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Back to the Future
1985 - PG - 111 Mins.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Producer: Steven Spielberg
Written By: Robert Zemeckis, Bob Gale
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson
Review by: John Ulmer
"Have you no concept of time?"
- "Doc" Emmet Brown, "Back to the Future."

A favorite of Hollywood has always been the tales of time travel. H.G. Wells can be credited for starting the craze with his novel of an adventurous Englishman who traveled back in time with a fantastic creation, and when George Pal's adaptation of Wells' "The Time Machine" (1960) hit the streets paradoxes and possibilities of time travel became a more omnipresent thought.

The best time travel film of all, and one of the most dazzling of all films, is "Back to the Future" (1985), a film so smart, witty, genuine, and hilarious it must simply be seen to be believed. Yes, the craze and hype built up around the film since its release is more than worthy--I rate it one of my more favorite films. Some movies are undoubtedly great, but you don't always feel like sitting down to watch "The Godfather," or "Casablanca." Longer, more (somewhat) depressing films that, though terrific, just do not delight in the same way as a good comedy.

I always feel like sitting down to watch "Back to the Future." It's one of those uplifting films that are so delightful to watch it puts a smile on your face from the start and never lets up for a moment. And it's not just funny--it's incredibly smart, also, boasting one of the strongest and most thoughtful, insightful scripts in the history of film. And I'm being less than generous when I say that.

The script, written by Bob Gale and co-written by director Robert Zemeckis, was originally a disaster. (Trust me, I read it, and it was painfully bad.) Marty was a rebellious teenager who pirated VCR tapes, Doc Brown was just annoying and distant, there were no great plot twists and "possibilities," the dialogue was weak and superficial, and Marty originally got "back to the future" by means of a nuclear bomb, a fridge and the back of a car trunk (don't ask).

But the script had gone through some major alterations by the time filming started. Michael J. Fox is perfectly cast as young Marty McFly--a bit rebellious in a typical teenager type of way, though also a bit insecure about his future. He wants to be a rock artist but he is afraid to let people listen to his work. ("What if they don't like it--I just don't think I could handle that type of rejection.")

Marty lives with his parents and two siblings in a middle-class suburban America community named Hilldale. His father, George (Crispin Glover), is an awkward creature whose insecurities work to a major disadvantage for him. Marty's mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), is a drunk who sits around the house all day reflecting upon the past.

Marty's only true friend is the eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an inventor who can't seem to invent anything worthwhile. But one day Marty gets a call--Doc wants him to come down to the Twin Pines Mall at one o'clock in the morning with a camcorder. When Marty arrives later that morning, he finds Doc with something extraordinary-a time machine.

The time machine is built out of a DeLorean and runs on plutonium. Here lies the problem--since it needs plutonium, Doc has to steal it. ("You don't just walk into a store and ask for plutonium!" Marty says.) However, the Libyans Doc stole the plutonium from come after him, shoot him, and then come after Marty--who immediately flees using the DeLorean and accidentally time travels back to 1985.

Upon arriving in 1955, Marty soon realizes he is out of plutonium and has been left stranded back in time. So he visits Doc Brown in 1955, who claims the only thing powerful enough to deliver the 1.21 jiggawatts of electricity needed to send the time machine back to 1985 is a bolt of lightning--something that can be harnessed, but, as Doc puts it, you never know when lightning is going to strike. Wrong. Marty has a pamphlet which tells the exact time in 1955 when a lightning bolt hit the town's clock tower. So as Doc cooks up a plan to harness the lightning beam when it strikes the clock, Marty goes exploring around 1955--and accidentally bumps into his parents and stops them from meeting, which could result in catastrophic events.

I've seen "Back to the Future" over 150 times and counting, and it never gets old. I taped it off of TV a few years back and watched it almost every day, until I could quote every single line from the movie. I was younger then and had not experiences a movie as wildly original and creative and truly imaginative as "Back to the Future." It astounded me with its pure magic of filmmaking--it was the type of movie I dreamed that I could make when I was older. This is the type of movie you watch and see something new in every time. The director, Bob Zemeckis, places the subtlest differences in time in the film. For example, Marty goes back in time in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall. In 1955, the mall doesn't exist--just two pine trees. Marty runs one over. Later, when he gets back to the future, we see that the mall is now called "Lone Pine Mall." It's not easy to spot--it's
something I only noticed a few viewings ago. And that's just the type of movie this is.

The characters are some of the most memorable and lovable of all time. Marty McFly isn't an annoying teenage brat--Michael J. Fox brings a sense of trueness and realism to the character that makes, and does not break, the film. Christopher Lloyd as the over-the-top Doc Brown gives his best performance of all time, running around in a worried motion and that frizzled, gray hair standing up on his head like he's been struck by electricity (and I can't doubt that he has been in the past with one of his experiments). Just thinking of him brings a smile to my face--he's just that type of joyful character who is funny no matter what he's doing.

Every story has a villain--at least every good story. "Back to the Future" has one, too: Biff Tannen, who is played by the wonderful Thomas F. Wilson. Wilson can change his very demeanor on screen--in interviews his actual personality is wholly different. And yet he makes Biff into the kind of stupid, moronic tough guy that you love to hate. Biff is not quite as non-violent as some bullies in films, however--many family films tend to tone down the nastiness, but Biff is one nasty villain who may not be a gigantic space alien but carries the same spine-tingling meanness about him.

"Back to the Future" is a subtle comedy, one that is laugh-out-loud funny on many occasions but also very, very smart--so smart, indeed, that its wit exceeds just about any film I have ever seen. At first you may not think so--but after you watch it a few times and pick up on the different changes between the past and present (and trust me, you will), you will no doubt realize just how much thought was put into this film. There is so much wit and imagination and humor in "Back to the Future" that it could be spread out into ten different movies and they'd still be winners. That's not a very easy film to create.

There are many things are subtle in "Back to the Future." It doesn't tell us what it is or what is in it--it lets those things up to the viewer. A more average film would no doubt push the facts of Marty's parents upon us--but Lorraine's drunkenness and George's insecurities are only hinted at for the most part. So many things are left open for discussion and thought dwelling in this movie that has helped make it become the re-watchable film it is today. I can imagine what a film like this would have been like given a lesser director, lesser writer, and lesser actors. But there's been a lot of thought put into this truly wonderful and imaginative comedy that separates it from the rest.

I guess I'd better close this review with a quote from the movie. Marty is sitting with his mother in 1955 (and she doesn't know that she is his mother). Marty sees an episode of "The Honeymooners" on their brand-new TV and comments on how the episode is a classic. Lorraine's little brother can't understand how he saw it. The episode is brand new. "Yeah, I saw it on a rerun," Marty says. "What's a rerun?" the boy asks. "You'll find out," is his reply. A more typical comedy about time travel would completely skip these ironies and comparisons between the different years. And part of the many, many joys of "Back to the Future" is that it is not a typical comedy by any means. It's the type of movie you can watch over and over and never get tired of. I've watched it for years and I still laugh and find hidden things when I watch it. It's just that type of extraordinary adventure/comedy. Films like these don't come around very often. Cherish it while you can.
Movie Guru Rating
A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic. A masterpiece.  An Essential film.  A classic.
  5 out of 5 stars

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