Monday 4 August 2008

'80s RETRO: Back To The Future (1985)

Monday 4 August 2008
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Bob Gale & Robert Zemeckis

Cast: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines/McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland), J.J Cohen (Skinhead), Casey Siemaszko (3-D), Billy Zane (Match) & Harry Waters Jr (Marvin Berry)

Often mistaken for a Steven Spielberg movie in its heyday (he "only" executive produced), the case of mistaken identity probably boils down to the fact Back To The Future takes place in a "Spielbergian suburbia" present in many '80s films he directed/produced; E.T, Gremlins, Harry & The Hendersons, The Goonies, Innerspace, etc...

But this is Robert Zemeckis' baby, a long-gestating project he co-wrote with Bob Gale. Back To The Future (hereafter BTTF) stars Michael J. Fox as skateboarding all-American teen Marty McFly, youngest son of Hill Valley doormat George McFly (Crispin Glover) and best-friend of local eccentric Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd). The McFly's are a browbeaten family thanks to spineless George's lifetime of intimidation by tormentor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Even comparatively confident Marty lacks the self-belief to excel as lead singer of a band, despite the support of sweetheart Jennifer (Claudia Wells).

The wind of change starts a-blowing when Marty is awoken in the early hours by the "Doc", to witness a trial run of his latest invention: a time-travelling DeLorean. To Marty's astonishment, the experiment is a success, but events turn sinister when Libyan terrorists (whom the Doc stole plutonium from to fuel his creation) arrive and gun down the wild-haired inventor. Marty, escaping in the DeLorean accidentally reaches the trigger-speed of 88 mph and is thrown back in time from 1985 to 1955...

Stuck in the '50s with no plutonium for a return trip, Marty's own existence is threatened when he accidentally changes history -- preventing mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) meeting and falling in love with his father, so she instead takes a shine to her future-son! As Marty plays matchmaker for his teenage parents, while playing down Lorrain's infatuation with him, only the '50s-version of Doc Brown can help Marty get "back to the future" -- courtesy of a bolt of lightning due to strike the town's Clock Tower...

BTTF is (first and foremost in my mind) a superb script that develops, engages, amuses and escalates with every moment. It's a beautifully simple idea, delivered with punch and hung on appealing relationships. A love letter to the 1950s (birth-era of the "teenager"), that decade's pre-Kennedy innocence butts heads with '80s edge: the film dabbles with the possibility of temporal incest, after all.

Like many classics, it's the highlight of its cast's filmographies: Michael J. Fox graduated from sitcom actor to superstar on the back of its success, bringing immense likeability and sharp comic-timing to the role; Christopher Lloyd has never found a better outlet for his peculiar exuberance, and bounces off Fox brilliantly; and BTTF remains the pinnacle of Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson and Crispin Glover's sadly chequered careers.

In fact, it's worth mentioning how the underrated Wilson actually plays 6 variations of his Biff character throughout the BTTF trilogy; each one identifiably different, yet clearly part of the same family tree. Notorious goof Glover brings just the right amount of clumsy sympathy to super-loser George, while Thompson's pursuit of Marty is charming and understated.

But it's the all-important Fox/Lloyd chemistry that's unforgettable and genuinely touching -- particularly when Marty decides to break one of the fundamental time-travel rules, and warn the Doc of his own death. In many ways theirs is a father/son dynamic (Marty likely finding Doc more stimulating than his gutless dad), but seeing Marty connect with his real dad and become a positive force for change in his parents lives is heart-warming stuff. And I still yelp with joy when George McFly summons the courage to punch-out Biff, and the dreamy magic of the "Enchantment Under The Sea" dance always leaves a glow in the pit of my stomach, amplified once Marty starts belting out "Johnny Be Good".

BTTF is an excellent Twilight Zone-style plot, dosed with kinetic highlights (a skateboarding getaway, the thunderstorm finale), reams of quotable dialogue and affectionate Americana. Indeed, it's so alive with classic moments and buzz-phrases that its two sequels are basically reverberations in different eras. It's also worth mentioning Alan Silvestri's excellent score (particularly the triumphant, escalating theme), which captures the spirit and heart of the film it's woven through. For my money, BTTF's signature track is the equal of John William' Star Wars, Superman and Indiana Jones themes.

Overall, it's easy to see why BTTF is repeated on television every few months. It's a sci-fi adventure that appeals to people not usually interested in the genre, because it's foremost about the characters and the "what if?" premise can't help but fire your imagination. Haven't we all wondered what our parents were like before they had us to focus their lives?

A clever script, involving story, excellent performances, brilliant music, witty dialogue, several rushes of adrenaline, heart-warming sentiment, gripping finale, and a great set-up for a sequel; this is rich and rewarding family entertainment.

Universal Pictures
Budget: $19 million
117 minutes