Back to the Future: A Credit to the Science Fiction Genre
There is a lot to be said about Back to the Future’s standing in the science fiction community. Its success was largely in part to its overwhelming nostalgia, and critics had very mixed feelings about such success and its origins. Back to the Future had been one of the first science fiction films to rely largely on comedy and a comedic narrative. It is not always clear (to this author at least) how a critic can see comedy as a fault in a science fiction film. Good comedy is not an easy accomplishment, and it can be largely subjective; many people can disagree on what type of humor is more funny. Despite that, Back to the Future still can stake a claim in the science fiction realm for its other elements.
New Take on Time Travel
Time travel explanations can become convoluted, so I will do my best to be direct and clear. It is not the first time the future has been discussed in a film (Terminator 2 and The Dead Zone to name a few). However, there are some key differences. In Back to the Future, the focus of the film does not particularly stress the ethics of knowing what the future holds. The Dead Zone and Terminator 2 both heavily scrutinized the actions that should and should not be taken regarding handling the knowledge of what is to come. This film, by contrast, is more focused on stressing the importance of the relationship of the present to the future.
In the beginning, Marty’s mother Lorraine comments how “we all make mistakes.” She is referring to her drinking habits in particular, and probably even to marrying George. She had been, of course, reckless in her time. When Marty travels back to 1955 and causes time continuum turmoil, he is unknowingly altering the future. The audience at this point would be connecting the dots, but not necessarily in the right order. They would be thinking, it makes sense; changing the past alters the future. They would be missing the real point of this, a theme which is not expressed in exposition until the final installment of the trilogy: the future is what you make of it because it has not been written yet.
Translating this concept to the first film, it means that it is in the present, not the past, that alters – or creates – the future. Marty’s present when he changes the future is 1955, despite being from 1985. It is about what we do in our present that writes future, not the past. The past is unchangeable (at least still today), but even in Marty’s case, it would be the new present if he were to go back again. The present is relative to where you are, and since we cannot travel in time, we have the easy task of remembering that the present is today everyday.
There are brief moments of the ethics behind knowing the future, most apparent through Doc Brown’s advice to Marty near the climax of the film: “Even if your intentions are good, it can backfire drastically.” This is perhaps one of the only implications that there is a suggestion of an ethical dilemma, beyond the repeated warning that it could rip apart the space-time continuum. Hearing such a phrase does not really phase Marty, and why should it impact a seventeen-year-old boy? He cares more about helping his best friend stay alive. That is why the quotation of good intentions sticks out above the other warnings. It resonates more than the others in both Marty and the audience, and it can apply to other aspects of life. Is telling the truth with good intentions more detrimental than lying to spare feelings? Are the consequences of staying silent less apt to harm than the consequences of speaking out? It is an ethical question we have all faced on some sort of level, even if our circumstances were not as dire as Marty’s.
Era Archetypes and Meaning
Timeline wise, this film is two different eras: the 1980s, and the 1950s. Back to the Future exhibits some of the normalities of films from that time, but it does not exactly stick to them. For example, upon immediate arrival in 1955, Marty crashes the DeLorean into the barn of old Peabody, the pine tree breeder. Marty, clad in a radiation suit, steps out of the car to a scared family of four. The little boy had a copy of Tales from Space, and on the cover is an alien creature dressed similarly to Marty. The first reaction from the family is to scream and run away; the second reaction is to pull out the shotgun and shoot the alien. What is more 1950s American than that? A similar situation occurs after Marty pulls over to see the sign for Lyon Estates. He asks a man and his wife for help – or tries to – before the woman screams at her husband, “Don’t stop or we’ll die!” Exaggerated paranoia, but paranoia nonetheless. There are smaller references to the culture of the 1950s in terms of science fiction cinema.
For example, the television show shown in both 1985 at the dinner table and in 1955 at Lorraine’s house is an episode of Jackie Gleason’s show in which he dresses up as a man from outer space. Also, when Marty is showing Doc Brown the video of the time machine, Doc asks what they are wearing, to which Marty replies radiation suits. Doc then connects the dots and says, “Of course, from the nuclear fallout of the atomic wars.” That was a very real paranoia people had in the 1950s, so to Doc Brown, a radiation suit as normal everyday attire seemed reasonable.
Women in the 1950s section of the film also follow traditional roles, exhibited mostly by Lorraine. She is the object of desire by George and Biff, but becomes infatuated with Marty due to the “Florence Nightingale effect.” She also falls into a stereotypical position of a woman by being sort of helpless. When she is being fondled or nearly raped by Biff, she is unable to protect herself. Furthermore, when George is nearly helpless himself, she tries to help by girlishly banging on Biff’s back, only to be pushed to the ground by one hand to her face. She herself also says after following Marty to Doc’s home that she believes a man should be strong to protect the woman he loves – a rather traditional viewpoint. The traditional women’s roles continue throughout the series.
Race, however, is handled a little bit more progressively. In 1985, the mayor of Hill Valley is Goldie Wilson, an African American male. In 1955, he works at the local diner. Both are actually progressive for their times. Civil rights had not hit their stride in 1955, so for Goldie to have a job in which he was not necessarily treated any worse than another co-worker is a step towards equality. The true soul of what makes the presentation of race in Back to the Future progressive is found in – strangely enough – Biff.
Biff’s character could be seen as a slightly exaggerated representation of a stereotypical American white male. He is pushy, a bully to others, only has power in numbers, and an all round awful person. He enjoys beer, drinking and driving, breaking rules, and chasing after women. He does not have an interaction with Goldie or any other person of color within the narrative, but the diner scene with George and Goldie is particularly interesting. Goldie asks George why he lets Biff and his gang pick on him, and he encourages George to stand up for himself. On the surface, this just ties in with George’s character arc and a theme of essentially growing in confidence, and that is fine. However, looking closer, one realizes Goldie is an African American in the 1950s encouraging a white male to stand up to oppression. A brain teaser, is it not?
Goldie is also the focus after Biff crashes into the manure truck. He runs across the grassy median all the way over to the truck, and emphasizes the awful smell. Why is it Goldie that is the focus? Why not one of the other people that had already gathered around? Why have Goldie run across the way just to wave his hand across his nose? The answer is simple: it is Goldie because it is Biff – the white supremacy stand in.
Of course, this is all a rather fantasized 1950s, as race relations were still pretty tense in the historical context. However, I would argue that the fantasized version of the 1950s would be how Marty would view it. It is a new experience – one of which we will probably never experience in our lifetimes – and Marty even states to Doc that he could explore the fifties in the week he has to wait for the storm. Yet, this is not a dream from Marty’s imagination, so saying the fifties is all smiles because Marty has never been there before is far-fetched narrative-wise.
The 1980s side of the film is significantly less idealized. In Screen Education, an article written by Myke Bartlett entitled “The Future is Now” 1 describes how the different time markers of past, present, and future alter the way we think of our own world. He reads Robert Zemeckis’ vision of 1985 as slightly dystopian in nature. He mentions the details of Hill Valley: “The town square is now little more than a car park, enclosed by sex shops and X-rated cinemas, with most trade shipped out to the mall on the outskirts of town” (Bartlett 16). He goes on to describe how the other films in the series further the notion that the present is not the most pleasant it could be.
Take the theater marquee for an example. In the beginning of the film, it reads “Orgy American Style,” the X-rated film to which Bartlett is referring. Back in 1955, it details about a western starring Ronald Reagan. Once Marty returns to 1985, the marquee states “Assembly of Christ,” meaning a church now has services within the theater. A dramatic swap – from X-rated movies to a church service. Such is how Bartlett reads the film, and how I interpreted it myself: the future is now, to say the least. We control the future right now in the present. We do not have to go to the past to change the future. If we want to change something, we change it in the present.
Genre Overlap as a Strength
However, the film is not without its fair share of critiques. A reviewer of the film in 1985 said, “You needn’t dig for philosophical nuggets in either of the flick’s time frames; simply sit back and let these zanies zap you happy with their frantic antics” (qtd in Wittenberg 52). David Wittenberg, writer of “Oedipus Multiplex, or, The Subject as a Time Travel Film: Two Readings of Back to the Future,” 2 claims that “the problem of analyzing Back to the Future, at such a moment, becomes the dilemma of squaring its all-too-obvious surface with its all-too-latent interior” (Wittenberg 53).
Comedy in the science fiction realm is often seen as a weakness to the thematic elements and the work as a whole. Wittenberg, though he makes other points as to why the film is less than remarkable, seems to agree. He goes on to destroy the use of nostalgia in the film’s delivery and the efficacy of the film’s political statements and stance. Wittenberg gives two possible reads of the film – the first is merely for entertainment purposes in which the audience turns off their minds and is spoon-fed everything to their heart’s content with a feel-good narrative, and the second ascribes more of the production elements into the viewing nature of the audience in which they are taken through time. While the critiques Wittenberg offers have their own validity, it is in my opinion and experience (and perhaps simply a personal preference), that comedy or nostalgia does not always take away from the narrative or philosophical value.
The genre overlap with comedy is quite well done, although one should ask if it is a science fiction film with a comedy overlap, or is it a comedy with science fiction tropes? The comedy genre generally follows this outline: an outcast in society takes a journey of self-discovery that goes against the mainstream. Marty McFly is indeed an outcast, but not necessarily in society as is the typical persona of comedy heroes.
Marty is an outcast to his family. His dad is a nerd that never seemed to escape the class bully, his mom is a drinker, his brother works fast food, and his sister is simply strange. He seems to be the only normal one. His only friend mentioned (excluding the members of his band, which never are mentioned again after their audition in the opening of the film) is an old scientist. His goal is to make a life for himself – a future, if you will – in which he is successful: the complete opposite of his parents.
The film could also be considered a melodrama based on its presentation and ideals regarding family. Marty’s unhappiness with the family he is born into stirs an unrest in him. When he stresses about being rejected for a band gig, he exclaims with distaste how he is starting to sound like his dad. He wants no part of their mannerisms or life. However, what he does not know is how they used to be.
One day, I was accompanying my mother to the pharmacy to pick up her prescription. I waited in the car for her, thinking about my game night that I had planned for my friend’s group that evening. She came back to the car, looked at me, and said, “I got the drugs; now it’s a party!” My mouth dropped; my sweet, innocent mother, saying something like that? Other instances had happened since then with both my mother and father, and one day, my dad commented, “We were young once.”
It made me wonder, how much did they really do when they were my age, and did they keep it from me to preserve my innocence? Marty’s parents are no exception. Lorraine throws herself at men in 1955, and in 1985, her tone has changed to extremely conservative, reaching a constrictive level. The truth of the matter is, we never really know what our parents were like when they were young, and yet we judge them based on how they act now. They could be trying to prevent us from making mistakes from which they learned the hard way, or simply just want us to experience life for ourselves – we do not know.
As Marty learns about his family, he understands more of their experiences and how they ended up in life where they did. He does however change it, bettering their lives by his own knowledge. It goes to show that we learn from our parents, and our parents learn from us. The film makes another point about family: as the old saying goes, we become like our parents. Marty becomes similar to his dad. Lorraine makes a comment to Marty about how he sounds like her mother – a comment meaning to spark laughter as Marty is repeating the words of wisdom Lorraine herself told him. That demonstrates how Lorraine in effect became her mother as well. Back to the Future encourages people to learn more about their family and their experiences and get to know them, as who knows when it would be the last day we would see them.
The Take Away
In comparison to other science fiction films, Back to the Future is very different. A lot of them have a basis in seriousness, action, or have an entire philosophical spectrum message they want to impart on the audience. Back to the Future is, as stated prior, a comedy at heart. There are takings from the film – despite some critics saying they are lacking in sustenance. The nostalgia of the film urges people to long for how things used to be and to change how they act now to reflect the idealized past in order to brighten the uncertain future (which could also cause critics to say that it is much too fantasized for such a thing to be a realistically adequate call to action).
If Back to the Future had to be compared for similarities, it would most likely match up most with both The Dead Zone and Terminator 2 for reasons previously expressed: the comedy aspect, and the themes regarding the future. Addressing a critique that had been put forth upon Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Terminator 2, Back to the Future’s purpose is not just to spoon-feed the audience into a melodramatic universal feeling at the end; there is meaning in it, though it may not be as complex and trying as 2001: A Space Odyssey.
- Bartlett, Myke. The future is now: Revisiting the present in ‘Back to the future’ [online]. Screen Education, No. 79, Spring 2015: 16-25. ↩
- Wittenberg, David. “Oedipus Multiplex, or, The Subject as a Time Travel Film: Two Readings of ‘Back to the Future.’” Discourse, vol. 28, no. 2/3, 2006, pp. 51–77. JSTOR, JSTOR. ↩
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