Tell me, doctor, where are we going this time
Is this the 50’s, or 1999
All I wanted to do – was play my guitar and sing
So take me away, I don’t mind
But you better promise me, I’ll be back in time
Gotta get back in time
Co-writers and (then) frequent collaborators Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis had discussed doing a time travel movie for years prior to “Back to the Future”. They felt that it was a great fictional device, and that it had been under-explored onscreen. But they didn’t have a hook for the story, until one day Gale discovered his father’s old high school yearbook, and saw his father had been class president. He thought of the kid who was class president of his class and recalled not liking him at all… which led him to wonder if he would have liked his own father if they had been classmates in high school.
And there it was, the hook they had been looking for… a teen travels back in time to go to high school with his parents. The two pitched the idea to Universal, who liked it enough to authorize a couple of drafts of a screenplay. But when Zemeckis and Gale had finished, Universal turned them down. As did several other studios they shopped the finished product to. The common refrain they were hearing? It wasn’t raunchy enough. This was the heyday of “Porky’s” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”, and studios were looking for something edgier. Several people recommended that they take the project to Disney, where it seemed like a natural fit… but Disney turned it down due to its incestuous undertones.
The two of them were frustrated and on the verge of losing faith. Just for validation, they brought the script to Steven Spielberg.
Who loved it.
Spielberg saw the script’s massive entertainment potential. Bridging the generation gap, a coming of age story, wish-fulfillment, family relationships, romance, action sequences, humor… there were innumerable attributes that would lend to the film’s eventual success.
But Gale and Zemeckis had actually already done three projects with Spielberg. All of which had been unsuccessful. 1978’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”, was a Beatlemania movie that marked Zemeckis’ first directorial effort and Spielberg’s first project as executive producer. It was a bomb. The duo also wrote “1941” (1979), which was Spielberg’s least well received film to date. And their latest collaboration, 1980’s “Used Cars” was a flop as well. So partly due to superstition, and partly out of a pragmatic caution (if this movie bombed, the pair would be seen as a couple of people who were only able to get films done due to their connection with Steven Spielberg), the project was benched for a time.
After Zemeckis directed the highly successful “Romancing the Stone”, however, studios were suddenly seeing value in “Back to the Future”. Gale and Zemeckis brought it back to Spielberg, though, seeing as he had been the only one who had believed in it. So with Spielberg executive producing, Gale producing, and Zemeckis directing, “Back to the Future” moved forward…
With Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly.
Michael J. Fox was always the first choice for the lead role of Marty, but conflicts arose with his tv show, “Family Ties”, which prevented him from being able to take the part. At the time, his “Family Ties” co-star Meredith Baxter was pregnant, and the show was relying much more heavily on Fox. The show’s producers would not allow him to accept the role.
So the production team cast Eric Stoltz. Stoltz impressed them with his performance in the film “Mask”, which had yet to be released. Five weeks into production, however – over a month of shooting – Zemeckis was unhappy with the results he was getting. The film felt flat, and they didn’t feel they were getting the mileage they should have out of the comedy beats. So Zemeckis made the difficult decision to request the film start over. Spielberg and Universal saw what he was saying, and agreed to make the change – if they could get Fox.
So they went back and implored “Family Ties”. Producer Gary David Goldberg agreed to let Fox participate as long as the show came first. His obligations to the show needed to be fulfilled without rescheduling or missed episodes.
The change was made. Stoltz was out (a move that cost approximately $3 million in wasted production costs), but they finally had their man. Fox embarked on a 100 day sleep deprived odyssey of working ’round the clock, seven days a week. By the end he was so exhausted that he simply had to trust what the directors were saying, he had no idea how what he was doing was coming across, but when all was said and done, this would be the signature role of his career.
Marty McFly is the movie vision of the every
manteen. Guitar playing, skateboard riding… his biggest interest is getting time alone with his girl, his biggest problem is the fact that he’s habitually late for school.
His parents, however, have issues. Marty has a mildly depressing home life. It’s patently obvious that his parents are unhappy people, living unfulfilling lives. His spineless father (Crispin Glover) is pushed around mercilessly by his boss (Thomas F. Wilson), to the extent that it embarrasses Marty. And his alcoholic mother (Lea Thompson) sadly waxes nostalgic over the old days when she first met her husband. It’s simply not a happy home.
Thankfully, his days are brightened by his friendship with eccentric inventor Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd).
Christopher Lloyd (who had been best known for his role as the spacey taxi driver Reverend Jim on “Taxi”) portrays Brown as a frantic, excitable oddball. With a look inspired by Albert Einstein, and a bug-eyed mixture of fright, confusion and wonder on display, Doc Brown became one of the most unforgettable movie characters of the 1980s.
After a lifetime of unsuccessful inventions, Brown has finally obtained plutonium in order to power his greatest invention ever… a time machine. Housed in a Delorean (the producers finally settled on a Delorean due to its unique look It could have been mistaken for an alien spaceship, as one gag in the film suggests). Once the date is set and the plutonium housed in the reactor, if the car is driven at the speed 88 of miles per hour, it would travel instantly through time to arrive at the selected chronal destination.
Marty meets Doc in a mall parking lot late one night, and witnesses a brief, successful demonstration, featuring Doc’s dog as passenger. The celebration is short-lived, however, as angry terrorists (whom Brown promised to build a nuclear device for, in order to obtain the plutonium) return seeking vengeance. Marty is forced to flee in the Delorean… and winds up back in 1955.
Just like that, the hook that Gale thought of when he ran across his father’s yearbook is set into play. Marty is back in high school with his parents, and his presence has threatened the future as he knows it. He disrupted the accident that would have put his cowardly father on the path to romance with his mother, and now his mother has developed a crush on him, instead. So in addition to finding a way to get “Back to the Future” (he’s able to enlist the assistance of a young Doc Brown), he also has to fend off the advances of his uninformed mother, get his father to grow some backbone, and fight off the local bully that’s been plaguing his family his entire life.
The film is able to utilize its 1950s setting to frame a clean, fun… almost throwback film. Fox’s charm and nervous, reactive comedy is the highlight, but he also gets a lot of support from Christopher Lloyd’s crazed Doc Brown, the sullen, strange George McFly of Crispin Glover, and the of course, the comely Lea Thompson, who antagonizes with her barely hidden desires.
They all get to play in a crisply directed, excellently scored film that features inventive, mild action (only one action scene involves guns! LOL) and pervasive humor throughout. There’s a definite old-time sensibility here, that extends beyond the mid 20th century setting. The jokes and characters are clean (apart from the occasionally awkward situation between mother and future son), there’s no nudity and little swearing. The big “car chase” involves a skateboard, and the one scene that involves guns isn’t really as much of a shootout as it is an excuse to set up the time travel.
In the middle of a decade nostalgic for the 50s (the 80s), “Back to the Future” was a film with the perfect tone.
After test screenings of the film were scoring off the charts, “Back to the Future” was rushed into theatres in time for Fourth of July weekend, a mere nine weeks after shooting wrapped. In order to accomplish this mandate, two editors were brought in, and both worked nonstop. The move paid off, though. “Back to the Future” would dominate that summer, coming in at number one for 11 weeks. It went on to become the top grossing release of 1985, with a world-wide take of $383,874,862.
It’s also gone on to carve out a beloved place for itself in pop culture. It’s currently #48 on IMDb’s top 250. And although its acclaim is primarily popular, “Back to the Future” isn’t without its share of critical accolades. In their 2006 listing of the 100 greatest screenplays, the Writers Guild of America selected the screenplay for “Back to the Future” as the 56th best screenplay of all time. In 2007, it was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. AFI ranked it tenth on their list of the 10 greatest films in the Sci-Fi genre in June of 2008.
It’s a highly entertaining, enjoyable, family friendly comedy that stood as the high water mark in the careers of both Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd. It spawned two sequels, and is still a widely loved property to this day, more than 25 years after its release.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See.”