By John H. Foote
And back to the greatest of the eighties. We start at number nine … a huge box office smash directed by Robert Zemeckis.
9. BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985)
Pure cinematic fun, like a big bowl of candy that cannot be emptied, made with impeccable craft and beautifully acted with giddy delight by the actors, Back to the Future further launched both Robert Zemeckis, the film’s director, and star Michael J. Fox into the stratosphere of stardom. Fox had scored big in the hit TV series Family Ties, which ran eight seasons, earning the diminutive actor three consecutive Emmy Awards for Best Actor and the attention of Hollywood.
After casting Eric Stoltz in Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Spielberg (executive producer) found he was not handling the comedy sequences very well. They took the drastic step of firing him, and replacing him with Fox, though the shooting schedule would be brutal on the young actor. He would rehearse and shoot his TV show from 9-6, and then rush over to the Back to the Future set where he shot from after six to 2:30 in the morning, a pace he continued for two months. Fox has stated it was worth every hour.
Back to the Future was a monster hit, a pure popcorn entertainment machine, that rare kind of blockbuster, an excellent film experience, superbly directed, acted and written with brilliance. I know no one who has seen the film who did not love it or at the very least have a good time watching it. I think the years in between have shown the film to have been superbly written, and it has a new following every 10 to 15 years. Generations have discovered the film and celebrate both the original and the two sequels to follow.
Marty McFly (Fox) is a typical teenager in the eighties who, like most kids, thinks his parents are jerks. He might have something. His father George (Crispin Glover) is what we might call a loser, bullied by a high school friend with eyes for his wife, who has become a drunken lush, portrayed by Leah Thompson. His good friend Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has built a time machine out of a DeLorean, fueled by plutonium which he “purchased” from some Libyan terrorists who have come looking for payment the loopy doctor does not have. They shoot the doctor dead, Marty leaps into the time machine to escape and does just that, back 30 years to 1955. Where there were once houses suddenly becomes a bumpy field where there is a sign announcing the coming sub-division.
He finds himself in his hometown but three decades earlier which causes him no end of surprise and wonder. After being hit, gently, by a car he wakes up in his mother’s childhood home, being called Calvin Klein by his mom after she has seen the name brand on his underwear. His entire world is turned on its ear, with his dress, his sayings, product requests all looked upon with curiosity by those in the fifties. When he goes to school he realizes his father has always been a buffoon, but a science fiction nerd who writes stories. Bullied mercilessly by Biff, which has followed him in the eighties, George moons over Lorraine (Thompson) who has eyes only for Marty, their son. See the trouble? Marty must find a way to get his would-be parents to fall in love or he and his brothers and sisters will cease to exist, and the good doctor must find a way to get Marty back to the future where he belongs, because as long as he is the fifties, he risks discovery and could alter the future.
History is not altered, well not too much, but enough to give everyone everything they truly wanted in the future. When the old Doc helps Mary return, using lightning this time instead of plutonium, Marty finds him very much alive, having read the note his young friend left him about the Libyans who kill him in 1985, taking the liberty of wearing a bullet proof vest. Pulling into his home, Marty is shocked to discover his father is a successful writer, his mom a cool babe, still attractive, and his siblings are very good at their jobs, not the losers they were previously.
And Marty has love. Suddenly there is a crash of lightning and the Doc arrives from the future, concerned about Marty’s kids. Picking up some garbage he pops it into the time machine as fuel and tells Marty “we don’t need roads” as they blast off back to the future.
The film is a dazzling studio product, directed with confidence by Zemeckis who with this broke into the A list directors, and acted superbly by Fox, who had the right touch of droll comedy to make the film work. Christopher Lloyd, perhaps best known as Taber in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), became forever associated with Doc Brown after this a role he reprised in the two sequels working for Zemeckis again as well as appearing as the villain in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988). Lea Thompson was delightful as Marty’s lusty mom, looking to lose her virginity the night of the prom, and the strange Crispin Glover was excellent as George. Glover would be fired from the sequels because he proved too difficult and frankly to bizarre to work with. The film had the feel of a Spielberg film, no surprise that the gifted director was an executive producer of the film, and Zemeckis was mentored by him.
Fox proved an inspired choice, perfect as Marty in state of near constant exasperation, whether it was fending off the sexual advances of his horny teenage mother, to watching his goofball father nearly blow everything the kid sets up for him, Fox was a comic wonder. And who knew he had slapstick talent?
I think what is often forgotten or overlooked is the real star of the film has always been, the script, which is near perfect. Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale wrote the film, to date their best screenplay and following up with the promise Spielberg had seen with 1941 (1979). An absolute knockout of a film, and among the very best of the year, and now, decade.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.