Thursday, April 7, 2011

Returning To The Classics of My Childhood: Back To The Future Holds Up!

The Good: Decent acting, Interesting characters, Good plot, Moments of humor, DVD Extras
The Bad: Ultimately juvenile protagonist, Hammy interpretation of Libyan terrorists
The Basics: Fun to watch and generally funny, Back To The Future puts a young man in his past trying to hook up his parents so he can exist.

Back To The Future is one of those movies that I saw originally when it was in the movie theater, then earlier this week and never fully in between. So, my perspectives of the movie come from vague recollections of sitting in the theater (I remember the ending clearly from the big screen and little else) and the rather adult perspective of seeing it days ago. Like Jaws (a childhood favorite I recently rewatched as an adult to realize it's more about capitalism than sharks), my reviewing Back To The Future comes from an adult perspective and honestly, the movie is all-around satisfying.

Marty McFly, a high school student, hangs around with the eccentric adult Doctor Emmett Brown, whose wacky inventions never seem to work quite as they are supposed to. One early morning in 1985, Marty is called to a mall parking lot where Doc Brown has an invention that appears to actually work; a time machine in the form of a Delorean (a car). Unfortunately, to facilitate his creation, Doc Brown made a deal with some Libyans for plutonium. Libyans show up and kill Brown for using their plutonium in his time machine (as opposed to the bomb he supposedly was building for them) and Marty escapes using the Delorean.

Unfortunately for Marty, escaping in the time machine throws him back in time, to 1955, where he inadvertently saves his father, George McFly from a car accident. Hit by a car, Marty ends up in his future mother's bedroom and he comes to remember that the story seems familiar to him; he's heard it before as the story of how his mother and father met. While he meets with the 1955 version of Doc Brown to try to fix the time machine, Marty must work with George McFly (his future father) and Lorraine Baines (his future mother) to push the two together to make sure he comes into existence. Plagued by the school bully, Biff Tannen, George and Marty work to save Marty's existence by betting Lorraine to go to the school dance with Marty.

Back To The Future is a rare - and possibly the most successful - science fiction comedy. Like later movies that trend into the arena, like Galaxy Quest and Dude, Where's My Car?, Back To The Future hinges on an acceptance of elemental science fiction concepts, in this case, time travel. It takes enough time to adequately explain the phenomenon and the implications of it, which makes the movie remarkably accessible to those who are not fans of science fiction. Instead, the film tries its best to engage the viewer with a series of interesting characters.

Ignoring the time travel, Back To The Future quickly becomes a romantic comedy. Set in the 1950s, Marty McFly - using the name Calvin Klein (because that's the name on his underwear) - is trying to fix up George and Lorraine. While trying to fix Lorraine up with George, Calvin finds he has to dissuade Lorraine from any attraction towards himself and he and George must rescue the young woman from the aggressive, bully and sexually violent Biff Tannen.

Most of the characters are "types," but the overwhelming character study is actually intriguing. Biff is a bully who has never been put in his place, so of course he acts like the king of the castle. Because George never stood up to him, Biff continues to exploit George and abuse him over the years, which is why when Back To The Future begins, Biff is still a dominant person in George's life. George, under the thumb of the bully for over thirty years, never has the chance to grow, change or develop. He remains in Hill Valley, California, dominated by Biff, barely able to express anything to his wife and children other than his fear.

He's a terrible role model for Marty, who turns to Doc Brown for a father figure. It's never exactly clear how Doc Brown and Marty know one another because he's something of an old crank that makes the viewer wonder why he would have Marty around. Regardless, Marty has more a relationship with the eccentric scientist than with his own father, until he is able to go into the past and meet his father there and help him overcome his limitations through aiding his father in courting his mother.

But basically, this is a PG movie about rising up to overthrow bullies. It works quite well as story for young people about the importance of not letting bullies have their way and putting them in their place. Unfortunately, writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale fight violence with violence in Back To The Future. The solution, they posit, to thwarting bullies is to talk back and punch back. And the truth is, when it happens here, the audience is set up to cheer for the underdog.

This leads to the big character defect of Marty McFly. He can's stand being called a chicken. Completely afraid of being judged by others as a chicken, Marty will accept virtually any challenge that comes his way if for no other reason than to establish himself as someone who is not a chicken. This is a remarkably juvenile attitude and it's hard to watch Back To The Future and suspend disbelief enough to see actor Michael J. Fox baited at every turn by losers threatening him with being called a chicken.

Does it fit an 18 year old? Possibly. Should the 18 year old learn and grow? I sure hope so. But he doesn't in this movie. In fact, for a PG movie, there is a satisfying amount of violence, swearing and sexual innuendo. I'm not saying those things are necessary for a movie to be enjoyable, but movies portraying a young person who never swears when in life-threatening situations always seem to ring false to me. I mean, when being chased by Libyan terrorists with missile launchers, swearing seems reasonable and director Robert Zemeckis does not push for a more kid-friendly movie, instead opting for realism.

Regardless how much the characters are "types" as opposed to individuals, Back To The Future works well and holds up over multiple viewings because of the performances. Crispin Glover is wonderful as the nerdy and browbeaten George McFly. He's hard to watch at times for how his character takes abuse and Glover wonderfully emotes completely without saying a word at key points in the film. So, for example, his facial expressions the first moment Biff appears in 1955 and whacks him around where his character does not cry, but rather comes so close, it's agonizing to watch and a complete credit to Crispin Glover and his acting abilities.

Lea Thompson plays Lorraine and she's wonderfully different from her lead part on Caroline In The City. Thomas F. Wilson, who plays Biff Tannen, sets up his career as a big jock-type thug. Rewatching Back To The Future now made me instantly recognize James Tolkan, the principal Mr. Strickland here, from his detective role in Masters Of The Universe. The supporting cast works well to tell the story and flesh it out with realistic looking, wonderful performances.

Christopher Lloyd has the essential supporting role, oddly enough as what amounts to being the sidekick to Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly, as Doc Brown. Lloyd is good as Doc Brown, but he's not presenting the viewer as something essentially new and different. No, here he is remarkably like his character from Taxi, Reverend Jim. It's a great role and Lloyd plays the somewhat crazy scientist beautifully. But it's nothing we haven't seen from him before. He was well cast, as opposed to acting well in Back To The Future.

What does work, though, is the acting of Michael J. Fox. While the viewer must suspend their disbelief to believe that Fox is an 18 year old (possible more in this than in some of the sequels), Fox's portrayal of Marty McFly is energetic and interesting. Fox connotes the sense of seriousness that the temporal mishaps deserve. He sells the viewer on a young man terrified by the weirdness of his circumstances, yet able to cope with them. Fox presents a character very different from his role on Family Ties and makes the viewer believe him completely, believe in him completely, and that keeps the movie moving.

The DVD bonuses are decent, giving a lot o behind-the-scenes insight into the movie with extensive featurettes and a commentary track. Everything one could want to know about Back To The Future is on the DVD.

And while the film utilizes some real shit jokes - literally, as Biff runs into a manure truck - the film is generally funny and at its worst entertaining. And it ought to get credit for the clever concept, elevating the simple romantic comedy with an intriguing and engaging twist.

To see how Back To The Future works as a part of the greater series, check out my review on Back To The Future - The Complete Series on DVD here!

For other works featuring Christopher Lloyd, check out my reviews of:
The West Wing - Season 6
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock


For other movie reviews, please visit my extensive index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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