Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia #11

The Back to the Future Trilogy:

A Look Back 


I suppose it was only a matter of time before I tackled one of the more significant trilogies from my childhood. No, not Star Wars, maybe some other time in regards to that, but the time-traveling exploits of one Marty McFly and one Emmit "Doc" Brown. Whether or not he's actually a doctor is up for debate. The one constant through the three-picture era-jumping epic are those two characters. Their friendship, their conversations, their eccentricities and their mismanaging of a suped-up Flux Capacitor driven DeLorean DMC-12.

Yeah...he's probably not really a doctor.

There was a time when Michael J Fox was one of the biggest stars in the world and a lot of it is thanks to the Back to the Future films (and Family Ties, but nobody really watched Family Ties, or at least admits to it these days). To be cast as another wisecracking and witty teenager was nothing new, but to be so ingrained into American pop culture absolutely was. Marty was the all-American boy who just happened to have a rather dysfunctional family, a hot girlfriend and could play guitar (to a degree). To many, including myself, Marty was the perfect teenager to identify with. His family was pretty middle class and he really didn't seem to have a lot of friends outside of one crazy old man. He asks his parents for a new truck, but he knows he'll never get it because they simply don't have the money. How he got such a hot girlfriend is the part I'm still trying to figure out. By all accounts, he should be at home on the computer. Maybe Jennifer was as flawed as he was.

You see, to me it wasn't merely about traveling through time, it was about how Marty grew as a character. In particular the first film, pretty much a flawless movie, and how he learned the importance of his family and found the courage in himself to put things right. He experienced something we will never experience: seeing our parents as we see ourselves. Once he realized where they come from, he finally understood that in reality, we all wander the same type of path. Our parents were kids once too, then teens, then trying to make ends meet for the next cycle of kids to come around. Back to the Future isn't so much about adventures in time as much as it is the understanding and appreciation of family. Marty just happens to have a mad scientist pulling the strings and an awesome card to do it all in.

Of course, the selling point is the fun and comical misadventures of Marty and Doc. It's really a Shakespearean-like comedy of errors when it all comes down to it. It's unique tone and blend of nostalgia and love of various eras is one-of-a kind. Think of movies involving time-travel. Now realize that the Back to the Future films have yet to be surpassed. Yes, that includes Bill and Ted.

The 1980s were always willing to do things a little different, and time-travel was definitely an "in" back then. The two previous listed franchises,the Terminator, Quantum Leap, Time Bandits...ok that may be about it.

But the best thing about the Back to the Future movies, again especially the first one, is how it's seemingly not aged a day (this is a nearly 25 year old movie here). It's aesthetic style in particular seems to not have aged a day, which is a quality a lot of director Robert Zemeckis's films have, and the pure enjoyment accessible to just about every agegroup. I know this because newer agegroups, long after mine that enjoyed this franchise in the 1980s, are still finding that sense of wonder today through these films. Some movies just don't age at all. Even in Part II where it's obvious they aren't entirely right on their future predictions, there's still a sense of fun and more of a "What if" scenario that still is able to allow us such great entertainment and a sense of timeless quality to it as well. Maybe it's the time travel element that allows this; all those time theories spouted by Doc Brown and lines drawn on blackboards to try and show us that there really are no definite answers.

Save for one....Back to the Future will always be timeless.

The DeLorean DMC-12...not so much.

A Brief History of Back to the Future


-Based on an original idea by Bob Gale, co-writer of the script, with director Robert Zemeckis, the two began development of Back to the Future's plot and idea in 1980.

-The Original script included Marty going back to 1955 in a refrigerator and the only way he could return home is if he funneled the atomic power at the Nevada Bomb Test Site. Eventually rewrites refined the plot and added the infamous DeLorean and Doc Brown. Eventually the first draft was delivered, and Columbia Pictures passed.

-Back to the Future was a difficult project to get off the ground due to many teen comedies dealing more with relationships, sex and drugs. Back to the Future was deemed "too light" by many studios.

-Eventually, Zemeckis built up the nerve to ask his friend Steven Spielberg to take a look, but only after Zemeckis found success with 1984s Romancing the Stone). Spielberg loved it and the project became set up at Universal Pictures.

-Michael J. Fox was the first choice, but not the only choice. Backups C. Thomas Howell and Eric Stoltz were in waiting should Fox be unable due to his role on Family Ties. As it turns out, Fox wasn't available. They began shooting with Eric Stoltz. Four weeks in, Zemeckis still felt Stoltz wasn't right. Spielberg agreed, many feeling McFly was too perfectly geared towards Michael J. Fox who noted all he did in high school was play in bands, skateboard and chase girls. Perfect casting indeed, Fox eventually came on board through a deal struck between the producers and Gary David Goldberg, the producer of Family Ties, to allow Fox to do the film as long as it didn't interfere with the show's production.

-John Lithgow was originally cast as Doc Brown, but that unfortunately fell through and Christopher Lloyd was brought in. Lloyd originally passed but agreed after reading the script.

-Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson and Thomas F. Wilson were cast as George and Lorraine McFly and the antagonist, Biff Tannen, who was named after a bullish Universal Executive that Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis did not like. Glover was notoriously difficult to work with.

-Hill Valley was primarily shot at the Universal Studios Backlot in the Courtyard Square area. The 1955 scenes were shot first, then all was "dirtied up" for 1985. Many of these sets and locations are still standing today and can be seen at the Universal lot tour. 

-The film was released July 3rd, 1985. The budget was just under 20 million and grossed over 380 million worldwide. After eleven weeks at number one,  it became the top grossing film that year.

-The two sequels were written and created after the first film was so successful. It was never intended to be a trilogy. Originally, they were to go back to 1967 rather than return to 1955, and Zemeckis was reluctant to do a film that takes place in the future due to his dislike of "predictions." The third film came from Michael J. Fox himself when Zemeckis and Gale simply asked him what his favorite time period was. They built the entire story and idea around his response "the old west." Filming was done alongside Back to the Future Part II, but only one scene.

-Crispin Glover initially wanted to return to his role as George McFly, however his asking fee caused the producers to turn him away. Director Zemeckis was disappointed, but not too much due to the difficulties with Glover in the first film and his notoriously eccentric personality exceeded him. As a result, much of the script had to be rewritten around this fact and footage from the original film spliced into the 1955 segments. A stand in was played by Jeffrey Weisman, who was shot in a way to not be obvious it was not Crispin Glover (and often wearing sunglasses).

-Claudia Wells who played Marty's girlfriend was also replaced by Elisabeth Shue for the sequels. You can see the reshot beginning/ending sequences here.

-Back to the Future II and III's budget was double that of the original at 40million a piece. Part II grossed roughly 331 million in 1989 and Part III 244 million in 1990.

-1991 saw the brief emergence of the Back to the Future cartoon "Back to the Future: The Animated Series." It ran for two seasons bringing in 26 episodes. It mainly centered on the Brown family, which we briefly see at the end of Back to the Future Part III. Mary Steenburgen and Thomas F. Wilson reprise their roles as Clara and Biff. Dan Castellaneta voiced Doc Brown and David Kaufman of Marty McFly. The show was the jumping off point for host Bill Nye, who would get his own show as a result.

-Shortly after the third film was released, Back to the Future The Ride opened at Universal Studios Florida in 1991 then in Universal Studios California in 1993. It was a small, 30 minute sequel to the final film and was a first-person simulated adventure through time. The Orlando ride finally closed in 2007 with the California ride in 2008. The newer version of it in Japan, which opened in 2001, is still running strong.

-In April 2009, the very first Back to the Future Convention was held in Burbank, California. The stars stopped by to visit, including Michael J. Fox who showed up as a surprise. The convention was a tremendous success.


 Top 10 Lessons Learned from Back to the Future

10: The Meaning of Life is Not 42, it is 88.

Why 88? That's a question that I've often asked my self about the movies. 88 isn't even really that fast. We know you need the 1.21 Gigawats to run it all, but how does 88 come into play? We may never know, and thus it is that ambiguous notion and mystery of life, as all elements that are Back to the Future concentrates on that particular number (which is actually two infinity signs turned on their sides). I suppose it tells us that, despite all the science and technicalities, there is a greater things out there that we can't entirely explain. It's the sense of mystery and unknown of something greater.

9: You Will Never Truly Know Your Parents.

Believe it or not, your parents were teenagers once. I'm willing to bet they don't detail their childhood to you, few do to those that are younger other than a few stories, but they rarely tell us who they were or what they aspired to be. One this is for certain, they aren't that much different than you, it's simply hard to imagine them drinking, doing drugs, having sex, talking about relationships, beating up bullies (or nerds). We will never know their own experiences unless they actually detail it to us, which never happens because, like any teens, it was probably awkward and embarrassing. That's why we have to travel back in time, then you find out your dad was a peeping tom and your mom a hot alcoholic and smoker.

8: Don't be a Slacker.

"Slackers!" yells Mr. Strickland before shooting his shotgun to their speeding-away car in an alternate 1985. He's a man of passion and conviction, and one thing he hates is slackers. At the age of eight or nine when I first saw Back to the Future, I had no idea what a slacker was. Now I do...and Mr. Strickland was right. Don't be a slacker. Take charge of your life and do things right. Even little things like paying attention to movies. You never know, one day you may have to wear a radiation suit and call yourself Clint Eastwood or Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.

Slackers don't get that done, but number one on this list should be considered as well to help balance it all out. Sure, not slacking is good advice, but so it knowing your limits.

Also, always travel with a radiation suit, hairdryer, a walkmen and Van Halen cassettes (Huey Lewis and the News apparently didn't cut it). Now that's not slacking. That's planning ahead, knowing what needs be done and setting right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home. Wow...this is getting heavy.

7: The Mail is Always on Time

If you go to a post office and tell them you want to send a letter to be delivered at a specific time and date, even if it's 60 years in the future, they will deliver it. No questions asked. How does one pay for such a thing? Then again, how does one come up with a price for one to pay such a thing? This is irrelevant, because, as the post office motto says "Neither rain, nor sleet, nor show, nor decades after people have long since died and time travel thus preclude...we will deliver your damn mail."

6: An Old Man Having a Relationship with a Teenager is Perfectly Fine

It's never really said or explained how Doc and Marty became friends, just that they are. Maybe Doc sought out Marty because he met him back in 1955. Marty doesn't seem to have friends of his own, and Doc is just crazy and living alone. Either way, in many places it would seem kind of odd to have an eccentric old man so close to a teenager that isn't his own grandchild and apparently his parents know very little about. They're just friends. Buddies. Comrades. It's not a grandfather/grandson type relationship, they're just friends, plain and simple.They just spend a lot of time (get it?) with each other more than most.

5: "It's Your Mom, Dude"

Oh Ted Theodore Logan, does your wisdom know no bounds? From one time-traveling teenager to another, just ignore the fact your mom was pretty hot back in the day. While there are some places in the world that encourage in-family relationships, those are often cousins and usually not blood cousins at that. Look, if you go back in time, and you think you see some sexy looking girl, just make sure it's not your damn mom. Or, in the case of Philip J. Fry, don't care it's your relative and sleep with them anyway. Then you'd be some oddity that will save the galaxy...

...but no...keep it out of the family. Just do, for everyone's sake (especially for your unborn deformed children).

4: Garbage is the Best Fuel (especially beer)

In a brief snippet of absurdity, Doc Brown rushes to begin refueling his car with the newly installed "Mr. Fusion." He does this by chunking in garbage and pouring in some nice Miller Genuine Draft. Of course, this lesson isn't about cars or possible Mr. Fusions. It's really about not being wasteful. You see, about the time Back to the Future came out, this whole idea of "recycling" was relatively new. In fact, this was my first exposure to it and I recall wondering why we can't use all our waste for such a purpose. It makes sense. Put stuff in thing = it will work. Oh, how naive I was...but I like to think we're on our way. 

3: Bullies are Forever Timeless (some just have guns).

The weak will always succumb to the strong, it's too bad the strong are usually a bunch of assholes. A constant theme in the trilogy surrounds the Tannen family, Mad Dog, Biff at various ages and Griff. Who names their kid Biff? I mean really.

 Anyways, it seems Back to the Future films tell us that being a complete dick is pretty much hereditary.  If you're born in a family of assholes, you'll be an asshole, in that respect I suppose you can trace the lineage of assholes to prehistoric times. It will never end, you just need to deal through it and prove yourself better which may or may not include a bulletproof vest.

2: The End of the World is Right Around the Corner.

What a fickle thing time travel is. You hand a guy a magazine, you change history and violence reigns. You push your dad out of the way of a car, you change history and kills yourself. You look at your futureself, you will either faint or the shock will be so astronomical all time-space will implode and existence erased. Damn...that's a lot of things that can go wrong in one mere instant. So do what Marty and Doc do: just go with it. You can't always dwell on it and do nothing but make precautions. If shit happens, then shit happens. 

1: Don't Go Overboard.

While number eight on this list might tell you to take charge and control, at the same time too much of that will do more harm than good. Back to the Future tell us one thing over and over again: Don't Go Overboard. Doc goes overboard with the time machine, Marty with his guitar, Biff with his plan to make himself rich. All these types of things do more harm than good. Plus, when you go overboard and don't even realize it, then you're just stuck in a packed high school gymnasium with everyone looking at you in shock and silence.

This seems to be one of the major factors in the entire trilogy. From the clothes that Marty chooses to "blend in" (or Doc chooses for him to go back to the Old West) to speakers being cranked up higher than they should be, to Doc's entire personality...sometimes, you just need to reel some things back, otherwise you'll be trapped in 1885, 1955 (or maybe not exist at all).


Honorable Mention: DeLoreans = Awesome.

Sure, skateboards, hoverboards and flying trains might be amazing, but let's face's all about the car (chicks dig the car...wait, wrong movie).

If you did not badly want a DeLorean after seeing this film, then please, notify me so I may have you committed. It's metal, stainless steel, the doors swing upwards and it has plenty of customization options including a nice area for a computer and flux capacitor should you be inclined to pay for those options. What makes this so funny is that the DeLeorean was seen as the poster car for excess, one of the qualities of the 1980s, and was pretty much a gaudy piece of metal...until this film. Oh, it's still a gaudy piece of metal, but it's an awesome piece of metal at the same time and now is not only one of the coolest cars from the 1980s, but one of the best film cars of all time.

So long, Marty and Doc. You are two characters that are as ingrained in our culture as Indiana Jones and Vito Corleone. Your adventure through time might not have been the best lesson learned, but it all always works out in the end of these types of stories, and you'll often just happy you spent the time with characters you feel are actual friends. They will always be popular, I think each new generation that sees them will ensure that.

Time circuits on.

Flux Capacitor...Fluxxing.

Engine running.

Great scott! We're off to infamy!



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