As you may or may not remember, the sci-fi comedy “Back to the Future” was released in theaters on July 3, 1985. In celebration of its 30th anniversary, the film is currently touring North America and Europe in a series of high-definition screenings featuring live orchestral accompaniment—including a cast-attended showing at the 17,000-seat Hollywood Bowl, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic performing Alan Silvestri’s score, that took place on Tuesday with all the pomp and circumstance befitting the formal canonization of a universally beloved classic.
I’ve never liked the question “What’s your favorite movie?” But if I had to answer it, the most honest answer I could give probably would be “Back to the Future.”
One reason why I sometimes hesitate to name “Back to the Future” as my all-time favorite movie is that, although I love the film itself, it fails to demonstrate my overarching preferences as a moviegoer: I like art films better than blockbusters, and I don’t generally care for science fiction. I’m sympathetic to the theory that, after the explosion of experimental moviemaking in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the special-effects whiz-kids Steven Spielberg and George Lucas effectively destroyed the American film industry with “Jaws” and “Star Wars”—nonintellectual, sequel-friendly entertainments whose all-ages appeal and lucrative tie-in merchandise infantilized our cinematic landscape.
“Back to the Future,” directed by Robert Zemeckis (a protégé of Spielberg, who produced the project), is cut from similar cloth—a comic book brought to life through state-of-the-art Hollywood technology and boundlessly exuberant, childlike inventiveness. Its magnificently intricate screenplay is a triumph, but not (for example) in the same way as Woody Allen’s screenplay for “Manhattan.” “BTTF” trades in exaggerations, stock scenarios, pat resolutions, and broad characterization—as a piece of narrative machinery, it is as impressive as one of Doc Brown’s contraptions, but its basic parts could have come from the imagination of a 14-year-old boy.
“BTTF” also trades in nostalgia—a hallmark of Spielberg, whose well-documented case of arrested development has informed his entire body of work, most of which harks back to the beloved, sentimental films of his youth and their Hays Code-enforced naivety. “BTTF” takes place in the same junky, debased 1980s as “E.T.”—in each case, a dose of Golden Age magic is needed.
Marty McFly lives in a bleak tract-house subdivision in a middle-class burg whose main square—semi-abandoned since the completion of an indoor shopping mall just outside of town—now houses a Good Will shop, a porno theater, an adult bookstore, and a homeless alcoholic (an aerobics studio full of bouncing Jane Fondas is the only real sign of life). The movie is, in one sense, the story of a 17-year-old boy who thoughtlessly inhabits a seedy consumerist dystopia of rock cassettes, skateboards, and various Japanese-manufactured goods that likely are responsible for his older brother’s inability to find a job outside of fast food. The boy is forced to travel back to the 1950s not only to escape a murderous duo of “Libyan nationalists” (embodying the myriad, frightening Middle Eastern conflicts that lately had begun to engulf U.S. foreign affairs) but also to rescue the lost sense of promise that animated his parents’—and his nation’s—earlier years.
In 1955, Hill Valley boasts a vibrant downtown (a real estate agency, a full-service gas station, a stationery shop, a record store, a legitimate movie theater, and a lively cafe), leafy neighborhoods of Craftsman-style homes, and a gorgeous fleet of gas-guzzling classic automobiles.
When Marty returns from his 1950s field trip, his trashy 1980s household is reinvigorated: expensive and stylish home décor has replaced his family’s recession-era furnishings, and his spinster sister and loser brother have transformed themselves into on-the-go yuppies. Marty’s father has victoriously enslaved Marty’s mother’s former rapist as the family butler. It’s morning again in America.
“Back to the Future” was a movie for its time: a decade at whose beginning Americans were so traumatized—by Watergate, the energy crisis, and the Iran hostage crisis—that they actually elected the wholesome-looking star of “Knute Rockne, All American” (1940) to the presidency, with the hope that he might lead them back to their falsely Edenic vision of pre-civil rights, pre-Vietnam America, even as he espoused economic policies in direct conflict with those responsible for the United States’ post-WWII prosperity.
Most of the time, American nostalgia is really just a subtle race-war, and the racial politics of “BTTF” aren’t great, starting with the babbling, slapsticky Libyans, who are as inept as they are vicious—and merit so little consideration as characters that their fate, after they crash their van, is never addressed. “BTTF” imagines a benign 1950s, whose racism is so mild that the cruelest slur uttered is “spook,” and an all-black musical group is invited to play a dance at an all-white high school. It also imagines an American history where whites are largely responsible for the social progress and artistic innovations of African-Americans: it is Marty McFly who leads Chuck Berry to rock-n-roll (a musical style later perfected by Huey Lewis). Marty also empowers Goldie Wilson, the black Hill Valley mayor of 1985, to discover his political ambitions while sweeping floors in 1955—implicitly to the ultimate detriment of white society: based on the ruination of Hill Valley in 1985, we can only infer that Goldie Wilson is an incompetent politician.
Although “BTTF” purveys no deliberate political message, it unconsciously contains the conservatism of its Republican co-writer Bob Gale. How can it be my favorite movie? It doesn’t represent me. It’s a kids’ movie. Yet every time I watch it, I find something new to think about, something new to be inspired by, something new to notice. This time, I noticed that, when the movie came out, it was actually taking place in the (near) future: the July release date preceded the DeLorean automobile’s October 26 maiden voyage by nearly four months. Yet Zemeckis couldn’t predict what was to come—his movie turned out to be so much more than it aspired to be.