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As a piece of pop entertainment, Back to the Future is quintessential. Director Robert Zemeckis, with executive producer Steven Spielberg broke new ground by mixing just the right amount of comedy and perplexity that is easy to digest and fun to experience. That it spawned two sequels and a well-regarded place in cinema history came as extra. Reminiscent of classic films of the 1940s and 50s, the movie is a perfectly tuned work of symmetry that reveals one world and then repeats it almost exactly thirty years earlier with details that are sometimes subtle but mostly obvious: In 1985, Marty (Michael J. Fox) is called a slacker in a school hallway and in 1955, Marty’s father, in the same place is told the same speech by the same man. Biff the boss berates George for not doing his reports in 1985 and again his homework thirty years earlier, words and actions almost exactly duplicated (with Marty in both mixes). These are purposefully blatant and demonstrate a pattern that is necessary in defining these characters. Hill Valley, the town where all the action takes place, is a pristine romanticized version of 1950’s Americana with happy gas station attendants in chipper uniforms that service your car, soda-fountain shoppes filled with properly-preened teens, whitewashed streets with Ronald Reagan-titled movie marquees and so on while its 80s counterpart is far less polished. Bums sleep on run down park benches, windows are boarded up, the school building is a canvas for graffiti and orgy flicks now headline the theater entrance. We’ve grown up hard.
But more on the characters. They are broad strokes of course, and must be in this formula as each are vividly designed for comparison by the audience, but more importantly by Marty. It’s fun to see how they differ and trace back to the 50s what motivated them to become who they are years later. That’s the conceit of the film really, to be witness to events that shape the future. Moral questions aside, the movie steers well clear of controversy and darkness, playfully toying with subjects that should be the opposite. Marty’s mother, as a curious teenage girl, is sexually attracted to a boy who is actually her son from the future. Biff is far more than a bully, as he rules the school like a teenaged despot, physically groping and attacking girls. The choice to go comedic was conscious and the source of a few conflicts, naturally. It’s well known now the Eric Stolz had been cast as Marty and was well into production but was let go rather suddenly (and unceremoniously) when Fox became available. He wanted to explore the darker elements of the story. But again, producers wanted to avoid these corners. The situations mentioned are broad and serve only to create conflicts that allow other characters to grow, but they are still a little hard to watch, maybe more so as sensibilities have shifted. But they also accomplish precisely what they intend. Lorraine discovers Marty is wrong for her in an awkward but legitimately plausible way. Biff the monster is cut down appropriately and not only gives George the moment he needs, but gives the audience the anticipated and satisfactory defeat of the villain, a staple in any popular film.
Back to the Future is one of the most beloved films in all of cinema, and rightly so. The story of a young man who races through time to save his own existence has captivated audiences for 30 years and anyone with even a passing interest in film or pop culture is aware of the massive influence of the original. Decades of nostalgia has wrapped it in a cocoon of well-deserved favor, despite many minor flaws, and thanks to the internet, has been dissected and scrutinized to near immeasurable ends, with branching theories about almost every aspect of the story. But this is a testament to the movie’s lasting charm and the strength of the film’s message that has now literally spanned the same length of the time traveled in the story.
There are many defining moments in Back to the Future, with some so iconic they are a part of film lore. Micheal J. Fox is arguably at his best, and paired with Christopher Lloyd, makes for a duo unlike any in film. Both have received ample praise for their work, and deservedly so. Their on-screen relationship is both funny and touching and the chemistry between them is what makes much of the film so enjoyable.
That said, it is Crispin Glover, who plays George McFly, Marty’s father, who makes an equally powerful impression. The actor is slightly overshadowed by the combined presence of Fox and Lloyd, but is compelling in his twitchy, obsequious role as the weak-willed, nebbish book-worm with dreams of being a writer but with a fear of any rejection. Under constant threat of bodily harm and insults from the school bully, Biff, he does the bigger boy’s homework in 1955 and the man’s reports in the original 1985. It takes a visit from his son, whom he doesn’t know is his son, to help give him the courage to be a better man. Or at least the situation where that can come to fruition.
Since Marty needs George to kiss Lorraine at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance so they fall in love, get married and have kids, he keeps pressuring George to go ask the pretty girl for a date. Of course, the problem is that Lorraine, who doesn’t realize Marty is her future son, is smitten with him. This complicates matters, but Marty is persistent, as one who is fighting to keep existing might be. As George loses interest in the matter, Marty dons a radioactive hazmat suit and head gear, breaks into George’s bedroom and pretends to be a visitor named Darth Vader from Vulcan who commands the squeamish boy to ask her out or else. This actually works. The next day, spotting Lorraine with some girlfriends at the diner, the two boys enter and George approaches the girl with some notes on what to say. Sputtering his lines in fear and nerves, he claims he is her “density” before finally getting it right. Destiny. It’s a remarkably emotional line that Glover delivers with tremendous passion. There’s a beautiful sense of innocence in his eyes that captures the moment to perfection. There isn’t a person in the world that wouldn’t want to hear these words just as he speaks them. This moment ends quickly, but is the spark that ignites a fire in the next.
As per an arrangement, Marty has Lorraine in a parked car outside the school during the Enchantment under the Sea Dance. The plan is for Marty to be a bit untoward with his younger mother and have George arrive and rescue her, thus getting her to lose her attraction to Marty and fall in love with George. What George doesn’t realize though, is that Marty in no longer in the car. Instead it is Biff. Biff and Marty have not gotten off on the right foot and Biff is angry with Marty from an incident in town where three hundred dollars worth of damage to Biff’s car was incurred when he slammed it into a manure truck while chasing Marty. When he spots Marty in the car with Lorraine, he has his goons carry him off. Eying the pretty girl in her strapless, very revealing gown, he is overcome with a lust that is truthfully, a little shocking. Biff’s a bad guy, but he mostly seems a little dense, not vicious or degenerate. Even his goons seem surprised by his actions, but they do their duty and haul away the incapacitated Marty.
Of course, we all know what happens next. George arrives thinking it will be Marty but is shocked to find Biff. Biff tells the scrawny George he has the wrong car, and there is a frightening moment when it seems he might leave, but then Lorraine pops her head up and cries out for help, a dramatic plea that suddenly and jarringly shifts the tone of the film. As it should. This is not funny. George takes a stand and demands that Biff stop what he’s doing. Biff gets out, man-handles the smaller boy, but when he shoves Lorraine to the ground, it’s too much for George. The fist clenches, the arm coils and he unleashes a blast that knocks the bully straight out. And then the wonderful, “Are you all right?” as he extends a hand to the girl.
This moment in Back to the Future accomplishes what Marty had in mind, but does it without Marty, which is the most significant point. George, for perhaps the first time ever, takes control of a situation and acts, regardless of the consequences. By laying out Biff, he literally changes history. And thirty years later on, even if George and Lorraine claims it is Biff they should thank for being together, which seems not only wrong but rather questionable, there is no denying the power of George’s defeat of not only the school bully, but his own personal demons.
What’s best about this entire moment is Crispin Glover. A gifted actor, he is known for is eccentric and odd characters. He’s famously spoken out against the final message of this film, where money equates to happiness, and was not invited back for the sequels (though his likeness was used and he successfully sued the studio). He was hired based on a single audition and was not aware of the film’s portrayal of financial prosperity as being the notion that this is what makes a person successful and happy. He and director Zemeckis did however work together again some twenty years later for Beowolf. That aside, for this movie, and especially this scene, his performance is one of the best in the film. Outshined, as mentioned, by the highly charismatic Fox, the awkward gyrations, spastic laughs, and yet sweet-naturedness of Glover’s portrayal are a joy to watch and shouldn’t be missed. He is the only character that has some real depth and is given the widest arc. When he decides that the right thing to do is better than letting the fear push him away, it’s a shining moment and in the best possible way, reflects the message what Doc Brown says (and Marty repeats) that if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.