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Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future gives the impression of being very economical in terms of its narrative… but it really isn’t. Zemeckis just does such a great job immediately establishing the fifties setting, even though there’s less than fifty minutes before the third act, the film feels more immediate.

It takes a half hour to get to the past (until that point, of course, the title doesn’t make much sense) and Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale establish the characters. Well, not the characters, but the cast. No one in Future has much of a character, just a distinct, likable persona. Even Thomas F. Wilson’s menacing thug.

Without the establishing front matter, Michael J. Fox’s trip to the past wouldn’t work, at least not with his parents, Crispin Glover and Lea Thompson. Actually, it might work with Glover, since he’s fantastic. Thompson is not; Zemeckis has problems with female actors–both Thompson and Claudia Wells are weak. Wendie Jo Sperber is good in her cameo though.

While Fox holds the film together, his performance concentrates more on likability than actual dramatic heft. Christopher Lloyd is much stronger; he gives a physical comedy performance some of the time, but also acts as the viewer’s entry into the extraordinary situation. He does quite well.

Of particular note are Dean Cundey’s photography and Alan Silvestri’s score. Silvestri’s score isn’t subtle, but it’s effective. And Cundey does great work, even though Zemeckis’s composition is pedestrian.

Though sometimes painfully shallow, Future is a lot of fun.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


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Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis)

Back to the Future has become a detached experience. It isn’t really dated, it’s just hard to interact with the film in the same way one could when its content was more contemporary (in seven years, it’ll be like watching Michael J. Fox as the parent and Crispin Glover as the grandparent). The scenes set in the 1950s, which defined–in modern cinema–the portrayal of the period, feel a lot more “real” than the scenes set in 1985. It’s an odd relationship, one possibly even worthy of some consideration (especially given the film’s–somewhat forgotten–importance in popular culture and Hollywood cinema).

On its own, the film’s still a competent, well-meaning diversion. It doesn’t bear too much examination or consideration–the ending is incredibly problematic–but it’s a fine time. The humor–from Fox’s observations to Glover’s entire performance to Christopher Lloyd’s mugging for the camera–holds up, but feels a lot more comfortable than it should. It might be because the film’s become so engrained in the filmic consciousness–it’s familiar to a point similar to television programs (its stars being primarily television actors notwithstanding). It’s a passive viewing experience… there’s little new for it to offer.

This condition has nothing to do with its age or popularity, there just isn’t much to the story. There are a lot of little details, but the characters are rather shallow. Fox is engaging because he’s Fox, not because his character has any depth. Glover is just the same–I mean, the film never explores Glover’s home life, which is quite telling (Gale and Zemeckis knew they didn’t have room). Lea Thompson, who probably gives the worst performance–she’s okay and effective in parts, but compared to her co-stars, she’s the pits–is only interesting because of what she does, not who she is. Gale and Zemeckis set the tone for future blockbusters here–the actors aren’t playing people, rather personifying caricatures who do amusing things. These aren’t people who live off-screen.

During the way too classy opening credits–they suggest a technical craft Zemeckis simply isn’t capable of applying to narrative scenes–when I saw Dean Cundey was the cinematographer, I got ready for some beautiful shots. There aren’t any. All of the shots are nice and well-lighted and so on, but nothing really grabs. Zemeckis isn’t interesting in that factor (the wonderment factor… there’s never a moment where Fox reflects on the weight of his situation). Cundey does have some beautiful outdoor shots though, even if they’re incidental.

The film’s special effects are solid–the best special effect is the 1950s setting, which feels perfect throughout. The editing is problematic, occasionally revealing the stunt or skate-boarding doubles. Alan Silvestri’s score, which is basically the same as all his other scores, is occasionally annoying, but usually all right. The make-up is first-rate–Crispin Glover practically looks more realistic as a forty-seven-year-old than he does a teenager.

Besides Glover, the best performance has to be Thomas F. Wilson. His villain is evil, but also produces a lot of laughter, mostly because of Wilson’s physical performance. It’s the film’s most difficult role. To be a somewhat lovable bully.

At the end–the much remembered teaser, the one I found so compelling as an eight-year-old–Back to the Future loses its way. It’s already on a shaky path (the narrative takes way too many short-cuts, a forerunner to blockbuster trailer moments instead of actual scenes) but the end just makes it too much. There’s too much to consider, from Lloyd’s future clothes to the quick gag about the garbage. It’s a great set-up for a sequel, but it’s a poor conclusion for a movie.

Worse, it reveals there isn’t any possible conclusion to Back to the Future. Fox doesn’t have an arc (he doesn’t learn anything, he doesn’t change) and no one else really exists….

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Zemeckis; written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale; director of photography, Dean Cundey; edited by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Gale and Neil Canton; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly), Crispin Glover (George McFly), Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Marc McClure (Dave McFly), Wendie Jo Sperber (Linda McFly), George DiCenzo (Sam Baines), Frances Lee McCain (Stella Baines) and James Tolkan (Mr. Strickland).


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