Friday, October 9, 2009

1985: Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis)

Released: July 3, 1985

Director: Robert Zemeckis; Screenplay: Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis; Cinematography: Dean Cundey; Studio: Universal Pictures; Producers: Neil Canton and Bob Gale; Executive Producers: Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, and Frank Marshall

Cast: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown – “Doc”), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland)

- “Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Huh? Think, McFly, think!

Yes, I did just name this the #1 film of 1985. In fact, at the Wonders in the Dark 1980s poll, I went a step further and ranked it as my #2 film in the entire decade. And as I said when making the post of my list, I was very tempted to put it at #1 over Raging Bull. That’s how much I like this movie. I understand that these are bold statements to make about a film that is an unabashed attempt at a summer blockbuster and that many serious film critics and movie fans will dismiss as simply light entertainment. It is not accepted as being part of the cannon of great American films as some others in this decade already are. I don’t care. I think that it is a genuinely great film and am not at all ashamed to be ranking it this high, placing it in the same company as critical darlings and personal favorites like Raging Bull, Once Upon a Time in America and other great films of the 80s.

I’m sure many will laugh at this pick or at the very least chuckle at the passion of that opening paragraph, but that’s why I do this stuff. I think that a lot of people that read this will at least agree that this is an entertaining ride, but I don’t know how many will hop on the bandwagon of calling this a legitimately _great_ movie. I could sugarcoat things a bit and not step out on such a limb, but that’s no fun – and since everyone who frequents the blog knows how strongly I feel about my favorites, it’s just not something I would do. In my mind this is the modern equivalent of a Preston Sturges comedy (or Frank Capra for those that prefer his work). The kind movie that might occasionally drift into sentimental territory, but that is so smartly written and acted that it manages to always remain fresh.

This is another instance where plot synopsis is probably superfluous, but I’ll give a quick one anyway. In fact, the story is actually a lot simpler than you would think. Teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), growing up in 1985, goes to meet his eccentric friend and inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). A rich scientist, Doc is constantly coming up with zany inventions that never pan out and this time he claims to have converted a DeLorean into a time machine. Running on stolen plutonium, the contraption miraculously works and results in Marty being transported back to 1955. Once in 1955, he inadvertently interrupts the meeting of his parents, creating problems as they are no longer on track to fall in love and start their family. Instead of falling in love with his father George (Crispin Glover), his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) instead has the hots for Marty. This endangers Marty’s very existence and forces him to begin to play matchmaker for his own parents. His mission then becomes to fix his parents up, see that they fall in love, and then find a way back to 1985.

It doesn’t sound like the plot line of a movie considered to be an all-time great, does it? I’m sure that the outlandishness of the entire thing will make certain that any chance it ever had at seriously being thought of as great movie (which I doubt ever even existed) will be killed just on that basis. Fortunately, art is not like sports where winners and losers must be declared. The efforts of those involved in this movie and the entire series can still be properly acknowledged. The screenplay by director Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale is very impressive, displaying incredible foresight in how they would manage to juggle the various alterations that would have to be made to accommodate the time travel over the course of the entire trilogy. By this, I’m referring to very small elements – things such as 1985’s Twin Pines Mall becoming the Lone Pine Mall, because when Marty was transported back to 1955 he inadvertently knocked out one of the trees with the DeLorean. When he makes it back to the 80s, we just happen to catch a glimpse of the sign that shows the new name. Minor details such as this are spread throughout all three films and even someone who doesn’t like them has to at least acknowledge the creative planning that went into scripting them.

It is also incredibly charming the way that they poke fun at the cultural differences between 1955 and 1985. The way that they show how drastically viewpoints can change over the course of a few years, and how what seemed outlandish in one era is perfectly normal in another. Just witness things like the 1955 Doc refusing to believe that the president in 1985 is Ronald Reagan. “The actor!” Doc exclaims when he hears this, and then follows up by asking, “Then who’s vice-president? Jerry Lewis?” Or the man at the diner laughing at the notion of a black man becoming mayor of the city. But the audience is in on the joke, as we already know that the black man working at the diner is Goldie Wilson, the mayor in 1985 Hill Valley. Or how in 1985 Marty’s mother expounds the virtues of “nice girls” and how in her day girls would never be calling boys. Yet in 1955, Marty experiences firsthand what a façade that is, as his mother is every bit the tomcat she claims she never was. 1955 also serves as an ideal period to incorporate into such a story. This is the era of the birth of rock n’ roll and of American expanding in the midst of the postwar boom. It is interesting to see the comparison between the birth of the consumer culture in the 50s and seeing it in full bore in 1985.

The performances are all around exemplary. Michael J. Fox was made a worldwide megastar as a result of this series and to this day I would guess that many people still envision him as Marty McFly. Christopher Lloyd is as zany as it gets, playing the madcap, yet lovable Doc Brown perfectly. I _guarantee_ that when people think of Christopher Lloyd (if people still think of Christopher Lloyd at all!) it is as Doc. Lea Thompson was never better than as Lorraine, where she makes everyone watching come to the same chilling realization – at one time, even your mother might have been out swiping booze from the liquor cabinet and trying to make it in the backseats of cars. Crispin Glover as the nerdy George McFly provides my favorite comedy parts, as the interaction between George and his future son is hilarious. The Biff character, played by Thomas F. Wilson, remains the villain that you absolutely love to hate. And didn’t everybody have at least one principal like Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan)?

As I said, I’m sure my fawning over a movie like this – and doing so in earnest – might shock some people. I’m just being honest. Nostalgia may play a small part in some of my memories of it, but I am not at all engaging in hyperbole when I refer to this is as a magnificent movie.

Rating: 10/10

Other Contenders for 1985: Ran is another amazing film and it would be the more traditional pick in a countdown like this. It is my favorite from Akira Kurosawa and I would guess that it will be a popular choice for many folks. This is one that is so good that it deserves to be a selection this countdown, but it had the misfortune of falling in the same year as another favorite. The list of other movies from ’85 that I think are the best: Witness (Peter Weir), Come and See (Elem Klimov), and Brazil (Terry Gilliam).


  1. Dave, I applaud you for going with this film, as too often films with a high entertainment quotient are frowned on in favor of films seen as far more thought-provoking or important. But I share your love for it, and while it didn't make Number 1, it did come very close. I have very fond emories of the times I saw this on a big screen in 1985--the theatres I saw it in (one if gone forever) and the friends who came along. Your own passion registers beautifully in this vibrant writing which conveys this delightful film's essence.

    My Own #1 Film of 1985:

    The Time to Live and the Time to Die (Hsiao-Hsien; Taiwan)


    Ran (Kurosawa; Japan)
    Back to the Future (Zemekis; USA)
    My Beautiful Laundrette (Frears; UK)
    Come and See (Klimov; Russia)
    Alpine Fire (Murer; Switzerland)
    Mishima (Schraeder; USA)
    My Life As A Dog (Hallstrom; Sweden)
    Witness (Weir; USA)
    Shoah (Lanzman; France)
    Brazil (Gilliam; USA)

  2. 1985 is a very delinquent year for me. Ran, Shoah, My Life as a Dog, Brazil and Come and See are missing in action from my viewing experience. So, with these films eliminated from my selection I am going with Back to the Future. This film is the summer blockbuster at its best. A film does not have to be deadly serious to be great. The film is intelligent, inventive and fun without pandering to the lowest common denominator, which too many films usually do. Dave, Your enthusiasm is infectious, makes me want to want this again. Another engaging review.

    My runner up list, consist of some films that may not be great but I have a fondness for.

    #1 Back to the Future

    Runner ups

    My Beautiful Laundrette
    Prizzi’s Honor
    The Purple Rose of Cairo
    After Hours
    The Falcon and the Snowman
    Lost in America
    Heaven Help Us

  3. You don't neet to be defending yourself at all Dave. I'm with you (though I don't consider this a masterwork). Zemeckis is one of the very few directors (Spielberg is another) who takes teh SCIENCE of Sci-Fi seriously. It may just be a fun ride, but most of its concepts scientifically hold good too. This is one of the few movies (Groundhog Day is anotehr rare instance) I can watch any number of times any day
    1985 seems to have been very productive. My favorites:

    Almanac Of Fall (Tarr)
    Ran (Kurosawa)
    A.K. (Marker)
    Come And See (Klimov)
    The Runner (Naderi)
    Hail Mary (Godard)
    Vagabond (Varda)
    Detective (Godard)
    Back To The Future (Zemeckis)
    Shoah (Lanzmann)
    The Color Purple (Spielberg)
    The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen)
    The Dark Glow Of The Mountains (Herzog)

  4. 1. Ran: Best of year and decade
    2. Prizzi's Honor
    3. Vagabond
    4. Brazil
    5. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon)

    Dave, I may not share your taste in pop cinema exactly, but effective pop cinema is not unworthy of inclusion among the favorites or greats. Re-Animator is my own acknowledgment of that fact.

  5. Good to see some support for the choice. I figured that most people at least like the film, but I didn't know how many would be willing to pick it as the top film of 1985 -- particularly with something like RAN also being released this year.

    Samuel, I too think that RAN is a masterpiece. It is certainly my favorite Kurosawa film.

  6. Well, I must applaud your picking Back to the Future as your movie of the year. I'm sure there aren't many film lovers/writers/critics who would pick an all-out entertainer like this even if he loves the movie at the core of his heart. That clearly shows that yours is one of the more honest countdowns that one can hope to come across.

    And as for this madcap Robert Zemeckis flick, this is one hell of a ride! I too just loved the movie. Your wonderfully honest and heartfelt review might make many a double-faced critic cringe, but as I said, you have my applause... Cheers!!!

  7. I love 'Back to the Future' too - I'm not very good at picking my number one film of a year, but it is one of my favourites too and I enjoyed your review very much. I also really like 'Witness' and 'My Life As a Dog'.

    1985 was a good year for British cinema. Looking back at the UK films from that year I'm another fan of 'My Beautiful Laundrette', as well as 'Letter to Brezhnev', and 'Dance With a Stranger'. Another fine British film was Alan Bridges' 'The Shooting Party' (a magnificent historical drama starring James Mason in one of his last roles). Judy

  8. '85 is a tough year for me. At one point it would have been Ran, but on my last viewing I didn't get into the film as much as I had the first time. Back to the Future I grew up with and have a great deal of affection for, but the last time I saw it, it struck me as a script machine - chugging along to execute its plot rapidly with as much historical gags as possible; I found myself wishing it could relax a bit and savor the atmosphere. But that's probably in part a result of my mood when I watching it and the fact that I'd seen it so many times.

    I'll go with Mishima - A Life in Four Chapters, Paul Schrader's fascinating and visuall dynamic biopic.

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