If there’s one thing that the 80s gave us were great movies. Some may argue with me and talk about the music of that era—80s music—and say how ingenious and innovative that music was…I call bullshit! But that’s a discussion I’ll save for a rainy day. The movie—or movie trilogy—I want to discuss in this post is the Back to the Future trilogy, basically the pinnacle of 80s cinema.
The year of 1985 we had Ronald Reagan for a second term, the economy was strong after the terrible 70s with inflation going through the roof, and everything felt great in America. Movies were a staple for me back then and there’s really no time for me to go through all the films I had enjoyed throughout that decade.
One film—or films—that had stood out during that time was Back to the Future with Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd as Doc Emmett Brown. It was a Universal Studios film directed by Robert Zemeckis and produced by Steven Spielberg. With that combination, how can you go wrong?
You can’t…not with this film. Back to the Future is pretty much tied for my all time favorite movie, and movie trilogy, right there with The Godfather. However, the Back to the Future trilogy has a stellar three films, where The Godfather trilogy only has the first two, with the third being good yet mediocre.
Even though the idea of all the films has a simple story of time travel, the story and setting make this movie work. And let’s not forget the Delorian as the time machine, thankfully not the time machine they originally had an idea for which was a refrigerator.
First off, let’s talk about the cast.
Originally cast as Marty McFly was Eric Stoltz. He received the part when Michael J. Fox had scheduling conflicts because of his TV hit at the time, "Family Ties." Now Stoltz was already into it, scenes already filmed with him and Christopher Lloyd, when the studio executives didn’t think he was right for the part. Some arrangements were made to have Michael J. Fox film his scenes when he could and scheduling was reshuffled to accommodate him.
As Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd from Taxi fame was brought in to play the over-the-top scientist who’s constantly inventing things and trying new experiments. With his white hair and theatrical expressions throughout the film, Lloyd is a highlight of the series.
The film opens with a panning shot of Doc’s home, showing one of his inventions that uses some robotics and other cartoonish novelties to start breakfast for him and his dog.
The shot also pans through a number of clocks, one particular one that shows a clock face with a man hanging from the minute hand which foreshadows the climax of the movie. By the looks of this scene, it appears Doc hasn’t been here for a while.
Marty enters, but we only see him from the knee down, and the reason is to see what his skateboard bumps into under the bed.
Marty then goes through the steps to hook up an electrical guitar to some gigantic speaker amp as he turns up all the mains to the max. He strikes a chord but the speaker explodes, sending Marty back through the air and crashing through a bookcase.
The phone rings and Marty answers it, hearing Doc on the other end as he asks Marty to meet him at the mall that night. When they meet up, the film goes into the crux of the film.
I doubt if anybody out there has never seen this film; it’s a part of 80s history if you ask me. The chemistry between Fox and Lloyd is great and special at times. The film has a great mixture of comedy and action, with special effects that still hold up to this day. The cast, as a whole, work together so well.
The sets of both 1985 and 1955 contrast very well and that’s a good thing. As the movie starts, we see a normal looking town with the cars of the 80s and type of dress we see of that time. When Marty ends up in 1955, it’s noticeable right away with the music coming out of the music store playing the "Sandman" and "Davy Crockett" songs; a boy passes by bouncing on some spring gadgets attached to his shoes; all the men are wearing fedoras and suits; the Texaco station shows a car pulling up and about five attendants running out to service the car. The whole town looks cleaner and everybody looks different. The same goes for Marty as he walks through the town and receives weird looks from folks as they stare at his 1980s type of clothing.
Thomas F. Wilson as Biff is hilarious as the typical bully of the 50s who isn’t that smart but takes pleasure in being the tormentor.
Crispin Glover as Marty’s father, George McFly, plays the part awkwardly and is equally goofy as the teenaged version.
Leah Thompson as Marty’s mom doesn’t do much during the 1985 scenes, but as the teenaged version, she was a delight and stepped into the 1955 part very well.
The plot is contrived so effectively and is easy to follow along, but you can feel Marty and Doc’s frustration as they try to figure out how to make things right.
The future depends on it.
Back to the Future II takes place right after the first film ended with Doc returning from the future and taking Marty and Jennifer back with him to the future. The Delorian flies now, equipped with a hover conversion, and it doesn’t need plutonium for time travel anymore. Instead, there’s a Mr. Fusion contraption located in the back of the car. They all get into the car and they fly off with Biff watching the whole thing in shock—which comes into play later in the film.
As Doc takes them into 2015 and we see all these futuristic flying cars (funny since we’re almost there and I’ve yet to see any hover conversion technology being developed), he explains to them why he needed to take them with him. Jennifer (played this time by Elizabeth Shue) starts asking a bunch of questions so Doc puts her to sleep with some futuristic contraption. He explains that they need to keep Marty’s son from going to prison, because that event will cause a chain reaction that destroys the family.
Pretty thin, right? Well, it’s okay because the film is entertaining and basically sets up part three. In fact, part two and three were filmed back to back, so essentially both movies should be considered as one long story.
Anyway, when they arrive and lay Jennifer down in some alleyway as she’s still knocked out, Marty encounters the old Biff as well as his grandson, Griff. Not only that, but he comes face to face with his son, Marty Jr. The effects of that time may seem a little worn here, but still are fun to watch. I remember watching this as a 20-year old and wondering how the heck did they do all this.
Anyway, Marty ends up being able to fix things—after a futuristic retread of the skateboard scene of the first movie—so that his son doesn’t go to jail. So before they leave to go back to the future, Marty decides to buy a sports almanac that tells all the scores of all sports games of the 20th century (although I don’t know how that’s possible in in a book that looks as thin as a comic book). Doc finds out and throws the book away in the garbage can, but the old Biff sees this, remembering Doc and Marty and the Delorian from 1985 flying away. He goes to the garbage can and retrieves the book.
In the meantime, Doc and Marty encounter a big problem when the police find Jennifer lying in the alleyway. In the future, identification is checked by a thumbprint and since your print never changes, they think she’s the Jennifer of the future and take her to her home. Doc and Marty then have to help her get out of the house before she’s seen by the future McFly family. The future McFly clan is played by Michael J. Fox as he plays three different characters here. He plays the daughter, son and his future 48-year old self. Also, Leah Thompson makes an appearance as Grandmother McFly.
While both Marty and Doc are away from the Delorian, the old Biff shows up in a taxi and steals the Delorian, taking it into the sky and you can hear it explode into time travel off screen.
At the house Jennifer is finally on her way out without being seen but runs into her future self before walking out the door. They both stare at each other, one saying “I’m old!” the other saying “I’m young!” and they both pass out.
The Delorian comes back and parks in the same spot. The old Biff gets out but looks like he’s ready to have a heart attack as he has trouble getting his cane out of the car. The top of it breaks off as he finally gets it and walks off.
Doc and Marty get Jennifer back to the car and they take off, going back to 1985. But it’s not the 1985 they know, but an alternate 1985 that they find out had something to do with the old Biff stealing the Delorian and going back to give his younger self the sports almanac.
Doc and Marty then have to fix everything that’s been messed up and that’s the minor flaw of this film. It just gets way too convoluted to follow and you really get confused with a lot of the multiple characters. Other than that, it’s a fun movie that ends in a cliffhanger.
The final film, Back to the Future III, opens with the last few minutes of part two. Somehow, lightning strikes the Delorian while Doc’s inside of it hovering in the air and the car disappears with a couple of strange smoke trails. Marty stands there dumbfounded as a mysterious car pulls up with a man getting out and walking towards Marty. Turns out, it’s Western Union with a letter for Marty—a hilarious scene that makes you wonder if that would really actually happen, but of course you have to suspend disbelief for a movie like this.
The letter is from Doc and he’s living in the Old West of 1885, existing as a blacksmith in Hill Valley of that time. He gives instructions for Marty to pick up the Delorian from an old mine shaft and have the 1955 version of Doc help him fix it to make it work.
Of course, he gets to the area in 1955 of where he went back to 1985 in the first film, near the clock tower just as his other self left. He runs up to Doc and tells him that he’s back but Doc freaks out and passes out.
Later he convinces him he’s not some figment of his imagination and they get to work, finding the Delorian at the mine shaft and getting it out. As Doc’s hooking it up to the Delorian, Doc’s dog, Copernicus, walks off and stands at the adjacent cemetery and doesn't come when they call him. Marty goes and gets him and sees a gravestone for the Doc that's living in the Old West.
The marker shows that Doc died in 1885 by Buford Tannen (a distant relative of Biff, of course) seven days after he wrote the Western Union letter. The young Doc and Marty both decide that Marty has to go and rescue Doc and bring him back.
After getting the circuits fixed with 1955 components and the tires replaced with 1955-type whitewalls (too funny), Marty goes to 1885 only to be attacked by Indians as they shoot arrows at the car. He finds a cave to hide the car in but discovers an arrow punched a hole through the gas tank.
So through part 3, Marty and Doc have to find a way to power the car to make it go 88 miles-per-hour without using gasoline in order to get back to 1985, all the while avoiding Buford Tannen who wants to kill Doc over a matter of $80.
Throughout this whole trilogy, the story arc is magical and great for the whole family (if you don’t mind a few profanities like “shit” and “son of a bitch”). The cast is perfect, although Crispin Glover didn’t come back for parts two and three, and the sets and special effects are thorough all the way through. It will make you laugh and the action is not too violent, but when Marty McFly outsmarts Biff or Griff by causing him to crash into a manure truck or wagon (a repeating little theme throughout the arc) you’ll find yourself applauding Marty.
My final “bit” on the Back to the Future trilogy may not be impartial since I consider it to be the all-time best trilogy I’ve ever experienced. Though Michael J. Fox is not the best actor in the world, he’s so loved by audiences large and small that it’s impossible not to like these films.
Rent it, watch it, and love it.