Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Back to the Future

As we continue forward through the years, there will always be new movies to entertain and appeal to a wide variety of interests, some more niche than others. Similarly, as Trophy Unlocked continues operations, we will strive to review whatever movie catches our eye and inspires us to not only view it, but write out our feelings about it. We’ve been doing our best to accomplish this goal for three years now, but back when it was solely updated by me, I had been pretty enthusiastic about the idea of reviewing. I still am and I love to write down how I feel about a given movie, game or comic, but the very early days of this blog are what I would consider my worst, since I had almost no idea of what I was doing and my writing style hadn’t begun to take shape just yet. That was how my second review became devoted to not just one, but three films all at once; you may know this as the Back to the Future trilogy. Looking back at how I went about it, I’m not entirely satisfied with my treatment of the franchise. My writing seems more amateurish compared to what it is now and I was, somewhat obviously, a much more hardcore reader of TV Tropes (side note: I still read TV Tropes, but I’ve saved my extensive reading periods moreso for after I’ve already seen/played/read something), which may have had a large influence on that earlier style. Now that my reviewing abilities have improved drastically, I’ve decided that for Trophy Unlocked’s third anniversary, I’m going to go back to the original Back to the Future movie and give it a more proper treatment. If you’re still on board, then let’s turn on the flux capacitor and set the time circuits for the year 1985, back when it was okay to like Robert Zemeckis.

Behind them, all hope Zemeckis had of remaking Yellow Submarine.

The year is 1985. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) lives with his family in Hill Valley, California. His family isn’t particularly ambitious, as his father, George McFly (Crispin Glover), works under an old bully named Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson); his mother, Lorraine Baines-McFly (Lea Thompson), is overweight and has a problem with drinking and smoking; and his siblings, Dave (Marc McClure) and Linda McFly (Wendie Jo Sperber), are on the lower end of the totem pole. The only thing Marty has to look forward to is his date with Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), but unfortunately his plans are in jeopardy after Biff has nearly totaled George’s car and tries to get out of paying for the damages (in fact adding damage to his suit to George’s potential bill). As his life is falling apart around him, Marty delivers on a request made to him by Dr. Emmet “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to meet him at the Twin Pines mall at a particular time. There, Doc Brown shows Marty a time machine he created out of a DeLorean and has him help document its first test run; with his dog Einstein buckled into the front seat, Doc Brown’s experiment is a success. Things quickly turn sour, however, when Doc Brown reveals to Marty that the flux capacitor, which makes time travel possible, runs on plutonium, as well as how he obtained it by essentially stealing it from Libyan terrorists. Right on cue, after plutonium is placed into the DeLorean, the terrorists show up and gun down Doc Brown as an act of revenge. In a last ditch effort to save him, Marty manages to escape into the time machine, where he travels back into the year 1955, completely unaware as to what is about to happen to him over the course of a single week in the past.

Above: Where Marty ends up.
Below: Where Marty starts out.

This premise is actually pretty unique, at least for when the movie came out in 1985, and the execution turns out to be pretty well done. This film is first and foremost a comedy, but there’s a good amount of suspense to keep the viewer interested as Marty races to not only get back to 1985, but also undo everything he’s done wrong to alter the timeline from its original state (more on that later). The more serious moments play out in a surprisingly realistic way, helped by exposition brief enough to not only fill us in on how certain characters behave, but also not interrupt the natural flow of the story.

Back to the Future’s sense of humor is also of the variety that I prefer, which is to say that it is smart and doesn’t go for the cheap laugh. Much of this comes from how the characters interact with each other, coupled with perfectly timed responses, casual but somewhat restrained swearing and some science-related jokes which are accessible to a wider audience yet don’t make the speaker the butt of the joke. One particular gag may not seem to fit in with the smart humor, that being the famous manure scene, but its execution and the fact that it is merely one joke of many helps to really sell it and make it a classic moment.

While we’re still on the subject of the story, I’d like to add that though the movie is well done, I am aware of certain inconsistencies, plot holes and possibly questionable morals. However, I’m not going to really touch upon those because there are already like a million articles which cover these subjects extensively and I don’t want to come off as parroting their informally informative findings. Therefore, I suggest that you look to them for such info after reading the rest of this review.

For instance, a California license plate can't have eight characters.

To get back to the subject of the movie’s time travel logic, I found it to be very consistent with itself. Back to the Future’s logic works as such: As soon as you make any major change to the timeline, such as running into your own mother in the past and causing her to inadvertently become enamored with you, you’ve created a completely separate timeline. In other words, Marty started off in the unaltered Timeline A, but through all of his changes he has created the new Timeline B, which is what he experiences through the rest of the movie (and he can never go back to Timeline A even if he wanted to). To that end, they did a good job keeping true to this and showing how it all worked out in the end. This is helped by the many well-framed shots which display fully how different 1985 and 1955 are from each other in ways that seem like they’d fit with each time period; clearly the filmmakers really did their research. In fact, it becomes a sort of fun game to try and find all of the subtle changes made as a result of Marty’s adventures through the time stream once he inevitably gets back home.

One thing which must also be praised is the acting in Back to the Future. Michael J. Fox does a very good job as Marty McFly. His expressions and body language are enough to sell a teenager living in 1985 with a family as socially low-ranking as his. As a result, all of his actions and reactions come off more realistically and help him feel pretty relatable as well. Fox’s ability as an actor may waver between roles, but he plays the part so naturally that I can’t imagine any other actor playing Marty McFly on the silver screen. In a similar vein, Christopher Lloyd positively nails his role as Doc Brown. Lloyd brings a certain amount of energy to the part that I don’t think anyone else can replicate. Doc Brown is very enthusiastic about his work and is more than willing to share his discoveries with Marty. While we don’t know how the two exactly met, the two characters have perfect chemistry onscreen, also being good foils for each other’s personalities, to the point where their odd friendship is wholly believable.

Christopher Lloyd (left) and Michael J. Fox (right) have great chemistry.

The other actors are good for their respective roles as well. Crispin Glover manages to make George McFly a pretty embarrassing character to watch, though he does have a couple well-timed moments of humor, and Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff Tannen is pretty imposing as a bully. While Claudia Wells is known for her part as the original Jennifer Parker, she doesn’t really do much in the film despite having some solid acting ability (it’s possible the writers didn’t know what to do with the character). Unfortunately she hasn’t appeared in any Back to the Future film since, as she was unavailable for the sequels, but due to my visits to Comic-Con, I’m aware that she hits the convention circuit, offering autographs in exchange for money (whether or not the autograph is worth a trip is up to you).

Also notable are the music and effects. I felt that, apart from the good score by Alan Silvestri, the music was chosen rather well. The placement of Mr. Sandman by The Chordettes is well-chosen and Earth Angel by The Penguins works for the time period (incidentally, both songs were released in 1954, so it would be believable for those songs to be used in a 1955 setting). While Earth Angel and Johnny B. Goode, the latter of which is by Chuck Berry, are covered well in the film by the in-universe Marvin Berry and The Starlighters (with Marty filling in on guitar), the most interesting songs to me are the original songs by Huey Louis and the News; The Power of Love and Back in Time. The former captures the romantic portion of the film quite well, though it is the latter that I associate the most heavily with Back to the Future due to its use in capping off the events of the film; In a way, I feel that any experience with the franchise is complete if it features this song.

Marty McFly in the process of inventing Johnny B. Goode.

As for the effects, they hold up surprisingly well. The visuals used for the time travel are very fitting and all of the practical effects related to the DeLorean are very rightfully iconic. It’s easy to get lost in the detail on the time circuits and the way the flux capacitor looks is always fascinating in its simplicity. While I’m sure some aging stands out more for some, there is one particular effect that doesn’t really look good when I see it and that’s when Marty watches his hand disappear while playing Johnny B. Goode. It sort of just looks like a third arm suddenly appeared in front of his body thanks to the very awkward rendering of the moment.

When this baby hits 88 miles per hour, you're gonna see some serious shit!

Back to the Future is an example of a movie where all of the right elements came together in just the right way. The story is well-written, despite spawning a ton of articles, the chemistry between the characters is believable and the music and effects are done brilliantly. While there may be a problem here and there, these don’t ever detract from the experience and each subsequent viewing is still worth going through. Though a bit dated, this film is an instant classic that should be viewed by anyone curious about 80’s pop culture.

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