It’s hard to believe that Back To The Future, the entertaining and much-loved time travel movie by Robert Zemeckis, will be 30 years old next year. Endlessly quotable, with a number of memorable scenes and characters, it’s a movie that retains its youthful charm today and seems fresh and enjoyable no matter how many times you watch it. The most financially-successful release of 1985, it spawned two very successful sequels and made an international star out of its lead actor, Michael J. Fox. It’s little wonder that many cinemagoers consider this energetic, smart and fun movie to be one of the best of the 1980s.
My most recent viewing of Back To The Future was a little different, but I’ll explain why later. For the uninitiated – and it’s hard to believe it but there will be some fans of cinema out there that have never watched it – the story takes place in the small town of Hill Valley, California (‘A nice place to live’, town council signs proudly proclaim), and follows the exploits of Marty McFly (Fox), a fairly typical mid-1980s teenager; he plays guitar, zips around the town on a skateboard, has fallen in love for the first time with fellow student Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and lives with his slobby family, including heavy-drinking mum Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and wimpy father George (Crispin Glover), who is bullied by his supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). Oh, and he’s also friends with the neighbourhood mad scientist Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an inventor who just happens to have turned a DeLorean car into a plutonium-powered time machine.
After Doc accidentally double crosses some Libyan terrorists during a plutonium deal, both he and Marty are attacked by angry gunmen, but Marty escapes with his life by using the car to head back in time to Hill Valley in 1955. Unable to return to 1985, he must seek out the younger Doc’s help while ensuring that the teenage versions of his mother and father get together at the local high school’s ‘Enchantment Under The Sea’ dance; if he fails the future will be re-written, and Marty and his two siblings will cease to exist. However things do not proceed smoothly: the teenage bully Biff and his gang are intent on making George and Marty’s lives hell, and harnessing enough power to send Marty and the car back to 1985 in time to save Doc Brown isn’t exactly easy. On top of that, and perhaps most worryingly of all, Marty’s mother takes an instant shine to her future son.
* There are plenty of videos like this one on YouTube, if you want to see examples.
This viewing of Back To The Future was my first time attending Secret Cinema, an organisation that has grown rapidly since its inception less than ten years ago and which now provides immersive outdoor and indoor cinema experiences on a huge scale in the UK. In its early years Secret Cinema patrons were given a message to meet at a certain time and place and would simply watch films in unusual environments. As the productions have grown larger, actors have been employed to fit in with the films shown and large sets and events have been built for screenings of movies like Ghostbusters, The Warriors, Bugsy Malone, Alien, Blade Runner, Lawrence Of Arabia and The Shawshank Redemption. The aim of Secret Cinema is to give attendees a movie experience unlike any other, where the venue and hired extras bring the chosen picture alive. It may not be for everyone but there’s little doubt that there’s a lot of creativity and work behind it*.
The production of Back To The Future – which ended on 31 August – was Secret Cinema’s biggest show to date; they sold over 80,000 tickets across several weekends, which is certainly impressive even though it renders the word ‘secret’ somewhat redundant. The show was plagued with bad press at the beginning of the run as the organisation had to cancel the first few nights and gave short notice, leaving angry ticket holders in the dark until just before the screenings were due to take place (and that’s not the first time this has happened: licensing issues forced the cancellation of a screening of Brazil last year, too). Some had travelled at great expense to London and many fans and journalists suggested that the team behind Secret Cinema had overstretched itself this time. Luckily my wife and I had tickets for a screening later in the summer, and everything ran smoothly on our allotted night. Secret Cinema built a huge mock-up of Hill Valley circa 1955 in London’s Olympic Park, with the town hall, clocktower, square and dozens of shops that feature in the movie, as well as a cinema, diner, houses, cars and the Hill Valley High School, venue for the Enchantment Under The Sea dance. There were hundreds of actors working on this giant set, all in 1950s costume (as was the crowd), and as the movie played (projected onto the exterior of the town hall) several key scenes – the attack by the Libyans, the skateboard chase around the square, the electrical storm, and so on – were acted out live in time with the on-screen action. It was a great experience and rumour has it the show will move to LA for a similar run in 2015.
The film itself is, of course, very highly regarded … and rightly so. The original idea for the story came from co-writer Bob Gale, who found his father’s high school yearbook at home in St. Louis, Missouri, and wondered whether the two would have been friends had they attended school at the same time. He told Zemeckis about the concept and the pair landed a development deal for a script in 1980 after talks with Columbia Pictures. The first draft was written in 1981, but Columbia and every other major studio rejected Back To The Future at one time or another during the next four years, with many suggesting that the script was too tame when compared to the popular and provocative Porky’s films, or the racier Fast Times At Ridgemont High. In order to get the film made Zemeckis though about bringing Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer, as he had already produced two of Zemeckis’s earlier movies (I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars). While both of these had received good reviews, they had made little money, and Spielberg at the time was wary that another flop as producer would harm his career considerably. Additionally, Zemeckis didn’t want the industry to think of him as someone who could only get work because of his friendship with Spielberg, and so he decided to make Romancing The Stone instead, which was a commercial success when released in 1984. With his reputation growing, the director eventually approached Spielberg about Back To The Future, and Universal subsequently set up the project.
The movie endured a troublesome production, particularly in the early stages. Fox was the first choice to play Marty McFly, but unfortunately he had a commitment to the popular TV comedy Family Ties, and Eric Stoltz was cast in the role after Ralph Macchio turned it down*. After four weeks of filming, however, Zemeckis decided it wasn’t working out and that Stoltz’s performance was too serious, so with a touch of schedule-juggling Fox found himself playing McFly and Zemeckis re-shot the already-completed scenes, adding a further $3 million to the budget. On weekdays Fox would work on the Family Ties set all day before concentrating on Back To The Future between 6.30pm and 2am, surviving on five hours of sleep a night. The crew would also work throughout the night on Fridays to accommodate Fox before the actor filmed his daytime scenes during weekends. Considering the workload, and the lack of sleep, Fox’s effervescent, charismatic performance is extremely impressive.
* Interestingly, Jeff Goldblum was also considered for the role. All three actors had appeared together in The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension, which shared a producer with Back To The Future, and also featured the ‘flux capacitor’ device that enables time travel in the DeLorean.
Christopher Lloyd was cast as Doc Brown after the first choice, John Lithgow, became unavailable*. Crispin Glover was given the role of George, although he improvised constantly throughout the shoot and had to be reined in by Zemeckis on a number of occasions; due to a contract dispute Glover didn’t appear in the sequels and the role was re-cast. Melora Hardin was cast as Jennifer but when Stoltz left the project she was deemed to be too tall to play opposite Fox, and Wells replaced her before she had even shot a scene. Lea Thompson had secured her part thanks to her chemistry with Stoltz in The Wild Life, but she had impressed enough to be kept on after the switch of lead actors. Eventually Wilson was cast as Biff – an excellent villain – narrowly beating Tim Robbins to the role because he was more physically imposing.
It is one of the most energetic ensemble performances of the 1980s. The diminutive, nimble Fox and the wired, manic Lloyd may be the focal points – and it is difficult to take your eyes off either of them – but they enjoy a great rapport with the supporting cast as well as each other. Though Lloyd, Glover and Wilson play exaggerated, outlandish characters, each does so with an infectious conviction, and not one of them wastes a single moment on screen. Even the characters with few lines – James Tolkan’s Principal Strickland, Donald Fullilove’s wannabe politican Goldie Wilson – make the most of their time in front of the cameras. Credit must go to Zemeckis for ensuring that this odd collection of performances fits together well.
After filming wrapped the studio decided to delay the release until the autumn of 1985, but a rapturous audience response at a test screening caused an about-turn, and the release date was brought forward to the middle of summer. Two editors were employed to get the picture ready, cutting around eight minutes of material, but Zemeckis restored the ‘Johnny B. Goode’ scene at the high school dance after making an early decision to remove it himself. Eventually the film opened in around 1,200 cinemas, and though many studio insiders feared Back To The Future would bomb (partly due to Fox’s inability to promote the film due to further Family Ties work), it was a critical and commercial success, spending close to three months at the top of the box office charts.
The movie is filled with great lines (‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads’) and playful jokes about the 1980s (‘Tell me, Future Boy, who’s president of the United States in 1985?’ the Doc asks Marty. ‘Ronald Reagan? The actor? [rolls his eyes] Ha! Then who’s vice-president, Jerry Lewis?’). There’s also an underlying daftness throughout that is utterly infectious, such as the fact the older and younger versions of Doc Brown and Mr Strickland are identical in appearance. It is one of the smarter comic films of the period, and wisely Gale and Zemeckis avoided getting bogged down in the logistics of time travel, instead focusing on the fish-out-of-water element of the story.
Back To The Future is superbly-paced, driven along by Fox’s charming, zippy performance, and his Marty is a hero you truly root for from the first scene to the last. The period detail may be a little obvious at times, but it probably made the movie more accessible to an international audience; the Hill Valley of 1955 was instantly recognizable and appealing to anyone that had seen the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life, and it was a smart move by Zemeckis to create a Capra-esque feel throughout. It also has a great soundtrack of 1950s hits, coupled with the hit Huey Lewis And The News title track The Power Of Love, and Alan Silvestri’s bombastic score, which suits the material perfectly. In fact it’s hard to identify many faults with the movie: even the special effects and stunts still look good today, and the cliffhanger at the end works well.
Despite its focus on 1955, Back To The Future sums up the cinema of the mid-1980s in the space of its 116 minutes: it is a riot of action, comedy, sci-fi, action and romance, as appealing to kids as it is to adults. As fun, entertaining cinematic experiences go, this is right up there with the very best, and its universal appeal is deserved.
Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Written by: Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, Claudia Wells
Running Time: 116 minutes