PG for incest. Okay, that's strawmanning it a bit. It's PG for swearing, drinking, attempted rape, violence, attempted vehicular manslaughter, incest, peeping, plagiarism (Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan), playing really loud music, porno movie theaters, poverty, graffiti, racism, drunk driving, bullying, and being late for school. You know. PG stuff.
DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis
I didn't think I had an article in me today. I'm stretched to the gills with how busy today is. Realistically, there's a good chance that I don't finish writing this until tomorrow. The only thing that didn't make me throw in the towel, besides the fact that I have an iron will, is that my Notes App on my phone said that I got to write about Back to the Future today.
I'm a little ashamed to love Back to the Future as much as I do. People who know me in the real world know that I'm obsessed with really good time travel stories. I'm a Whovian through and through. I don't think I've been really subtle about that. I've regularly made comparisons to Doctor Who in articles left and right. I don't love when people say, "I'm really into time travel. I love Back to the Future." I'm the bad guy in this scenario. You should love Back to the Future. Even though Doctor Who is older than Back to the Future, I felt like Doctor Who never took full advantage of its brain-breaking conceit until recent iterations. Back to the Future, however. That's a time travel story. It actually might be the OG time travel story because it is the only one to realize that time travel is a truly messed up thing. How is it that the best scripted time travel story comes in the form of a comedy / romantic comedy about someone trying to get their mom to fall out of love with him?
The entire Back to the Future trilogy is extremely smart. I know that people lose their minds over this movie and that it is the only movie that they watch. There's a reason for that. I'm always going to advocate for broadening horizons in film, but this well is fun to come back to once in a while. The reason is that it feels like the tightest script I think I've ever read. Every time I watch it, I notice something different about how time travel works. Sure, Avengers: Endgame might comment on how the Back to the Future time travel doesn't work, but it definitely feels like ribbing versus and actual attempt to dethrone the king of time travel storylines. There is one brain-breaky paradox thing that happens in the movie that I only notice this time. I'm going to talk about it, but I don't want to fault the film whatsoever. Everything that the original Back to the Future does lines up with the fact that it might be a perfect movie. If Bob Gale or Robert Zemeckis addressed what I'm about to bring up, it would actually ruin the film. This is one of those things that probably other people have thought before, but I'm going to do my best attempt to do the same. Here we go. SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY.
I'm going to call the Marty for most of the movie "Twin-Pines Marty". You might already see where this is going. If you do, you win the Marvel No-Prize. Most of the film, the Marty we know comes from a timeline where the mall that was in Hill Valley was named "Twin Pines Mall." It was named that way because the farmer in the film had this weird notion about breeding trees. When Marty goes back in time, that has to be the first version of Marty going back in time. (It actually doesn't have to be the first one. Maybe Marty actually screws up his timeline in some of the versions.) In the Twin Pines timeline, George McFly is a loser and Lorraine is an alcoholic. Because of these things, Marty is really confused about seeing versions of his parents that either align or break expectations of what he understands about his folks. George McFly lines up with what he knows. As an adult, he was picked on by Biff Tannen. As an adolescent, he was picked on by Biff Tannen. Lorraine McFly is an alcoholic who settles for mediocrity. She claims to have been extremely well behaved as an adolescent, commenting that Jennifer shouldn't be calling Marty because girls don't call boys. In truth, Lorraine Baines pre-McFly (nee' works the other way in time travel) is actually aggressively sexual and rebellious. Because of Marty's knowledge of the Twin Pines future, he is forced to do everything that he can to ensure that his parents get together. He knows that his father is a neurotic wallflower who needs to be bullied into doing everything. It's how he scares him into asking Lorraine out on a date. He actually bullies his own father because he knows that it is his trigger. Through bringing George and Lorraine together, he actually teaches his dad confidence. George, knocking out Biff Tannen, changes the timeline. From that moment forward, George faces his problems head on. He writes a book. Both Lorraine and George are successful. Doing what? I don't know. Now, George knocking out Biff is really the inception of the Lone Pine Mall universe. The George of the Lone Pine Mall universe has made money. His kids are all successful. This raises two questions: 1) What is George McFly and Lorraine McFly doing living in Lyon Estates? Hill Valley is a dump. There's a homelessness problem. Everything is tagged with graffiti. There's a porno movie theater. They don't even have money to restore the clock tower. Why would they live there? Devil's advocate: They fell in love in Hill Valley, so they're going to live there. But why in the same house that they would have picked if they were poor. (Oh my, the commentary on the family who lives there in the 1985-B universe is even more troubling.) But the bigger issue I have is the psychology of Lone Pine Mall Marty. I suppose we have an inversion in expectations between Mom and Dad. In Lone Pines Universe, Lorraine seems much more in line with her personality as an adolescent. Perhaps she's not as crass, but she probably doesn't really betray her core beliefs. George has got to come across as a shock. But Marty would probably treat them differently. He wouldn't know about the fact that Lorraine fell in love with George when his grandpa hit him with the car because that never happened.
There's things like that. But you know what? I love stuff like that. That's what makes time travel storytelling so interesting. By having stuff like this, it makes me think. The thing is, it took me a million watches of this movie to spot that paradox. There are other paradoxes that I have completely forgotten about. For all I know, I've thought of this paradox before. But Back to the Future exists not because there's a paradox that prevents these stories from happening, but I think that the movie wants you to kind of think about it. There are all these scenarios that don't take the easy way out. If you have ever wanted to tell a tale about the Butterfly Effect, this movie is it. The actual movie The Butterfly Effect didn't really make use of its conceit as well as Back to the Future. Not going to hide this, but I adore Back to the Future II. It's my favorite of the series. Part of what makes it all really work is that fact that the filmmakers never really treat it as a comedy. They are making a great science fiction film that is lodged in the real world. It's funny because the characters are compelling and the tone is light, despite all of the insane things that happen in the movie. I don't think we'll ever get a movie as tonally perfect as Back to the Future. Endgame really tried, but it was its own thing. It's why people get so nostalgic for this movie. It holds up so well that every time I watch it, I don't watch it through a nostalgic eye. The movie is just a good movie, unlike a lot of the other things I watch from my childhood. The two movies that hold up more than any other films? Back to the Future and Jurassic Park. There's nothing dated about these films, which is ironic because they keep screaming that 1985 is the present. I showed one of my students this film for the first time and he adored it. He hates everything. But you know what? I adored it just as much. I laughed at parts that I knew were coming up. I tried not to. But I did. I'm not even sorry for it. The movie just gets me every time.
Yeah, I'm a hipster. I wish I could say that Primer was my favorite time travel movie because of the cred. Maybe Chronos Crimines. But Back to the Future, if I'm being completely honest, is probably the best time travel movie ever made. If you haven't given this one a whirl in a while, do. It's still a great time.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.