‘Great Scott!’-Back to the Future at 35

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale & Robert Zemeckis
Release Date: 3rd July 1985 (U.S)
Rating: P.G (U.S, U.K)

In his stand up special The Comeback Kid, John Mulaney delivers a routine in which he talks about Back to the Future and it might be one of the finest works of comedic insight and film criticism in recent years. It’s clear Mulaney is a fan of the movie, but he also picks holes at some of the more bizarre aspects of the film.

He questions how it is that a seventeen year old is friends with a nuclear physicist who is aged somewhere between 40 and 80, and how a movie studio was okay with a time travel story involving what amounts to incest, an attempted rape attempt on the mother by the film’s villain and why it’s not called Back to the Past.

Yes, the accidental incest that drives much of the film’s awkward comedy is part and parcel of the humour, while the film is called Back to the Future because from everyone else’s point of view, it’s Marty who is going to the future as far as they are concerned. It just happens to be a wickedly funny stand up routine that makes you realise as you get older that Back to the Future is probably one of the most bizarrely plotted family friendly blockbusters of the 1980s.

Given that it was the biggest movie of 1985, spawned two sequels, an animated television series, a ride at Universal Studios, and has been released numerous times on VHS, DVD and Blu-Ray over the years through so many editions, it’s always somewhat disconcerting to read that Back to the Future was actually a hard sell to Hollywood studios.

The story of how the film came to be is oft told by Bob Gale, but always to entertaining effect; flipping through his dad’s high school yearbook and discovering that he was class president, Gale wondered if he had went to high school with his dad, could they ever have been friends.

Working together with Robert Zemeckis, the two had written 1941 for Steven Spielberg, which was something of a big budget folly for the Jaws and Close Encounters director after the massive success of those two films. With Gale, Zemeckis co-wrote I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars, both of which Zemeckis would direct but which both also failed to find an audience.

Faced with the prospect that they couldn’t put together a commercially successful project, their script for Back to the Future might have seemed on paper perfect for an era filled with Spielberg-produced films that came with the Amblin Entertainment logo, but the script found itself being rejected from various quarters for completely opposite reasons, even if it had a champion in Spielberg who was eager to produce it. Given that their previous collaborations with Spielberg hadn’t done well, Gale and Zemeckis were eager to prove they could make it without their mentor.

The ball that would get the film rolling would eventually be Romancing the Stone; Zemeckis took the job because he needed work and while the Kathleen Turner/Michael Douglas/Danny DeVito action adventure might have looked like an Indiana Jones rip-off, it was in fact backed by a genuinely witty script, great chemistry, and a sense of adventure and was considerably better and original than Cannon Pictures’ similar King Solomon’s Mines which really did feel like an attempt to try and cash in on the success of Indiana Jones.

A box-office success for Zemeckis, it was enough to convince studios to take a more active interest in Zemeckis’ and Gale’s script for Back to the Future, but prior to its production, the rejections for the script were clearly indicative of how strange a film it was.

Shopping it around every studio they could, during an era of Porky’s, Revenge of the Nerds and Animal House, they were told that their teen centred film wasn’t raunchy enough for what every other studio was making at the time for teenage cinemagoers and that they might have been better taking it to Disney.

Disney, which was still a studio more famous for family friendly output that only went as far as a PG-rating and still a long way away from buying up Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, were aghast at the whole idea of a mother falling for her son, unknowingly due to time travel, and thought the movie was too raunchy for their standards.

It’s that dichotomy that makes the first Back to the Future such an endlessly fascinating piece of work. It’s light and fun, and of course Universal Pictures and Amblin Entertainment, with Spielberg producing as a result, was the perfect home in the end, but the line that Back to the Future plays with between either being distasteful with its comedy, or being too family friendly, is a delicate one that has probably allowed it to flourish and remain popular over the course of thirty five years.

Question how they became friends all you want, but there was denying the enjoyable chemistry between Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd, whose portrayal of Marty and Doc’s friendship became the beating heart of the trilogy.

It’s not a film without problems that make it look naïve or insensitive in recent years; the film is one that pines for nostalgia for the 1950s, and while in the present day of the film (1985) Hill Valley has Goldie Wilson as Mayor, an African American man, the seeds of the idea to run for office are sowed by Marty, a white man, and most infamously of all it’s implied that by Marty singing Johnny Be Goode before it’s ever released, he is introducing it to Chuck Berry in an act of retroactive cultural appropriation.

Of course, it’s meant to add to the film’s sense of fun in exploring time travel, but the film has rightly been called out for these moments over the years. As problematic as they are, they don’t take away from the strange magic that makes everything else around it work.

Fox and Lloyd, for all the talk of their age difference and questions over how these two could ever become friends (the film never makes it clear that it’s because of the time travel but that could be it, possibly), share considerably fun chemistry and the trilogy works so well because of their scenes and comedic double act that works on wit and fun as opposed to anything too slapstick laden.

Fox famously was a last-minute replacement for Eric Stoltz who had already shot scenes for the film but whose performance wasn’t seen as working in the manner that the film called for. Mulaney may call out Marty McFly for not being as cool as Ferris Bueller, but he has a similar level of cockiness, although where Bueller can be a little insufferable the older you get, Fox keeps Marty the right side of genuinely lovable and confident.

As for Lloyd, there was nobody else who could occupy that level of eccentric, crazy brilliance in the manner that he could. Famously turning evil for Zemeckis three years later with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Lloyd was incredibly versatile, and here with his utterances of ‘Great Scott’ and exasperation at the film’s events, he once again tows the line between being over the top, genuinely sincere and lovable.

That’s what Back to the Future comes down to; it’s so damn lovable that we can poke fun at its problems, the things that can kind of make us think twice about it in a way that we never done before, but it still stands up as an entertaining slice of blockbuster entertainment from the Amblin factory.

Zemeckis himself was a perfect Amblin director. Like Joe Dante, he had an ability to marry imaginative direction and storytelling to wonderfully witty scripts, and it’s really no surprise that the two of them were pretty much making large chunks of their output of the decade at Spielberg’s production company, crafting somewhat subversive work within the confines of films aimed at family audiences.

Opinion might be mixed on the sequels, but the trilogy is frequently reshown on television, been constantly reissued on home entertainment formats, and even inspires memes.

The film itself was never meant to spawn a series or sequels. The final scene was in itself a joke, but when the box office receipts came in, a sequel was greenlit, that soon became two and with it a follow up that would play with the form of the sequel itself.

Back to the Future is available to stream on Netflix in the U.S and on Amazon Prime Video in the U.K.

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