Back to the Future

(Robert Zemeckis, USA, 1985)


Note: This text was originally part of a 1990 essay, “Some Kind of Wonderful: An Introduction to the Contemporary Teen Movie”. For the surrounding discussion of the teen genre as a whole, a 74-page PDF of heretofore unpublished material written in 1989-1990 is now available exclusively to supporters of my Patreon campaign for this website: www.patreon.com/adrianmartin


A Spectacular Teen Movie


 Back to the Future (the first instalment of a trilogy) is a perfect example of what can be thought of as (in all senses) the spectacular teen movie. It was both made and received on its release as the quintessential Pop event: loud, bright, superficial, slight on theme but very elaborately constructed, full of high energy pyrotechnics designed to make large audiences “feel good” together. (Feel good became a film industry catchphrase during the 1980s, applied to entertainment blockbusters like the Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Crocodile Dundee franchises, among many others.)


The idea of energy is indeed central – rather than incidental – to the film. Note how many kinds of energy are indexed even within the first few scenes: electrical energy, the energy of amplified music (the guitar “power chord” that is so loud it causes an almighty explosion), mechanical energy (the professor’s gadgets), speed energy (the pyrotechnical skateboarding feats of Marty McFly [Michael J. Fox], exaggerated even further in the subsequent episodes of the series). Even the title of the film, in its graphic form, is traversed by a wave of energy – a whoosh of sound and a glinting of light.


Eventually, sexual energy is added to the list – most crucially when the handy surge of the teenage libido of Marty’s father (George played by Crispin Glover) brings the disappearing body of Marty (Michael J. Fox) and his fading music back to full life on the prom stage. The title of Huey Lewis’ hit theme song is, naturally, not accidental: “The Power of Love”.


The style and construction of the piece are equally energetic. Beyond the obvious pace of the editing and the frenetic physical movements and gestures of the actors (particularly Fox and Christopher Lloyd as Doc), the narrative itself is geared for maximum energy and intensity. This is achieved primarily through the crucial use of a narrative deadline toward which all events inexorably move, and upon which the outcome of everything hangs.


More subtle, but threaded throughout the entire narrative, is a series of plot set-ups: little details or pieces of information which at first seem incidental or casual, but later become crucial in the unfolding of events or the resolving of tricky situations (as with Marty’s skateboarding skill). In this manner, set-ups lead to pay-­offs, and the film behaves like a mechanism that stores and then exhausts its reserve of narrative energy, totally spending or expending itself in an overwhelming climax – pardon the sexual metaphors, but that’s at least partly what Feel Good spectacles are about.


Popular culture references abound in all the Back to the Future films. The first instalment gets many laughs out of the fact that the pop music of a contemporary generation makes little sense to the ears to the previous one: Marty’s heavy rock guitar solo at the prom leaves the teen audience baffled (“Your kids’ll love it”, he assures them); while a blast of 1980s Van Halen heavy metal through a Walkman’s headset is pure 1950s sci-fi terror come true to another teenager of the time.


In Back to the Future Part II (1989), Fox confronts, in the future, an ‘80s nostalgia cafe, animated with icons of Max Headroom, Michael Jackson,  Ronald Reagan, et al. Thus, across the entire series, a mini-history of pop culture on display –­ from Chuck Berry to Jaws (1975) to MTV – is undoubtedly part of its surface, spectacular appeal to an expanded youth market. As Hervé Le Roux acutely observed in Cahiers du cinéma, the films of Zemeckis/Spielberg “bring together, at the height of adolescence, filmmakers in their 40s and a public of kids … creating a Father-son relationship, in which the filmmaker-Father forges, in an obsessive fashion, an alliance with the Son-spectator, on the basis of his own ex-teenage passions (music, TV, cinema).”


Le Roux’s comment is too gender-biased, but one can explore a similar pop culture bonding across the generations from mother to daughter in Francis Ford Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married (1986). Whichever way it happens, pop culture, as it is ecstatically remembered and celebrated in teen movies, tends to become a kind of total, self-contained, insular history – one in which wars, recessions and Third World struggles matter a lot less than the birth of rock’n’roll, Beatlemania and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk!

MORE Zemeckis: Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Contact, I Wanna Hold Your Hand

© Adrian Martin March 1990

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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