Back to the Future – When the Future Zoomed Past

Back to the Future Day

It’s already two weeks since Back to the Future went the way of so many science fiction prophecies tied to a set date in the future… We sailed past it. The baffling exposure Back to the Future Day achieved makes Judgment Day’s continued slide in the Terminator franchise look like an act of mercy. At least there’s still a dystopia waiting, while those ‘proper’ hover boards are nowhere in sight. Jokerside takes a look at that definitive series…

“Marty, you’re not thinking four dimensionally”

THERE ARE MANY REASONS FOR BACK TO THE FUTURE’S SUCCESS. THERE’S THE CONFIDENT ORIGINAL THAT MARRIED A GREAT AND HIGHLY QUOTABLE SET OF SPARKLING SCRIPTS WITH SOME OF HOLLYWOOD’S BRIGHTEST AND BEST. There’s the bold film-making that enabled the second and third instalments to be produced back-to-back bringing and brought an unprecedented approach to continuity. There’s Huey Lewis and the News. But perhaps most importantly, there’s the genuinely amusing, good natured and cartoonish fun of it all. And that’s powered by superb comedic performances, particularly from one of the finest physical comedians Hollywood has every produced in the central role of Marty McFly.

Still, it’s remarkable that a trilogy that fell short of $1billion takings, inflation unadjusted, inspired such strong devotion from the youth of the 1980s come 21st October 2015. As every social network reminded us, that was Back to the Future Day.

That’s when in the ancient year of 1989, we first saw the DeLorean arrive in the skies of 2015 and exactly how the 21st century would pan out. Almost. It was the furthest point forward in the trilogy’s springed jump of 30 years that had started in 1985 and already taken us back to 1955 before an extra boost of energy carried us back 100 years to 1885 at the finale.

Back to the Past

“I finally invent something that works!”

It’s always fascinating to watch the original Back to the Future’s opening. In a film of remarkably well directed, with exquisitely framed shots from Robert Zemeckis, it’s a masterclass. So many story points are laid down in that pan through Doc Brown’s studio – from the central conceit of time carried bluntly through the many clocks on the wall, past the subtle foreshadowing of the press cuttings of the Brown mansion and fortune, to the box marked plutonium stashed on the floor. Before Marty’s legs and skateboard appear at the door, before the punchline of the overcharged amp and we see Marty McFly’s face or heard the Doc’s voice, we’ve seen so much of what’s in store. The tone is perfectly set and we know this is going to be a hell of a ride – starting with the Huey Lewis powered skate dash to Marty’s school.

In the film that unravels there are countless mysteries and half suggestions of something more. The recurring importance of Wednesdays, the guns that jam on several occasions… Those may suggest a pre-ordained edge to the paradoxes that unfold, seemingly hermetically sealed in the franchise and often in the brilliant visual conceit of photographs. In the first instance, it’s certainly a jammed gun that sets off the three films chain of events.

It’s crucial that those films follow the cause and effect set by that chain of events. Unfortunately the only link that doesn’t quite make the grade falls at the close of the first film, the one that takes us to Back to the Future day. Not only does the spiral of despair waiting to kick-start for the McFly family on that day not quite cut the grade for pulling Marty (and his girlfriend) Jennifer into the future, it doesn’t quite fit that the time-conscious Doc would to take such desperate measures to deflect the future. Especially, as the films spend a considerable amount of time drawing out the personalities, including Marty’s mysterious uncle “Jailbird” Joey Baines, it seems to be wilful distortion of nature. By dint of happening in the future, any of those events could be remedied in the present. That points spelled out by surely the most serious, when Marty dodges his ‘chicken accident’ in the final act of the trilogy. And once that change had been made, it probably reset the future chain of events in the first place.

Still, the good natured romp of that second film lets us gloss over that weakness long before it plays its trump card of returning to the 50s set events of the first film. Even the inherent cruelty of never allowing the Tannen family the slightest hint of redemption fades away. Or gets covered in manure.

And then it all gets much better. In contrast to the compelling dicey desperation of the first film’s cliff-hanger, the climax of the second film remains unbeaten. For all the brilliant build-up and the resolution of the second film’s temporal issues, there’s a delicious justice in the lighting storm that hits the flying DeLorean being from the same storm that powers the earlier Marty back to the future a very short time later in the centre of Hill Valley.

So damn close

“10 minutes? Why do we have to cut these things so damn close?”

Despite being made in the same block as the second film, Back to the Future Part Three is the best looking. It also quite rightly has the longest and tensest climax, making the most of the train track resolution with classic ravine danger growing closer by the second. It’s quite possibly the definitive concept Speed.

When the hover board becomes crucial in saving all parties from that inevitable crash, it’s just one of the lovely links between the films – if the Doctor ever had doubts about Marty keeping that souvenir, thank heavens he didn’t. In that third part, the recurring motives – the passing out, mistaken identity, manure, pseudonyms, aging character all reach their full tri-partite joke. Many comments, throwaways and intricacies are set throughout the films, particularly the final part, then expanded, recaptured or unravelled. A great example are the McFly family links building up until we finally meet Seamus McFly‘s family in the Old West.

But the difficulty in stretching the format back beyond the 30 year limit comes with those fun family parallels. Fox plays Marty’s brave great-great-grandfather in the third film after playing his hapless son in the second. Despite the looks, Marty Jr has inherited the personality of George McFly from the first film’s uninterfered time line. While bizarrely, his relative a century before is married to a duplicate of his mother. That makes for the classic Marty waking up routine, but doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny, even across the different approaches to genealogy seen in the Tannen and Baines families. The McFly family’s just been too well set up. All the odder is that somehow come in the third film, Marty doesn’t recognise an ancestor when he sees one.

At this point, some of the same essence of Star Wars creeps in, although with a lot more humour. There’s a lot of fun to be had exploring the strong crossovers between those two giant new cinema trilogies of 1980s.

Back to the Future DeLorean

Girlfriend problems

“I don’t know how to tell you this, but I… you’re in a time machine.”

The main aberrations to the flow fall around Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer, who may have made a neater alternative great-great grandmother. Zemeckis legendarily regretted bundling Jennifer into the DeLorean at the close of the first film, which restricted the story he could be told in the second instalment. They were more freed up come the third, however she still causes the most head scratching. It’s remarkably strange, especially given the parallel world he stumbled into a whole film back, when Marty tears round to find Jennifer still asleep in her porch at the end of the third. It’s that trip that leads to the ‘chicken moment’ – and even stranger than that, it seems that altering the timeline to the McFly advantage is what makes it okay for Jennifer to learn the truth. The Doc doesn’t blink at her realising.

Even stranger is Needles position as the Biff to Marty’s George. It makes more sense considering the future we see, although it seems a strange miss of synergy that it wasn’t an equivalent generation of Biff that faces off with Marty at the end. It just goes to show that even in such a tightly plotted trilogy, things can go awry.

Elsewhere, concessions are made to characters to achieve a neat conclusion. While the Doc says halfway through the second film that his favourite period is the Old West, it’s strange to see the dedicated recluse of the first film taking a stand in the middle of town and brandishing a shot gun during a lynching. Although, this is a Doc freed of circumstance and obsession. Possessing the hope he mentions at the end.

Fuel challenge

“The future, I can tell you about the future”

Each film needs to add a dramatic obstruction, and the classic problem comes from the powered time machine. In the first, it’s the need for plutonium, in the third gasoline. The franchise proves adept at drawing in understandable tech of its time. The plutonium may be the ropiest and crudely laid, but is easily resolved by a trip to the future where the machine is effortlessly converted to run on recycling. The refined gasoline is replaced by a shunt method – on train tracks that the Doc fortunately recalls will be there in 1985 (that’s a rare time the franchise reaches slightly tenuously and dismissively for future knowledge).

Master film-making

“Our future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one. Both of you.”

The block approach to making the sequels may have brought an unprecedented continuity to the trilogy as a whole, but many plot strands still creep in late in the day. The first is a brilliant, effective and tight film that sits above its sequels, and in a way it would have muddled that brilliant formula to insert the strands that came into the second and third parts. Doc Brown and Clara’s love of Jules Verne becomes a key measure of their growing relationship and would go on to fuel storylines in spin-offs like the animated series. Of most note, the “chicken / yellow” taunt comes in with the second film, paving the way for the trilogy’s punchline – the implications of which go surprisingly unexplored for long stretches of the narrative. And again, in resolving that issue and giving the final example of cause and effect, it probably eliminates most of the future timeline we’ve been shown.

The third film does make it clear why the future’s so difficult to predict in a key scene. It’s stunning when Doc Brown sits in 1885, awkwardly telling Clara that men will land on the moon in just 84 years’ time. Just 84 years after steam power has to make up for the lack of refined fuel – it shows just how staggering human development was from the 1880s to 1950. With such a dramatic slow-down in the 50 years that followed it’s no wonder that the second film’s predictions for 2015 were so far off.

There’s a nice conclusion in the immediate and finite destruction of the DeLorean come the arrival back in the future present. Until, of course, the Doc has perfected a time machine that runs on steam and realised his love and family line. He just had to come back for Einstein.

The change of character that leads to Doc becoming patriarch to a family of time explorers may come a bit late in the plot, but it reinforces that Back to the Future is really a series all about love as much as the final message, and Christopher Lloyd’s affectionate repeat for Back to the Future day, stresses the need for hope. Between the first and final part, time travelling has moved from being “dangerous” to “painful” as the love stories of Marty and Jennifer and Doc and Clara are resolved.

The main conclusion from watching all of the Back to the Future films back-to-back on Back to the Future day? It’s tiring.

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