Inasmuch as guys like Hawks and Huston mastered the art of Hollywood filmmaking in the 1940s and 1950s, Robert Zemeckis (and to an even a greater degree, Steven Spielberg, who exec produced the Back to the Future trilogy) perfected its ’80s incarnation. Now, you wouldn’t know this from watching his mediocre early work, but as soon as Zemeckis put that guitar in Marty McFly’s hands and had him stand in front of the biggest goddamn amplifier, the pop cultural blueprint of a generation of moviegoers was altered forever.
I think that the reason why historians and critics don’t fully appreciate a movie like Back to the Future is that it’s deceptively simple, silly even: kid drives a DeLorean through time, hangs out with his parents back when they were his age, gets chased around by bullies, then eventually finds his way back to the future, The End. You’d have to be the most boring person in the world not to be entertained by this adventure, but I can understand how you could fail to appreciate the full extent of Zemeckis’ genius.
You see, he makes it seem so easy, but a movie doesn’t flow with endless laughs, thrills and wonders like that on its own. Someone had to come up with all the amazing little details that have become so iconic. For instance, having the time machine be a plutonium-fueled DeLorean (“If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”) that has to speed up to 88 mph and that leaves trails of fire behind it after it’s broken through the space-time barrier. Or the idea that since plutonium isn’t “available at every corner drugstore” in 1955, unlike in 1985 (!), Marty (Michael J. Fox, in the role that defined him) and Doc Brown (an irresistibly zany and enthusiastic Christopher Lloyd) will have to harness lightning at the precise moment it hits the town clock tower and channel it into the car’s flux capacitor… No wonder guys like me still have starry eyes when they talk about this flick.
At first glance, Back to the Future might seem less ambitious than Zemeckis’ later masterpiece Forrest Gump, but it’s as clever and thought-provoking in its way. By propelling its teenage hero back to the ’50s, Zemeckis can comment ironically on the era. The film is also about how teenagers often have trouble believing their parents have ever been teenagers themselves, with Marty McFly getting a chance to not only see his mom and dad when they were young but to interact with them. And for an even more striking twist, his mother (Lea Thompson, hilariously naïve yet assertive) actually falls in love with him and he must find a way to get his father (Crispin Glover, spectacularly going from pushover nerd to confident gentleman) to steal her from him! For a so-called popcorn movie, it has a reverse-Oedipal subtext that would have fascinated Freud to no end.
Going back to a more superficial level, Back to the Future has all these amazing moments of cinema that have never been surpassed to this day: Marty escaping from a convertible hot on his tail by jumping off his improvised skateboard onto the car, walking through its passengers then jumping back on the board and rolling away as Biff (Thomas Wilson, doing a great love-to-hate-him asshole) and his cronies slam into a truckful of manure. George McFly finally having taken enough humiliation, clenching his fist and laying out Biff in one punch before the loving eyes of Lorraine. Marty’s energetic rendition of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. And so much more!
Back to the Future has been one of my favorite movies since I was just a kid, and I still love it as much to this day. But even beyond that personal affection I have for it, I persist to think it is truly one of the all-time great pictures.