Monday, October 22, 2007

4. Back To The Future (Zemeckis, 1985) [LE]

That photo scared the shit out of me as a child. No, not the one above, but that one of Marty McFly with his brother and sister, where they gradually start disappearing one by one. God that was freaky. And whenever the scene with Marty's hand disappearing came on TV I would leave the room. Egads.

Yes, this movie is well-cast, and very well-written, and we'd all love to have a DeLorean time machine. But I think the underlying power of Back To The Future lies in a theme so obvious it's almost rarely mentioned: the human relationship to time and our desire (and/or failure) to control or understand it.

Ultimately you'd like to think that if you went back in time, you could solve all kinds of problems and fix a lot of unpleasant things and so on and so forth. But what Marty McFly realizes is that by going back in time, you can actually screw everything up and unwittingly erase yourself from existence! What could be worse? Yeah, you thought it would be all cool to travel through time and meet Abraham Lincoln and Napoleon and Socrates and everybody, but really you're just fucking everything up! The irony is that Marty now has to go around and try to make life happen exactly the way it happened in the first place, which isn't really interesting at all. If anything, it's a big fat pain in the ass. Sure everything works out eventually and when Marty goes back to the '80s his family is way better off than it was before he left. But I think if given the chance, Marty would have preferred not to have had to worry about whether or not he was still going to be existing.

Indeed, the movie could be seen as a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of unchecked scientific progress. Doc constantly talks about the "space-time continuum": the idea that the universe has a grand cosmic order and that we must do everything in our power to avoid altering it. If we do, as Marty discovers, we stand to upset the proper order of human events.

Ultimately I don't think the science of Back to the Future holds up to too much scrutiny. Because everything is so interdependent with everything else, if you went back in time and changed one little thing, it would basically change everything. Back to the Future acts as if the only people who will ever be affected by Doc Brown's screwing up the time-space continuum are the members of the McFly family (Part II, of course, explores this idea with more credibility, if not with better dramatic results). Rather, I think the science of the movie works best on a metaphorical level. Just what is man's proper relationship to science? And how much is too much? At what point are we Icarus, flying too close to the sun?

Back To The Future also has another very powerful theme running through it: the lack of humans' ability to put their own lives into perspective. The people from the '50s have all sorts of ideas about the '80s - almost all of them wrong. Indeed, many of the film's best jokes poke fun at how mistaken people are in their assumptions about the future. Some of my favorites:

[1955 Doc is watching a video of 1985 Doc]
Dr. Emmett Brown: What on Earth's this thing I'm wearing?
Marty McFly: Ah, this, this is a radiation suit.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Radiation suit? Of course, because of all the fallout from the atomic wars.

[Dr. Emmett Brown is doubting Marty McFly's story about that he is from the future]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then tell me, "Future Boy", who's President in the United States in 1985?
Marty McFly: Ronald Reagan.
Dr. Emmett Brown: Ronald Reagan? The actor?
[chuckles in disbelief]
Dr. Emmett Brown: Then who's VICE-President? Jerry Lewis?
[later he rushes outside, down a hill and toward his laboratory]
Dr. Emmett Brown: I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady!
Marty McFly: [following Doc] Whoa! Wait! Doc!
Dr. Emmett Brown: And Jack Benny, the Secretary of the Treasury.

Marty McFly: Wait a minute, Doc, are you trying to tell me that my mother has got the hots for me?
Dr. Emmett Brown: Precisely.
Marty McFly: Whoa, this is heavy.
Dr. Emmett Brown: There's that word again; "heavy". Why are things so heavy in the future? Is there a problem with the earth's gravitational pull?

Dr. Emmett Brown: I'm sure in 1985 plutonium is available at every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it's a little hard to come by.

Marty McFly: [watching a Honeymooners episode in 1955] Hey, hey, I've seen this one. I've seen this one. This is a classic. This is the one where Ralph dresses up as the man from space.
Milton Baines: What do you mean, you've seen this? It's brand new.
Marty McFly: Yeah, well, I saw it on a...
Marty McFly: ...rerun.
Milton Baines: What's a rerun?
Marty McFly: You'll find out.

Lorraine Baines: Our first television set. Dad just bought it today. Do you have a television set?
Marty McFly: Well, yeah! You know we have... two of them.
Milton Baines: Wow! You must be rich!
Stella Baines: Oh, honey, he's teasing you. Nobody has two television sets.

George McFly: Last night, Darth Vader came down from planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn't take Lorraine out that he'd melt my brain.

The humor of these scenes lies in the audience's knowledge of both the past and the present. We *know* that all Marty did was simply play some Van Halen on his walkman and crib from Star Wars and Star Trek, but we *also* can understand why George would be totally amazed by the experience. We *know* what re-runs are, but we can understand why people in 1955 would have never even thought of such a thing as re-runs. We *know* that there have been no atomic wars, but we also understand that given the climate of the '50s, it's a pretty good guess on Doc's part. The point is, humans are pathetic little creatures left to twist in the wind at the mercy of their perceptive limitations, at least compared to an alien race such as Kurt Vonnegut's Tralfamadorians, who can grasp all of time instantaneously and find most human insight comical.

There are jokes aplenty, but the movie occasionally utilitizes its time-travel conceit to approach moments of profound sadness, such as the scene where Lorraine tries to put the moves on Marty before the dance:

[Lorraine takes a sip from a liquor bottle]
Marty McFly: [grabbing the bottle from Lorraine] Lorraine, Lorraine, What are you doin'?
Lorraine Baines: [starting to laugh] I swiped it from the old lady's liquor cabinet.
Marty McFly: Yeah, well, you shouldn't drink.
Lorraine Baines: Why not?
Marty McFly: Because you - you might regret it later in life.
Lorraine Baines: Marty, don't be such a square. Everybody who's anybody drinks.
[Marty takes a sip from Lorraine's bottle then spit-takes as he notices Lorraine lighting a cigarette]
Marty McFly: [nauseatingly] Geez! You smoke too?
Lorraine Baines: Marty, you're beginning to sound just like my mother!

This scene is funny, but it's also heartbreakingly sad, because Marty knows what his mother doesn't: that she'll grow up to be a pathetic alcoholic housewife. What she thinks of as being so "rebellious" and "cool" Marty sees exactly for what it is - the waste of perfectly good health and potential. He almost wishes he could take her into the future and just show her what the results of her actions are going to be. His comment that she'll "regret it later in life" is one of the most compassionate and insightful moments he has in the whole film.

The way this scene ends, with George punching out Biff, is inspiring. The irony here is that Marty has gone to great lengths to map out some crazy scheme in which George will punch out Marty and win Lorraine's affection, but only when Marty's plans are thwarted does the situation work itself out to a positive conclusion. The filmmakers do a really great job of taking the reins out from under this scene. Frankly, the way it plays out, it appears that Biff is essentially going to rape Lorraine. You can believe that George would be so disgusted/horrified that he would summon up the strength within himself to beat the living shit out of Biff. He knows that if he doesn't act, no one else will. Thus, Marty's parents' relationship is not only saved, but strengthened - and it only could have happened through the presence of real danger, not scripted danger.

Despite all the Freudian melodrama, however, the central relationship of the movie remains the one between Marty and Doc. People forget that right before he goes back in time, Marty witnesses Doc's death. When he meets Doc again in the '50s, the whole experience is coated with Marty's knowledge that the Doc of the future has actually died. That's "heavy." He tries, on several occasions, to somehow prevent Doc from being shot by the Libyans, in the end writing Doc a letter, but Doc quickly tears it up, insisting, "You cannot alter the time-space continuum!"

Marty's brain understands the concept, but his heart does not. At the last minute, he decides to set the time machine back 10 minutes earlier, so that he can prevent Doc from dying. Alas, the DeLorean stalls for good and by the time he gets to the mall, he's too late. As he mourns over the body of Doc, suddenly the eyes of the mad scientist open with the familiar fiery stare. Doc explains that he did, eventually, read the letter. Marty is aghast. "What about all that talk about screwing up future events, the space-time continuum?" Doc's answer is probably the greatest line of dialogue in the film, not just because it's funny, but because it says so much about what makes us human as opposed to machines:

"Well, I figured, what the hell."

Footnote: Marty's mom is smokin' hot. If I were Marty I would have done my mom with no protection and had...myself.


yoggoth said...

"The filmmakers do a really great job of taking the reins out from under this scene" contains one of the more impressive mixed metaphors I've read.

While I agree with the first half of your review, I start to diverge when you talk about science. There isn't any science to BTTF. It also doesn't serve as a warning about the misuse of technology because everything is improved by the technology! BTTF, along with Star Trek, is one of the biggest tech boosters of the 80s. Compare it to Blade Runner or even Star Wars.

I find BTTF almost cartoonishly optimistic about human agency and luck. But that's why I like it so much.

herr zrbo said...

It's funny when you mention Marty's mom drinking/smoking. I feel like I know this film so well, yet I feel I can't recall the beginning at all, like I always turn the movie on 15 minutes in. I think his brother is in jail or something, and you say his mom is an alcoholic? It's strange how I never seem to see the beginning, yet it's significant cause when he returns to the present everything is for the better, and he's always flabbergasted.

And yes, Marty's mom is indeed smokin' hot, hubba hubba, let's go park!

Schrödinger's Penguin said...

I know I should've watched the laserdisc version of BTTF but I never really had a chance. Too bad I didn't exist (TIME SPACE CONTINUUM!) when the movie came out, but it's definitely true, now that I look back on it, that BTTF was pretty ...philosophical? Guess it was just the child-like entrancement I had while watching that damned DeLorean fly through the sky, but I'm damned sure I didn't think about consequences or anything burdening like that.

@Yoggoth: Getting in touch with your inner child, no?

yoggoth said...

But all of the consequences are eventually good in BTTF.

ninquelote said...

I think the jokes about what the past people thought about the future were always my favorite part of this movie. There are so many of them, and Spielberg does such a good job of planting them in inconspicuous places that you have to watch it several times closely to even see or hear them all.

The name of the mall in the beginning is the 'Twin Pines' mall. When Marty goes back to 1955 he runs over on of the pine trees in the 'future' parking lot and at the end of the movie, the mall name has been changed to the 'Lone Pine' mall.

I think we have reached that point in our civilization where we won't be inventing any new things, but merely improving the things we already have. At least for the next 150 years or so. Sorry time machines and flying cars. Maybe next millennium.

Footnote: I did like the 'Slaughter House Five' reference though.

herr zrbo said...

"The name of the mall in the beginning is the 'Twin Pines' mall. When Marty goes back to 1955 he runs over on of the pine trees in the 'future' parking lot and at the end of the movie, the mall name has been changed to the 'Lone Pine' mall."

Damn, never noticed that. Pretty cool.

I think it's interesting this idea of what people thought the future would be like in the past, because at the end of the movie, and definitely the second, we have this interpretation of what 1985 thought their future would be like. From the 'Mr. Fusion' on the back of the Delorean, to Cafe 80's, and the flying cars, hoverboards, etc. It was funny to us/Marty when he visited 1955, but now 1985's version of 2015 also looks sorta funny, cause they were looking at it with an 80's perspective. Sure the Michael Jackson and Reagan from Cafe 80's would still make sense, but other cultural phenomena like Max Headroom or Gadaffi wouldn't.

Schrödinger's Penguin said...

I had to look them all up. Sorry.

Little Earl said...

Even Michael Jackson?

Anyway, yeah I'm probably reaching a bit on some of this, but I do think the modus operandi of the movie is basically "Don't try this at home." Sure, Marty and Doc get away with altering the time-space continuum THIS time around, but in general, it's probably best to leave it alone.

yoggoth said...

But he does it two more times! And it works then too! The consequences of the Doc bringing ice-making technologies to the Wild West were not properly dealt with at all.

I didn't notice that tree-mall thing either. My favorite time related plot detail is the deus ex machina of lightning striking the clock tower. It's a pretty good way of keeping Marty in the past for just the right amount of time.

There was a decent but quarter-intensive arcade game based on BTTF.

ninquelote said...

I remember that game on the original Nintendo (wow, that was a long time ago). I could always make it to the very end when you try to get the car to hit the wire exactly when the lightning strikes. The bitch thing was that you got multiple lives to get through the entire game, but only one chance to do the lightning thing ... Yadda yadda yadda, I never beat the game.

On a sadder note, penguin is making me feel old.

Schrödinger's Penguin said...

Well my mum owns the Thriller vinyl, so maybe I did have a clue who he was... (Like I didn't know about his sordid past, ha!) But I definitely had no clue about most of the other references. Indeed, it seems almost everything I know about the 80's is dictated by the Internet.