Back to The Future: Still Reminding Us of The Power of Love

Now in its ninth year, and billed as Canada’s only coast-to-coast film festival, the Flashback Film Fest offers a lineup of classics from Feb. 2-9, including The Big Lebowski, Drunken Master, Gremlins, Shaun Of The Dead, War Games, The Terminator and Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Original-Cin’s Karen Gordon recalls Back to the Future and why it remains a must-see classic three decades on.

It’s a bit terrifying to think that Back to The Future is 32 years old, but there you go.  Time flies, even if you don’t have 1.21 gigawatts of power or a DeLorean

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in their defining roles. 

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in their defining roles. 

I saw Back to the Future when it came out in 1985, and like millions of others, I responded to its wonky storyline and good-natured charm.  I also happen to have a thing for stories about time travel. So, the mix of a comedic trope (the old fish-out-of-water) with family comedy, sci-fi and rock ‘n’ roll struck me as quite clever. 

Add a great cast, some snappy direction from co-writer Robert Zemeckis, an epic-grand adventure style soundtrack by Alan Silvestri and a couple of songs from Huey Lewis (including the Oscar-nominated “Power of Love”) and it turned out to be what the mainstream culture wanted in 1985. And I mean that in the best way possible.  

I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but the movie is so optimistic that, in retrospect, it seems to paint the world in impossibly bright colours.  The mid-80s weren’t necessarily a happy-go-lucky time —the era of Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney. There was a harsh establishment waging a war of austerity, rampant greed in the financial sector and there was an unease about the fate of the status quo (sound familiar?). In hindsight, you can see this existential unease between the lines in Back to the Future.  

Still, no one looked at the film for any political or social subtext at that point. Back to the Future was made to entertain and it did that beautifully. The film connected immediately and had a long run atop the box office. 

It was also embraced by critics, unusually so for something that unapologetically commercial. It received a best original screenplay Oscar nomination. On the sci-fi side, it won the Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation, and Saturn Awards for Best Science Fiction Film, Best Actor (Michael J. Fox) and Best Visual Effects at the Saturn Awards.

The seed for “Back to the Future” was sewn when co-writer Bob Gale was looking at his father’s yearbook and wondered whether he would have been friends with him if they’d been in the same class. He and Zemeckis dreamed up a scenario with the comedic tone of some of the era’s hit sitcoms, and blew it up for the big screen. 

Gale had Michael J. Fox in mind when he wrote it — one of the most popular actors of the day, entirely on the basis of the hit TV sitcom Family Ties, a series in which his supporting character Alex Keaton had taken over as star. Back to the Future wasn’t his first movie role, but it was the one that established him as a box office draw – a rare leap for a TV actor back then. Similarly, Christopher Lloyd had a TV pedigree as Reverend Jim on the classic sitcom Taxi.  Lloyd came by the mad professor look naturally, and he had a knack for a kind of physical comedy that helped define his character Doc Brown. 

Fox played the likeable 17-year-old Marty McFly, the only seemingly normal child in a dysfunctional family that included a bitter alcoholic mother (Lea Thompson) who insists she was a proper young woman as a teen, and a father (Crispin Glover) who, even as an adult with a job and a family, is still  pretty much the vestigial remains of a bullied teenager. 

He’s a broken man with so little self-esteem, it’s hard to believe that he had the sperm count to produce three children.  At the top of the movie, he’s still at the beck and call of his high school bully, the moronic meathead Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) who humiliated him daily and mercilessly.  It sounds more like a setting for a Tennessee Williams play when you think of it that way, but Back to the Future played it all for sometimes cruel laughs.

Circumstances send Marty back to 1955 where he meets his parents when they’re also 17 years old, before they had started dating. His mother was a boy-crazy Bobby Soxer and his father a nerdy, dreamy offbeat kid with some strange habits.  They two only vaguely knew of the other’s existence.  

His teen mom sets her sights on making Marty her boyfriend, and I’ve recently started to read analyses of the film that describe it as disturbingly Oedipal. Of course, I can’t see the movie through the eyes of someone who wasn’t even born in 1985, and so who has only come to the movie recently. But, even still, you’d have to strain to read that in the story.

Back to the Future doesn’t really play out a mutual attraction between mother and her future son any more than it suggests that the emotional agonies of the McFly family parental units at the beginning of the film are going to be used for dramatic purposes. 

At the same time the movie does play with the questions that Bob Gale asked himself about his father. And it’s a question a lot of us ask about our birth family, especially when we’re teens. Do I like these people? Am I like them? Who am I with them and without them?  It could be that the reason the movie sustains: it’s rooted in something universal. 

Existential questions aside, for me, the movie is played for adventure and the fun of seeing Marty get tangled and untangled in mishaps with the eccentric, brilliant Doc and his Flux Capacitor.  

Back to the Future is really a movie of its time. It’s carefree, happy and family-friendly to a fault. It nods briefly at racism, which reflects one of the era’s consuming issues. But even still, it’s an incredibly white movie. That was then, this is now.

What survives is a clever, sweet little movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. The story is solid, the writing buoyant, and it has a good heart. Some movies, like some people, have a natural charisma. That’s true of Back to the Future. 

Get screening times and locations for the Flashback Film Festival.