Sunday, October 24, 2010

Chris's Classics: "Back to the Future" trilogy

I had the pleasure to go see "Back to the Future" on the big screen yesterday in honor of the film's 25th anniversary. I'm pleased to say that the film is just as much fun all these years later as it was the first time we laid eyes on the DeLorean.

As the trilogy hits Blu Ray this week, I figured I'd post my thoughts on it from back when I was doing my Alphabet Project about a year ago. My thoughts are all still the same except that maybe I love the movie a little more now.


"Back to the Future"--It hit me about halfway through my viewing of Zemeckis' film how easily this movie could have been just another forgetable '80s teen comedy.

The plot was ripe for a raunchy, broad piece of trash. A teenager lives with loser parents and is friends with an eccentric scientist. He goes back in time and his mom falls in love with him. So he has to get her to fall in love with his father. Toss in a couple '80s jokes and music and you can see how the wrong director and cast could have made this a "Weird Science" or "My Science Project" type of raunchy, dated flick. And "Back to the Future" certainly has every right to feel dated--it's set in 1985, has a soundtrack driven by Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love," and contains jokes about Ronald Reagan, Darth Vader, Eddie Van Halen and copius use of the word "heavy."

But I guarantee that kids today still love "Back to the Future." There is something endurable about it that transcends time and generations. It's probably one of the few movies where the entire family will stop and watch it together simply because everyone loves it.

I think that's a testament to the work of director Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg, who make this movie feel much bigger and more epic than the plot would appear to allow.

Because, really, the plot is simple. Kid goes back in time, complicates his parents' meeting and endangers his own existence. Yes, there is the complication of getting him back to his own time via a lightning strike, but the heart of the film is really setting up the meeting of Marty McFly's parents.

But it's that plot that I think appeals to everyone. We've all wondered what it would be like to go back and see our parents as teenagers--where they cool? Dorky? What if we could see them fall in love? What effect does one moment have on the rest of a life? On a generation? Would we be friends with our parents or would we think they were dorks?

The great thing about Bob Gale's script is how it doesn't use the time travel as an excuse for cheap humor and gags but rather explores these concepts with heart and whimsy. Marty--in what is Michael J. Fox's most memorable role--is really an audience surrogate here...he's not really a deep, complex character. But because he's a typical teen who wants to take his girlfriend to the lake and dreams of rock stardom, we like him. And there's great humor in the complications with his mother's crush, his father's dorkiness and the bully Biff who would be a thorn in the family's side for 30 years. The film's biggest laughs and smiles come not from the time travel gags or 80s/50s juxtapositions, but from character-driven moments. George McFly calling Lorraine his "density," Lorraine swigging liquor and then pouncing on Marty (who she believes is named Calvin Klein), Biff's knack for screwing up insults.

The cast is just wonderful here. Fox is one of the most likable actors in the business--whenever I see him in a rare interview I think how much I miss his presence on the big and small screens. He's got a great comic timing and he comes across as an intelligent, funny kid--not a smart alec teen or an uber-nerd, as original choice Eric Stoltz may have come off. And he's got great chemistry with the entire cast--Lea Thompson is wonderful as Lorraine and Crispin Glover will always be known as awkward George. No one stands out or steals the spotlight but everyone is so genuine and likable that they provide a beating heart to this movie which, at its core, is driven not by science or plot but by a sweet love story.

I think Thomas F. Wilson gets unfairly overlooked when it comes to this series, by the way. Is there any doubt that Biff Tannen is the greatest bully in cinema history? He's dumb but he's also a bit scary--the scene when he goes after Lorraine at the end (prompting that fateful punch from George) is played seriously when, today, I think it would be played for more laughs to show a bumbling Biff. He proves to be the series' memorable villain and I think that people don't realize the range Wilson shows in the franchise--he's George's schlubby jerk of a boss at the beginning, a typical teenage bully in the majority of the film and a suck-up in the "new" 1985 created at the end. Then in part II he's Old Biff, sadistic grandson Griff, the big bad villain of Hill Valley AND his 1955 bully again. And in Part III Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen is definitely kin of the Tannens but with a wonderful Western flourish. It's a bit sad that we never have seen Wilson really live up to the potential he showed here (except for in his few memorable episodes of "Freaks and Geeks"--please Judd Apatow, use him again!).

And, of course, it would be a crime not to mention Christopher Lloyd as "Doc" Emmett Brown. Were this film to be remade today (PLEASE don't!!!!) I guarantee we'd see Doc as a one-note, bumbling and kooky mad scientist played by Eugene Levy or Ben Stiller. And yes, Doc is an eccentric character--he cons Libyan terrorists out of plutonium and creates a time machine out of DeLorean because it's stylish. But I also love the heart that Lloyd brings to the role here. This is a frustrated scientist with inventions that don't work...who finds out that he will be responsible for the creation of a successful time machine. There's a geeky awe that fills Brown's face as he studies the videotape of the future and I love the nerdy glee with which he makes a model of Hill Valley and apologizes that it's not painted or to scale. It's a largely comedic role, yes, but like everything else here, there's a strong heart to it.

Which I think only Zemeckis could pull off--he's never been a director who wants to make lowest-common denominator fluff. When he did a cartoon he made the insanely large undertaking of "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." His Oscar winning "Forrest Gump" may be remembered for its quirky character, but it's also got a strong heart and ground-breaking special effects. Even his stumbles--I'm looking at you "Beowulf"--have been noble failures that managed to push the edge of technology and cinema. Zemeckis makes big movies. And while "Back to the Future" has a relatively simple story, it's a movie that feels big and magic.

As I said, much of that is due to its heart. But much of it is also due to the compact and airtight script by Bob Gale. In addition to being funny, it's also a wonderful example of screenwriting. There's not a wasted, useless scene or line of dialogue in the movie. Something interesting to try--pause the movie right before Marty escapes from the Libyans and is sent back to 1955; try to take stock of every piece of information you've been given in the movie up until this point--about the characters, time travel, Hill Valley, etc. EVERY single piece of dialouge ends up being vital and having a payoff in the movie. And its that tightness and focus that keeps audiences from drifting off--it's a fast-moving and energetic piece of work that never once lags. When you combine that with such great characters and wonderful pacing and editing work by Zemeckis--the climax of the film waiting for the lightning to strike is one of the best-timed set pieces in pop cinema--you have a formula that transcends simple entertainment and feels a bit like magic. And there's definitely a wonderful alchemy at work here that elevates "Back to the Future" above other films and explains why it's so beloved.

I'd also be remiss if I didn't mention Alan Silvestri's memorable score. In one of the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVD collection, Silvestri recalls that Zemeckis told him to compose the score so that the movie felt bigger than the images would suggest. And I think the big orchestral score is part of the reason the movie has such a wonderful feel to it--it really gives it an epic, larger-than-life atmosphere. I've tried imagining an average film score in its place and I simply can't do it without the movie feeling a bit cheap. Silvestri's work here is just as memorable as John Williams' scores for "Star Wars" and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

And, like most great films, "Back to the Future" stands apart from its sequels. While I think Parts 2 and 3 are entertaining and fun in their own right, the fact is that they don't capture the magic of the original. And, in much shorter write-ups, we'll see why. . .

"Back to the Future, Part II"--When I was a kid, this was THE movie to see in 1989 for one reason: Hoverboards.

Zemeckis has stated time and again that "Part II" was not an original part of the "Back to the Future" plan...the "To Be Continued..." stuck at the end of the VHS copies of the first film was a bit of a sly joke. But once a sequel was called for, it would definitely have been a cheat not to pick it up right from the end of the first film. When Doc comes back for Marty and Jennifer and tells them they have to "do something about their kids" and then that DeLorean flies away audiences WANTED to see what happens next.

But I actually think the 2015 portion of the film is the weakest part of the trilogy and really falls prey to sequel-itis. Yes, it was fun to see them re-visit some of the beats of the first film but in a new setting four years after the fact. But when you watch the films back-to-back, it just seems a bit lazy. Michael J. Fox playing multiple roles is played for broad, cheap humor that never really works--Fox is a great actor but his comedy has always been based in characters, not in gags and I think having other actors play his children would have kept some of the heart of the first film (but I think Zemeckis probably wanted to see how far he could push having the same actor play multiple roles on the same scene). I also think it's a mistake in the first 1/3 to make Jennifer a major character...we all know Elizabeth Shue went on to become an accomplished actress but here she's just a bit too annoying. And Doc is really left to the sidelines in the first half of the movie...actually he doesn't really figure much in the movie until the final 1/3 (but he gets vindicated in Part III).

That said, I don't think the 2015 portions are terrible, per se. The special effects are still fun and there are some clever in-jokes to the careers of Spielberg and Zemeckis. I love the menace Wilson has as Griff and elder Biff; Part II is really the movie where Wilson gets to shine. And I think Zemeckis really was just going through the motions of this first act simply to get to where he wanted to really take the sequel...

Which would start with Act II, in the alternate-1985. Watching it again I was surprised how dark of a turn the series takes in this portion of the film. Hill Valley is turned into a hell hole as Biff has taken control and there's a genuine feeling of danger and edge as we watch the town we loved in the first film transformed into such a dark place. By setting up an alternate present where Marty's dad is dead, his mom is married to Biff and the world as he knows it is thrown in disarray, the heart of the first film starts to be beat again and we realize that the characters we loved so much in the original are in danger--we want to see things change back. It helps that, despite how bizarre the situations get, Thompson and Wilson never play the characters as cartoons. Lorraine is now a sad woman who hangs on to Biff because of what he can provide. And Biff is now a menacing, sadistic thug without a hint of the buffoonary we saw before. I don't blame audiences who may have felt unsettled by this alternate reality and yearn for the innocence of the first film's 1955 setting...

And then Zemeckis makes a wonderfully genius idea by taking us right back there and dealing in great detail with the implications of time-travel--parodoxes, multiple selves, etc. I love the way the film acts as a "sidequel" to the original and there's a wonderful glee as Gale and Zemeckis weave Marty in and out of the events of the first films. It's fun and so complex that the movie threatens to topple over...but it never does. If the first third of the sequel is the trilogy's weakest point, I think the 1955 section of Part II is one of the most purely brilliant of the franchise and the cliffhanger ending is perfectly done...the shock of seeing Doc disappear, the mysterious letter and then the funny ending that draws back to the climax of the first.

So yeah, "Part II" is a fun and entertaining movie that is full of very clever, even brilliant,, moments. But I do think it lacks the sincerity and heart of the original film, relying too much on creating logical twists and turns. It's full of brains but a bit light on heart. Which is funny, because "Part III" actually has the opposite issue.

"Back to the Future, Part III"--I know it's popular to dig on this film and call it the weakest of the series. I know some people who think the franchise fell apart with this last movie. And it's certainly not perfect. But I think people have been may lack the cleverness and logical twists of the second film, but it's still an enjoyable, fun and surprisingly sweet way to close out the series.

Really, I don't know that there's much Zemeckis could have done with time travel after Part II. I guess it's only logical that after tackling the scientific complexities of it in the first sequel that he would set up the third to be an emotionally-centered and more stream-lined time travel adventure. And given the reality that they created--that they could travel through time but not space--and the series' insistance on focusing on Hill Valley's different families and generations, the best place they could go would be the Old West. Besides, it sets up a nice dilemma--without the scientific technology of the 1980s or even the 1950s, how in the world could Doc and Marty repair the DeLorean?

Besides, I think Zemeckis really wanted to make a Western. And the stunts and story-line may be pure fluff and typical Western archetypes, but they come off as fun and exciting. Some critics--such as Ebert--complained that the series went to a movie-style Old West instead of looking at the Real West. And yes, that may have been more scientifically accurate. But I'm a sucker for shoot-outs, horse stampedes, train robberies and other Western tropes, so I don't really care. And there's some good humor and excitement mined from it...and I like that Marty is finally challenged to mature and put aside his concerns about what others think of him. It's a nice way to mature the character a little.

But the heart of the movie and the reason it works so well is the burgeoning relationship between Doc and Clara. The romance is sweet and well-played and reminds us of the romantically-centered plot of the first movie. Lloyd really shines in this film and his heartbroken Doc, wrestling with love and logic in the final half, allows him to add a new dimension to the character. Mary Steenburgh is wonderful as Clara and their quiet interludes are the film's highlight--until the spectacularlly-done train robbery.

And in the end, the series ends on a fitting note. Marty, having learned not to worry about other people's impressions, avoids a tragic accident. The time machine is destroyed, just as Doc wanted. And yes, I don't understand why Doc would want the time machine destroyed and then would go ahead and build one out of a train--or how he would get the materials to do that. His reapparance at the trilogy's end is definitely more of an emotional capper than a logical one. But I understand why Zemeckis did it--no one would want to end the series without knowing that Doc and Marty see each other again and that Doc and Clara have happy lives. So I forgive that ending, even if it doesn't really make much sense.

Rumors, of course, persist about a fourth movie and I'm very happy that most everyone involved with the franchise has firmly said that a fourth movie is just simply not happening (if only the "Ghostbusters" cast were so willing. Sigh.). I don't think there's more for the franchise to say and, given the limitations they've set for themselves, there's not much more they could do in terms of time travel (Medieval England is out, and that would be the logical time-travel choice). I think a sequel would simply be an excuse for flash and special effects and would leave out the heart of the series...those who want a roller coaster road of fun had the opportunity for it on the fantastic "Back to the Future" ride that used to be at Universal Studios and fiction will never tire of exploring the philosophical and scientific complexities of time travel ("Lost" is doing it better than anyone right now).

What we have is a fun series that has moments of pure cinematic bliss. I'm happy to have it as it is without risking ruining it all.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for reviews ! You said very god about this film. My all confusion has been cleared after reading your reviews about film. Great Man ! This is really great post.
    Watch Movie



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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.