Back to the Future takes a traditional movie form – the time-travel movie – and throws in a completely off-the-wall element: namely, a comedic variation on the Oedipus legend. If you think that’s hard to do, you underestimate the imagination of the film’s writers.
The idea is this: A normal high-school kid (Michael J. Fox, of TV’s Family Ties) is a friend to an eccentric scientist (Christopher Lloyd) who claims to have created a time-travel car out of a rebuilt DeLorean. One night, in a deserted parking lot, Fox finds out the scientist is right. The plutonium powered vehicle sends Fox screeching back to 1955.
That’s the very year his parents were his own age. When Fox wanders through town, he is startled to run into his own father (a funny performance by Crispin Glover), and to see that the old man as a young man is the same clumsy wimp he is (was?) in 1985. But when Fox encounters his mother (Lea Thompson) as a lovely young girl, a disturbing realization sets in: His mother is beginning to fall for him.
Calling Dr. Freud . . . . You can see that Back to the Future has some irreverent spunk to it. So amusing is the premise that it’s easy to overlook the movie’s problems, and there are a few. Some of the chronology of Fox’s time in the past could’ve been neater; we’re left with long stretches in which we don’t really know just how he spends his time. And some of the culture-shock jokes are well-worn.
There’s also some goofyfooted exposition. A batch of elements need to be established early so they will pay off later; that’s smart screenplay structure, but the writers here don’t know how to get that across gracefully or naturally – some of the exposition practically has quotation marks around it. And it’s not particularly well-acted; Lloyd, for instance, can play this sort of wild man role in his sleep, and he doesn’t seem to be roused to the occasion.
Fox has a tendency toward superficiality, although he is bouncy and energetic. He was a sudden replacement for Eric Stoltz (Mask), who was released from the production with a few weeks of shooting already in the can – no one outside the production knows exactly why.
That was the decision of director Robert Zemeckis. He and his screenwriting partner Bob Gale are former film students and protegés of Steven Spielberg. Spielberg produced their I Wanna Hold Your Hand and shot his own 1941 from their screenplay.
With Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Gale have paid Spielberg back for his patience. In its modest way, it’s a cute, zippy little movie that figures to do pretty well in this lackluster summer movie season. Spielberg, as “presenter” of the film, stands to gain something back from the critical drubbing that accompanied The Goonies, another Spielberg presentation.
First published in The Herald, July 4, 1985
So, finally got to this one. I think I hesitated because my Xerox of the review has lost a couple of lines from the bottoms of columns, which I tried to paper over here (without adding anything that will make me look clairvoyant). The ending feels abrupt, too; looks like I lost my last paragraph there. They screened this at the homely old Northwest Preview Room near the Seattle Times building, a baffling location for big films (they did a couple of James Bond pictures and Aliens there, too, and countless others – lousy way to see a huge movie). I think BTTF even screened with some effects still uncompleted. It was obviously going to go through the roof. There’s something basic about the movie I never truly liked, as entertaining as it is; it has something to do with the DeLorean (ooh, how cool, a fucking DeLorean) and Fox’s character – I guess I couldn’t be bothered to use the name Marty McFly for this review – craving a 4×4 as a car. What kind of a jerk kid dreams of owning a 4×4? (Not that I’d ever heard of one before this movie.)