30 Years at the Movies, Part 5

30 Years at the Movies, Part 5

Posted by Sean Stangland on Tue, 02/24/2009 - 01:08

"Back to the Future"
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
Released July 3, 1985

Two weeks ago, in a spectacular feat of multi-tasking, my roommate and I played Facebook Scrabble, listened to my iPod, and watched "Back to the Future" all at the same time. We didn't need to hear "BTTF" because, between the two of us, we performed every line of dialogue. That reminded me of the night of my senior Homecoming dance at Wheeling High School, strangely enough. A bunch of us wound up in John Zelenkovich's basement after the dance -- no, there (sadly?) was no hanky-panky going on. "Back to the Future" showed up on cable, and I decided to say every single line out loud, much to the dismay of everyone else in the room.

That endlessly quotable dialogue is a major reason why I have long considered Bob Gale and Bob Zemeckis's script for "BTTF" to be one of the best ever written, but not the only one. "Back to the Future" is a movie that rewards its audience, every step of the way, for paying attention. Nearly every scene, every line is either a set-up or a payoff.

Example: Early in the film, the McFlys have a dinner in celebration of Uncle "Jailbird" Joey's homecoming, but guess what? He didn't make parole. Later on, after Marty (Michael J. Fox) drives Doc Brown's (Christopher Lloyd) DeLorean time machine into 1955, he finally meets Uncle Joey -- as an infant, trapped in a crib. "Better get used to these bars, kid," Marty says.

The original trailer for "Back to the Future."

This extends to the smallest of details, such as the name of the mall where Doc first shows Marty his invention. When we first see it, it's called Twin Pines Mall. When Marty travels through time, he discovers the mall used to be a large farm. He plows over one of two pine trees on the property's edge, and when we we follow Marty back to 1985, the mall has been rechristened Lone Pine Mall. It's a complete throwaway, and "Back to the Future" is packed with delicate touches like that.

It's also another in a long line of movies that have convinced me it would have been so cool to be a teenager in the 1950s. Rock 'n' roll was just beginning. Television was taking hold. The cars were unbelievably beautiful. And all the girls -- at least, all the girls in the movies -- wore those snappy sweaters and skirts. Marty couldn't wait to get back to the future; I would have wanted to stay forever. (Of course, Marty's mom had the hots for him, so I can see why he would want to leave.)

As with many films that I loved as a child, "Back to the Future" takes on new meaning -- and reveals more levels of humor -- as I get older. When I was a kid, I liked the movie for all the time travel business and for Doc Brown's manic behavior. But now I see the film for the wistful, hopeful bit of human comedy it really is. But that's part of its greatness -- it appeals to all ages. (Like, say, 3-year-olds. When my dad took me and little sister Lisa to see this at the old Randhurst Cinema in 1985, I vividly remember her repeating a line of Marty's dialogue at high volume: "HOLY S***!" I think that got the biggest laugh of the night.)

I've always had the impression that people think of "Back to the Future" as little more than a big summer event movie, but it deserves better than that. Its closest kin in modern times is Harold Ramis' "Groundhog Day," another very human comedy that uses time travel (of sorts) as its MacGuffin. Both films, of course, owe plenty to "It's a Wonderful Life," a movie that would probably be laughed right off the screen were it produced today. Thankfully, it wasn't, and it rightly remains one of cinema's most beloved achievements.

I wonder if the disappointing sequels have diminished the original's legacy to some degree. While entertaining, neither had quite the same charm or warmth; the second film is particularly garish and over-the-top. I have pretty much forgotten about them entirely, which is easier now that the DVD release of "BTTF" omits the "To be continued ..." text that was plastered on the VHS release in the '80s. If only the Wachowski brothers had learned something about trying to simultaneously film two sequels to a wildly successful science-fiction film ...

• • •

Previous entries in this series:
"The Fifth Element"
"Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom"
"Pulp Fiction"

Some of you may be wondering when I'm going to write something about a movie that's not your typical fanboy favorite. I am too. I don't think "Amadeus" or "Magnolia" fit into that box, so stay tuned.

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