One of the most backhanded compliments you can give a film is to call it a “crowd-pleaser”. Along with “sentimental”, it’s a word that might seem at first to be a mark of respect – an acknowledgement that the movie has achieved its purpose. However, it’s also dismissive. It suggests that the movie is a mere frivolity, yelling and prancing for those in the cheap seats rather than engaging with audiences on a more cerebral level. Often, that’s exactly what a crowd-pleaser does, but to dismiss that as not artistically valid is a ridiculous proposition. Because, if you look up “crowd-pleaser” in the dictionary, you’ll almost certainly find four words – Back to the Future.
There aren’t many films like Back to the Future. It’s a lightning fast comedy that takes the inherent complexity of time travel and dials it down to the bare bones of the concept, ensuring that it doesn’t take a flowchart or a wall covered in blackboards to follow what’s happening. Instead, it’s a movie that gets into the bloodstream with its comedic energy and a warmly sentimental blast of heart.
Writing buddies Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale first came up with the idea for Back to the Future in 1980 after they made the satirical comedy Used Cars for Columbia Pictures and were seeking the right storyline for a time travel project. Gale’s original concept sprung from the question of whether he would have been friends with his own father if they’d been at school together. They approached Columbia with the idea and left with a deal to write the script, with a first draft penned within five months.
Gale and Zemeckis were immediately knocked back, however, from two different directions. Columbia thought the script was too light and fluffy, with Bob Gale stating on the special features for the Blu-ray that the studio was “looking for raunchier comedies these days”. Teen movies of the early 1980s were sexually-charged beasts like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Porky’s, with Back to the Future looking a little too nice in comparison. Everybody else in Hollywood agreed, with the exception of Disney. The Mouse House had the opposite problem, baulking at the near-incest between Marty McFly and his mother. Too naughty for some and too nice for others, Back to the Future was stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Steven Spielberg, who had executive produced several of Zemeckis’s previous movies, was a fan of the project, but both Gale and the director were reluctant to work with him again, lest they be written off as repeated box office failures hanging on to their famous friend’s coattails. Zemeckis resolved to take on the next solid script that came around in the hope of building his profile. That film was 1984’s Romancing the Stone, which won two Golden Globes and earned almost 10 times its budget at the global box office. Suddenly, Zemeckis was a commodity and the duo felt able to go back to Spielberg. It was game on.
Zemeckis and Gale now had everything they needed to get this project off the ground and they began to finesse the story. The time-travelling refrigerator of an early draft became the ultra-cool DeLorean sports car – the closest thing to a spaceship that existed in the world of real road vehicles. A very costly-looking ending in which the only way to send the DeLorean back to the future was by driving it into the heart of a nuclear reactor was axed in favour of Doc Brown dangling off a building waiting for an opportune bolt of lightning. Expectations suitably managed, the script was ready, but the movie needed a cast.
The various casting ups and downs of Back to the Future have been well-documented over the years. Michael J. Fox was just about everybody’s first choice, but his commitment to the NBC sitcom Family Ties meant that he was not available. John Cusack and Johnny Depp were among the stars who auditioned for the part, but it was Eric Stoltz who ultimately won the role. Only a few weeks into the shoot, Zemeckis decided to recast and bin the footage Stoltz had filmed as he was deemed to have given a performance that weighed too heavily on drama rather than comedy. He also looked uncomfortable on a skateboard, apparently. I sympathise.
By January 1985, Fox’s schedule had cleared somewhat and the filmmakers struck a deal with the Family Ties producers. Fox could do Back to the Future, as long as Family Ties remained his priority and that any scheduling conflicts would fall the way of the TV show. For much of the Back to the Future shoot, Fox would work on Family Ties throughout the day and then film nights on the movie, just about managing five hours of sleep on average for the 100 days of production. Perhaps some of the manic energy that powers Fox’s exceptionally likeable performance comes from the amount of caffeine the actor presumably had to imbibe to keep himself awake during those marathon days and nights on set.
Jeff Goldblum and John Lithgow almost played the unpredictable scientist Doc Brown before Christopher Lloyd signed on to deliver his Einstein-inspired, wild-haired portrayal of the man behind the Flux Capacitor. Crispin Glover’s unique improvisation style nabbed him the part of George McFly, while Lea Thompson took up the crucial role of Marty’s mother, Lorraine – wearing a three-and-a-half-hour make-up job to play the 1985 version of Lorraine in the opening scenes.
By the end of April, Back to the Future was in the can. Zemeckis and Universal began test screening the movie and received the biggest approval scores the studio had ever managed with an early look at a film. Exec Sidney Sheinberg – who had previously suggested the truly awful Spaceman from Pluto as a title for the movie – decided that the release date should be moved forward in order to take advantage of the 4th July weekend. Thus, only nine and a half weeks after production wrapped, Back to the Future opened to around $11m on about 1,200 screens. Its second weekend tally was even higher. The movie spent 11 weeks at the top of the US box office and achieved huge global success, racking up $381m in takings and becoming the highest-grossing film of the year.
In the years since 1985, the legacy of Back to the Future has only grown. Two sequels followed in 1989 and 1990, followed by numerous extra materials in the form of an animated series, video games and comic books. Most recently, a stage musical based on the original film debuted in Manchester for a few weeks in February before the coronavirus pandemic closed theatres. The movie is now considered a bona fide classic of the sci-fi genre.
It’s easy to see why Back to the Future is considered such a special film. Its two-hour running time blasts by at a real rate of knots, making the DeLorean’s time travel speed of 88 mph look like a snail’s pace. Gale and Zemeckis’s script fizzes with quotable dialogue, elevated to masterful levels by the performances – especially the fast-talking charisma of both Fox and Lloyd. Back to the Future is one of the sharpest, wittiest movies ever made and it effectively solves all of the problems of time travel movies by, firstly, keeping things incredibly simple – take note, Christopher Nolan – and, secondly, by moving so quickly that you don’t have time to think about whether everything makes complete sense. It’s about how the time travel feels, rather than whether you could plot it out on a bit of paper.
But the secret ingredient that makes the special sauce taste so good is heart. The movie overflows with warmth and, most importantly, boasts serious emotional stakes. While there’s no doomsday, save-the-world scenario here – all of the risk is personal to Marty – the importance of every action here feels titanic. By keeping the stakes fairly small, they feel real. Fox’s Marty is so likeable that the prospect of him being erased from existence is devastating, while the slightly pathetic George McFly is the very definition of the lovable underdog. His vicious left hook to Biff Tannen remains one of the most defiant, goosebump-inducing punch-the-air sequences in the history of cinema.
And then there’s the music. Before he was Marvel’s go-to guy for their biggest and most spectacular blockbusters, Alan Silvestri delivered one of the most indelible movie scores of all time. In order to super-charge a production that didn’t have a bank account overflowing with cash, it falls to Silvestri’s grandiose orchestral pieces to amp up the spectacle. He also excels in the quieter moments, impregnating the scenes between the McFly parents with the pin-sharp pangs of first love. Combined with the raucous guitar of the Huey Lewis and the News tracks that book-end the movie – as well as Fox’s performance of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ – the Silvestri score is a delight.
Back to the Future is a movie in which every element is singing in the exact same key as everything else, creating a beautiful sound that has kept on ringing out for 35 years. Words like “iconic” and “perfect” are undoubtedly over-used in the field of film criticism, but they’re made for a movie like this one. There’s not a hair out of place, whether it’s in the script, the direction, the performances or the visual style. Everything chimes perfectly. It’s a movie that causes every hair on your body to stand on end – cinema as undeniable and powerful pleasure.
And so that brings us around to where we started. There’s no denying that Back to the Future is as pure a cinematic crowd-pleaser as it’s possible to find. But the fact it’s as entertaining to me as it is to the generation before me – and almost certainly the one after me as well – is nothing short of spectacular. With that in mind, it would be wrong to suggest even for a second that crowd-pleaser status negates artistic merit. Back to the Future is filmmaking with every cylinder firing – and it’s a delectable joy to watch every time I go back to it. And that’s a lot.
4K Ultra HD The Ultimate Trilogy available on 19 October 2020.