Lots of Back to the Future posts and references the last couple weeks. So why did I wait until this week? Had to make sure that Marty McFly was back to 1985. Now we can talk about him.
On October 21, a number of my friends were proudly posting pictures of themselves holding the Back to the Future DVD, saying they were just about to watch it. Umm, good luck finding any 2015 there, guys. Cause it ain’t in the original movie. Even a number of the news reports I watched kept getting the release date of the movie wrong. Yes, the original movie was released in 1985, and that is the year from whence Monsieur McFly traveled. But the movie in which he traveled to 2015 was Back to the Future Part II, released in 1989.
A sequel coming out FOUR YEARS after the original? How archaic!
In fact, when the original movie was produced, there were no plans for a sequel. The “To Be Continued” at the end of the movie did not appear in the theatrical release. In what kind of crazy alternate timeline is a movie released without the next five sequels already being planned and filmed? And they didn’t even split the last movie in two? The horrors!
Of course, they DID film the second and third movie back-to-back, so that they could be released six months apart from each other. To my knowledge, they were the first to do this now-standard practice.
These are a few of the reasons the Back to the Future trilogy is still relevant, but there are others. And no, this is not just a reaction to Marty McFly’s “arrival date” just passing. Plenty of movies have predictions of future dates, but society doesn’t go apeshit when those dates arrive. I don’t remember the news media running vignettes on the state of Artificial Intelligence on August 29, 1997, date Terminator predicted Skynet would become self-aware.
I know, I know. Self-lacing shoes are way more relevant to our future on this planet than self-aware technology. Who cares about the future of all human life if we can’t even get a goddamned hoverboard, right?
The Back to the Future trilogy is unique for a number of ways. Going back to that whole 2 and 3 being shot back-to-back and released six months apart from each other. Six months! Even by today’s Fast and the Furious/Hunger Games standards, that’s fast. Twenty-five years ago, it was unheard of. The standard wait time between sequels back then was a good three years. I assume the conventional wisdom was that audiences would be disinterested in going back to see the “continuing adventures” so soon.
So at least in that one sense, Back to the Future Part II was as relevant as Godfather II. Prior to Godfather II, movies were released like theater shows. First they would premiere in New York, and maybe Los Angeles, followed a few weeks later by the other major cities. They would then filter through the less-major cities, and if you lived in Omaha, you’re probably waiting a few months for the movie to hit the one screen in town. The producers of Godfather II, released two years after the original, said “screw that.” They knew the public was clamoring to see the sequel, so they circumvented the powers that be and just released it everywhere simultaneously. It worked, and has been the standard ever since.
So you can thank Back to the Future for the fact that the Twilight craze wasn’t dragged out for another decade.
The trilogy itself was also unique, in that the three movies are so markedly different entities. The first movie was just your run-of-the-mill teen movie. Just take out Lea Thompson and add in Molly Ringwald, and you’d scarcely notice the difference between it and Sixteen Candles. The standard John Hughes tropes are all there. Geeky boy secretly pines away for beautiful girl, who is oblivious to his existence, because girl is enamored with foxy mysterious boy. Something about underwear, and then the geeky guy is encouraged by foxy mysterious guy to stand up to school bully and get the girl. And the space-time continuum is saved.
Wait, that last part wasn’t in Sixteen Candles? I must be thinking of Pretty in Pink.
The second movie is really the one that defines the trilogy. I remember a lot of people complaining when it came out that it was too complicated. They had taken a cute little reverse-Oedipal story and added layers and complications. All these people wanted was another simple story about a boy trying to ensure his own birth, and those bastards went and added things like alternate timelines and divergence points. And sports gambling.
“Whatever,” I remember my pubescent voice admonishing people, “I’ve been reading comics for years. Alternate timelines? Big whoop.”
The second movie also did a good job of keeping some of the original themes going, but adding a little bit more gravitas to them. Now it’s not just Marty that will cease to be, but all of society. They also make squeaky-clean, save-the-world Marty the bad guy. Or maybe not the bad guy, but responsible for everything that went wrong. After all, he was the one who bought the sports almanac with the intent to make a quick buck in the past.
Then there’s the special effects. Having Michael J. Fox play multiple roles in the same room at the same time while not looking two-dimensional was new. And the last half-hour of the movie, where they actually are added into the original movie, was spectacular. If there’s a second Deadpool movie, maybe they can have him pull the “I was there during all of the earlier X-Men movies.” He does that in the comics a fair bit.
Oh, and they re-shot the final scene of the first movie with a different actress and barely anybody noticed.
I’m not sure which is more impressive: a scene in which one actor plays three roles or a scene in which two actresses play the same role.
Then came the third movie, a Western. That’s right, we went from teen movie to sci-fi head-scratcher to Clint Eastwood. Literally Clint Eastwood, since that’s the name Marty used in 1885, when the movie takes place. Imagine the balls on Bob Gale, the writer. He just decided he wanted to do a Western and, hey, the fans are clamoring for more Back to the Future, so here you go.
Imagine if the Return of the Jedi was suddenly about elves and dwarves. Or Return of the King showed Frodo and Sam spending a day in Saturday school. Or if the final Indiana Jones movie threw in aliens.
Wait, they did WHAT in Kingdom Skull? Okay, never mind.
The point is you can’t completely change the genre in the finale. But Back to the Future did. No more sports almanacs or alternate timelines or Michael J. Fox fading out of existence. But there was still enough of the standard tropes to connect the three – the Tanners are dimwits, benefiting from knowledge of the future, the time machine has lost power so a vehicle has to get up to 88 MPH. And trains. And horses.
And you know what? It worked!
So now that Back to the Future Day has passed, let’s stop with our obsession of how much it got right. No more hoverboards or shoes or Cubs. And let’s focus on the trilogy itself, and how groundbreaking it was. They influenced how trilogies could be filmed and marketed. They informed writers that, if you have an engaging premise and characters, you can do whatever you want with them and people will follow you.
Even if the hero abandons his girlfriend on the porch of a stranger’s house in a violent, dystopian present that he himself had created.