(This is the first in a series I’m calling “Celluloid Heroes” (HT: Ray Davies) in which I take a look at the movies that made me, or at least had a very outsized influence on me growing up. This installment will be followed by two more, running through this summer, and I hope to continue the series through the years ahead.)
So without further ado, “when this baby hits 88 mph you’re going to see some serious shit.”
You could argue that of all the movies of the 1980s, the one that stands above all others is this one. Back to the Future. Released on July 3, 1985, easily the most 80s year of the decade, it was a massive commercial and critical hit. It stayed in theaters for months, making money hand over fist.
I also think it holds the crown for movies most about the decade they’re actually set in and BTTF is 100% 80s. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox, as if you didn’t already know) wants to get back to his year, 1985, the year of the film which automatically dates it, as though a “dated” film is a bad thing when few films released are remembered a year after release, let alone thirty-eight (it’s true; look it up. Also, sorry).
But what makes Back to the Future the 80s movie? Why not Ghostbusters or Gremlins, why not Robocop or E.T. or Die Hard?
Let’s break it all down;
1. It’s a Teen Comedy
While teen-centered movies had existed before the 1980s it wasn’t until the 80s that they became a genre. Films made for and marketed to the prosperous children of the prosperous Baby Boom generation. The kids now called “Generation X”. Films like Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Valley Girl and all their offspring.
So looking at Back to the Future through that lens as a teen movie, it works. It’s a cool teen with problems who goes to experience life as a teenager in his parents’ era when they were teenagers. One of the reasons I recommend George Gipe’s Back to the Future novelization (copies are easily attainable and affordable in the secondary market) is that it really delved into the differences between 80s kids and 50s kids, which is quite the trip to read in 2022, where the 80s are as far removed from us as the 50s were to the 80s. If Back to the Future were made today Marty would time-trip back to the distant year of 1992 (again, sorry).
2. It’s a Spielbergian fantasy
You can’t talk 80s cinema without talking Steven Spielberg. The guy was and remains a master filmmaker, but it was his aesthetic, the “Amblin feel” of so many classic 80s films – Poltergeist, Explorers, Gremlins, Goonies, Back to the Future – that suburban living could lead to adventure, that the fantastical could drop on your doorstep, that became a genre unto itself. Even today, with Netflix’ Stranger Things series, the Spielbergian influence is front and center.
The biggest genre films of the decade – the Indy trilogy, E.T., these films he produced – sparked wave after wave or imitators and homages. And Back to the Future, despite being a Zemeckis-Gale joint, has Spielberg’s fingerprints all over it, right from that look of awe on Marty’s face when he sees the DeLorean for the first time. Those somber, reflective moments like when Marty pens a letter to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) warning him of his future murder. Seeing his parents kiss for the first time. Little touches that humanize the fantastical are all Spielberg and it’s no small surprise many mistakenly believe Back to the Future is a Spielberg film.
3. It’s Boomer nostalgia
Starting in 1985 the baby boomers all started turning 40. And you could see it in the culture of the day. Whereas the first half of the decade was dominated by MTV, New Wave, new Romantics and “youth” culture, starting in 1985 the boomers took their revenge. The big waves of 50s and 60s nostalgia (present in some form from Happy Days, Grease, and Sha-Na-Na in the 70s) really took hold in the 80s. It was that turning 40 where those greaser and hippy kids started looking back at their lives, and the culture followed. Paul Simon, Bob Seeger, the Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, the Beatles all saw a resurgence in popularity (in fact the following year’s Ferris Bueller’s use of The Beatles’ cover of Twist And Shout launched the Beatles back into the popular culture).
Back to the Future really leans into the boomer nostalgia, filtered through the gaze of a 17 year old played by a then 24 year old and written by a couple of late 30/early 40-somethings. It may be Marty’s POV – he’s virtually in every scene of the movie – but it’s George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine’s (Lea Thompson) story. Their world. Their era.
Part of why, to me, the two sequels aren’t nearly as effective or good (sorry but it’s also true) is because their settings – 1885 and the then far-away world of 2015 – are divorced from any world we, the viewer, knew. They’re perfectly fun time-wasters but they lack the emotional resonance of the first film. They’re movies about Back to the Future; not movies about a teenager time-traveling to meet his parents as teens.
Back to the Future also made me conscious of the fact that my parents were teenagers once. That they had a lot of the same hopes and fears as I did. It got me more interested in their music, their movies, their TV. The sense that they’d grown up in a period predating my birth; that they’d lived a fair bit of life before becoming parents.
4. It’s a Gen X Film
Generation X as a term to describe that cohort of people born between 1965-1977 or thereabouts wasn’t actually coined until 1991 by author Douglas Coupland, in his book titled, well Generation X. But now, Marty McFly, those John Hughes Kids, those Kids of Degrassi Street and the like are all labelled Gen X. It was a label assigned after the fact. Unlike Gen Y, unlike Millennials, Gen X typically had to wait until the dust had settled to get a name, which it didn’t receive until:
As an aside, there’s definitely merit to an argument going around that it’s GenX who’s at fault for the endless sequels and reboots of classic 70s-90s film series as we’re the 40-50 somethings clinging to the nostalgia of our youth. But the missing component to that argument lies in the fact that the main demographic companies/networks/studios want to reach are 18-34, not 35-54. GenX is also, demographically, a small cohort sandwiched between two larger ones, the Boomers and the Millennials. I would argue more to the plethora of sequels, reboots, remakes as just being more evidence of that tepid corporate mindset that it’s a safer bet to repackage an existing property than to attempt something new. You couldn’t make Back to the Future today without a plan and a promise for a film series. The numbers bear that out; the two biggest movies in recent terms financially have been a new Batman movie (of which there’ve been 10 since 1989), a Spider-Man sequel, the 9th Spider-Film in the last 20 year span, and a sequel to Top Gun, 36 years after the original. It’s interesting to ponder how the landscape might have been were there only 3 Star Wars movies, 3 Indiana Jones movies, 6 Star Trek movies, 1 Ghostbusters, 1 Back to the Future. Would they be as beloved today or would they sit somewhere closer to a 1-and-done success like E.T. the Extra-terrestrial? That is rightly regarded as a classic film, but it certainly doesn’t have the fandom that those other franchises have (because in the end, all that matters to studios is the merchandise – the T-shirts, the video games, the toys, that keep the money flowing). But I digress.
But let’s look at Back to the Future in that context; Marty, the youngest child, sees his older siblings and parents crushed by the grind of life. Dad is a nerd pushover, mom an overweight alcoholic with a jailbird brother. Marty’s brother works in fast food, his sister is likewise in a dead-end job. George’s high school bully, Biff, is still tormenting him. He’s facing a future of diminished expectations which is why he has so much riding on that battle of the bands; his ticket out of the decaying California town of Hill Valley. He is of a generation that can expect to climb nowhere near as high as the generation preceding it. That’s the GenX-perience. That we were never going to have the success of our parents. And poor Marty’s family … are failures. Whatever dreams they once had (like George’s ambition to be a sci-fi author) never came to fruition.
So why is Back to the Future so important to me?
In 1985 I moved to Greensboro North Carolina. School, culture, were not a good fit. Quite simply, I hated it. So there was an enormous appeal in Marty McFly’s story. I wished I too could time-travel with Doc Brown back to, well, maybe 1984 and just inhabit the pre-NC years on an endless loop. But I knew in my heart that was silly and doomed; to be perpetually aging while I relived the same events. Going from ten to eleven to twelve running in place. So while the fantasy was appealing I knew the only way to survive NC was to go through it.
[I did get through it, though the two years we were expected to spend in NC were truncated by an at-the-time fortuitous circumstance that eventually would have consequences for the whole family.]
I wish I could say things in NC turned around but they never did and when I left NC later in 1986 it was without any looking back. I haven’t been back there since and don’t intend to. Unlike all the many other places I’ve lived I have zero nostalgia for that time in my life. In point of fact to this day I posses a strong, very unfair dislike of the southern USA because of my North Carolina experience.
But in Greensboro, we lived a short walk from the nearby strip mall which included a nice bookstore, great Chinese restaurant, a Toy City, and movie theater. This was a second run theater, one of two in town, and when movies came there on their way to home video they played for a while. Tickets were a buck, popcorn and soda or candy was another buck. When Back to the Future finally made its way there I went almost once a week. When another movie like Young Sherlock Holmes or Weird Science arrived I alternated but the end result of that is I’ve probably seen Back to the Future in the theater more times than any any other movie before or since.
Back to the Future is my movie comfort food. SO much so that this past father’s Day I chose it to be my movie for the day. And almost 40 years on it remains as fun, as sweet, as charming as it ever was. Watching BTTF now is akin to traveling back in time to 1985, to 1955 and back again to 1985. Over those many years past Marty McFly became a friend, then he became me; a teenager out of place, desperate to return to the place he belonged. His home. His time. It took a little longer for me but I made it home eventually.
That story will be told in the third installment of this series.
But first we need to take a leap forward to the year 1991 and this bad boy.
See you next month.