In case you haven’t guessed yet, or are reading this article other than on the week containing 21st October 2015, I love Back to the Future. I shouldn’t love Back to the Future, but love it I do and with gusto. In fact, when asked what my favourite film is I often respond with Back to the Future. To the inevitable follow-up of “which one?”, I reply “all of them”, without sarcasm or any other humorous inflection. The question I find myself answering next is “why?” and that can take some time, and thus I commit the answer to the internet to save myself some time in, well, the future.
First things first, I should probably clarify why I shouldn’t love Back to the Future, particularly as much as I do. Well, that comes down to one key distinction, that between the two types of time travel plots most commonly seen in media: stories about time travel and stories that just have it, normally just to frame the narrative rather than drive it. The former are, if done well, fascinating and intriguing tales of hubris, meddling and consequence. The latter are most often stories marred by irritating pseudo-science and common/garden nonsense that ruins what could otherwise be a gripping yarn (I’m pointing, accusingly, at you Doctor Who) and Back to the Future is certainly the latter (with the possible exception of Part II, which does touch on the meddling and its consequences). The vanishing and changing photographs spring to mind, especially that one in Part I where it fades bit by bit rather than all at once like everywhere else in the series.
I do not buy into the “turn off your brain and enjoy it” philosophy, something normally required by films not about the time travel itself. It is a lazy excuse. Don’t get me wrong here, there exist films where the enjoyment is all on the surface and it’s all just shallow fun, but they’re difficult to do properly, especially without a comedic tone (which, to be fair, in Back to the Future’s favour, it has in abundance). The key lies in willing suspension of disbelief – I will leap massive plot holes if you can get me to ignore the gravity of reality. The difficult part is in getting that suspension to continue after the film has finished. After all, if I’m engaging in conscious analysis during a film, I’m almost certainly bored – it’s only once the credits roll that I begin to think again. It’s here that most “switch off” films fall apart as gravity returns and I plummet into those gaping pot holes. With Back to the Future, however, I continue to float over them; I don’t care about the absurdity, I simply accept it as part of the world. This is probably witchcraft on the part of Robert Zemeckis.
But why? Why do I love Back to the Future when I sit down and dismiss so many other “switch off” films during post mortem? Self-awareness is a part of it: Back to the Future knows exactly what it is and what it wants to do, it embraces that the time travel is mostly tangential to the story. I know it’s completely inseparable from the plot as, after all, it’s about an 80s kid whose own mother gets a teenage crush on him instead of his father, goes to the future to stop his own kid being an idiot, screws up history and, in the process of fixing it, ends up in a Western of all things. That is, of course, impossible without time travel. And yet, upon inspection, where does time travel actually factor into that? With the aforementioned exception of the “Grey’s Sporting Almanac” plotline in Part II, the time travel is just a way to jump from one adventure to the next, the change in scenery just comes from the date rather than the place.
If you’re not sold on the whole “time travel is basically irrelevant” argument yet, let me point out that a) a major plot point of both Part I and Part III is that the time machine is broken for most of the film, and b) the time machine is a DeLorean and functions based on an invention conceived in a “eureka!” moment when Doc slipped smacked his head on his toilet.
Second, of course, is our two main characters. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown are two timeless characters. I have never seen a more entertaining mad scientist and Marty is a kid like people I knew. He wants to be a rock star, tries to act like one and yet possesses an innate fear of rejection that I doubt was entirely inherited from his father (after all, the first incarnation of George McFly, whilst a mirror to Marty in many ways, is an unashamed wimp and total loser). He’s cool and normally keeps his head, but will not suffer any trivial insult to his pride for fear of what others will think of him. Both are, of course, completely over the top, especially Doc, keeping in with the comedic tone of the films. The important part is that they, at least for me, transcend the stereotypes. Marty isn’t just another Hollywood high school kid and Doc isn’t just another crackpot inventor. The characters stick with you and their charisma is an enormous part of the enduring nature of these films.
At its core, Back to the Future isn’t time travel or even really sci-fi. Back to the Future is classic pulp adventure alongside classics like Indiana Jones. It’s about putting larger than life, likable heroes in strange, exciting, and varied circumstances and watching what plays out and it knows it. Going back to that disappearing picture, in full blown sci-fi, it could rip you right out of the experience, but, in pulp, it’s basically magic anyway. We don’t query Gandalf, so why Doc? Suddenly a dumb plot-hole is a cleverly convenient way of showing, rather than telling, the time pressure on our heroes. See how, by mentally shifting genre, the dumb becomes the clever and the sloppy becomes the convenient? This is why I get annoyed at Doctor Who, which I still see as sci-fi, but love Back to the Future, which I don’t.
So that is why I love Back to the Future, at least the crux of it. It’s because I love good pulp, a good adventure and a good laugh. That and Part II just about scratches that time travel itch of mine. It also, especially this week, provides some amazing, and deliberate, Zeerust. For those who don’t spend their off hours on tvtropes.org, Zeerust is the name given to the, now dated and ridiculous, visions of the future as showed by the sci-fi of the past. So, next time you want to watch a film just for fun don’t switch off your brain, watch Back to the Future (yes, all of it), and let it convince you that all the nonsense isn’t plot holes, it’s a part of the enjoyment. It’s silly, not stupid, and that makes all the difference.
WORDS: JAMES ARNOLD