Time travel as captured the imagination of man for a long time. Whether it was part of cultural mythology or the new myths of literature and film, the thought of traveling back in time to observe great events or to the future to see how lives and technology has changed, time travel remains one of the most though provoking themes. Back to the Future took the all too often seriously presented theme of time travel and put it up in a humorous and imaginative light. Young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is the typical teenager. He counts the hours until he can take out his girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells), he loves playing rock guitar and his association with the crazy Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc Brown may have a very light touch on present day reality but the man is a genius, he invented the flux capacitor, a device that can funnel huge amounts of energy to transport his rebuilt Delorian through time. By accident, Marty is transported back to the fifties where he must save his very existence by making sure his parents (teenagers at this time) get together. Where most time travel flicks work carefully around the inevitable paradoxes this film embraces them, it rushes head long into them with classic comic results. His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is a typical teenager. Marty is shocked to she her sneak a smoke or drink, obsesses about boys (other than his future father) and is horrified when Lorraine gets a crush on him. George (Crispin Glover) the future father of Marty is a dweeb, there is really no way to avoid such a term. Where his father was weak and indecisive in the 80’s Marty finds his George’s lack of confidence an embarrassment. What makes this film stand out from the typical time travel film is at its heart is a story about relationships. How Marty sees his parents in his present and their past, the realization that his parents really had been teenagers and went through much of the same anxieties he has. There is the timeless (pun intended) animosity that exists with the bully (Thomas F. Wilson always as bully named Tannen) and the inflicted. Now matter what time he finds himself Marty finds a Tannen ready to pick on him or his father. One of the best relationships is between Marty and Doc Brown. More than a mentor, Doc Brown at first fills the need for a relatable father for Marty while George is so weak. There are also some nice little moments where the details of this film shine. The movie house that shows porn in Marty’s time showed family films in the 50’s. His vest is mistaken for a life preserver and when he asks for a Pepsi Free the counter man of the 50’s tells him everyone pays. Notice the small details here, they will be important in the next two films.
Strange as it may seem, this is a dream cast. Fox brings a youthful enthusiasm that carries his portrayal of Marty. Prior to this he was best known for Alex P. Keaton on television and afterwards he managed to create another TV niche for himself with Spin City, Fox is capable of morphing into the character he plays. Audiences are familiar with him and readily accept him. Then there is Lloyd. After a role like Reverend Jim In Taxi he goes from a bumbling NYC cab driver to the ultimate in slightly insane screen geniuses. The chemistry between Lloyd and Fox is perfect. They are among the best comic teams ever brought together for a series of films. What can really make or break a film is the ancillary cast. Crispin is so pathetic as George that when he finally belts Biff Tanner a go one the audience has to cheer. Thompson has an excellent sense of comic timing that permits her to pull off the dual role of mother and teen. For those with a sharp eye look for Billy Zane as one of Biff’s cronies, again, as with the rest of the film it is the attention to the tiny details that brings this hit home.
Robert Zemeckis is no stranger to the more unusual types of films. His impressive resume includes titles like Forrest Gump, What Lies Beneath, Romancing the Stone and Contact. With producer Steve Spielberg he weaves a modern fantasy, a high tech fairy tale that will endure simply because the film works on several levels. As mentioned there is the interaction of the characters and how the relations change, rippling through time. There is also the tongue in cheek use of the typical time travel paradoxes that often ruin such films. Zemeckis appears to give enough room to the cast to have fun yet he guides them so as to get the best possible from their performances.