#2 in my ranking of Robert Zemeckis films.
Thinking back to my model of storytelling, I have stated my preference for theme as the most interesting element of storytelling and plot as the least. It’s a taste thing. Back to the Future, though, is almost all plot and I find it as completely infectious as anyone else. This movie is just plain fun, and it manages that because of how Zemeckis approaches a plot heavy film. It’s been obvious from the beginning of his career with I Wanna Hold Your Hand that the two Bobs (Zemeckis and Gale) loved to put characters with clearly defined characteristics through a puzzle of a plot with clearly defined goals to pull them through. The likeable characters are the grease that keeps the plot running smoothly, providing a key to the film’s success. When the two Bobs were in film school, they were surrounded by others who loved the French New Wave, and they just wanted to make Hollywood films of fun. With Back to the Future, they succeeded just so completely.
The interesting thing about Marty McFly is that he doesn’t have an arc in this film. At all. He doesn’t grow. He learns a bit about his parents but the knowledge doesn’t change him. At the end of the film, he’s exactly the same person as he was in the beginning. This seems to fly in the face of everything screenwriters usually want to put into a movie, but it works really well because of the kind of adventure Marty gets sent on. He is presented with a problem (being sent back in time to 1955 from 1985), and he needs to solve it. In order to get there he is presented with a series of obstacles that he must overcome, including his mucking up of his own parents’ uninspiring and flawed relationship. That’s where we get character growth, in secondary characters that have a direct relationship to Marty himself and his journey back.
So, Marty and his older crazy scientist friend, Doc Brown, get attacked by Libyans at Doc’s first successful test of his time machine made out of a DeLorean. The choice to make the time machine out of a futuristic looking car is a great one on the part of the movie. It allows for the time travel dynamic with exciting visceral thrill at the same time. It also allows for an exciting climax, of course. Doc gets killed and Marty barely gets away, accidentally getting sent back in time without any extra fuel (some plutonium), and needing to find a way home to 1985. Before he ever gets to managing the beginning of a plan, he ends up bumping into both of his parents as he explores this new, brighter, cheerier nightmare world that he must escape.
The mix of his exploration of the new world and his discovery of his parents as young people is expertly intertwined so that we never feel like we’re coasting without momentum. His break of the history that brought his parents together is handled quickly, allowing Marty personal stake in getting involved in his parents’ relationship at the very beginning. The 1955 Doc Brown encourages this because of vague concerns about the end of the universe and some concern for Marty himself who’s due to disappear if things don’t get set right. The stakes are clear and make sense to Marty’s character. It allows the audience to happily go along with Marty on this journey through time. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t change. It matters that the audience likes him and roots for him as he faces obstacle after obstacle on his clearly defined journey that just happens to be fun at the same time.
The clear line of action ends up forming and Marty has to balance preparing for the historical lightning strike that he and Doc will use to send him back to the future while, at the same time, trying to repair the relationship he tore apart before it formed. The normal expectation of character change happens around Marty’s father, George, who can no longer just fall into a romantic relationship with the pretty Loraine, but he must earn her affection. That earning, at the ironic guidance of his own far more confident son, turns George into a better, more confident man.
The puzzle-like nature of the plot, reminiscent of and superior to what Zemeckis and Gale pulled off in their earlier pictures, all falls into place marvelously through the movie’s climax. The clock tower, established in the opening minutes, the bad starter on the DeLorean, the tree falling on the cable, the visual call back to both the famous image of Harold Lloyd from Safety Last! and a clock at the beginning of the film, and more all come together in perfect harmony to give us the cathartic release as we watch Marty and Doc overcome all of the challenges to complete their goal.
The film has all of the hallmarks of a Zemeckis and Gale production at their most enjoyable. The long opening shot that introduces Doc’s workshop is evocative of Hitchcock’s opening shot of Rear Window, revealing key pieces of character and plot information elegantly. It’s paced quickly, never slogging down in unnecessary details, always successfully pushing the story forward. It’s energetic, fun, and expertly crafted. This is Zemeckis and Gale have a ball and inviting the audience along for the fun.