Thirty-five years ago, on July 3 1985, Universal Pictures released “Back to the Future”, creating an overnight sensation. Replete with elements that have been deeply subsumed into pop-culture consciousness (the iconic score, the DeLorean time machine, the famous one-liners, etc.), “Back to the Future” still manages to feel fresh and fun even all these years later. Endlessly quotable, breezily rewatchable, and just plain entertainingly lovable, the film remains the perfect family-friendly summer blockbuster.
The script is zany and witty—with tongue-in-cheek subversions of basic time travel paradoxes, humorous comparisons between 1950s and 1980s America (viewed today, there is the added layer of enjoyment of looking back at the 80s nostalgically), and awkwardly humorous Oedipal encounters that manage not to become disturbing—while also punctuated with thrills and even remaining heartfelt. Underneath all of the surface-level charms and thrills, there are themes and instances of character growth that will appeal to the whole family. Kids will be able to appreciate the simplistic yet powerful advice, implicitly delivered through the character of George, to always stand up for oneself and to take risks—only then will one have the possibility to induce positive change in one’s life. And, for adults, Marty’s subtle recognition of his own faults through interacting with the younger version of his father, George, is a satisfying character arc in itself.
Complementing the screenplay is Zemeckis’s smooth and sure-handed direction. Just consider the famous opening sequence: the panning of numerous clocks, the overflowing dog food receptacle, the plutonium under the bed, and Marty’s escapade with the giant guitar amplifier and his skateboard ride-hitching by grabbing onto the backs of cars. With only a couple lines of dialogue, primarily through visual storytelling, the film cleverly introduces a thematic preoccupation with time, foreshadows the upcoming showdown with the Libyan nationalists, and establishes the idiosyncratic quirkiness of Doc Brown and the effortless cool of Marty McFly.
As a result, because of the script’s mastery of comic and heartfelt sensibilities and Zemeckis’s skills as a director, the film ably moves between its different set-pieces, fluently switching from small instances of subtle humor to thrilling, race-against-time scenes of suspense and finally to touching moments of familial and romantic connection. As noted earlier, it is the perfect recipe for a family summer adventure.
Yet, no proper appraisal of “Back to the Future” would be complete without complimenting the iconic performances of its leads. Crispin Glover, with his lanky, gangly figure and his nervous flutter of a voice, is all-too believable as the pathetic loser George McFly, Marty’s father. Lea Thompson turns in a great turn as Marty’s mother Lorraine, the juxtaposition between Thompson’s exhausted, depressed, vodka-inhaling, eyebag-filled demeanor as present Lorraine and her radiant, youthfully innocent, shyly flirtatious personage as teenage Lorraine is startlingly humorous and impressive. Christopher Lloyd is wonderfully larger-than-life as Doc Brown, his exaggerated gestures and facial expressions, the shock of frizzled hair as if he is perpetually being electrocuted, and his exclamations (“1.21 gigawatts!”) all perfectly encapsulate the lovable, and exuberant, peculiarity of the character. And, finally, who could ever imagine anybody other than Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly? Interestingly enough, the film actually began shooting with Eric Stoltz in the lead role; luckily, Fox became available and the film was promptly recast and portions were reshot. It may have been a headache then, but it proved the right choice in the long-run: Fox’s sheer, innate charm and likability provide the film with an instantly relatable protagonist that everyone roots for.
It is rare—especially in the sphere of summer blockbusters today—to have a lighthearted, family-friendly, unostentatious movie where all of the elements coalesce so perfectly: a delightful script with thrills, laughs, and heart bolstered by inspired performers and surrounded by world-class filmmakers. It is such a rarity, in fact, that not even the other additions in the “Back to the Future” franchise were able to replicate the magic of the original. Perhaps that is why the film remains so popular and beloved by legions of people thirty-five years later—maybe. Whatever the reason is, there is no doubt that “Back to the Future” is timeless, and will forever remain embedded in American pop-culture posterity.