remake" aspects of the film's first action sequence.  We get the skate-board chase in the town square of Back to the Future all over again in this sequel...but this time with hover boards (from Mattel).

And no, we didn't have self-drying clothes or hover boards in 2015, and we didn't live in houses filled with Fax machines (“You’re FIRED!”), but we do have large flat screen TVs, and Doc Brown makes an intriguing point about fashion. 

In particular, he notes that in 2015, all the kids wear their pants inside out. Again, that’s not technically accurate, but it seems like a reflection of the idea that so many folks of a certain generation where baggy pants that dip on their hips and reveal their underwear.  In other words, something that would have seemed baffling and unthinkable in 1985, perhaps, seems to have come to pass in terms of fashion in 2015.  To put it another way, the actual detail is wrong, but the idea is spot-on.

Certainly, Back to the Future Part II gets much right in terms of 1980s nostalgia; the enduring myth of St. Ronald Reagan being a prime example in 2015. It doesn’t matter that President Reagan raised taxes (several times), granted amnesty, or exploded the deficit, the myth of his conservative perfection (as opposed to practical pragmatism) persists.

The Café 80s segment of the film -- with Reagan, Nintendo, Michael Jackson and Ayatollah Khomeini -- is one of the most amusing in the film, and aptly notes that thirty years seems to be the perfect span in which to forget a decade’s flaws, and remember only the good stuff. At the same time, the film captures the idea of a world held hostage by an amoral narcissist: Biff Tanen at his most Donald Trump-like.

That means, in 2045, we should all be waxing nostalgic about  2015. I’ll be 75 at that point…



Ultimately, how wrong or how right Back to the Future Part II is about 2015 probably doesn’t matter. The film can be judged a remarkable success for a number of reasons.  

First, it brilliantly serves its purpose of taking the trilogy from triumph to tragedy, just in time for the emotional rally in Back to the Future Part III (1990).  

Secondly, it establishes -- despite the mythic villainy of Biff -- the fact that Marty is, in fact, his own worst enemy. And for me, that idea very much plays into the franchise’s over-arching commentary on family.  How often have we seen those we love make the same mistakes?  How often have we wished that they could change?  How often do they fail to change?

In some sense, Back to the Future Part II is about the difficult time between teenage years and adulthood when we become set-in-our-ways, no longer pliable. Instead of bending, we break.  Instead of being willing to adjust and change, we fall back on old beliefs and behaviors instead. We might grow up, but we also grow rigid; we grow old.


Marty himself is on the verge of that point here, about to make a mistake that he will pay for later in his life.  

Back to the Future Part III brings this idea into focus, and Marty gets one last chance to escape an unpleasant destiny.  

We start to see then, in this remarkable sequel, that 1985 is Marty's pivotal year, as 1955 was George and Lorraine's pivotal year. 

In my review of the original Back to the Future, I wrote about the same events happening over and over again in Hill Valley, film to film, but to different generations. That same idea carries on in this sequel, with the torch of mid-life crisis and disaster passed on to our main protagonist.

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.