I first saw Back to the Future in 2010, when it was re-released in theatres for its 25th anniversary. I was initially reluctant – I was unaware of how beloved a film it was, and was put off by the corny title and the fact that it was an 80s comedy. I think I was getting it confused with Weird Science. But my friends insisted we all go, and five years later I have watched all three parts so many times I can basically recite the whole thing. I’ve learnt The Power of Love on guitar (Johnny B Goode is a little too tricky for me) and I have even formulated a fan theory about why there isn’t a second Marty when he goes back to 1985. Maybe I’ll save that for another article.
I believe Back to the Future is one of the greatest films ever made. It does not try to be a great work of art; it has no aspirations to be anything other than an entertaining comedy adventure. But it is a great work of art. First of all, the script is incredibly clever. There’s an almost mathematical perfection to how nearly every line either refers forward or backward to something else in the script. Everything is there for a reason. By its high-concept nature, the film has to contain a lot of exposition, but is handled in such a witty and organic way that you aren’t aware that what you’re being told will later become important. The dinner scene with the McFly family at the beginning of the film is basically there to tell you how George and Lorraine meet, but is so well-written that you don’t suspect anything. It is also full of subtext, setting up the personalities of the McFly family, from where their character arcs develop.
The true appeal of the film, and the reason I think it has endured for 30 years now, is that it speaks to a particular desire in all of us. As a teenager, who hasn’t fantasised about meeting their parents at the same age? I still have trouble believing that my parents were once also young, worrying about grades, getting yelled at by their parents, and feeling the same fears and insecurities that all teenagers do. Back to the Future plays with this idea very well, and turns it into an It’s a Wonderful Life-esque parable in which Marty is forced to learn the lesson his father has always told him, by teaching it to, well, his father: if you set your mind to it, you can accomplish anything. It’s genuinely touching when Marty notices that he has the same flaws his younger father has. The sequels don’t have the emotional power of the original, but maintain the goofy sense of fun. It’s fascinating seeing the view of 2015 from 1985, though it is of course exaggerated a little; Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale knew that there probably wouldn’t be flying cars in the future, but added them in because, hey, there have to be flying cars in the future. And the ending where they essentially go Back to the First Movie is awesome, no matter what anyone tells you, and is unlike anything else a sequel has ever tried to do.
The Back to the Future movies are clever, zany, funny, and sweet without veering too far into sentimentality. They are a great little piece of Americana that will still hopefully be treasured far into the future, when we will eventually get the hoverboards and hydrated pizzas we were promised.