Yesterday (October 21, 2015) was Back to the Future day, a day that occurred in Back to the Future 2, which in turn came out in 1989. A friend invited me to a theatre screening for both movies, and although I’ve never seen them before (yup), I’ve heard they were great movies, so I tagged along. I’m glad I did, because both movies were highly entertaining, and this review will be a simple commentary on what I liked about them.
Back to the Future
Before the movie began I had a vague notion that it was about time travel. Back to the Future has the type of opening scene that I really like. As the opening credits roll (minus one point) we see a whole bunch of clocks, and they’re not all in sync. What’s happening here is subliminal and overt at the same time. It’s overt because we know this is a movie about time, and I don’t know how audiences in 1985 absorbed this kind of thing, but I understood what the director was trying to say. But what the director is trying to do can be subliminal, because it is creating a type of immersion for the audience. By showing the time over and over, it prepares us for the whole time-traveling plot device, in spite of any practical considerations. There is nothing genius in this technique, but it is an accomplishment that the director was able to shove something down our throats, but doesn’t do so in a way that detracts from the viewing experience.
Excellent characterization is another thing that caught my attention. This is perhaps more relevant in film than it is in literature, but if you can make the audience understand what type of personality a character has before they even say one line, then you’ve done something brilliant. Marty’s first scene involves him plugging in an electric guitar and completely destroying a mega-amplifier. Already the audience infers that he is a daredevil-teenager with a thing for rock and roll, and this is before we even see his face. This is how plot and character can weave together to form a story. For example, because of what happens in the opening scene, the scene near the end when Marty is performing Johnny B. Goode is all the more special, and we the audience are cheering for Marty because we understand this is his passion and what he loves (and he’s hella good at it). On top of that, his interest in guitar is a key plot point for allowing his parents to have their first kiss.
Christopher Lloyd does a great job portraying Doc Brown, whose characterization is also effective. Classic Einstein hair, peculiar mannerisms (which I noticed were probably the prototype for Sheldon Cooper), and ridiculous outfits/gadgets describe the character visually rather than through exposition or dialogue. I think I actually appreciate this a lot because I love reading and writing. Anyway, whie individual introductions were great, one thing I found lacking was an explanation of how Marty and Doc came to know each other. Just having Marty be employed as Doc’s assistant doesn’t seem right, as Marty’s identity/interests and the nature of Doc’s work don’t line up in any way. Even just a meaningful one-liner of how they ended up working together would’ve been satisfying, but thankfully the rest of the movie is good enough to overlook this minor incongruity.
The plot is great, and I think I appreciate it all the more because of how often other stories fail when it comes to time-travel. Reflecting on it now, I think a time-travel story only works when the premise is kept simple. The premise of Back to the Future is that a guy needs to make his parents fall in love in order to continue existing, but his mother ends up falling for him instead. It isn’t something convoluted like in Predestination or Looper, and it’s an integral part of the plot, instead of feeling like a cheap out, like in Deja Vu. That’s why Back to the Future and Terminator, and their sequels, are great movies featuring time travel; they’re simple and meaningful to the plot. Back to the Future I think uses time travel better, because although a nearly indestructible robot from the future is awesome, there is something to be said in telling a story that has a more universal appeal for all ages and both genders.
That’s what all great stories do, don’t they? They say something about being human. It may be universal, or in this case it might be limited to a certain time period. That’s one of the nifty things about this movie, I think, that it is about time while simultaneously offering insight into the quirks, fashions, and standards of a specific time period. For some reason, I loved Lorraine McFly’s character when in 1985 she remarks that she never chased after boys, but when Marty sees her in 1955 she turns out to be promiscuous. It’s this sort of thing that makes a movie feel more real, and because it presents Lorraine shamelessly without a moral undertone, while at the same time being hilarious about it, the movie earns our respect. Perhaps this plays into the moments when it does have something to say, morally speaking. One of the themes of the film is about standing up for yourself, as told through the character of George McFly. I wanna say something here about how comedy sometimes has the best opportunity to say something serious, but I’m not sure how to communicate it because I’ve never studied cinema nor have I ever been involved in screenwriting. I think it has to do with the fact that in making us laugh, we let our guard down and so when the film presents something serious, it can be all the more poignant. Classic Simpsons executed this perfectly.
Back to the Future Part II
Since it’s the same characters returning for the second story, there isn’t much to say about characterization. A sequel can only have good characters if the first movie did a good job of setting them up, because this time around we have expectations and knowledge of how characters act and think. I guess this film deserves to be commended for keeping the characters consistent.
It is neat that while the first movie goes back in time, the sequel goes forward before going a bit further back. I don’t wanna say all sequels need to expand upon the premises of the original, but Back to the Future II does it and produces an equally entertaining story out of it.
Like the first one, there are helpings of moral lessons in the movie, and thankfully it never really gets in-your-face about it. I make a note of it here because I really like the relationship between the two films in this respect. Whereas the first movie was about standing up for yourself and showing some courage, the second movie dials it back by presenting the “never back down” attitude in a negative light. This balancing of two ideas and film identities won’t win any Oscars, but it does make a film (and consequently the director and producers behind it) seem “smart”.
While I did say earlier that the BttF series kept time travel simple, the second movie does feature a more complicated presentation of it. The main plot revolves around going back in time to stop a certain future from coming about, which means Back to the Future subscribes to the “branching timelimes” theory of time travel (completely scientific term btw). Personally, I prefer the “closed loop” theory of time travel as presented in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Interstellar, as the closed loop presentation offers more opportunities for a story to be clever, and I do believe real-universe physics lends itself more to the closed loop theory. Having a branching system in a film runs the risk of turning the plot convoluted and incoherent. If a timeline can branch in multiple directions, then there are an infinite number of possibilities which makes null and void the earlier events of the film (going back in time should already disrupt the present in of itself). I sort of got this feeling during the scene when Doc Brown was explaining the consequences of time travel to Marty on the chalkboard. It was a moment where I had to turn my brain off in order to continue enjoying the film, and I don’t think being in the same category as The Expendables, Sucker Punch, or anything by Michael Bay is a good thing.
This doesn’t really condemn the movie in any significant way, however. The story is still excellent and enjoyable. Nothing gets an audience interested quite like a bleak and dreary future, and it was genuinely sad seeing Lorraine’s fate.
One final note is that I was surprised by the amount of swearing and some of the subject matter depicted in both films. I don’t know why, and I just realized it now, but I tend to associate the past with better manners and more classy acts all around. I guess I was just confusing the early 20th century with the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, and it is pretty stupid of me, as those eras are known for the sexual revolution, and the rise of drugs and rock and roll. It was odd though, seeing rape happening on screen in an “oldies” movie (hey, it only feels oldie to me because I’ve never seen it before). I’m not saying it shouldn’t have been in the movie, but it stood out, especially since the rest of Back to the Future feels like a happy-go-lucky teen film.
I acknowledge that I missed out on a couple of pretty good films. The fact that I was able to enjoy both thoroughly in 2015 on a virgin’s viewing (completely academic term btw) is a testament to the strength of their stories, characters, and overall identities as films. Highly, highly, recommended as a pair of feel-good movies with a lot of laughs from beginning to end.
This has been a gamobo review.