Brilliantly constructed and virtually universal in its appeal, Robert Zemeckis’s Back to the Future blends equal parts hilarity, nostalgia, science fiction, screwball comedy, and white-knuckle suspense in a complex storyline wound tighter than a yo-yo in a centrifuge.
Many of the best time-travel movies are about facing — and overcoming — the mistakes or errors of the past. A more recent time-bending film, Frequency, deals with an orphaned son who fears not living up to his father’s expectations; Back to the Future plays with filial disappointment or disillusionment with one’s parents.
On the surface, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox in a physically and comedically deft performance) has ample reason for disappointment: He seems far too cool for his über-loser parents (and siblings), though he doesn’t realize the ways in which he really is his father’s son. But when an experiment in time travel orchestrated by Marty’s friend Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd in an Einstein-esque fright wig) leaves Marty stranded in the 1950s, Marty discovers a side of his parents he never knew.
The story is so tightly plotted, with almost everything setting up something else and everything pays off, that the first half particularly can come off a bit gimmicky and contrived, especially after multiple viewings. But the last act is so enormously satisfying that it more than makes up for any artificiality or contrivance.
Though the film takes for granted unchaste behahavior as the norm among teenagers in the 1950s as well as today, Marty’s dismay at his mother’s unexpectedly risqué behavior suggests, ironically, that despite everything else children still want a higher standard from their parents.
The filmmakers followed up with a pair of back-to-back sequels that were originally intended as one film, and should have been left that way. Part II is wildly uneven, with a brilliant third act in which Marty returns to 1955 partly making up for a wobbly opening, set in the future, and excessively nasty middle act set in an alternate 1985. Part III, set in the old West, is a little slack and has some gaping plot holes. They’re maybe worth watching once or twice, but the original is worth returning to again and again.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.