An Appreciation – Back to the Future
But arguably the most remembered aspect of the film is the time machine itself. It is a pure act of creative inspiration to make the movie’s time traveling device out of a DeLorean vehicle. With its hard edges and doors that opened vertically instead of horizontally, the DeLorean is a car with a design that looked toward the future of technology. As a result, the modified DeLorean in the movie—seen today—is both retro and contemporary at the same time. Not many people drive a DeLorean nowadays, but it would be really cool to have the one in this movie. While the science that goes into making the vehicle a time machine is unexplained, what we need to know about it is planted firmly: there is a tracking monitor that tells you where you are in time, where you’re going, and where you’ve been. We know that the machine needs to create 1.21 gigawatts (huh?) of energy to start up the flux capacitor, and must be traveling at a speed of 88 miles an hour to create time travel ability. How all this is supposed to work is beyond me, but what it does do is create a fantastic display of visual effects. The special effects company Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) did a superb job in creating the time traveling process. From the sparks that shoot out of it right when it explodes through time, to the fiery tire marks it leaves behind, the filmmakers and creative consultants that brought the DeLorean to life made a sci-fi vehicle just as memorable by name as the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon, or the USS Enterprise.
The special effects and set pieces are not enough to make the film as great as it is. None of that would work if the characters created were not just as fully realized. Marty McFly is one of the best teenage characters in film or television, and Michael J. Fox fills him with a good amount of wit and youthful enthusiasm. His comedic timing is impeccable throughout, and he gets many laughs simply from reacting to what is happening around him. A well-known story in the development of the film involves the actor Eric Stoltz initially being cast in the lead role, with Zemeckis replacing him five weeks into shooting. Stoltz is a fine actor, and has given many good performances, but seeing his cut footage in the special features of the film’s DVD, we can see why Zemeckis made such a tough decision. The film simply does not work without Michael J. Fox; he has such a light and fun persona about him that it makes his adventure so enjoyable to watch, while also being grounded enough that we can believe that he’s really going through such a fantasy-like experience. It’s amazing to think that Fox could carry such a big movie, when at the time he was mostly known for being a television actor, starring on the series Family Ties.
The Mad Scientist character is a type that we have seen in dozens of movies, but arguably few were as good as Christopher Lloyd’s sprawling, screwball-like performance as Doc Brown. With his stark white hair and exaggerated gestures, Doc Brown is clearly a cartoon character, but that’s what makes him so effective. Doc Brown can get a laugh by simply looking a certain way, or behaving in some odd fashion. But through this, Lloyd crafted a persona that has stayed with him until today, and perhaps has become his most famous performance. I wonder where Lloyd gets his unlimited amount of energy to play Doc Brown; with every scene he’s in he is a relentless ball of kinetic movement. While Doc Brown certainly is a cartoon, that’s not to say he isn’t a believable character within the context of the movie. The friendship that he has with Marty feels real, and he truly wants to help him get back to his own time. He is the person we turn to to understand the stakes that are at hand; without Doc we wouldn’t know the enormity of Marty’s predicament. He speaks with an urgent preciseness, as if the topic at hand is the most important matter of the moment. Doc and Marty are two people who belong on opposite ends of the spectrum, but that’s what makes their connection unique and fitting. They are a kind of dynamic duo that shouldn’t have anything to do with one another, but they need each other just as much as the audience needs them in the movie.
Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd are just two examples of the pitch-perfect casting that went into the movie. Each actor, whether they played a major role or acted as a supporting character, fits incredibly naturally in their part. Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover stood out as Marty’s parents, both in their 1985 and 1955 versions. For Lea Thompson, she exuded a great range for her character. She first played Lorraine as the older drunk, exhausted and a bit disappointed with where her life ended up, and then flipped that completely around to her younger self—a high school teen who was shy and wholesome around her family but a rebellious spirit outside of her home. Crispin Glover has always been a unique yet fascinating actor, and his performance as George McFly is no exception. Glover has such an eccentric way of delivering his lines, encompassing a nervous energy that makes his every movie unpredictable but entertaining. Thomas Wilson deserves a special mention as the high school bully Biff Tannen, who would go on to torment the McFly family and be the main antagonist of the franchise. When I think of the classic bullies in film, Biff comes as one of the first in line. With his corny one-liners and obnoxious machismo, Biff is a character you love to hate, and Wilson earns all the acclaim he should get for playing the various editions of him. From James Tolkan’s short appearances as Mr. Strickland to Marc McClure’s and Wendie Jo Sperber’s turns as Marty’s siblings, each of the characters in the film had a special part in making the movie what it is, and I can only imagine how much fun it must have been to be a part of it.
For me, what makes Back to the Future so great is how it took an already used idea but remade it with a fresh sense of creativity. There is a kind of joy that radiates from the screen, as if everyone involved was enjoying what he or she was doing just as much as I enjoyed seeing them do it. While some people may like the second (or even the third) installments of this franchise, the first movie will always stand apart from the rest in my viewpoint. It is the perfect package of entertainment, drama, comedy, excitement, and heart, wrapped up in special effects that still look convincing. A “great movie” to me is one that I can watch this very instant and get sucked back into almost immediately, regardless of how many times I’ve seen it. Even though I know what to expect, I enjoy going through the journey with each and every watch. Certainly, this film fits that criterion.