Back to the Future

Does the film stand the test of time?

Last Wednesday, October 21, 2015, I picked up my phone and hailed Siri, iPhone users’ favorite personal assistant, confidant, and fake friend. I said, “Happy Back to the Future Day, Siri.” She responded by saying, “Be careful who you date today, or you could start disappearing from photos,” a reference to the first Back to the Future movie. I wished her Happy Back to the Future Day probably 20 times, and received 10 original answers, all referencing the 1985 film and its two sequels. She said “Great Scott,” a favorite saying of character Doc Brown. She asked if I wanted to heat up my dehydrated pizza. She told me Hill Valley, California, was a nice place to live.

Back to the Future, however, still stands strong. Yes, there are some ideas/special effects that are now outdated, but it’s still compelling cinema.

Yes, 30 years after its release, Back to the Future found itself back to cultural relevance thanks to October 21, 2015, the date that characters Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travel to in Back to the Future II. Many publications wrote about what Back to the Future II correctly predicted and where it missed the mark: Flying cars? Not yet. Hover boards? Yes! The Cubs winning the World Series? Almost. Movie theaters across the country even showed the trilogy as a triple feature on October 21, 2015. Not since Prince’s song “1999” has a date resurrected art (yes, that’s a generous use of the word art) as much as October 21, 2015. Amazon Prime is currently offering the trilogy on demand, so I went back to the past to watch the trilogy to see if it is worth its self-prophesizing hype.

The cynic in me says that director Robert Zemeckis totally knew what he was doing by placing a not-so-distant future date in his movie in order to capitalize on its success a second time. The optimist in me actually thinks the exact same thing. But do genius foresight and skillful marketing translate into quality? Well, one out of three isn’t bad.

I hadn’t watched the first Back to the Future in probably 15 years, and I have learned that movies I thought were great in the 1980s really aren’t great, or even mediocre. Sixteen Candles was super fun in 1984 but pretty offensive 15 years later. I thought Breakfast Club was a classic in 1985, but it’s just okay. And when I was 14, I thought Short Circuit was the greatest movie of all time. After convincing my family to watch it three decades later, I realized I was wrong. But hey, at least I finally proved that my brain had matured over a 30-year span.

Back to the Future, however, still stands strong. Yes, there are some ideas/special effects that are now outdated, but it’s still compelling cinema. Even my 11-year-old and 9-year-old daughters liked it, despite its age. That’s partly because well-conceived underdog stories usually translate well to audiences. The outliers—the guitar-playing skateboarder, the mad scientist, and the nerdy teen that aspires to write science fiction—defeat the bullies and defy misguided authority on their way to success. Back to the Future shows that quirkiness isn’t just okay; it’s a welcome necessity.

The story is simple: scientist builds a time machine, things go awry, and his protégé accidentally travels back to 1955, where he needs to accomplish some tasks in order to preserve the future.

Director Zemeckis abandoned the simplicity, charm, and character likability, however, in Back to the Future II, which is as annoying as it is convoluted. Doc Brown and Marty travel to 2015, which is interesting only because it is currently 2015 right now. All of the characters in the future have whiny voices and no redeeming qualities. And traveling from 1985 to 2015, back to 1985, then back to 1955, then back to 1985 is cumbersome. The best parts from the second film are pretty much just regurgitations of the first movie.

Zemeckis shot the second and third movies at the same time, and the third one begins right as the second one finishes. Doc has been transported back to 1885, Marty goes to save him and then the two try to—you guessed it—get back to the future. The third movie is simpler, taking place primarily in the Wild West and not jumping around too much. It is also less annoying than the second. It is, however, sleep inducing. Doc falls in love, but who wants to see a dancing, romantic Doc when he could be building flying machines? The likeable, slightly unstable scientist morphs into a boring boyfriend, and the third installment never feels like anything other than a tacked-on bookend.

In fact, the second and third movies show so little creativity that it’s hard to believe they were made for any other reason than to capitalize on the first movie’s success. While the original film is worthy of a comeback, its successors should have stayed in the past.