“Wait a minute, Doc… Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?!”
Few films feel as simultaneously dated and ageless as Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic Back to the Future. Everything about it perfectly encapsulates the 1980s as a decade, from Marty’s life-preserver to the cameo by the eponymous frontman of Huey Lewis & The News (he’s the guy who tells Marty’s band that they’re “too darn loud”). And yet, in spite of its more obvious cultural references – maybe even because of them – it transcends the cheesy nostalgia trap so many other films of the same era fall into and emerges as a genuine masterpiece.
In this writer’s opinion, it’s the greatest movie ever made.
Before we examine that bold claim in further detail, here’s a quick synopsis for those of you who have never seen Back to the Future (presumably because you were too busy living on the surface of Mercury). In 1985, teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is accidentally sent back to 1955 in a time machine made out of a DeLorean – because, like its inventor Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd) tells us, if you’re gonna make a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style? Stuck in the past, Marty must enlist the help of a young(er) Doc to get back home, while ensuring that his parents fall in love so that he doesn’t end up being erased from existence. However, this proves more than a little tricky when it turns out that Marty’s mother (Lea Thompson) may have a thing for him – a plot point that, in other hands, could have come off less Some Like it Hot and more Lolita.
There’s so much to love about this movie that it’s hard to know where to begin. Do you start with the perfectly assembled cast, led by a career-defining turn from Michael J. Fox? Ron Cobb and Andrew Probert’s now-legendary design for the DeLorean, surely the greatest car ever caught on film? Dean Cundey’s cinematography, filled with money shots like the spinning ‘OUTATIME’ licence plate? The iconic, triumphant score by composer Alan Silvestri? All of these things make the movie unforgettable in their own right, but to really understand its greatness you have to look at the screenplay.
Written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, it’s the kind of script budding writers should be made to study, because the whole thing is tight as a drum. There isn’t a line of dialogue that doesn’t have some form of payoff later on, be it a crucial plot development or the punchline to a really great joke – sometimes both at once. The repeating scenes and lines are a subtle reminder of how much we take after our parents, despite our best effort. And the intricate time travel gags come thick and fast; see what happens to the Twin Pines Mall after Marty knocks over one of Old Man Peabody’s trees, or Doc’s disbelief that an actor like Ronald Reagan could ever become President (a scene that Reagan reportedly loved so much when the movie was screened at the White House that he made the projectionist rewind the film).
But perhaps what’s most fascinating, looking back at the film after 30 years, is how close we came to a completely different movie. Michael J. Fox was cast at the last minute because Zemeckis didn’t like Eric Stoltz, the first actor cast to play Marty. The time machine was originally going to be a fridge, until producer Steven Spielberg vetoed the film over worries that kids would suffocate by climbing into fridges in imitation of the film (Spielberg had no problem nuking a fridge 30 years later with poor Indiana Jones trapped inside). It almost had a completely different title – Universal president Sidney Sheinberg wanted the film to be called Spacemen From Pluto, because he was convinced that no film with the word ‘future’ in the title could ever be successful. Would the movie be nearly as successful as it was if any of those changes hadn’t happened? We’ll never know, but it’s a pretty good reason to never invent a time machine and go tampering with the past.
Thankfully, there are no plans to go tampering in the future, either – Zemeckis has openly stated that he and Gale have both signed contracts stating that there’ll be no more movies in the series (be they sequels, reboots or otherwise) while the two men are still alive. But even then, why would you? Back to the Future is so much more than a movie. It’s a time capsule, not only of the time it was made but of how people in the ’80s thought of the past and the future. It’s a Spielbergian love story about the close similarities we have with our family members, even if they don’t see it themselves. It’s a work of philosophy, arguing both that time is mutable and changeable, and yet that destiny (as well as density) can be a part of the fabric of the universe. And you get all that, plus a kick-ass car and a musical number which features the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Back to the Future truly is the greatest movie ever made.