Back to the Future
A poetic reading/ critical analysis of Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis. See below for the original trailer.
In any narrative involving the concept of time travel, form and structure are going to be of key significance. Back to the Future is no exception. The narrative is linear, but features a huge interruption when Marty accidentally travels back to 1955. The main action of the film takes place in its own past and we only return to the present in the final chapter. This disjointed structure gives the film an interesting sense of conflict. We accompany Marty on his adventure but the whole thing has happened already. By the time we return to the present, nothing has happened (even though everything has changed).
One thing I love about 80s films is their recklessness. Back to the Future is often wrongly taken as some sort of family movie. It is not. It’s actually a teen adventure and high concept morality tale. Throughout the film we get little moments of profanity that remind us that this is the experience of a teenager. This language (everything ranging from ‘sucker’ to ‘son-of-a-bitch’ and ‘shit’) works to reflect the darker elements of the story and the severity of Marty’s predicament. It’s not simply fun and games. As Doc says, “get ready to see some shit”.
Another thing I noticed on my recent viewing of this classic is a recurrent motif of heaviness and weight. Marty’s slang of choice for something serious is ‘heavy’, which the 1955 Doc notices and makes comment on. Later, George McFly garbles his confession of love and says that Lorraine is his ‘density’. I’m pretty certain there is also a reference to Isaac Newton. Heaviness –the heaviness of gravity- is central to scientific discovery, echoing the mad genius of the Doc. Coincidence? I’d like to think not.
What I’m not going to talk about here are the numerous iconic and memorable images that this film gives the audience: Doc emerging from a smouldering Delorean, Marty and the Doc standing in the flames of the vanished car, Marty skitching on a plank of wood, et cetera. The important imagery in Back to the Future concerns contrasting images of Hill Valley. The Hill Valley of 1955 is almost a postcard to a bygone era, as alien to Marty McFly as the 1985 Hill Valley is familiar to him. The poetry of this contrast is clear – it is the same location but the past is literally different that it literally becomes a foreign landscape.
This is one of the film’s strongest elements. From the opening long establishing shot where we are introduced to the characters of Marty and the Doc, we get a near perfect movement through a potentially overwhelming narrative. Events unfold at a healthy pace, with scenes blocked out in clear, defined storyboards. Scenes overlap, but neatly, to kinetic effect. In the 1955 café scene where Marty meets his father and Biff’s gang, we see George cycle away through the window, taking us into the next scene whilst the current scene is playing out. Similarly, when Doc and Marty are discussing their plan on route to Hill Valley High, their conversation becomes inaudible as they approach the school, only to be continued inside. All of this gives the film an upbeat, forward-leaning rhythm that propels the story towards its conclusion.
With regard to pacing, Back to the future basically goes Slow-Fast-Slow. Slow in that opening establishing shot, fast all the way until the lightning bolt set piece when Marty returns, and slow… during the credits I suppose.
Like all good poetry, Back to the Future has a central point of tension, and it’s basically the negative space between life and death. Let me explain.
The film is exuberant and bristling with vitality. It works as a teen movie on a fundamental level, our youthful, energetic hero bouncing through his adventure with an intense vigour. This vitality, which we can call ‘life’ runs parallel to a palpable sense of danger. Not just the imminent threat of a marauding bully (Biff) or the potential recriminations of ‘the Libyans’, but the threat of non-existence if Marty fails to get his parents together. We can call this ‘death’. Now, the conflict between life and death is what gives this film such energy and narrative power. We are not only entertained by the fun of it all but also compelled to see if Marty can avoid the ultimate tragedy. I suppose this is what adventure is: fun and peril occupying the same space.
Time travel? No. Back to the Future covers a lot of different subject areas but the logistics and nature of time travel is not one of them. Really and truly, the film is a discourse on inter-generational family politics. The central premise of the film (as its writers state) is to consider what it would be like to interact with your parents when they were your age. Time travel is a means to this end. Marty’s 50s adventure is based around his getting to know his parents on human level – their flaws and aspirations. The film explores this nicely, with Marty giving advice to the people who have raised him, a reversal of roles that invites us to examine our own attitudes to our parents.
Along the way we get a discussion on the changing face of modern America through the lens of Hill Valley. This is continued in the sequels when we see various incarnations of Hill Valley, from gambling-poisoned hell-hole to Old Western frontier town.
Finally, Back to the Future is about fate, or more specifically the conflict between fate and choice. Marty’s actions compel his parent’s to make specific choices that alter their futures. George becomes a successful novelist and overcomes the bully. Lorraine avoids becoming a drunk. Uncle Joey, we can assume, remains behind bars (but he is only a jokey aside). The usual 1980s preoccupation with wealth seeps into the story (when we see gratuitous shots of the McFly home and shiny new Jeep), but the pursuit of wealth is not a major subject.