Flashback to the Future: The Back To The Future Series Reviewed

After years of seeing Photoshopped memes telling us that we've arrived at the date Marty sees when he and Doc traveled into the future, it's actually finally here. Now where's my damn hoverboard?!

The Back to the Future trilogy is immortal among even casual fans of movies. Director Robert Zemeckis and co-writer/producer Bob Gale fashioned an epic adventure, packed with excitement, state of the art visual effects, and all the while spinning compelling character and story arcs that never fail to please. Backed up by the exquisite and iconic score by Alan Silvestri, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) took us on a high-flying ride through three films together, and earned their place in the canon of the most beloved cinema characters of all-time. For this special 30th anniversary retrospective, we're taking a look the entire series.

Back to the Future (1985)
No matter how many times you see the original Back to the Future, it's impossible not to get sucked in during the opening credits. It's perfectly shot by the legendary Dean Cundey (Halloween, Jurassic Park) and the comic timing is razor-sharp. It begins not with chuckles, but with an air of mystery. Your eyes search the screen for clues. There are Easter eggs overflowing with foreshadowing imagery within the first minute. Zemeckis wastes no time plunging us neck-deep into this story.

It's almost 15 minutes before we even get our first music cue from the great Alan Silvestri, but by then Zemeckis has already set the table for a visual and psychological feast. Marty's family is dysfunctional as hell but still somehow relatable. His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) drinks so much that she's aged in dog years, his father George (Crispin Glover) is a wimp who takes unlimited guff from his boss and lifetime bully, Biff (Tom Wilson). His sister is a self-involved whiner, his brother wears his McDonald's uniform to the dinner table, and all while Marty watches reruns of The Three Stooges with glazed over disinterest as his mother drunkenly regales the room with the story of how mommy and daddy met. It's rather pathetic sounding, actually. How the hell did these two square pegs find the gumption stick it in the round hole, let alone fart out three kids? And how many of us ever looked at our parents and asked that same exact question?

Enter Doc Brown with his time machine  made out of a DeLorean??  and you've got the vehicle for asking a question that is the entire genesis of the film: What if we could go back in time and meet our parents when they were young stupid teenagers? By the time we grew old enough to begin to have even the most rudimentary understanding of our parents, they were so beaten down by life  by living through late night diaper changes and midnight feedings and bills and mortgages and crappy jobs eating away at their dreams  it seems unfathomable that they could ever have been anything like us. Hell, Will Smith won his first Grammy for a song called "Parents Just Don't Understand." If he could listen to that song today, he would probably slap himself across the face.

Is that a Devo suit?
This all sounds super serious, but Back to the Future tells this universally appealing story with great zest and energy. There's never a single moment that doesn't ring true or doesn't connect dead-on with the funny bone. What sets it apart so many years later, and why it continues to amass new generations of fans, is because it feels completely authentic. Nothing feels phoned in, overwrought or "too Hollywood." Remember when films became blockbusters because they stimulated us with great ideas and expertly crafted filmmaking, not just ad campaigns cleverly designed to hide how cookie cutter they are? 

Robert Zemeckis would go on to win Oscars for Forrest Gump and set the technological bar sky-high with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Yet despite having a resume with more than his fair share of masterpieces, this continues to be his finest hour. While Forrest Gump told one of the most loving character portraits ever committed to film, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? told an electrifying story through technical innovation that boggled the mind, it's Marty McFly and the relationship he builds with his parents in the past that remain most endearing creations of his career. Back to the Future is a perfect film. There are precious few of them. If you haven't yet seen it, you're missing out on something truly special.


Back to the Future: Part II (1989)
When you're trying to make a sequel to one of the best films ever made, it certainly begs a few questions: 1) What are you thinking? And 2) Do we make this exactly like the original or do we try new things? Somehow, Robert Zemeckis managed to create one of the best sequels of all time by making something that was exactly like the original while also trying new things. The imagination on display here is completely stunning. Working with production designer Rick Carter and visual effects producer Ken Ralston, Zemeckis creates a future so outlandish and visionary that it's no wonder we fell so short. Would you trade in your iPhone if you could have a flying car? I think many of us would say yes.

This time, Doc Brown is driving the time machine himself, and he brings Marty thirty years into the future. If the universal message of the first film was "kids, don't be so hard on your parents," the message this time is, "things don't always turn out how you plan." You don't have to travel into the future to figure that out: Just take a gander at your high school yearbook. That guy who got all the girls because he was tall and could dunk the basketball without jumping? Yeah, he scooped my kid's ice cream last week while his beer gut rested on the counter. The world looks very different when it's all laid out in front of you with only your experiences of K-12 in the rearview. Reality is a very harsh mistress and she'll give you the herpes if you screw with her.

Being the middle chapter of a trilogy, we expect things to go a little dark. Zemeckis definitely got that memo. We see the ramifications of time travel lead to some very, very despairing places. There are some monumentally challenging and intriguing ideas on display, even if they are simply there as a gimmick. Carl Sagan once called Back to the Future: Part II the most accurate time travel film ever made. Far be it for a nerd like me to argue with a genius, but some logistical questions still baffle me. For example, when Marty returned to the present after altering the past, if he's from an alternate timeline, shouldn't there be an all new Marty already living in his house? Or if it is all one universe, shouldn't he remember a new series of events? When evil Biff from alternate 1985 says that Marty is supposed to be in Switzerland, did that Marty magically disappear when this one showed up? For all its implausibilities, Frequency remains the only time-changer film that has ever answered this question.

If you thought 
"Jaws: The Revenge" was bad...
The bottom line is that it's all beside the point. When it comes to time travel films, paradoxes are aplenty with little to no logical resolution. Don't even get me started on the Terminator series. The original Back to the Future dodged this obstacle because we spent very little time in the recreated present. But Zemeckis and Gale made their bed, and if we have to lie in it, it might as well be comfy. Thankfully, it is. Zemeckis knows that he's already created a memorable masterpiece to work from, and when the plot takes us back to the past of the present that's still the same past because the alternate future hasn't happened yet  you still with me? — the fun factor gets cranked up to 11. If we're going to be scratching our heads, at least we're enjoying it.

This very well could have been one of the biggest disasters of all time. Producing two sequels to a perfect film simultaneously was not just a gamble, but could have meant the end of many careers if the idea had tanked. There was simply too much money on the line, too much hype. But history gave us a happy ending, and no amount of time travel will undo the work Zemeckis and Gale put into this script in order to ensure that their series continued with its core principle intact: An intelligent story with ideas and relationships at its core, not merely spectacle.


Back to the Future: Part III (1990)
Produced at the same time as Part II, Back to the Future: Part III takes us back to the past, only further back to the Old West. The whole idea of this came off as hokey beyond all reason when the news hit us just before the end credits of Part II (the film included a trailer for Part III). And it was received with the same blasé skepticism by fans and critics alike. Twenty-five years later, it's refreshing to go back and watch this film with no expectations, no hype, and discover that it's every bit as enthralling and engaging as Part II, but for very different reasons.

By now, we've pretty much seen every variation on the time travel mythos possible in this series. We've seen Marty alter the past by accident, we've seen Doc help Marty change the past on purpose to save the present, and we've seen a highly stylized version of a possible future where people didn't learn from their mistakes and kept making Jaws sequels. Zemeckis and Gale must have realized they spent their cache of big ideas on Part II, because they made a very conscious decision to create a final installment focused on something that was never completely fleshed out: Doc and Marty's friendship. This is the only film of the series to really bring that relationship into the foreground.

Of course the first two films did spend a lot of time with Doc and Marty, and their on-screen chemistry is one of the main reasons why this trilogy is so great. But when Doc is ripped forcefully through the fabric of time back to an era when Seth MacFarlane was killing people at the fair, Marty has to confront the possibility of a future without him. Think of your best friend. Now think of spending the rest of your life estranged from that person knowing there was something you could've done to fix it. That emotional crux is the undercurrent that drives this final trip in the DeLorean, always giving us something to root for.

Don't mess with Doc Brown. 
He'll shoot you in the face.
Just as Zemeckis and his creative team had a blast showing us a comic trip into a highly optimistic future with flying cars and dehydrated pizza, they also laugh it up riffing on Old West stereotypes. Doc and Marty have enough problems trying to propel a 20th century vehicle with 19th century technology, but that doesn't mean we don't get another deliciously classic Old West villain performance from the monstrously underrated Tom Wilson as Mad Dog Tannen. Yes, the great-great-grandfather to the butthead who bullied Marty's father. One of the unsung heroes of the series, Wilson's performances across the board (1955 Biff, Alternate 1985 Biff, Old Man Biff, Griff, and Mad Dog) are stellar. Anyone who creates a list of the best movie villains of all time that doesn't include this rogue's gallery of intoxicatingly idiotic buffoons is clearly missing the point. From the way Wilson bolsters the period makeup job to the growly Clint Eastwood gargling rocks while fighting throat cancer voice  it's all perfect. He's a hoot and a half every time he's on screen.

In the end, no villain or gushy romantic subplots can distract from the focal relationship between Marty and Doc, two men separated by time and generations who somehow find a kindred spirit within the other. It's their devotion to each other as friends that makes this whole ride worthwhile. By the end of Part III, we've seen them risk their lives for each other, travel the cosmos, and survive the weirdness of Crispin Glover. There can be no greater reward than a big hug and a steam-powered time machine built out of a giant locomotive. Great Scott, this is heavy, and like the Star Wars Trilogy before it, earns its place in the pantheon of the greatest winning trifectas in cinema history. 


- Blake O. Kleiner

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