Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Back to the Future Trilogy

10. Back to the Future (1985), Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Back to the Future Part III (1990)
Dir: Robert Zemeckis

Quick, what's the greatest movie trilogy of all time? OK, how many of you said 'Star Wars'? I'm going to shock you now. I have absolutely no love for the 'Star Wars' trilogy or anything 'Star Wars' related. You'll not be seeing any of the original films or their roundly lambasted prequels turning up on this blog. It's not that I hate the 'Star Wars' films or look down on them like a snobbish cineaste. I find them entertaining enough but they just don't excite me and I think I know the main reason for that. I never watched them while I was growing up.

While there are plenty of fans who came to the 'Star Wars' trilogy decades later, the core of its adoring audience are those who lived through the phenomenon of their original release or the excitement of its immediate aftermath. I can say with almost total certainty that had I been a part of that initial excitement I would love the 'Star Wars' films today, just as I know that had I not watched the 'The Karate Kid' films as a youngster, they wouldn't be sitting in my collection right now. Personal nostalgia often plays a big part in our love of film. It's a valid and beautiful reason for appreciating movies and don't let any cinema snobs tell you otherwise.

So why, in a review that proclaims to be about the 'Back to the Future' trilogy have I just spent two paragraphs rambling on about 'Star Wars'? There are several reasons. To begin with, 'Star Wars' was instrumental in kicking off a certain type of family film which dominated the 80s and enlivened my childhood to an enormous extent. I still believe the 80s was a magical time for family films, even if some have not aged so well, and there are any number of titles from the era which will trigger immediate affection-laden, quote-filled outbursts from people of a certain age. 'Back to the Future' remains one of the most beloved of these films.

Secondly, I wanted to talk about the importance of having experienced certain films at the time they came out and at a certain time in our own personal developments. Just a glance at my DVD collection reveals numerous titles that I probably wouldn't love without the association of excited trips back from the video rental shop, afternoons wondering what magic might be unleashed when we opened that clear, coverless video box and evenings having those excited wonders realised (or not, as in the time we hired 'The Concierge' (1993)!). Look, there's 'Flight of the Navigator' (1986) next to 'Short Circuit' (1986) next to 'Ghostbusters' (1984) next to... well, you get the idea. All films I love that might not be there had I not experienced them at the time. 'The Goonies' (1985) is conspicuously absent for just that reason.

'Back to the Future', however, is a different matter. While it undoubtedly belongs alongside those other films in spirit and style, it utterly transcends them in quality and I know that I would have loved these three wonderful films whenever I happened to come across them. The nostalgia value certainly adds to their appeal but they are so carefully, meticulously crafted and beautifully executed (particularly the first installment) that even the rapidly dating jokes about then-current 80s culture don't seem to age them. This ageless appeal and graceful execution is shared by another of the great trilogies and timeless 80s classics, the 'Indiana Jones' series.

Director Robert Zemeckis went on to dabble in bloated, manipulatively sentimental epics ('Forrest Gump' (1994)) and bad animation ('Beowulf' (2007), 'A Christmas Carol' (2009)) but in the 80s he made a string of great, nostalgically treasured films including 'Romancing the Stone' (1984) and 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' (1988). But the 'Back to the Future' films remain the jewel in his (slipping) crown and the movies most readily identified with his name. So what is it that makes these films so enduringly popular. In the case of the first installment at least, the answer is practically everything.

From its Oscar-nominated screenplay to its Oscar-winning effects, 'Back to the Future' (1985) is utterly brilliant. Most of you probably already know the story but let's briefly synopsise anyway: Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), an 80s teenagers who seems to be the only cool member of a largely pathetic family, accidentally travels back to the year 1955 in a converted Delorean where he mistakenly prevents his parents (Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover) from having their crucial first meeting. This action causes a rift in the space-time continuum which could wipe him and his siblings from existence. While battling to match-make his parents, he must also deal with finding a way to get back to his own time, not to mention keeping the moronic but beefy school bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) off his and his father's backs. He is assisted in his endeavors by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), the scientist who created the time machine.

That's the basic premise but there's a lot more to it than that. The plot mixes elements of action-adventure, romantic high school comedy and 50s nostalgia flick. Ironically for a film so closely associated with 80s nostalgia, it is nostalgia for the 50s that drives this first installment. The sets are gorgeous and there's lots of little era-specific little touches that help create a realistic 50s atmosphere. The story is paced impeccably, flitting from comedy to action so that we have time to drink in the visuals between rushes of adrenalin. The comedy set-pieces are staged brilliantly and are sufficiently varied that the audience isn't able to second-guess where the story is going. The action set-pieces are all thrillingly exciting and complement the comedic interludes perfectly. There is an argument to be made that 'Back to the Future' is one of the most perfectly paced films ever made and I'd have a hard time refuting this.

But 'Back to the Future' has an edgier side to it than most 80s family comedies. Let us not forget that the Delorean is powered by stolen plutonium that Doc Brown ripped off from Libyan terrorists. And what about the Freudian nightmare that Marty experiences when his own mother falls in love with him. Zemeckis somehow manages to sweeten these darker implications to the extent that first time viewers hardly notice them and only long-term fans tend to consider their effortlessly overcome possibilities of incongruity. Zemeckis must be given significant credit for this for his direction and screenplay (written with frequent writing partner Bob Gale) but the contribution of the cast cannot be overestimated. 'Back to the Future' is exquisitely cast with actors who manage to handle the material in exactly the right fashion, playing farcically when it is required but switching effortlessly to more realistic playing for the scenes with more emotional weight.

When considering the cast, the first character that springs to almost everyone's mind is Doc Brown as played by Christopher Lloyd. From his unforgettable first entrance, emerging triumphantly but awkwardly from his Delorean, Lloyd has the character nailed. He overplays, of course, but one look at the characters costumes and lines should indicate that this is exactly what the role demands. Thus Lloyd is superb, firing off long, complex speeches about time-travel with a childlike excitement that few could fail to find adorable. It is extremely difficult to pull off such a boldly drawn characterisation in such a pivotal role but Lloyd sustains the Doc's lovability across the trilogy, even slotting unexpectedly neatly into the role of romantic lead in part three.

While Lloyd's performance has become the most iconic, it is Michael J. Fox who carries the trilogy with his utterly superb characterisation of Marty McFly. Fox is cool, there is no doubt, but he also fills Marty with insecurities and flaws. He is very much the reluctant hero, only stepping into the role to solve problems created by his own persistent bungling. He allows vanity to spoil his otherwise triumphant performance of 'Johnny B. Goode', he allows his own greed to cause the inadvertent creation of a nightmarish alternate reality and he causes no end of trouble through his inability to let go accusation of being "chicken". This is as identifiably human a hero as we've ever been presented with on celluloid. Like Lloyd (but to a lesser extent), Fox knows when to overplay certain reactions and when to aim for emotional honesty. Despite the various romantic entanglements that emerge across the three films, it is by far the friendship between Marty and the Doc that is the most touching relationship. Their love for one another transcends barriers of age and intellect and is the main emotional throughline of the trilogy.

The other, often-unsung hero of the trilogy is Thomas F. Wilson. Overlooked in favour of the two leads, Wilson's Biff is utterly essential to the story and Wilson manages to play him as more than your average threatening dunderhead. Arguably, Wilson is presented with the toughest acting challenge. While several other characters play different versions of themselves and their ancestors, Wilson plays no fewer than seven variations on his character (original 1985 Biff, 1955 Biff, humble new-1985 Biff, old man 2015 Biff, his grandson Griff, new alternate reality 1985 Biff and Bufford 'Maddog' Tannen) and brilliantly performs a couple of scenes where these characters interact among themselves. Wilson's exhaustive performance creates one of the most memorable (or should that be seven of the most memorable) antagonists in 1980s cinema.

With 'Back to the Future Part 1' hitting such heights of quality, the sequels were never going to quite live up to it and yet they are both excellent, exciting pieces of work and considerably better than the obvious cash-ins that so many sequels have been. Critically, they are not as acclaimed but many fans of the trilogy hold them just as dear (in some cases more so) as the original. Part 2 is the most readily criticised but, aside from a very silly scene where Fox plays his own daughter, I find it to be a brave and brilliant sequel. The complex alternate realities plot of this second installment is neatly explained to the audience so that none of its elaborate appeal is lost but most viewers will understand it. The film then becomes a more conventional mission-based narrative with Marty trying to retrieve a stolen Almanac from 1955 Biff. The narrative masterstroke, however, is that this mission is complicated by its running parallel with the events of the first film, many of which play out in the background. Marty must carry out his mission without effecting the events of the first film, thereby undoing all the good work he did in those original hundred minutes of film.

It's safe to say that 'Back to the Future Part 2' is a sequel that cannot be seen separately from its first part. Wisely, Zemeckis and Gale simplified the plot for part 3 (which was filmed concurrently with part 2), sending Marty and the Doc back to the old west. With the aid of more beautiful sets, the Western genre is recreated Back to the Future style. Although part three could plausibly be seen as a stand alone film prefaced by the briefest of introductory outlines, it continues to reward long-term fans with clever recreations and allusions to earlier moments in the trilogy. Both the sequels are densely intertextual and thus watching all three parts in quick succession is a very rewarding experience.

The 'Back to the Future' trilogy is the kind of rare cinematic experience that many have attempted to replicate with little success. It was the perfect combination of good writing, direction, casting and music (that rousing John Williams score will make the hairs on the back of your neck jump to attention) and all at exactly the right time. The result was one of the most uplifting movie franchises of all time, monstrously popular but never taking itself seriously. Consequently, even the belligerently nerdy have willingly accepted the many inconsistencies in the plot and even embraced them as part of its charm. Still to this day my number one most uplifting movie moment is Marty McFly's sudden regeneration from near obliteration during a performance of 'Earth Angel'. Every time I see Michael J. Fox surge back into the frame as his parents reunite, all seems right with the world.