People who chance upon the wonder of time travel all tend to want the same thing: second chances. For what is time travel if not the ultimate cosmic do-over, a chance to make a different choice in the past and hope that alteration will improve the future? Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a little different. With youth on his side, he has few real regrets, so his accidental time-travel mission involves changing the lives of others. It just so happens those “other lives” belong to his teen-age parents (Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson) circa 1955.
Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote “Back to the Future” with Bob Gale, merges these two unlikely concepts to create a film brimming with wit, intelligence, sidesplitting sight gags, more than a little heart and a most creative (if monumentally disturbing) reinvention of the Oedipus complex. “Back to the Future,” then, is a rare movie indeed, one where there’s sturdy balance of science fiction and humor. Factor in the very human and subtly poignant backstory that involves the redemption of a painfully timid character, and the first installment of this trilogy becomes even more rare: a film that does, in the simplest sense of the word, offer something for everyone.*
The story Zemeckis and Gale creates begins in 1985 in Hill Valley, Calif., where Marty lives what he believes is an unenviable life. His father George (Crispin Glover) lacks a spine and spends his days at work being bullied by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), while his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) glugs vodka at dinner. But there are two things that make Marty happy: his girlfriend (Claudia Wells) and his friendship with scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a kook who sports a ‘do that puts Albert Einstein’s to shame. He’s the kind of chap, we expect, whose inventions never amount to much … until the day they do. Doc Brown’s constant tinkering moves from strange to astounding when he accidentally creates a time machine out of a souped-up DeLorean. Why a DeLorean? “If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” Oh, that Christopher Lloyd. Always with the bug-eyed witticisms.
A chase (also accidental) finds Marty rocketing down the Twin Pines Mall parking lot in the time machine and landing somehow in 1955. And Hill Valley in 1955 is as unprepared to experience Marty as he is to experience Hill Valley. The ’80s-centric teen can’t quite believe what’s happened to him until he finds himself sharing counter space at the local malt shop with his father, a hopelessly shy nerd. That meeting leads to a mishap that changes Marty’s parents’ initial meeting (turns out his mother finds her future son most attractive) and threatens to alter his own life permanently.
The clash between 1950s-era ideals and Marty’s futuristic notions — pay attention to the smallest details; they matter — provides some of the funniest moments. Hill Valley’s townspeople see his puffy vest and keep asking him why he’s wearing a life jacket. A much-younger Doc Brown scoffs at the idea that Ronald “the actor?” Reagan could win the presidency. “I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady,” he retorts, and later imagines plutonium is sold like Tylenol in drugstores in 1980s America. At the school dance, Marty rips into a guitar solo that leaves the students speechless. “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet,” he observes, but assures them “your kids are gonna love it.”
What’s amazing about “Back to the Future” is the timeless feel of these sight gags. Over the years, every last one of them has refused to age, to seem dated or grow stale. Instead, they feel as fresh and funny today as they did in 1985. That timelessness is a powerful testament to the strength of the actors’ performances (here we see glimpses of the exquisite comic timing that would make Fox a name) and Gale and Zemeckis’ visionary script. Perhaps that’s because “Back to the Future” reminds us that while we can’t predict our future, our choices give us the power to navigate it how we choose.