Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of watching Back to the Future with a packed house as part of Popcorn Taxi‘s 25th Anniversary screening of the film . First of all, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I may have seen this film in excess of 100 times. I first saw this back in cinemas in 1985 at the tender age of 6, and it was one of the most watched VHS tapes (remember them?) in my household as a lad. Thanks to the magic of high-definition home releases, the Back to the Future trilogy is being released on Blu-ray to celebrate its anniversary this week. The good news is, the transfer looks amazing. The great news is that this classic piece of cinema hasn’t lost a single gigawatt of its charm.
It is difficult to image travelling through time prior to Doc and Marty. While time travel stories have been about since about 700-ish BCE, certainly the last few decades of non-linear journeys have been influence heavily by Back to the Future. Consistently topping fan and critic polls of favourite films of all time, it was successful almost immediately. Topping the box-office for 11 weeks in 1985, the film spawned two back-to-back sequels, an animated series and even a theme park ride. In 2008, the American Film Institute voted the original film in the Top 10 greatest science fiction films of all time, alongside Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars. Now, twenty-five years after it first delighted cinema audiences, a new generation of viewers gets to enjoy the whole trilogy in a brand-new format.
For those who have somehow not had the pleasure in the last quarter of a century, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a typical teenager in the 1980s and feels that his life is going nowhere. His father George (Crispin Glover) is bullied by his supervisor Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), and his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic. His band is rejected by the school board, and his only encouragement is his beautiful girlfriend Jennifer (Claudia Wells) and the eccentric inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Meeting Doc in a car park in the early hours of the morning, Marty learns that Doc has invented a time machine in the form of a DeLorean sports car. No sooner than they have tested it, Libyan terrorists (oh how times change) attack and shoot Doc for the stolen plutonium used to power the flux capacitor (it’s what makes times travel possible). Marty attempts to escape in the DeLorean, but is inadvertently sent back to 1955. Meeting his own parents, and the 1955 counterpart of Doc, Marty must get back to the future before he does irreparable damage to the timeline and negates his own existence.
The original Back to the Future remains fresh and exciting after a quarter of a century largely thanks to its inherent simplicity. With the exception of some very prominent light shows at the bookends of the film, the first film in the series is virtually devoid of special visual effects (something that has greatly aged its effects-laden sequel). A simple story about how much a town changes over a thirty year period is an unlikely premise for one of the most delightful adventures of modern times, but that is precisely what writer Bob Gale, writer/director Robert Zemeckis and a little known producer who goes by the name of Steven Spielberg manage to serve up in this enduring film. There is nothing sinister, violent or nasty about Back to the Future: it is a sweet tale set largely in the 1950s, as viewed through jaded modern eyes, giving a fresh perspective on both eras.
Michael J. Fox is perfectly cast as Marty McFly, then famous for his appearances as the uptight Alex P. Keaton on TV’s family ties. He now famously took over the role from the Eric Stoltz, who actually filmed a large number of key sequences. Ironically, Stoltz only took on the role when Fox was initially unavailable. Despite working nights and during the downtime of Family Ties, something that reportedly left the star exhausted, there is a kinetic energy that surrounds Fox at all times. Christopher Lloyd, who had been known to 1980s audiences as John Bigboote in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension and under heavy makeup as a Klingon in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, brings heavy doses of comedy to the performance, completely selling us the idea that this scatter-brained fellow could invent a time machine after falling off a toilet. Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover (Alice in Wonderland) have an amazing time playing themselves as their teenage and middle-aged selves, and give the film the weight and believability
Perhaps the best test of a film is that it remains new and surprising after multiple viewings. The final Clock Tower sequence, now seen millions of times around the world, is one of the best edited pieces of action ever cut together for the silver screen, and even if you know how it is going to end, will have you on the edge of your seat for the entire running time of the sequence. For the rest of the film, if you aren’t laughing out loud, you’ll have a sloppy grin plastered all over your face. Back to the Future does not feel as though it has aged a day, and now thanks to the Blu-ray re-release, it never has to.