A Science Fictional Year: Back to The Future, Un, Deux, Trois!

This ended up being the first set of movies I am writing about, though through virtually no purposiveness of my own. My wife simply asked about a week ago, “Have you ever watched Back To The Future?” to which I replied, “Do Emmett Brown’s opinions toward changing the space-time continuum constantly fluctuate?” to which she answered: “WHAT?”

I’m pretty sure anyone born after 1980 has seen these movies. And there might not be a “before” date to attach to that. Every infant I know (currently that number is 1) has seen them, and if that trend continues, then everyone’s first exposure to the Back to The Future Chillogy is around nine months of age.

I hadn’t seen these movies in more than a decade, but my impressions from when I was a kid are still crystalline in my memory: time travel is rad, but why go backward? You have to go backward about 64 million years before anything gets interesting. To that end, I remember feeling bored by the first and third, and liking the second best. Plus, the third one was all about trains, and unless that train was going to turn into a robot (then combine with two other trains into an even bigger robot or a pterodactyl) my honest opinion about trains was that they were for people with a “case of the dumbs.” The second one definitely held my interest the most as a kid.

Things change.

With more than twenty years of development since first seeing the first one, it is without a doubt the best: the story’s the tightest, the motivations the clearest, Crispin Glover is the calmest he’s ever been, and Marty McFly’s mom is the weirdest and most eager to bone anyone hit by her father’s car.

For some girls, it’s all about the car… hitting someone.

It’s hard to even say too much more about this movie. It’s pretty fantastic. The only head scratching moment comes when McFly is playing guitar, his dad’s already secured Loraine’s sweet Florence Nighten-begaled heart, but that upsetting ginger guy steps in. Crispin becomes so dejected that he wanders away briefly during which time Marty’s hand starts to fade away. Then his dad comes back and punches the guy right in the mouth and everything’s cool. This moment isn’t that problematic, but it makes you think too hard about the mechanics of something that should be background motivation: if a single moment of doubt caused Marty to waver, shouldn’t he be totally incapacitated by immateriality the second he, and not his father, gets hit by the car? Moreover, since he’s changed the Space Cat Tacobar (or space time continuum), wouldn’t everything continue to be surrounded by an aura of indecision? The members of the photograph winking in and out, features morphing and arranging? If a moment of indecision nearly murders Marty, then he could never actually have a moment’s assurance of his own security in time until he got back. Which then makes you think really hard about whether or not he and his siblings would exist, or in what configuration. His dad has been made way more confident, and they’re obviously wealthier AND he’s a published author. Maybe his newly en-virulent-ened loins decided they couldn’t wait the decade before generating his first child. Maybe they decide to have five children, or maybe they all come out girls. Maybe they decided to move to New York to be closer to his publisher and Marty never met his girlfriend. Then he’d be forced to walk the Earth with the knowledge of a love he could never have. She’d probably be married to Biff Junior, or something equally horrible (though altered-1985 Biff looks pretty prospectless).

And it can go on and on. It’s a minor quibble that I refuse to let ruin an otherwise engaging and contained time travel story (part 2 will obliterate the idea of contained) that simply calls to much attention to something that’s meant to simply be a visual guide of his progress.

I guess the seeds of Doc Brown’s time immutability opinions were sown in the first one when he decides to read the letter anyway and, thankfully, not get shot to hell. Which explains why the last two minutes of the first movie (and first two minutes of the second movie) have him annihilating any sense of time preservation he ever had. Despite the fact that, in one movie, the writers and directors have accomplished more professionally than I might ever in my entire life, I feel like there’d have to be a better reason to travel from the future than Marty’s loser son going to jail.

This makes so much sense now.

Doc Brown’s mind really starts flying off the rails in the first few minutes of the second Back to the Future. Really, the rest of the movie is just a series of complaints: I can think of at least 38 different ways to prevent Marty’s future loser son from breaking the law than going back thirty years earlier to get Marty so he can impersonate his son. The plots in these movies never become incomprehensible, but the second one flirts with that line; namely it opens up with Emmett Brown committing a universe breaking action to solve a pretty small problem. And then things progressively get bananas-er.

“No one calls me chicken” rhymes with “shoehorned.”

Marty wants that almanac so he can gamble his way to riches. I remember as a kid watching this plot line about the almanac and developing the mistaken notion that an almanac was a book that predicted the future. Something about the subtlety of a book written in the past that predicted the future of the past eluded me. Doc Brown forbids it, and Biff (for the only time in three movies) manages to construct a coherent thought with a beginning, middle, and end. And if anyone’s going to be rich, it’s going to be him.

I’m getting too bogged down in story details, but I find it unlikely that Biff could figure out the time machine.

Trashed out 1985 is where my interest starts to wane. I think the problem is that the bone is thrown so far ahead for the audience, that it’s painful waiting for Marty to catch up. It’s also weird how Doc Brown is never around, ever, in the first and second movies. He’s almost like God. But Marty finally figures it out, and it’s off to 1955. Again. This is where the phrase “Back to The Future” is uttered about once per minute. It’s an amusing gag (like in that Family Guy episode) a time or two, but H Montgomery, we get it: it’s the title of the movie.

This part of the movie is also a little insufferable. It suffers from an excess of hijinxism in which the situations get progressively more complex and you simply want Marty to get the book and get out of there. I would have thought a simpler resolution would have been more satisfying since this was simply a CHAIN LINK TO THE THIRD ONE. I didn’t see this in the theaters, but if I had, I imagine that seven year old me would have stood up after seeing that non resolution of an ending (complete with a, “Next time, on Power Rangers” style montage) and shouted, “God dammit!”

But what’s funny, is (apart from the tedium of the third act), it’s pretty enjoyable. It remains optimistic and upbeat and a little wry about itself (though even at six I knew that a holographic Jaws in 2015 – if it existed – would look approximately infinity % better).

And the third one was not that bad. I had it in my head that it was just a trainwreck, but it only ended in one. But I was thoroughly engaged.

But we need to talk about the alternate-alternate-alternate 1985. Why does Marty’s girlfriend remember anything about what happened? For her, none of that ever happened. I found myself very frustrated at that. “Marty, that dream I had was so real.” No it wasn’t. “It was about the future.” “What future?” “About us.” Us what? “You got fired.” In a future that never existed because you’ve lived in this town your whole life and never been in a time machine because you were left on a shitty porch in 19shitty5, which never existed.

It is fascinating to me that, at its worst, the¬†Back to the Future¬†trilogy is still 30 times more coherent and intelligent than the most intelligible Transformers movie, and those movies are a full ten times more expensive. As I continue this project, you’ll find that the 80s and 90s were my favorite time periods for science fiction (and movies, generally). I feel like there’s a ten or fifteen year sweet spot in American film making where filmmakers had really figured out story arc and there was a lot of wild experimentation happening. And the fact that the worst parts of a trilogy can be better than the best parts of some of the most commercially successful contemporary movies really says something about the craft as-was. Apart from time-quibbles (my new band name), these movies are fully engaging. And time-quibbling (first album) is actually part of the fun, and the filmmakers knew it. That’s why he invents/hijacks skateboards in the same way two movies in a row, and Biff and his ancestor both develop close relationships with manure, and my favorite gag of all the films is when Brown starts peeling his face off while telling Marty how he had to wear a face mask so that Marty wouldn’t be shocked by how young he looks compared to his 1985 self. This is a kind of creativity I lament may be lost.

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