Back to the Future wasn’t the first time travel movie, and it won’t be the last, but it’s hard to think of one that is as beloved. The story of Marty McFly traveling from his present-day 1985 to 1955 where he runs into his parents as teenagers is filled with adventure, laughs, and heart.
The work of Bob Gale, Robert Zemeckis, Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, and the rest of the cast have made Back to the Future a family-friendly classic in the ranks of films like E.T. and The Goonies, but what makes it the gold standard for time travel movies is much deeper.
10 The Explanation Is Simple
Time travel movies sometimes get caught up in explaining how the characters can travel through time, and while it may seem important to explain it to the audience, the truth is, the people watching rarely care about the specifics. The more that gets explained, the less realistic the time travel feels because the viewer starts to question each aspect.
Back to the Future gets around this problem with one device; the Flux Capacitor. What does the Flux Capacitor do? According to Doc Brown, it makes time travel possible. How does the Flux Capacitor work? We’re never told, and that’s totally fine.
9 Focus Is On Character, Not Time Travel
A big part of keeping the explanation for how time travel works in Back to the Future simple is that it allows the movie to focus on what really matters; the characters. Back to the Future is, at its core, a movie about family. Everything Marty does in 1955 is done to save not just his life, but the lives of his siblings and the relationship of his parents.
Watching Back to the Future, there is a character for everyone to connect with in some way, even beyond Marty. George McFly is the nerdy kid. Lorraine is the girl next door who wants to be so much more. Doc Brown is the dreamer who finally sees his plans come together. We connect with each and every one of them.
8 The Stakes Are Straightforward
Time travel movies can often make the main problem of the movie confusing to the viewer. Back to the Future Part II has been accused of this, with Marty and Doc coming back from the far-off future of 2015 to find themselves in an alternate 1985 before heading back to 1955 to fix what went wrong.
In Back to the Future, the problem is simple; Marty needs to make sure his parents kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, or else he’ll cease to exist. By sticking to a clear and concise dilemma, the movie lets the viewer enjoy the story.
7 The Differences Are Fun To Spot
Back to the Future takes its time getting to the time travel aspect of the story, allowing audiences to get to know what Marty’s life and Hill Valley are like in 1985 before heading off to 1955. This allows the movie to show off the differences in the characters and town across a 30-year period. Marty meets versions of his parents who are very different from the adults he grew up with.
As for Hill Valley, in 1985, the town has clearly fallen on hard times but in 1955 everything is new and clean. But the changes don’t stop there; when Marty finally returns to 1985, we get to see how his presence in 1955 changed the present, most notably his parent’s relationship and the Twin Pines Mall.
6 Casting Makes All The Difference
Speaking of Marty’s parents, Back to the Future wouldn’t work without the talents of Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson as George and Lorraine McFly. The actors, who were young when the movie was made, had to play the characters in two different forms – as teens and as defeated parents in their 40s. While makeup helped age the actors up, it is their talents that really sell the differences.
Along with Glover and Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson had to pull off the same situation as the film’s main villain, Biff Tannen. Wilson’s transformation from aged bully to high school bully is truly remarkable. While Michael J. Fox often gets credit for his performance, he can only shine so bright because of the actors he worked with.
5 Marty Is The Everyman
While the other characters help make Back to the Future stand out from the crowd, there’s no denying the importance of Marty McFly and Michael J. Fox’s portrayal of the character. Marty is the everyman character in more ways than one. As far as we see in the movie, he doesn’t belong to any clique or group. He’s not the coolest kid in school, but he isn’t a nerd. He’s just Marty. Marty’s ability to connect with anyone helps him blend in with the other teens of 1955, even if he can’t figure out how to open up a Pepsi bottle.
4 Humanizes And Makes Parents Relatable
As kids and teens, we all have an image of what our parents were like at that age, and we’re all pretty sure they wouldn’t understand the things we’re going through. Marty feels much the same way right up until he meets his parents as teenagers in 1955. Suddenly, Marty sees that the common troubles of a teen are not a generational issue, but an age issue. For the first time, Marty sees his parents for who they truly are, not what he has made them out to be. They, like him, had big dreams and were filled with hope. Realizing that makes Marty understand that he has much more in common with his mom and dad than he ever thought before.
3 It Sets Up Everything
Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis spent years working on the script for Back to the Future, and it really shows. Few films do as good a job of setting up not just every joke but every character beat as Back to the Future does. From the seemingly throw-away line about Lorraine’s brother, Uncle Jail Bird Joey, to the lightning strike at the clock tower, every major moment in the film is set up in the first act, and it all seems to be done with ease. By setting everything up in advance, it gives the viewer confidence in the movie as things get crazy.
2 Has A Cool Method For Time Travel
How characters get around in a time travel movie can make or break the whole thing. In Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Captain Kirk and the crew use a Klingon Bird of Prey to travel around the sun and go back in time, which is cool but not something the common person has access to. In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the duo gets a time machine in the form of a phone booth from Rufus, but you don’t see many phone booths these days.
But in Back to the Future, Doc Brown turns his DeLorean into a time machine, and suddenly we can all see ourselves traveling through time. Sure, most of the people who have seen Back to the Future don’t have a DeLorean, but the idea of owning a car isn’t completely out of this world. Thankfully, the studio made Gale and Zemeckis change how Marty travels through time.
1 It Works For Everyone
Back to the Future is a rare movie that is actually for people of any age. The movie works on different levels depending on the viewer’s age, but there’s something in it for pretty much everyone. Kids and teens connect to Marty’s adventure, while adults see the nostalgia of a time gone by, and how that nostalgia blinds us from some truths of the past that have created the problems of the present.
But most of all, Back to the Future manages to retain a sense of innocence and wonderment that many movies aren’t able to. That is a hard tightrope to walk, but Back to the Future pulls it off.
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