Great movies often have a way of finding us at just the right time in our lives. We discover them when we’re meant to. I found Back to the Future as a dorky little nine-year-old boy. Between the special effects, the music, and the one-liners (“What’s with the life preserver, kid?”), I was instantly hooked. Before my childhood was over, this movie joined a pantheon of titles I could quote by heart. Every joke, every dramatic beat, every Huey Lewis lyric–they were tattooed on the same part of my brain that remembers the warp points on Super Mario Bros. Sure, this movie has a few flaws, and even some icky moments. But I can’t really judge Back to the Future for what it is now. Those five stars are from the boy who first stumbled onto it.
Normally, this is the segment where I do a spoiler-free rundown of the plot, but if you don’t already know the gist of Back to the Future…well, I’m sorry. You’ve wandered onto a movie review blog, like a lost kid in a department store. Find a nice security guard and let them ask for your mommy or daddy on the loudspeakers. Actually, I’m being a brat, and I apologize. If you’re just getting into film, consider this entry as a crucial part of your education. Maybe it’s finding you at just the right time.
With that in mind, I’ll give you the Reader’s Digest version. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is a typical 80s movie teen: He’s into cutting classes, smooching his girlfriend (Claudia Wells), and shredding Van Halen licks on his Stratocaster. And, like most of us at that age, Marty’s best friend is an…elderly mad scientist? Ol’ Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) looks a little bit like Albert Einstein and jabbers like a Scooby Doo villain. As the film opens, Doc summons Marty to a late-night rendezvous at a nearby shopping mall. His mission: To document what will be Doc’s greatest invention.
The reveal of that invention will shock no one who can read the title: Doc has somehow melded a compact nuclear reactor with a silver DeLorean to create the world’s first (and sportiest) time machine. When that baby hits 88MPH, the car whisks its occupants to a pre-designated point in time.
Naturally, the plot happens, and Marty ends up stranded back in 1955. He staggers around his hometown, which is now a tidy Donna Reed landscape of poodle skirts and coonskin caps. Along this odyssey, Marty bumps into his parents: Lorraine (Lea Thompson) develops a Nightingale-stlye crush on her future son, which pass-blocks George McFly (Crispin Glover) from making the moves on his future wife. That creates an existential crisis for Marty on two fronts. First, he and Doc of 1955 must cobble an old-school solution to return him, you know, back to the future. Next, Marty must ensure his parents still get together and do the horizontal hot dog dance, or else he’ll never exist. Oh yeah, George’s lifelong bully (Thomas F. Wilson) is looking to make trouble, as well.
If you know this movie as well as most, then I just wasted an entire paragraph clacking on my keyboard. But, if you’re one of the few for whom this is new, I hope I made this sound tantalizing enough to watch. Just trust me, Back to the Future is a bona-fide classic.
I mean, how could it not be? Apologies to Alex P. Keaton, but this is the role of Fox’s career. As McFly, Fox balances the usual teen bravado with total likability to make this a superstar-making performance. Meanwhile, Lloyd has a ball as the jittery, wild-eyed genius with a heart of gold. Special mention must also go to Wilson, who steals a few scenes as the arrogant meathead with an astronaut’s haircut.
Praise also goes for the other side of the camera. With Steven Spielberg producing and Robert Zemeckis directing, no expense is spared. The cinematography, editing, and special effects are all top-notch. With that said, the real engine of this classic movie is the clever and cute screenplay by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, which builds to a genuinely suspenseful finale.
All that good stuff makes it easier to give Future a pass when it gets a little icky. Lorraine unwittingly lusting after her son ranks alongside Princess Leia making out with Luke in Empire Strikes Back as some of the cringiest stuff you’ll see in blockbuster cinema. I’ve watched this movie around thirty times, and can confirm that Lorraine’s commentary on Marty’s underwear only gets weirder with time.
But that’s not enough to diminish my love for this movie. Back to the Future exemplifies movie magic. It stirred my young imagination in a way very few films have. In fact, I’ll pay it my highest compliment: I have a list of movies to share with my son, and this was an easy pick. Someday, Back to the Future will be ready for him to discover.
116 min. PG. Peacock.