There’s a very simple but often overlooked reason why Back to the Future has endured so well: the acting is superb. This is not, to be honest, something one can say about most 80s films (I adore the Brat Pack films even though most of them are, frankly, unwatchable and let’s not even get started on the Police Academy franchise.) People today talk sentimentally about the charm of the flux capacitor and 1.21 giggawats, the laughable depiction of the Libyans (who travel in a surfer-style two-tone VW van) and, of course, the DeLorean. (One of the kitschy joys of the film today is that we are now almost as distant from Marty’s “present” of 1985 as he was from 1955, and so his present looks, at times, about as foreign as “good ol’ 1955” did to him. Further, in some ways: it’s hard not to be on the side of the oldies in 1955 who keep making fun of Marty for trying to order “a Tab” and for wearing what looks like a life preserver.)
But the reason any and all of those things have lasted and still have cultural currency is because all of the main players in this film are so damn good. Michael J Fox is boyishly sweet and sceptically enthusiastic as Marty, and Eric Stoltz – who was originally cast – would not have been able to conjure up the kind of appeal that Fox had. Without him, this film would never have been as big as it is. He was, I maintain, one of the few properly talented young actors in the decade: he was show-stealingly excellent as Alex P Keaton in Family Ties, surprisingly heartbreaking in Teen Wolf, good in Casualties of War and hilariously self-mocking in The Hard Way, one of my favourite 90s films. But he will always be, for most people and myself, Marty McFly, the boy in the blouson denim jacket, clutching his skateboard, pushing that pedal down to 88mph.
Christopher Lloyd has pretty much coined and copyrighted the depiction of the slightly batty but actually quite sensible scientist with his portrayal of Doctor Emmett Brown, and he and Marty are my absolute favourite double act in the whole of the 80s, a decade that produced some of the finest of male buddy movies. Thomas F Wilson is pitch perfect as Biff Tannen (“Make like a tree, and get out of here”), so much so that, unfortunately for him, he pretty much typecast himself and he’s never been able to get another decent part, except for his most pleasing appearance as the coach in Freaks and Geeks (well played, Judd Apatow.)
But it’s Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover who, to my mind, deserve especial credit as they have to play what are essentially three roles: the middle aged depressives in the beginning of the film, the young teenagers in the middle and then the happy and wealthy parents at the end, and they both, in very different ways, are excellent.
Thompson, who deserved more parts than she got in the 80s, plays Lorraine with convincing style. She is wholly credible as Fox’s mother in the beginning and end of the film, despite being exactly the same age as him, and is adorable as the boy crazed 1950s teenager in the middle, and you can see how Lorraine Baines could easily have matured into Lorraine McFly, both the happy or sad version. She roots the movie down, ties it together and balances it out so it’s not too much of a boy’s film. She is the necessary female heart of BTTF – necessary because the one appalling performance in the movie is that of Jennifer, Marty’s girlfriend, played by Claudia Wells. Fortunately, Wells was not able to reprise the role in Back to the Future II and the far superior Elisabeth Shue took over.
Glover’s loopy performance is very much the Marmite element of the film – you either love all of those jerky mannerisms and stuttering inflections, or you don’t. I adore both them and him, and I give a lot of credit to director Robert Zemeckis, fresh from Romancing the Stone, for keeping him in the film even though he is, clearly, such a different kind of actor from the rest of the cast (and possibly the rest of mankind.) I find his nerdy jitteriness completely enthralling and when I think of moments of dialogue from Back to the Future, they invariably involve Glover, either his pathetic apology to his son at the beginning of the film after being bullied by Biff (“All I can say is … I’m sorry”), his deranged laugh as he watches TV over dinner, his breathy attempt to ask Lorraine out (“My density has brought me to you”), his agonized face as Biff twists his arm behind his back at the prom. He also, I think, has the funniest moment in the film when he takes a shot of chocolate milk before approaching Lorraine. No matter how eccentric Glover clearly was and is, the man has great comic timing. Also, he’s the one who changes the most in the movie, becoming a slick, stutter-free sci-fi novelist at the end of the movie, proving not only how much Marty unwittingly changed things for the better but that Glover, when he wanted to, could actually act like a normal person.
For all of Back to the Future’s joys and flaws, it is this ensemble cast that holds it all together. Because the truth is, Back to the Future can be a little frustrating. Roughly speaking, there are two ways to treat time travel in sci-fi books and literature: either the protagonist can go back and, armed with his knowledge about the future, fix things to his and others’ benefit, or he can go back in time and be paralysed with fear about doing anything that will irrevocably change time – ‘the butterfly effect’ approach, in other words.
Back to the Future takes the latter approach and I’m sorry, but this is kind of tedious, not to mention limiting. Yes, Marty does accidentally changes his life for the better in the end, but for the majority of the film the audience has to watch the main character try to make two of the other main characters behave exactly as they always did, despite the intrusion of “Calvin Klein.” As movie plots go, Back to the Future’s, despite its unquestionable delightfulness, leaves something to be desired.
As it happens, another 80s time-travel movie treated this set-up much better. Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married is not as good as Back to the Future, but its plot, to my mind, is a lot more inspired. Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner), who recently got divorced from her high school sweetheart Charlie (Nicolas Cage, whose performance in this is as bonkers and, I think, brilliant as Glover’s in Back to the Future), falls into a coma at her high school reunion and goes back to her senior year. She then sets about doing all the things she wished she’d done in high school (befriending the school nerd and future millionaire; sleeping with the sexy class misfit; being nicer to her sister) and not doing all the things she regretted (geting pregnant by Charlie and ending up married to him.) Now THIS is a film plot that an audience can empathise with – who doesn’t think about all the things they would have done differently at school if they knew what they know now? – and, dammit, is just more fun than watching Marty hide in Doc’s garage. One of the ironies to these two films, though, is that while Marty tries to keep everything the same, the future changes, and while Peggy Sue tries to change things, she ends up exactly the same. Also, when Back to the Future II attempted to play around with this idea of consciously changing the future by going back to the past, they ended up with a big ol’ chaotic mess (mainly because they did it badly, and did it via Biff making the whole concept a lot less joyous.) More to the point, as I said, Back to the Future is a much better film than Peggy Sue Got Married and that is largely because it has both a better cast (if you think Claudia Wells is bad as Jennifer in BTTF, you should see Sofia Coppola playing Kathleen Turner’s monotoned younger sister in PSGM) and a better, tighter script.
It is a testament to the lightness of Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script, and the innate appeal of Michael J Fox and Lea Thompson, that the plotline about a mother trying to seduce her son is not completely repelling. Instead, it’s simply funny and even sweet. Moreover, the script moves with such irresistible charm that it’s easy to miss the problems within the film’s plot. The most obvious one is, of course, wouldn’t middle aged George and Lorraine marvel at how much their youngest son Marty looks and acts exactly like their friend Marty from school? And isn’t that weirdly Oedipal for Lorraine? And isn’t that a little worrying for George? Also, why would George and Lorraine hire Biff as their general dogsbody seeing as he tried to rape Lorraine when she was 18? Also, is Zemeckis saying the Chuck Berry ripped off a high schooler? And while we’re on the big questions here, how the hell does Lorraine Baines make her hair look like that?
Despite all that, and all that I said before, Back to the Future is, unquestionably a brilliant film and it is so brilliant that its flaws and handicaps are immediately overlooked. It was inevitable that they would make sequels, and even more inevitable that the sequels would never measure up (only two more years to wait, though, until we find out if the future really is all that Back to the Future II promised, hoverboards and all.) But it doesn’t and didn’t matter. This is one of the few films that really can’t be tainted by being associated with an over-milked franchise. This is a movie that careens along, a little daffily but always joyously. Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads.
I’m going away for two weeks now but when I come back there will be a big Film Club week.
Next time: Rick Moranis tribute week