Monday, July 26, 2010

"Back to the Future" (1985)

Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd and Lea Thompson
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Directed by Robert Zemeckis

My friend Jeremy said, "'Back to the Future' is the only film that can make the line, 'Apparently your mother is amorously infatuated with you instead of your father' sound innocent."  He's absolutely right.  For all the things in this movie that could have gone catastrophically wrong (including having your star, Eric Stolz, drop out in the middle of filming) "Back to the Future" is a pitch-perfect sci-fi comedy.  Mixing elements of science fiction, adventure and romantic comedy, seamlessly, "Back to the Future" has earned its place as a modern classic with a charming and witty script, iconic performances from a talented cast, and sure direction.

Michael J. Fox stars as Marty McFly, a teen with big dreams of becoming a rock star, but who seems stuck in his life as an underachiever, something he seems to have inherited from his father, George (Crispin Glover).  George lives under the thumb of his office supervisor, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) who also bullied him in high school.  Marty's mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) drinks and seems to regret having spent her life with George, even though she loves him.  Marty is also the assistant of a local eccentric scientist, Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd).  One night, Doc calls Marty to the local shopping mall to help him out with his latest experiment.

Marty is shocked to discover that Doc has invented a working time machine, and built it into the chassis of a DeLorean.  Doc says, "If you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do with some style?"  However, in order to power the device, Doc had to steal a shipment of plutonium from a group of Libyan terrorists, who drop in just as Doc is about to take off for the future in his greatest invention.  With Doc dead, Marty uses the time machine to escape, but finds himself thirty years in the past, the year 1955, where he accidentally averts the event that causes his parents to meet and fall for each other.

Trapped in the past, Marty and the younger version of Doc must race against time to get his parents together and repair the time machine before a critical moment that will allow Marty to power the time machine without plutonium and get... "Back to the Future."

Let's start with the script: It's hilarious.  The dialogue in the film is full of wit and charm, with lots of jokes delivered in a hilarious matter-of-fact fashion.  The clash of eras between Marty's liberated 1980s teenager and the more restrained, "Leave It to Beaver"-type 1950s teens is fertile ground for joke after golden joke.  Marty is astonished by the downtown area when he arrives in the 50s; he stares almost shocked at a full maintenance team working at the local gas station that immediately files out to check the oil, air pressure and other parts of a car that rolls up.  He likewise does a short take when he notices that the movie theatre downtown is showing actual movies (one starring Ronald Reagan, no less) instead of XXX porno films.

Marty's use of slang is particularly enjoyable, especially when paired with both the social awkwardness of George and the scientific knowledge of Doc.  Marty's use of the word "heavy" to describe his situation elicits hilarious responses from Doc.  Marty: "Whoa, this is heavy." Doc: "Weight has nothing to do with it!"  Or, later, "There's that word again, heavy!  Why is everything so heavy in the future?  Is there something wrong with the Earth's gravitational pull?" 

The movie is also loaded with tiny details that I'm still noticing even though I've seen this movie many, many times.  Lines and images that seemed like throwaways earlier in the film come back around and pay off later.  For example, when Marty goes to meet Doc for the time experiment in the first act, they're in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall.  Doc tells Marty that back in the day, "Old Man Peabody" owned the entire area, and was obsessed with pine trees.  When Marty travels to the 50s, he finds himself on Peabody's "Twin Pines Ranch", and, trying to escape Peabody himself, runs over one of the pines in the DeLorean.  At the end of the film, when Marty doubles back to the mall parking lot to try and save Doc from the Libyans, the sign now says "Lone Pine Mall." 

This is exactly the kind of incredible density of detail that makes a fully-realized fictional world like "Back to the Future" worth returning to. 

Beyond the script, the performances by the cast are just plain excellent.  Michael J. Fox is great, with excellent comic timing and great chemistry with the rest of the cast, especially Lloyd.  You really do get the sense that Marty and Doc care quite a bit for each other.  Fox is more than able to sell everything he's asked in this film, whether its awkwardly refusing his mother's romantic advances, trying to shore up his father's self confidence or taking on school bully, Biff.  It's good that the Marty character is smart enough to know that he can't take Biff in a straight fight, which means that the action sequences in the film become fun chases where fisticuffs would seem a bit too violent or unnatural for the lightness of tone in this movie.

Christopher Lloy'd performance as Doc is just friggin' amazing, though.  His wild-eyed eccentricity is joyfully hilarious.  More so than Fox, he's also capable of eliciting huge laughs with just a well-timed look or facial expression.  Doc Brown really should be remembered as one of the best comedic portrayals of the 80s.  Lloyd is a genius for making this role work, because there are few actors out there that could've struck the right balance of genius and absurdity.

Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson also deserve a lot of credit.  They give it their all, and both deliver perfectly fun and charming performances .  These two probably have it harder than Fox or Lloyd because they both must give three wildly different interpretations of the same characters.  The original, unhappy 1980s versions, their teenage selves, and then the revised, successful 1980s versions at the end, which are all very distinct (and even include different makeup for the two aged versions).  The two have great chemistry together, and make a believable couple.  I noticed for the first time on this viewing the look that Thompson gives Glover early in the film.  Even underneath a fat suit and latex makeup to make her look 30 years older, Thompson is able to communicate, simultaneously, both love and regret with a single look. 

Robert Zemeckis directs without any pretense, giving the film a very straight-forward, matter-of-fact style.  The wackiness comes from the performances and the dialogue, without the director stepping in to try and force your attention one way or another.  He simply presents his information to the audience, and allows the audience to get out of it what they wish.  I seem to find new details in this movie every time I watch it, because Zemeckis just lets it all fly without waving neon signs everywhere going, "HEY, LOOK AT THIS, IT'S COOL."  He just constructs this world and lets the story unfold.  The action never gets lost in editing or poor cinematography.

Alan Silvestri's score is iconic, and I'll just leave it at that.

"Back to the Future" is a fantastic film, one of my absolute favorites.  As a child, I watched it and thought it was simply a great time travel adventure.  Watching it again as I get older, I've definitely realized exactly how hilarious this movie is.  Much like "Ghostbusters," most of the humor went right over my head until I was old enough to see it and appreciate it, which means that this film has only grown more rewarding with each viewing.  It's easy to love a movie as a kid and then revisit it as an adult and find that it's far less impressive than you remember.  But "Back to the Future" is not that type of film at all.  It's charming, funny, witty and exciting, and I love every minute of it.

As a further note, this is the first time I've ever seen the film projected on a movie theatre screen, which was a real treat.  Seeing it up there, bigger than I've ever seen it, in a great film projection, not some DVD, was a joy.  I do love the theatre-going experience, and this was a great one.  The crowd was mostly fans, cheering and laughing and clapping at all our favorite parts, which always makes seeing something in a theatre just that much more fun.  I have to give credit to Rob J. for letting me know that this screening was taking place, or I never would've had this opportunity.  I also want to throw out an acknowledgment to the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge for being so awesome as to screen all three 'Back to the Future' movies in one epic triple feature.  If I hadn't had to go to work, I would easily have spent my entire day there.

PS: I just wanted to say that "Back to the Future" marks my 100th review for this blog.  I want to thank everyone that's been reading it, and I hope you've all enjoyed it as much as I have.  Cheers.