Back to the Future (1985)


Michael J. Fox had boyish good looks and a natural acting ability.  He had some bit parts in some Canadian productions and played one of the bullied teens in one of my favorite b-movies, Class of 1984.  Soon after that movie was made he was cast in the role that would truly break him as a star - Alex P. Keaton, the conservative son of a pair of ex-hippies.  The show, from what I can remember, was decent, but as it went on the focus shifted from the rest of the family to Alex.  

With his fame growing it was time that he returned to making movies, and he did.  During time off from Family Ties he made a movie that people would remember fondly as being that other Michael J. Fox film that came out in 1985 - Teen Wolf.  A quickie comedy about a teenage boy literally getting hairy palms (and, if I remember, they definitely went for that joke in the film), it was a movie that Fox was embarrassed to be involved in, and probably would never have seen the light of day if not for another movie that came out that year. 

Though in his early 20s Fox was repeatedly being cast in teenage roles.  This worked to his advantage the when Eric Stoltz didn't work out for the character of Marty McFly in Back to the Future, a movie already underway while Fox was busy with his TV show and Teen Wolf.  He had, in fact, been the person preferred for the role, and Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale went with Stoltz instead due to scheduling conflicts.  Although it is quite obvious now that Marty looks like he should be anywhere but high school, Fox fit the role quite well, especially since he had the acting chops to pull it off.  

Marty McFly (Fox) is a high school student in Hill Valley, California.  The town has seen better days, but the McFlys definitely haven't - in fact, they have seen few good days period.  Marty is a musician hoping to make it big, and looking forward to a weekend away with his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells).  The only problem his that his father George's (Crispin Glover) supervisor Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) has wrecked the family car, and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) thinks Jennifer is too forward of a woman to be dating her son.  The family lives in a rundown subdivision, always on the brink of poverty, and largely at the whim of Biff, who has been bullying George since high school. 

One of Marty's few escapes, other than Jennifer, is working with Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a scientist that many in town believe to be a crackpot.  However, Brown has finally achieved a 30-year-old goal - building a time machine - with the help of a Delorean and some stolen plutonium.  When the owners of the plutonium show up Marty is forced to escape, and ends up back in 1955, where he seeks out Doc Brown to help him get back home.  In the process Marty ends up interfering with his own timeline, and if he can't get his parents together then he will disappear from existence all together. 

Obviously Michael J. Fox is not the only memorable actor in the movie.  Christopher Lloyd is at his off-kilter best, both as the younger and older Doc Brown, constantly pursuing different scientific ideas.  He also ends up being a bit of a Johnny-come-lately father figure for Marty, as his own dad does little more than watch television and escape into whatever world he can in his head to avoid the fact that he is in what has become a loveless marriage and that he has suffered three decades of mental and physical abuse at the hands of Biff.  Marty pities more than respects his father, but is afraid that he may never escape Hill Valley just like the rest of his family.  

Crispin Glover is known for many of his weird roles, and while not as strange as some of the others, George is still out there.  Part of the problem is not just that he is weak or lacks confidence, but that he also seems to have a number of tendencies that would immediately trigger parental concern that maybe the child needed professional help.  Thomas F. Wilson, as Biff Tannen, is one of the most memorable bullies from the 1980s, right down to some of his catchphrases ("Hello?!  McFly?!") entering general pop culture.  Lea Thompson, particularly as a young girl who has a crush on Marty (leading to some rather uncomfortable situations for him) has more time on screen with him than Claudia Wells as his girlfriend Jennifer, so in hindsight the relationship with his actual girlfriend is quite underdeveloped. 

Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale cowrote the movie, with Gale producing and Steven Spielberg putting up some of his money and getting Industrial Light and Magic involved.  For a movie about traveling back in time it is not effects-heavy, with only a few such scenes, but more concentrated on the story of Marty trying to get his parents together and get back home.  Wisely a good portion of the movie is spent on trying to get the '50s down as accurately as possible - or as best as Gale and Zemeckis remembered - and show what a difference only three decades makes.  Placing the story in a small, fictional town helped quite a bit, as there was no need to try to replicate entire streets of recognizable cities, or shut them down while dragging in the classic cars and the film crew.  

Back to the Future was never meant to have a sequel (much less two of them), but even though neither are as good as the first, the most fortunate thing they did was anchor 1985 as the year from which all of Marty's adventures stem.  In retrospect this helps at least the first movie age well, as modern audiences can look at everything happening as being in two different pasts - the '80s and the '50s - rather than the movie feeling like it's stranded in a particular decade.  There are certain situations that definitely would be handled differently today, but largely the movie remains as inoffensive now as it did at the time of its release. 

In a world of horrible and unnecessary remakes, both Zemeckis and Gale have stated that, while they are alive, there will never be a remake or reboot of Back to the Future.  I agree with that sentiment as it is nice to have a movie that both stands up to the passing of time and can be shared with new viewers without its memory being tainted.  The sequels to this were decent, if unnecessary themselves, but this movie has been left alone to be enjoyed and, after all these years, I was quite happy to get the chance to do so again. 

Back to the Future (1985)
Time: 116 minutes
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson
Director: Robert Zemeckis


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