There are a few moments in life you hold onto forever – your first kiss, first love, maybe the first family pet. For me, it’s the first time I saw Robert Zemeckis’ film Back To The Future. Alright, I’ll admit, I was probably about seven years old and had no concept of time, let alone time-travel, but I do remember being completely engrossed by the suburban American world, in which these idiosyncratic characters travel back and forth through time trying to save themselves from past mistakes and impending doom.
This year marks 30 years since Back To The Future became a worldwide pop culture phenomenon. The effervescent cinematography combined with the careful attention to set design, excellent acting, meticulous writing, and soundtrack (featuring Huey Lewis’s hit ‘The Power of Love’) made Back To The Future the highest-grossing film of 1985, topping $881 million worldwide.
Writer and producer Bob Gale came up with the idea for the film whilst rifling through old photo albums at his parents’ house. He found his father’s high school year book and wondered if he travelled back to that time, would he have been friends with his dad or disliked him? Zemeckis loved the idea and, together, they began formulating a script. In the original script for the first Back To The Future, the time machine was a refrigerator and Einstein the dog was a chimpanzee. Some changes were made because Zemeckis thought the DeLorean was a more appropriate time machine due to its futuristic spacecraft-like exterior with the statement gull-wing doors.
Astonishingly, the script was rejected 40 times by every major Hollywood studio. Only after teaming up with Steven Spielberg, did Zemeckis finally get a deal with Universal Studios and Back To The Future was off at 88 miles an hour.
Fast forward three decades, and it brings us to the widely discussed topic of Back To The Future Part Two, which was set in 2015. We all seriously thought we would be flying around in cars and hoverboards, right? (Or was that just me?). It seems filmmaking has caught up with technology, but technology hasn’t quite caught up with the film. Where are my electronic laced Nikes and self-drying jackets?
Unlike most of my friends, I saw Back To The Future in the mid-’90s, before most families had a computer or mobile phone in the house. Being young and gullible, without any understanding of technology, made the film so much more thrilling and nostalgic to look back on. I completely believed that in this year (2015), I would have my very own flying car and I’d be able to say, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads”. But unfortunately, all we have is iPhones.
But it wasn’t all false hope. Zemeckis did get some things right such as bionic implants, electronic billboards, video Skype technology, dehydrated microwavable pizza… oh, wait we don’t have that yet. (Probably because it would taste disgusting?)
Back To The Future not only made us want to go out and buy a pair of Nikes and a red padded vest, but it also tapped into our innate human curiosity – asking the viewers questions: how did my parents meet? What were they like back then? And what if they never met each other? Would this have ultimately changed the course of the future?
The characters’ lives are all intrinsically linked but the many possible outcomes are revealed during the course of the trilogy. In the beginning of the first film, Marty’s father George has low self esteem who can’t stand up to his overbearing supervisor Biff, and his mother Lorraine is a depressed alcoholic. By the end of the film, after returning from 1955, Marty has been able to fix his parents’ problems by changing the course of the future and they turn out seemingly happy and successful, while future Biff polishes their car.
Is this the way life works? Does the butterfly effect really exist? It’s all a bit too much for my brain to think about. Which is why the self-reflexive comedy takes you out of the existentialism and into the moment, laughing your ass off because Doc always looks like he’s on the verge of exploding from a ‘Eureka’ moment and Biff always looks like he’s about to implode from suppressed anger. (According to sources, Biff Tannen was named after a Universal executive named Ned Tanen, who had been particularly unpleasant to Zemeckis.)
Back To The Future is an important film in pop culture history, as it represents American youth culture right before the explosion of advanced digital technology. When I reminisce over old films like Back To The Future, it doesn’t just take me to the scenes of the film; it takes me to the house I lived in, the Panasonic television, the VCR, the smells of the video store. Back To The Future changed film history by reflecting our visions of the past, present and future back at us in a mainstream Hollywood narrative.
Okay, so 2015 isn’t exactly what I expected but the timeless story of Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown in Back to the Future will hopefully continue to capture imaginations of the young and old for decades, if not centuries, to come. Hopefully, by then, we will actually have hoverboards.
Words by Greta Chesterman