Film Appreciation travels through time as Cody Hamman discusses 1985's Back to the Future.
Some people might say that this article is arriving too late, as the Back to the Future trilogy of adventure comedies play out over a span of time that, when all is said and done, covers from 1885 to 2015. When the movies went to 2015, that year was still a far off, futuristic world of wonder... and now here we are in drab old 2016, a year beyond the future of Back to the Future. Last year was the time to look back, not now. Now it's all the past. But I would disagree - even if we are in the future of their future, the Back to the Future films remain timeless, and I have an appreciation for them that will last for as long as I'm watching movies.
The first installment in the trilogy is an amazing accomplishment, and I am blown away every time I watch it by just how perfectly crafted it was by writer/director Robert Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale. Together, and with their cast and crew, they created some wonderful, loveable, unforgettable characters and put them through an exciting, heartwarming, highly amusing story.
That story begins in Hill Valley, California on October 25, 1985, following skateboarding enthusiast teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) through a school day as masterfully delivered exposition sets up scenarios that will play out over the course of the film. Rewatching the movie, knowing what's coming, it is extremely impressive to see how Zemeckis and Gale laid out all the information you need to enjoy the set-ups and pay-offs.
The 25th is a rough day for Marty. He gets to school late and catches grief from the principal, Mr. Strickland (the great bald tough guy character actor James Tolkan). His band, The Pinheads, audition to play at an upcoming school dance and are instantly rejected for playing too loud. When he gets home, we see that he has a rather underwhelming home life. His vodka-swilling mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) disapproves of his relationship with his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells), feeling that the girl is too forward. Jennifer dares to call Marty at home, and calling a boy is inappropriate! His meek and obsequious dad George (the reliably oddball Crispin Glover) is bullied by his work supervisor Biff Tannen (an excellently irritating Thomas F. Wilson), who has been bullying him and making him write reports for him ever since they were in high school together. Biff even manages to ruin the plans Marty had with Jennifer by totaling George's car.
Aside from his relationship with Jennifer, one of the best things Marty has going in his life is his unlikely friendship with eccentric local scientist Doctor Emmett Brown, as played by Christopher Lloyd. Lloyd has brought many great characters to life over the years, but the incredible performance he delivered as Doc made this a career-defining role for him. It is a delight to watch Lloyd play Doc, who would rank high on a list of the most likeable characters of all time.
Doc calls Marty to request his assistance in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall at 1:15am on October 26th. There, Doc unveils his latest and greatest invention: a DeLorean converted into a time machine. After a mind-blowing demonstration where he sends the car and his dog Einstein one minute into the future, Doc shows Marty how it all works, typing in an important date as the time machine's next destination: November 5, 1955. The day Doc thought up the device that makes time travel possible, the flux capacitor. Something it has taken Doc thirty years and his entire family fortune to create.
Generating the 1.21 gigawatts of power necessary to make the time jump requires the car to contain a nuclear reactor, and through a crazy sequence of events brought about by the method Doc used to obtain the plutonium for the reactor Marty ends up behind the wheel of the DeLorean during a high speed chase. When the car hits 88 mph, the flux capacitor is activated and Marty is inadvertently sent back in time. To November 5, 1955.
Stumbling around in Hill Valley as it existed more than a decade before he was born, a time when the town was in much better condition and his parents were teenage high school students themselves, Marty sees some very familiar faces. In fact, he accidentally disrupts the moment when his parents were supposed to first meet and fall in love. He messes it up so badly that the young Lorraine, who may be adorable but isn't quite the goody-two-shoes she always said she was, develops a crush on him instead of George.
There's only one person who can help Marty get out of this mess and send him back to 1985. A thirty-years-younger Doc Brown. But getting back to the future is not a simple task, especially since Marty and Doc don't have access to plutonium in 1955. Thanks to some of that masterfully delivered exposition, however, Marty knows of a natural event that will generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity the DeLorean will need to travel through time. In 1985, Hill Valley residents were trying to preserve the town's clock tower, which was struck by lightning in 1955. On a night just one week from Marty's arrival.
Before Marty can catch that lightning bolt out of the past, he has to spend the week befriending his awkward, dweeby father and coaching him on how to ask Lorraine to the school dance where they're meant to have their first kiss. If he can't get his parents together, he's going to fade from existence.
Along the way, the bullying Biff, who wants Lorraine for himself, and his lackeys are a constant threat and annoyance. George never stood up to Biff on his own, but things go differently for Biff now that Marty is around. The bully who had previously always gotten his way instead gets his comeuppance, and thanks to the positive influence of Marty, who has become a mentor to his own dad, George even gets some guts.
It all builds up to Marty having to accompany his future parents to the school dance, which is held on the same night as the lightning strike... and remember how he was auditioning to play at the school dance in 1985? Well, he gets his chance to play at a school dance in 1955 instead. Everything this movie sets up, it pays off in the most terrific way possible.
Although it turned out absolutely perfectly, Back to the Future was almost a different movie. When Zemeckie couldn't cast his first choice, Michael J. Fox, in the role of Marty McFly due to scheduling conflicts with Family Ties, the sitcom Fox was starring on at the time, he cast Eric Stoltz as Marty instead. Filming began, and it gradually became clear to Zemeckis that the movie was not going to be what he envisioned with Stoltz in the lead. Stoltz was inherently too intense for the lighthearted, high-energy comedy Zemeckis and Gale were going for. Four weeks into filming, the decision was made to recast Marty and reshoot those four weeks of material with Michael J. Fox in the role. There was still a scheduling conflict with Family Ties, but Fox made it work, working on the sitcom during part of his day, Back to the Future for the rest of the day, and barely sleeping in between.
I'm sure the movie still would have been good with Stoltz as Marty, he is a great actor and was working with a fun concept. I would love to see his four weeks of footage cut together and released to the public. But it wouldn't have been Back to the Future as we know it.
I don't know what the reaction to the recast/reshoot idea was at the time. A decision like that is a tough one and a situation no one wants to be a part of. These days, if word came out that a movie was recasting its lead and adding $3 million to the budget for four weeks of reshoots, people would probably think it was a disaster in the making. It could have been disastrous. Instead, it was the best decision the filmmakers could have made.
With the charisma Michael J. Fox brought to Marty and his chemistry with the other perfectly cast actors, Zemeckis at the helm, a fantastic script in place, the wonderful look Zemeckis and cinematographer Dean Cundey achieved for the movie, and an iconic score by Alan Silvestri, not to mention the soundtrack, which includes "The Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News, they captured lightning in a bottle on this production, resulting in a movie that wasn't just the highest grossing film of 1985 but one that still endures more than thirty years later as one of the most entertaining movies ever made.
This is a movie I have loved ever since I was a very young child, and it's one that I continue to love wholeheartedly to this day, when its release is even further in the past than 1955 was at the time.