Programme Notes: Back to the Future

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Spoiler warning: these notes are best read after viewing the film. They contain discussion of plot and character details.

Back to the Future is showing at GFT as part of Glasgow Youth Film Festival Presents on Sunday 20 September. Click here to book your tickets.

'Oh, God no!' 

Those wise words of director Robert Zemeckis when asked if he had plans for any Back to the Future reboots. Anyone who has seen this cinema classic would agree with this pained outburst as it stands alone as one of the greatest time travelling films of all time. Indeed why would he even try to improve on his near flawless magnum opus?

Back in 1985, the year of the film’s release and setting, it opened to positive acclaim, accumulated over $300 million worldwide at the box office, made the fourth-highest opening weekend of that year, and was ultimately the top-grossing film of the same year. Its success prompted the two sequels straight after but what was it that made it so special? Could it be the great formation of cast and characters or simply the chic DeLorean time machine? Ultimately, it is just the story of a lost kid trying to make his way home, except for the brains and heart so cleverly interwoven throughout stopping it from being just an everyday popcorn flick. 

In an interview, the writer Bob Gale explained he came up with the story for Back to the Future after visiting his parents' home in the state of Missouri where he uncovered his father's high school yearbook and discovered he was president of his graduating class. We can only surmise how that transpires into the story of the film, but there must have been a yearning to have been there with his father at that moment of great achievement. Even the title is so smart; it may be a small throwaway play on words but back, going back to the future? Hard to comprehend its meaning unless you watch the film, yet combining these two opposites single-handedly created one of the most memorable film titles of all time. Much better than Spaceman From Pluto, which was one of the studio executive’s suggestions at the time.

Now, the score. Alan Silvestri is brilliant at entertaining the audience with a sense of something epic, and those little musical jingles we hear with each moment of discovery simply draw the audience in for a closer look. Opening with Marty McFly, played by Michael J Fox as he skateboards along the street to 'The Power Of Love' by Huey Lewis And The News, cleverly brings us to the present - the current music scene of the 1980s and enjoyed by many still, 35 years later. Continuing that lyrical theme even when our protagonist arrives sharply in 1955, we hear 'Mr Sandman' by The Chordettes accompany Marty’s wander around town.

Time is the main theme of the film. However, if we delve deeper it becomes apparent the subsidiaries that relate to this become broadened by it. For example, Marty has a deadline: he must make his mother fall back in love with his father, in time for the lighting strike. This looming burden which plagues Marty exhausts him as much as it does the viewers while we watch how hard he tries to make it happen. We all want to see him victorious, to complete the mission successfully, because as a character we like him and care about what will become of him back in the future. 

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It is impossible to talk about just one or two characters from Back to the Future, as they all deliver something unique. Be it their 1950s style mannerisms, a throwaway comedic line or those quirky love them/hate them emotions they make us feel, each has been fleshed out characteristically in line with the story. As Marty McFly, the charismatic cheesy, cool teen, Michael J Fox is great casting perfectly complemented by Christopher Lloyd as Doctor Emmett Brown, an eccentric and extravagant mentor to the young Marty. The two work beautifully allowing that wonderful division within an audience as each decides their own favourite.

Whilst the main characters remain a constant, it is Marty’s parents, George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine (Lea Thompson) whom we see change the most. The contrast from the beginning of the film to the end, sees the anxious and downtrodden George become confident and successful having finally stood up to Biff and his bullying. This is the most emotionally psychological part of the story: Marty going back in time to create a better version of his parent.

Thomas F Wilson as Biff is the classic bully. His delivery is timeless, allowing the audience to recognise the traits of his character regardless of decade or century. Even his name conjures a sense of something physical and unpleasant. Yet Marty is unfazed by him, even tutoring his 'dad' on how to stand up to him. This is another excellent example of polar opposites which resonate continuously throughout the film.

We empathise with the characters as simply people. We love them. We find pleasure in seeing good things happen to good people and satisfaction when bad things happen to bad people. When this film is stripped bare, there is heart at the base of it all and that is why it is such a classic. Contemplating too much about probability or realism takes you out of the experience, just turn your brain off. 

In the pivotal scene our hero Marty strikes a recognisable chord with a spellbinding performance of Johnny B Goode by Chuck Berry at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance. We are busy focusing at the wonderment of the faces in the hall when we are gut-punched straight to the final moments with Marty striking the cable attached to the clock tower. This scene is set at the beginning of the film and I must implore a re-watch (even multiple) as there are so many ingenious foreshadowing moments before our hero is shot into the past. However, even on repeated watches, I still worry about the protagonist's fate amongst the editing of quick cuts, the disastrous cable unplugging, and the ticking clock synonymous with time itself. A clever combination making this a recipe for one of the greatest sequence of events ever crafted.

Fraser Mallon
GFT Youth Board Member

Back to the Future is showing at GFT as part of Glasgow Youth Film Festival Presents on Sunday 20 September. Click here to book your tickets.

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