Back to the Future

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Screenplay: Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
Stars: Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines),Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines), James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland), Jeffrey Jay Cohen Cohen (Skinhead), Casey Siemaszko (3-D), Billy Zane (Match), Harry Waters Jr. (Marvin Berry)
MPAA Rating: PG
Year of Release: 1985
Country: U.S.
Back to the Future Trilogy Blu-Ray Box Set

Back to the FutureIt is hard to believe that it has been a quarter-century since Back to the Future roared into theaters in the summer of 1985 and spent 11 of the next 12 weeks atop the box office charts, dethroning that summer’s other paragon of mainstream cinematic fortitude, Rambo: First Blood Part II. It turned Michael J. Fox, at the time a rising young star on the television series Family Ties, into a bona-fide movie star and pin-up teen sensation, and it made good on the promise that director Robert Zemeckis had displayed the previous year in mixing action, comedy, and nostalgia for old genres in Romancing the Stone (1984). Although Back to the Future had been turned down by virtually every studio in Hollywood for four years (despite the constant support of executive producer Steven Spielberg), it went on to become the highest grossing film of that year and a cultural touchstone that will forever define its political and cultural era. It is also an undeniably fun film, one whose clever plotting, memorable characters, and deft balance of both wistful nostalgia and celebration of the here and now deserves comparisons to The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Like the best Hollywood movies, there is something fundamentally timeless about Back to the Future, which is deeply ironic given that the film’s entire raison d'être is firmly rooted in the idea of the incompatibility of different eras in recent American history. In the mid-1980s, the mid-1950s seemed like ancient history with little or no relevance to the present except as nostalgia fodder to be fed through the media. The movie thus intentionally distills history and filters it for maximum impact, giving us a stylized (and sanitized) TV version of the ’50s (not surprisingly, virtually no one working on the film was more than a toddler, if even alive, in 1955). Social and cultural historians will naturally balk at the simplification, but it’s all part of the film’s intrinsic joke and a necessary narrative shortcut designed to play off our own historical short-sightedness.

The story begins in 1985 in the small northern California town of Hill Valley, where we are introduced to Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who, like Ferris Bueller would the next year, functions as a kind of adolescent extraordinaire--the kind of teenager ever teenager wants to be. He’s a bit of a rebel (always late to class, plays his music too loud, etc.), but is still a fundamentally decent guy; he has a pretty girlfriend (Claudia Wells) who adores him and has a head on her shoulders; he is stylishly attired and has the right amenities (aviator sunglasses, Walkman, skateboard), but he isn’t a pampered rich boy. He comes from a family that is intact, but deeply dysfunctional, and he is embarrassed by his parents, both his spineless über-nerd of a father George (Crispin Glover) and his moralistic (and alcoholic) mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson). In other words, he lives with the contradictions and dilemmas with which most middle-class American youth can readily identify, which turns Marty into an ideal hero of youthful fortitude and--there’s simply no other way to put it--coolness. You get the sense that Marty’s persona is entirely his own, which is testament to the colloquial magnetism of Fox’s performance and evidence of why Eric Stoltz, who was originally cast in the role, was all wrong.

Marty is friends with Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), an eccentric inventor with buggy eyes and a shock of Einstein-ish white hair who calls on Marty to join him in a mall parking lot at one o’clock in the morning to test out his latest invention: a time machine that has been fashioned out of a DeLorean. The machine works perfectly, but Doc is discovered by the Libyan terrorists from whom he stole plutonium to make it run, which results in Marty commandeering the DeLorean for a fast getaway and accidentally propelling himself back to 1955, where he seeks out the much younger Doc of the Eisenhower era to help him get “back to the future.” He also runs into his 17-year-old parents (is that a teen dream or nightmare?) and disrupts the moment that would have led to their first meeting and falling in love, thus putting his own existence in jeopardy. Marty’s dilemma of ensuring his own existence by finding a way to get his parents to fall in love is deeply complicated by the fact that his mother, who is much more daring and lusty than her future self would suggest, develops a crush on him. This willfully (and brilliantly) perverse Oedipal entanglement gives the film’s clever gags and smooth sense of nostalgic comedy a sharp edge that most viewers have to laugh off, lest they get too uncomfortable with the ramifications.

Viewed from our current vantage point, Back to the Future plays primarily as a testament to just how eruptive the ’60s were in dividing the second half of the 20th century. The fact that nearly as much time has passed between now and the movie’s initial release as Marty traverses in the movie itself demonstrates just how monumentally different a three-decade period can be. That is, when Marty sends himself into the year 1955, he is absolutely unequipped to deal with the social and cultural rites of that time period; they are fundamentally alien to him, thus he remains perpetually an outsider even as he attempts to blend it with zoot suits and ducktails.

Imagine now a story about a teenager from 2010 being accidentally sent back in time to 1980. Yes, the clothes and the technologies would be different, but would the general sense of being be all that dissimilar? Would it be terribly hard for a modern day teenager to adapt to and blend into the world of 1980, once he or she figured out that music is not digital and there are no cell phones or Internet? Last year’s raunch comedy Hot Tub Time Machine suggested as much, although it went a bit further in basically inverting the moral dimensions of Back to the Future by suggesting that the past was not a cleaner, nicer time from which we’ve fallen, but rather a hedonistic tumult from which we’ve (maybe) graduated. Watching Back to the Future again, it is impossible not to dwell on the sordid state of Hill Valley in 1985, with its graffiti, empty stores, homeless sleeping on park benches, and run-down porn theater, as if the film is willfully contradicting the political narrative about revival (both economic and moral) that the Reagan administration and the Moral Majority were trying so strenuously to erect.

That’s all academic and socio-political. The fundamental pleasures in Back to the Future are immense, but I think the film ultimately worked (and continues to work, and probably always will work) because it grounds its time-travel concept in recognizable truths about social acceptance, generational divides, and wish fulfillment (as others have noted, there is something decidedly Capraesque about the whole enterprise). Most of the movie’s characters are social outcasts of various stripes; even Marty, who is wracked by pangs of self-doubt passed down by his father, doesn’t seem to have any friends his age and spends all his time hanging out with Doc, who is described as a “real nutcase” by the rigid school principal Mr. Strickland (James Tolkan). The idea of the generation gap, which makes it impossible for Marty and his parents to understand each other, is essentially solved in true wish-fulfillment fashion via Marty’s going back in time and getting to witness firsthand his parents’ younger selves and helping them become better people (the father literally learns from the son how to stand up to bullies). The fact that Marty’s messing with the space-time continuum ultimately plays in his favor, allowing his parents to grow up into much better, more successful adults, which in turn gives him the material amenities of a better life (“there no place like home,” as long as home has nice furniture and a sleek 4x4 in the garage), is the film’s ultimate reward. It is also why it plays so well as a “Morning in America” cultural touchstone, even as it constantly and improbably transcends such labeling.

Back to the Future Blu-Ray
Back to the Future is available on Blu-Ray in the “Back to the Future 25th Anniversary Trilogy” Blu-Ray box set, which also includes Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990). Each film is also available in the box set as a downloadable Digital Copy on a second disc.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • Spanish DTS 5.1 surround
  • French DTS 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish, French
  • Q&A commentaries with director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale
  • Audio commentaries with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton
  • Tales from the Future six-part retrospective documentary
  • “The Physics of Back to the Future” featurette
  • Nuclear Test Site Ending storyboard sequence
  • 16 deleted scenes
  • Michael J. Fox Q&A
  • “Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three” original 2002 DVD documentary
  • “The Making of Back to the Future Part I, II & III” featurettes
  • “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” TV special
  • Behind-the-scenes
  • Outtakes
  • Original makeup tests
  • Production design
  • Storyboarding
  • Designing the DeLorean
  • Designing Time Travel
  • Hoverboard Test
  • Designing Hill Valley
  • Designing the Campaign
  • Back to the Future: The Ride footage
  • Huey Lewis and the News “Power of Love” music video
  • ZZ Top “DoubleBack” music video
  • Photo galleries, including Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials, and Character Portraits
  • Theatrical trailers
  • DistributorUniversal Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateOctober 26, 2010

    All three films in the Back to the Future trilogy have been given impressive new 1080p/VC-1 encoded transfers in their original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio that look simply wonderful. Granted, the transfers have not given the films the ultra-sharp look of contemporary cinema, but that is probably the best thing you can say about them: They look like they did when first released in 1985, 1989, and 1990, which is to say there is a certain amount of softness to the image that is inherent to both the original cinematography and the heavy reliance on optical effects that naturally degrade the image (although the two sequels do look slightly sharper than the original). The high-definition transfers have all three films looking better than they ever have on home video, and they represent a nice step up from the previously available DVDs (especially Part II and Part III, which were misframed during the transfer in some scenes). Without any noticeable DNR or artificial sharpening the images provide a strong level of detail and nuance, and colors look richer and brighter than ever, particularly in the second two films (notice how vibrant the red dirt is in the Monument Valley scenes in Part III). Black levels look good, with just enough grain to remind us that, yes, these films were shot on celluloid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround soundtracks are likewise impressive, giving Alan Silvestri’s immediately memorable orchestral score an appropriately grand sense of scope and depth (the more I watch these films, the more I realize how absolutely vital his music is to their effectiveness). The various sound effects, from the familiar whirl of the DeLoreon’s engine to the clanging of the clock tower, are immersive and clean. Universal has done an outstanding job in presenting these films, and at this point, I can’t imagine we could ask for them to look or sound better.
    The worst thing you can say about the impressive array of supplementary material included in this multi-disc set is that there is a fair amount of redundancy, but that is to be expected when you have this many supplements covering every element of the films’ conception, production, reception, and eventual legacy. Back to the Future fans should be very pleased with the effort Universal has made in treating the trilogy’s 25th anniversary with great fanfare.

    Let’s start with the new stuff. The big addition is Tales from the Future, a new six-part retrospective documentary that runs more than three hours total and includes interviews with most of the major participants: actors Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and Lea Thompson, director Robert Zemeckis, producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, and executive producer Steven Spielberg. There isn’t necessarily a lot of new information here, but it is great to see everyone talking about the film a quarter-century later. The other big deal with this documentary is the fact that it includes a few bits of the fabled Eric Stoltz footage, although it amounts to less than a minute total and has no accompanying sound, which is a bit of a disappointment. I understand why this footage is not being made available in its entirety, but it sure would be cool to see it. Also new is “The Physics of Back To The Future, a featurette in which best-selling physicist (and obvious Back to the Future fan) Dr. Michio Kaku discusses the scientific realities behind time travel as depicted in the films. Another noteworthy addition is a storyboard sequence (with optional commentary by Gale) for the never-filmed originally intended ending of Back to the Future in which Doc and Marty go out to the New Mexico desert to drive the DeLoreon into a test nuclear explosion to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity (thank God it was too expensive and the idea was scrapped). This section also includes outtakes and a few minutes of video make-up tests from the original for old Biff, Doc, and Lorraine. Each film also gets its own new screen-specific commentary with producers Bob Gale and Neil Canton, which supplements the previously available Q&A commentaries by Zemeckis and Gale, which were recorded after screenings of the films at USC. Blu-Ray technology also allows for the inclusion of U-Control, which offers optional pop-ups items throughout the films: a basic trivia track, a “Setups and Payoffs” feature that shows you how elements throughout the trilogy are interwoven, and a storyboard comparison view.

    The rest of the supplements will be familiar to those who bought the DVD box set back in 2002, but it’s nice to have everything included in one place. So, we get a Q&A with Michael J. Fox, a total of 16 deleted scenes from all three films that have been culled from the cutting room floor and are presented with optional commentary by Gale (the quality of these scenes range from old videotape to very nearly pristine), and a host of shorter featurettes on Production Design, Storyboarding, Designing the DeLorean, Designing Time Travel, Hoverboard Test, Designing Hill Valley, and Designing the Campaign. Also included is the original footage shot for Universal Studio’s now dismantled Back to the Future ride, music videos for Huey Lewis and the News’ “Power of Love” and ZZ Top’s “DoubleBack,” extensive photo galleries (Production Art, Additional Storyboards, Photographs, Marketing Materials and Character Portraits), and theatrical trailers for all three films. It is also nice to have on hand the original 2002 multipart retrospective documentary Making the Trilogy: Chapters One, Two & Three, as well as vintage making-of featurettes for all three films made during the time of their release. Also of interest (and amusement) is footage from two NBC television specials, “Back to the Future Night” hosted by Leslie Nielsen and “The Secrets of the Back to the Future Trilogy” hosted by Kirk Cameron, that were aired to help build momentum toward the release of the two sequels.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Universal Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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