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Back to the Future

#656 - Back to the Future
Robert Zemeckis, 1985

When a teenager is accidentally sent thirty years into the past, he must work with an eccentric scientist in order to set right what once went wrong.

Cinema as entertainment doesn't get much more pure than Back to the Future. It has one of the most simple yet ingenious high concepts from a decade that was seemingly dedicated to refining the high concept, with just enough creativity to make it unique without alienating a mass audience. For starters, it centres on the extremely unlikely pairing of high-school senior Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and elderly scientist Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd). There's nothing too extraordinary about Marty - he's just a regular 1985 teenager who dreams of being a rock star while also having to bear witness to his extremely dysfunctional family and their dead-end lives. When he meets up with Doc Brown one night, he learns that the Doc has managed to build a working time machine out of a DeLorean. However, since Doc's scheme involves scamming a Libyan terrorist cell, they soon come searching for revenge; in all the excitement, Marty is transported back in time to 1955. He teams up with the younger version of Doc Brown in order to find a way for him to return to his own time, but things are complicated when he not only runs into the teenage versions of his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and father George (Crispin Glover), but has to also guarantee that they fall in love or else he'll never be born.

There are plenty of reasons why it might be easy to dismiss Back to the Future. There's the ostensibly questionable friendship between an old man and a high-school senior that never gets addressed, the science in this film that is as soft as it gets without becoming true fantasy, and then there's the various unfortunate implications that come about over the course of the film. The most obvious one regards what happens to high-school bully Biff Tannen (Thomas J. Wilson) in the ending, especially in light of his more reprehensible actions during the film. It's a credit to the cleverness of Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale that these flaws are pretty minor in the scheme of things and acknowledging them is usually done in a fashion that allows them to more or less be shrugged off. The writing is a major selling point as it crafts an extremely tight and reasonably consistent narrative that pulls off all manner of clever set-ups; even if you were to be uncharitable and refer to them as coincidences, they're pulled off so well that it doesn't matter. Rather, it serves to complement the tight plotting that creates a variety of conflicts promised not just by the issue of Marty being trapped thirty years in the past and but also interpersonal complications such as not only having to deal with the short-tempered Biff but also the fact that Lorraine finds him much more attractive than the gawky George. Stretching this many plot strands across a single film is always a challenge but it's handled deftly and the tension only builds as the strands intertwine and the countdown towards Marty's only shot at going home keeps ticking away.

Of course, the soft science-fiction and adventure elements involved probably wouldn't fly as well if not for the fact that the bulk of the film is framed as a rather straightforward high-school comedy. The oddness of the friendship between Doc and Marty has been noted, but between the former's manic eccentricity and the latter's easygoing charisma they make for a sufficiently interesting odd-couple dynamic, especially when embodied by capable performers like Lloyd and Fox. Lloyd in particular steals the show with his wild-eyed scenery-chewing and ability to deliver the most nonsensical jargon with both strong conviction and marvellous comic timing. Other characters fill out some easily-identifiable roles with solid performances; Thompson and Glover embody the surprisingly lusty '50s everygirl and socially awkward nerd respectively. Wilson also has great screen presence as the square-headed tough-guy who mercilessly goes after those who either upset or attract him; not even the squeaky-clean PG comedy can properly hide his scummy nature. Other characters pepper the scenery and feature memorable performances even in the smallest of parts. The humour that eventuates from Marty's temporal culture-shock is also generally decent, especially as he uses his futuristic smarts to outwit his enemies and make for memorable moments such as escaping from Biff and his cronies or the (admittedly questionable) moment where he invents rock-'n'-roll.

Though Back to the Future tends to invoke science-fiction as a means to a comedic end more so than a fascinating concept in its own right, that doesn't mean that it skimps on inventive creations. Having the time machine here be a DeLorean is an inspired choice, especially when the need to have it reach a high speed and use a significant power source serve as major factors in some incredibly tense and well-timed sequences. Images such as flaming tire-tracks and fading photographs are simple but serve to give the film its own undeniable sense of personality. That also goes for Alan Silvestri's masterful background score, which doesn't exactly go for anything wildly experimental but that's because it doesn't need to. It is the ideal exemplification of everything that makes Back to the Future great - it's straightforward, sure, but it's just done so darned well that it doesn't matter. The more triumphant strains of the film's iconic main theme, whether played with full-orchestra bombast or goosebump-inducing solo strings, definitely make for the most delicious icing on an extremely sumptuous cake. As one of the most beloved films of the 1980s, the temptation to develop a contrarian hatred of it is an especially strong one, but fortunately the film is strong enough to overcome that in just about every regard. While I guess the comedy tends to be more clever than laugh-out-loud, that's a minor problem for a film that holds up very well considering how I haven't seen it since I was Marty's age.