The 1980s were a golden era for smart, slick comedy films with a sci-fi or fantasy slant, from Ghostbusters, and Gremlins, to The Princess Bride, but of all of them, only one has yet been given a proper, wide cinematic re-release in the twenty-first century.
That it should be the tale of a guitar-playing teenager who ends up stuck in the 1950s trying to make sure his parents fall in love is hardly a massive surprise. Because, when it comes down to it, Back To The Future is simply among the most perfect, crowd-pleasing films of all time.
It’s an easy fact to forget, mind. Sure, pretty much everyone who’s seen it will remember that it’s great, but it’s not until seeing it back in a theatrical environment, removed from most people’s usual context of catching two-thirds of it while slumped, bloated on a Boxing Day sofa, that it becomes apparent just how expertly crafted it is. It’s in possession of one of those scripts that simply does not waste a line. Every little nuance matters and every detail, large or small, has thought put into it. (Everyone spots Twin Pines Mall becoming Lone Pine Mall, but did you ever catch that the drunken bum on the bench has the same name, “Red”, as 1955’s mayor?)
It’s perhaps fortunate in its timing (could two eras have served the story better than the mid-80s and mid-50s?), but it doesn’t shy away from the opportunity to draw on the social context, with George and Lorraine standing at the forefront of the teenage revolution, contrasting with their son’s position as a member of the MTV generation.
And touches such as Lorraine naming Marty “Calvin Klein” based on his underwear, or Doc Brown’s incredulity at Ronald Reagan being president, can be written off as hackneyed 25 years after the fact, but the simple fact is that Back To The Future was, at the time, almost unique in exploiting the comedic potential of time travel. And it does so with an assured verve. It knows it’s funny, it knows it’s clever, it just wants you to enjoy the ride.
Another thing that’s often overlooked is the surprisingly dark undercurrent it possesses at times. Again, the fact that its central notion essentially involves a guy getting caught in a love triangle with his mum has been endlessly discussed (and presented a particular headache for promoters, also leading to the script being turned down by Disney).
But how about the easily-forgotten fact that George, in all other respects, one of cinema’s greatest geek heroes, is first introduced to us as a peeping tom? Just what is it with Marty seemingly not having any friends except for the mad loner scientist four times his age?
And then there’s the sheer amount of swearing for what’s ostensibly a family film? All ‘B’s and ‘S’s, sure, but it definitely seems like it was easier to get a PG in the 80s.
Strikingly, it’s career-best work for everybody. No, literally everybody onscreen, one of those wonderfully rare examples of a film so good you know everyone’s having to raise their game just to stay on terms.
Fox is magnificently appealing, no small feat given his character’s early cockiness, but he’s basically Ferris Bueller without the punchability, as is Thompson (albeit for entirely different reasons). And in Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd creates a trope figure so iconic it’s hard to believe he was basically the first example of it.
The film’s also practically a textbook lesson in the art of the set piece. We know them all by heart, but it doesn’t make each one any less thrilling. Johnny Be Goode remains an utter joy, the clock tower finale is still nail-biting, and nearly three decades on, Crispin Glover’s triumphant punch can still move a packed auditorium to cheers.
Irrespective of its status as a family blockbuster, or as a ‘genre’ film, it’s not overstating it to say that Back To The Future is simply a masterpiece of cinema, full stop. Whether or not you were lucky to see it as intended on its original release, the chance to do so now simply can’t be passed up. For nothing else, if only to see that glorious, glorious final shot on the biggest possible screen.
All together now: “Roads…?”
Back To The Future is in UK cinemas from 1st October.