Throughout the month of March, Audiences Everywhere will be sharing appreciation for film trilogies, including personal reflections from our writers on some of their favorites. Today, we’re discussing Back to the Future.
Back to the Future – Movie Making and Mythologising
The Back to the Future trilogy is about a lot of things: fate, destiny, love, bravery, toxic masculinity, rock and roll, the past, present, and future. It is heavy on both action and comedy and features some great sci-fi and romance, too. And today it almost feels like a relic of a time when a summer blockbuster could just be unashamedly fun. The trilogy is about all these things, but mostly it is a movie about the myths we tell ourselves about the past and the future. L.P. Hartley wrote that “the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”, a phrase that could easily apply to the future as well. The Back to the Future trilogy gives Marty the unique chance to visit these foreign countries as a tourist, and to see if the past and future are as good as advertised or if they just have very good PR.
Back to the Future Part 1 – The Good Old Days Never Happened
In America, when they talk about the good old days they’re usually describing the 1950s. That post-War decade with its booming economy, America’s ascension to superpower, and none of the hippies and social upheaval that characterised the ‘60s, has long become a nostalgic beacon of light. It is often thought of as a golden age when children appreciated their elders, police were respected, and there was none of the smut and depravity that has plagued the next seven decades. It is a common refrain by Baby Boomers that things were better back in the good old days, as though the ‘50s were a golden age of civilisation ,that if recaptured would make us all better, more polite, more respectful people.
This idea is propagated by media like Happy Days and Archie Comics, in which everyone is clean cut, respectful, and chaste. The joy of Back to The Future is how it subverts this idea. Consider the moment when in the film’s present (1985), when Marty McFly’s mother, Lorraine, days to her daughter:
I think it’s terrible! Girls chasing boys. When I was your age I never chased a boy or called a boy or sat in a parked car with a boy.
A big part of the fun of watching Back to the Future Part 1 (and re-watching it) is how much the first act of the movie informs the rest. Practically every line of dialogue, interaction, and camera movement comes back into play later as the set-up or punchline of a joke, and this line from Lorraine is a great example. Lorraine is painting out her own past as being that of a ‘50s girl who waited for the right boy to come along, charm her parents, and conceive a child with on their wedding night. Of course, as the movie progresses we come to realise that all this is all fiction and teenage Lorraine is, as the kids are saying these days, thirsty. From the moment she appears, it’s clear that the girl who will grow up to be Lorraine McFly, mother of three, is utterly boy crazy. And when she was her daughter’s age she definitely chased a boy, showed up at a boy’s house, and sat in a parked car with a boy, and boasted it wasn’t her first time doing so. She also, while in a parked car with a boy, drank alcohol stolen from her mother and smoked. She’s a million miles away from Joanie Cunningham in Happy Days or Betty from the Archie comics. She’s also nothing like the quintessential 1950’s girl, Doris Day. Day was a pretty big box office draw during this period and her entire image was built around the fact that she was, to paraphrase Karina Longworth of the You Must Remember This podcast, the girl you wanted to sleep with but who you could also take home to your mother. In contrast, Lorraine acts like a teenager, a real teenager, full of rebellion and hormones. It’s interesting that the movie presents Marty as the voice of reason considering his plan to save his parents’ marriage is a very immature one relying upon Lorraine simply falling for whoever defends her honour, as though she is some sort of wilting flower that will only go with the guy who punches the most other guys. The fact that the plan sort of works is a whole other thing.
Beyond Lorraine’s character, Back to the Future Part 1 continues to heavily subvert the respectful and well-behaved teen boy archetype, with the depictions of its main male characters; George is a creepy peeping Tom and Biff is a sociopathic attempted rapist, whose friends assault Marty and use racial epithets to an African-American singer. Oh, and there’s that ginger guy who assaults Lorraine on the dance floor while she calls for aid and is ignored. It’s no wonder Lorraine fell for Marty considering that he offered more than just basic humanity and didn’t spy on her, feel her up, or just generally act like a nightmare towards her. The idea that a modern ’80s man had more humanity than a ’50s one would have been something quite radical in 1985 but is now quite commonplace since Mad Men aired and showed us that though our predecessors may have dressed better, men of that period were a bit rubbish.
Back to the Future Part 2 – The Future isn’t Bright
For Back to the Future Part 2 the filmmakers took the characters into the future. Unlike Part 1 which wholly works by subverting notions of the past, Part 2 plays with the conceit by first showing the viewer a bright,shiny future (at least on its surface) before challenging the idea that our best days are ahead of us. The future Hill Valley is all flying cars, hover boards, holographic sharks, and un-openable Pepsi bottles. Even though we are only in the future for 30 minutes of the trilogy, the sequences set there are iconic, especially as we all waited for October 21, 2015 to actually happen. Something about the movie’s depiction of a marvelous, technologically advanced, and exciting future resonates with us because we all want to believe that the future we’re heading towards will be better, easier, and more fun than our present. Back to the Future Part 2 gives us that future and then gives us the specific future of Marty McFly — which is anything but carefree, easy, or much fun.
When they arrive in the future Marty asks Doc:
Tell me about my future. I know I make it big, but do I become like a rich rock star or something?
It would be easy to put this down to Marty being a teenager and thus having an unrealistically optimistic stance on the world and his own potential. However, this is not just true of teenagers. A vast majority of us are waiting for the tipping point that makes us hit it big. Perhaps its waiting for our podcasts to get noticed or the movie review website we write for to take off. Or maybe it’s buying a lotto ticket each week with no regard to the odds because, no matter what your current situation, success is just around the corner. In my house, my wife and I have an expression that we say when we think about this kind of thing: we’re waiting for the future to happen. When the future happens we’ll have enough savings to buy a house or quit our jobs or have a kid. Or when the future happens we’ll have both won Oscars and be living in the South of France eating soft, gooey cheeses until our hearts explode. For Marty, the future happening means that he’ll be a rock star married to his high school sweetheart, and be awash with riches and respect. The movie spares Marty the reality of his future when Doc won’t let him see his future home. Marty gets to see that his son is a wimp but he doesn’t get to see that future Marty is a loser living in a dodgy neighbourhood in a rundown house. Marty also doesn’t get to see that all of his misfortune and shattered dreams are his own fault, as explained by his mother in a key scene that details how his reckless decisions led to dire consequences.
After the first two movies’ thematic subversion of the romantic past and bright future, the third act of Back to the Future Part 2 and all of Part 3 become more about mythologising, though it is less about the myths of history and more about the myths of movies.
A common trope for a time travel movie is for the characters to travel to a significant period of history like the Kennedy assassination, the Second World War, Shakespeare’s England, etc. For Back to the Future Part 2 the most significant period in history that needs to be revisited in order to save the world is the events of the first movie. Marty and Doc travel back to 1955 to the same night that is depicted in the Part 1 in order to avert the horror of the Biff Tannen-controlled 1985. Throughout this third act we see the characters witness events from the first movie as though they are watching the movie themselves. We get to see Marty and Doc witness scenes from the previous movie and react like an audience with shock or excitement. The second movie has created a myth of the first by making it such a vastly important sequence of events that it required visiting twice in order to stop a terrible future. Doc himself even says:
It could mean that that point in time inherently contains some sort of cosmic significance. Almost as if it were the temporal junction point for the entire space-time continuum. On the other hand, it could just be an amazing coincidence.
The first movie becomes the most important event in the Back to the Future universe. It makes sense as without it there is no Back to the Future universe (nor would the careers of Michael J. Fox and Robert Zemeckis have taken off as they did).
In the creation of Back to the Future Part 2 it was originally conceived that the movie would involve Marty travelling to the ’60s where he encountered his parents again and this time had to make sure that his conception occurred. Writers Gale and Zemeckis both thought this was too derivative of the first so went for the sports almanac plot instead. What is interesting is that this movie feels hugely less derivative than that ’60s idea and yet this movie literally replays the first movie’s climax in the background, and occasionally foreground.
Back to the Future Part 3 – A Western at the Drive-In
By the time we get to Back to the Future Part 3, any sort of subversion of historic mythology is done away with. Part 3 is a movie Western through and through, with no space for Deadwood or Unforgiven-style revisionism. What we get is more like a checklist of the genre’s tropes. There is a gunfight, a train robbery, a shootout, a hanging, horse chases, a damsel in distress, an out of control train, whiskey, snarky card players, a hoe-down, a no-nonsense marshal, Indians, cavalry, and someone getting their hat shot off their head. It’s easy to think that the filmmakers were worried this would be the only time they ever got to make a Western so they put it all in just to be on the safe side.
This whole idea that they are living in a Western movie rather than simply a Western setting in this third movie is foreshadowed by the fact that, when Marty travels back to the Old West, he does it by driving across the car park of a drive-in theater towards the screen. He literally drives into a movie and that is why Part 3 does away with some of the cynicism and subversion of the first two parts to make something a lot more unreal and movie-like. For instance, Doc and Clara’s romance feels very much like something from a movie as they fall in love at first sight and quickly find, over the course of a day or so, that they have wildly similar interests and are madly in love with each other. So much so that Doc even considers staying in the past to be with her. The other big romance of the series is George and Lorraine in Part 1 and their getting together was the entire conflict of that film, whereas here, two movies later, Doc and Clara meet and suddenly him leaving her becomes the central source of contention in the plot.
Marty takes more of a backseat in Part 3 as Doc is given more focus with the plot of Part 3 almost feeling as though they are replaying the story of Part 1 but with Doc in the lead role instead of Marty. Marty’s central plot though is something that feels very un-Western as he deals with his rage at being called a coward. From Part 2 onward there is a runner that whenever someone calls Marty a chicken he acts irrationally and gets into trouble for it. This isn’t a part of the first movie so I can only assume it is an effect of the timeline changing once George punched Biff, or, more likely, something the writers came up with later. In Part 3, Marty is being called out to fight Buford Tannen in the street because Tannen called him yellow. Throughout the movies, Marty has taken all manner of beatings (and got future-fired) because he couldn’t walk away from a goading, and as Buford calls him out he asks the bar patrons what will happen if he runs away. They tell him he’ll be known as a coward forever to which Marty replies of Tannen:
He’s an asshole! I don’t care what Tannen says! And I don’t care what everybody else says either!
I’ve watched my share of Westerns but I don’t recall there ever being a scene in which the hero forgoes meeting the villain because he’s discovered his own self-worth. This little subversion of the Western genre proves to be one the most important acts of the trilogy as Marty realising that being called chicken isn’t the worst thing in the world. This comes back around at the end when he decides not to race Needles — which means that he doesn’t hit the Rolls Royce and get injured or sued, and thus may have averted the grim future glimpsed in Part 2.
In the end, the trilogy has become a deeply rooted part of our culture in a variety of ways: The characters of Doc and Marty have been subverted themselves and twisted into the darker Rick and Morty for an animated show about a deranged genius and his young, unwilling sidekick. The biggest trend for Christmas 2015 was people buying those weird modes of transport called Hoverboards. The Delorean has become a mythologised car and the idea that once you could buy that car from a showroom and drive it around almost seems ridiculous now (and googling John Delorean, its creator, is a fascinating rabbit hole). Thomas F. Wilson, the actor who played Biff, has become an artist whose work is mostly about how Back to the Future turned him into a living piece of Pop Art as his identity became knotted with that of his most famous role.
The Back to the Future series saw itself become mythologised as on October 21, 2015, the day that Marty traveled to the future, the world celebrated Back to the Future day with screenings, TV appearances by the stars, and, in my case, dressing up my four-year old nephew as Marty McFly and watching Back to the Future Part 2 (but only the flying car bits because that was all he wanted to see). There was also something about waiting for the day to arrive, as though the second it turned midnight we would be in the future of Back to the Future Part 2, and all of our dreams of flying cars and dogs that walk themselves would come true. Of course, in 2015 we had technology that would make someone from 1985’s head spin, but around Back the Future day there were a lot of thinkpieces and articles about when we would have flying cars and why we can never have them. And we read these articles on the tiny phone/computer/MP3 player/camera we carry around in our pocket and lamented that the future hadn’t happened yet. In the end, we are living in the future, but what we all want is the future cinema promised us, the bright shiny one that may or may not by a myth. But that doesn’t matter because, let’s face facts, hoverboards look cool.
Featured Image: Universal Pictures