This week in a special edition of Sci-Fi Time Capsule, a look back at the Back to the Future trilogy. This is not a seminal time-travel movie. Jules Verne and Mark Twain both paved the way for such fare long before, and The Terminator had a dark take on time travel just a year before. But what Back to the Future did was it put time travel in front of mass audiences, and make it stylish, fun, and accessible. More importantly for this look back, the “future” they went to was 2015. It’s time to look back and see just how much today’s future looks like 1985’s version of it.
(WARNING: This whole damn thing is spoilers)
Since these are such well-known movies, and there are three of them this time, I’m going to the synopses brief.
Back to the Future
Doc builds a time machine, but gets caught by terrorists from whom he stole the plutonium to power it. Marty flees in the time machine, which takes him back to 1955. He inadvertently encounters his own parents and disrupts their first meeting and falling in love. Enlisting the help of 1955 Doc, they repair the damage to Marty’s parents’ relationship, rig up the time machine to run on lightning, and use knowledge of an historic storm to send Marty back, where Doc is saved from the terrorists’ bullets by a kevlar vest he put on after reading a note Marty left for him about the shooting.
Back to the Future II
Doc comes back from visiting the future to tell Marty that he needs to fix a problem his future (2015) son has gotten into. They drag his girlfriend Jennifer along, but she’s not a major plot element (she’s used to show off other bits of the future and some side plot stuff, but nothing strictly essential). Marty impersonates his own son to avoid Marty Jr. getting arrested as part of a heist. Marty sees a sports almanac in an antique store window and buys it, thinking to bring it back to 1985 and make money betting on sports. Doc makes him throw it out, but nemesis Biff finds it and sneaks off with the time machine and gives it to his past self, who does just what Marty planned to do with it. When Doc and Marty go back to 1985, they find a new timeline created: a dystopian hellhole, owned by billionaire Biff Tannen. Capers ensue, and Doc and Marty go back to 1955 to find the almanac before Biff can put it to use. Marty burns the book, and things go back to normal. But a thunderstorm-related mishap vaporizes the time machine, stranding Marty in 1955.
In the final scene, a courier from Western Union delivers a letter they’ve had for 70 years. Doc is alive and well in 1885.
Back to the Future III
Marty goes back and freaks out 1955 Doc, who had just seen Marty disappear back to the future. They unearth the time machine, which 1885 Doc had hidden in an abandoned mine, along with instructions to repair it. Marty goes back to prevent Doc from getting shot by one of Biff’s ancestors. Doc helps repair the time machine, and they prepare to use a railroad engine to push it up to 88mph and send Marty home. Doc wants to stay. Doc falls in love. Things go sour. He wants to go back with Marty. They patch things up. He wants to stay. In the end, the plan works, Marty stops Doc from getting shot, and 1985 is back to the idyllic state it had been in at the end of the first movie. At the final scene, Doc shows up in a railroad engine time machine to say goodbye.
Why Is This a Classic?
As I mentioned earlier, this isn’t the origin of the time-travel concept. But earlier time travel movies had either hand-waved the “how” away, or were rather dense. We see Back to the Future through Marty’s eyes, and he’s a doofus. Doc dumbs everything down for Marty to understand it, and that means everyone watching gets what’s going on, too.
But the real reason it’s a classic is that it took a time-traveling look at a not-too-distant future. 2015 was an eternity away in Hollywood time, when Back to the Future came out in 1985. Time enough for studios to pop up or go out of business, for child actors to grow up and wash out, and for the biggest names in producing and directing to retire. But most of the audience for Back to the Future knew they would live to see 2015, and in the past decade especially, people have been on the lookout for the technological predictions of Back to the Future to come to pass, as if science owed us Hollywood’s promised technology.
Marty: Hey, Doc, we better back up. We don’t have enough road to get up to 88.
Doc: Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.
Doc: No, no, no, no, no, this sucker’s electrical, but I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 gigawatts of electricity I need.
Doc: If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour… you’re gonna see some serious shit.
Really, Doc got all the best lines.