Friday, July 06, 2018

Back to the Future (1985)

USA, 116 minutes
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Photography: Dean Cundey
Music: Alan Silvestri
Editors: Harry Keramidas, Arthur Schmidt
Cast: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Claudia Wells, Thomas F. Wilson, Huey Lewis, Frances Lee McCain, James Tolkan

Everything about Back to the Future is a little hectic. It was rushed to make an August release date in 1985 and when test screenings started to get standing O's it was rushed further to make an Independence Day release. It was getting standing O's in general release within some 10 weeks of the finish of shooting it. For a few months in 1985, its present-day events, dated quite precisely October 26 and November 5, were still in the future of viewers. Back to the Future turned out to be the #1 moneymaker of 1985 and now sits comfortably in IMDb's curious list of 250 Top Rated Movies, currently #43, just behind Terminator 2 and just ahead of Raiders of the Lost Ark. As movie entertainment goes, it's hard to deny Back to the Future. In retrospect it offers one of the purest examples of '80s teen comedy, complete with Michael J. Fox, designer jeans, feather haircuts, pulsing Huey Lewis soundtrack, and a bunch of good jokes.

But ultimately it defies categorizing—is it science fiction, romantic comedy, coming-of-age, period piece, action / thriller / suspense, or even ... musical? It sits in my head as science fiction, because it's a time travel story, but that's more in the vein of Groundhog Day or Peggy Sue Got Married, where the fantastic events are just the given premise and everything else is more or less about people. On the other hand Back to the Future is also one of those pictures so full of movie suspense rituals you really want to scream sometimes. Oh no! Another thing went wrong! At the worst possible moment! My annoyance probably speaks to the power of the movie to make us care about its characters and believe the situation—I really want to see Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) make it from 1955 back to 1985 in those climactic scenes. Credit much of this to the screenplay by Bob Gale and director Robert Zemeckis, which is funny and well put together. As can be seen here, Zemeckis is also one of the more gifted students of Steven Spielberg, an executive producer here. The script is tight and scrupulously fair about working through the characters and their motivations. They're integrated so neatly into the events that you don't notice or can forgive the ridiculously unexplainable. Speaking of hectic, the movie hits a pace of 88 miles per hour from the start and never lets it flag or really pads out much and the time goes by like it didn't happen, even when you have to snort at some of its conceits. And you do have to snort at some of its conceits.

In fact, I almost think I might detect the original source here for Mojo Nixon's animus toward Fox, in the song "Elvis Is Everywhere" (where Mojo claims there's a little bit of Elvis Presley in everyone except Michael J. Fox). Fox might have been annoying as a Republican Gen-X son of baby boomers in the popular TV show Family Ties, but we have to remember he didn't write Back to the Future, he's just the fresh-faced teenboy (at 23 years old) playing the role. Still, when we see Marty McFly credited with inventing not only the skateboard but also rock 'n' roll it really is a bridge too far. I have to register a sour note specifically about the treatment of Chuck Berry here, which feels like more of the same disrespect he got most of his life from various precincts of the white establishment. Here it's Hollywood and brash young talented filmmakers who love his music but it still rankles. They could have avoided the faux pas by removing one brief and unnecessary scene of a character making a phone call. (As it happens, because we know the date is November 12, 1955, we also know, at least per trivia at IMDb, that's the date Chuck Berry was named most promising new R&B artist by Billboard magazine.)

Things I learn from DVD featurettes: the Back to the Future script was basically completed in the early '80s and shopped around then. At that time, it wasn't raunchy enough for most of the studios (in the era of Animal House, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Revenge of the Nerds), except for Disney, whose reps told Zemeckis and Gale it was too scandalous for them. They thought it amounted to an incest story. It's not, of course, and the way the picture dances around that is one of the most artful things about it. Marty has been transported back in time 30 years, from 1985 to 1955, where he meets his mother Lorraine as a 17-year-old (Lea Thompson, also 23 and additionally playing a middle-aged woman in heavy makeup). Through circumstances, Lorraine develops a crush on Marty, and Marty, for his part, is also 17 and Lorraine is attractive. This is all comically distressing to Marty. The spark between Marty and Lorraine is played much like jiggle TV sitcom. Fox's strongest contribution all the way through is how much fun he generally is to watch, which comes directly of his TV skills. And then they find a very neat way to resolve the dilemma with no salaciousness.

TV sitcom appeal is what you also have in Christopher Lloyd as the mad scientist Doc Brown. At the time Lloyd was just off his Taxi run as stoner Jim Ignatowski and probably at about the peak of his popularity. No one was tired of his shtick yet, but I must say, being tired of it now, he doesn't wear so well on repeated viewings. At the other end of that is Crispin Glover as Marty's father George. He's the other player here, with Thompson, who has a dual role. Glover is actually younger than either Fox or Thompson, but his gaunt features lend themselves more naturally to middle age. He plays it as a bit of a junior league Andy Kaufman, evidently in his own world and working his own rhythms, and Zemeckis, to his credit, mostly lets him go with it. Glover's performance is one of the elements that gets better for me every time I see this picture, mannered and studied but so strange he often commands the screen any time he is on it.

Is it worth going back to Back to the Future over and over? You probably already know your own answer to that question, but remember that, among other things, this movie (and both of its sequels) are pretty good picks for family get-together occasions. Friends, that's six hours of TV watching with wide appeal for everyone.

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