Looking Back at Back to the Future

Sums up the entire series in an efficient fashion.
Sums up the entire series in an efficient fashion.

As some (most?) of you surely heard, this past Wednesday– October 21st, 2015– was dubbed Back to the Future Day by the collective Internet community; as that was the future date that Marty McFly and Doc Brown traveled to in Back to the Future Part II. Apart from the usual outpouring of articles (such as this one) about the film series; there was a surprising amount of outside participation in the event. Various companies produced products matching ones that appeared in the film, and some movie theaters even showed the original trilogy that day. Despite not being available in every theater, these Back to the Future showings actually led the Wednesday grosses against some stiff competition.

I guess I never realized how many Back to the Future fans there were.

Or more accurately, I didn’t realize how many people were fans of the Back to the Future sequels. Certainly, the first Back to the Future is an undeniable classic. It was the quintessential fish-out-of-water film in a decade seemingly dominated by this sub-genre*; it operates as double time capsule of both 80s and 50s pop-culture; it featured great songs and an impressive score by Alan Silvestri; and the performances, especially Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown, are remembered fondly to this day.

But, of course, all this hype for October 21st, 2015 is centered around Back to the Future Part II, a film which, while I don’t hate, I also didn’t like nearly as much. The first movie used time travel as a plot device and was more focused on the theme of understanding that parents were once like their children, as well as the shear amount of social/political/economic change that had happened to America in the 3 decades between the 1950s and the 1980s.  The second film assumes we care more about time travel itself than the themes it enables, and so we get a very complicated plot that spans three different time periods and alternate universes, invents character traits for Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly that he didn’t posses in the first film, and turns the series villain Biff from your run-of-the-mill abusive bully to an ego-maniacal tyrant in utterly ridiculous fashion.

In summary, it’s a little overblown for my taste; and it’s missing the charm of the first film. But frankly, I don’t really come across much of people talking about the entire plot of this picture, or even whether or not they particularly like this movie. Whenever people talk about Back to the Future Part II, they usually just focus on the first part of the film, when Doc and Marty arrive in 2015 from 1985. The world they come to is full of flying cars and holograms and all kinds of other futuristic wonders; and it’s been fun, in the 26 years since the film’s release, to speculate how close we might be to the future presented here.

And there were admittedly some things the film got right: we are awash in 3D films and franchise pictures, we are doing many of our transactions electronically, we do communicate over video screens nowadays, and we even have hoverboards (sort of). So props to the filmmakers on some good guesswork there.

Of course they didn’t get everything right: we don’t have flying cars (which is probably never going to happen, by the way, given that enough accidents happen as it is with vehicles more or less limited to two dimensions), or personal fusion reactors, or laws abolishing lawyers.  And no, the Cubs aren’t winning the World Series this year.

So no, the future predicted by Back to the Future Part II is not here, and I’m not sure how many people ever really thought that would somehow be otherwise, at least in the last decade or so. So why all the hype for this date in a sequel that’s not as good as the original that clearly wasn’t going to accurately predict where we are at this moment in time?

I think it has something to do with the following: every other period presented in the Back to the Future films was a representation of a time that was either current or had come and gone (and now of course, all have come and gone). We could like or hate or be indifferent to those representations**; because we could all, if we cared enough, learn about what those time periods were really like. But nobody really knew what 2015 would hold until it arrived, and the future presented in Back to the Future Part II was (mostly) optimistic and idealistic in a way that seemed to get people excited over the general idea that marvels and seeming-miracles lay just a little down the road. And so anticipating this date has been a way for us to take stock of those expectations, especially as seen by the movie.

My two cents: we certainly don’t have every technological wonder the film portrayed, but we still have some amazing technology at our fingertips; we may not have personal fusion, but there’s a slowly-but-surely growing investment in renewable fuel sources and environmental technology; we may not have hydratable pizza, but we do have Jimmy Johns. The world is as messed up as it was in the 80s, but we are overall fortunate to be in the here and now; and so let us remember, always, to be thankful for what we have in this modern age.

And where we feel we are falling short, let us now use the film as motivation to build a better tomorrow: to enhance our technology, to improve society, to help the environment, to help each other; to be the kind of future our past selves wanted. One of the most powerful things film can do for us is provide inspiration and hopefully all the excitement over October 21st, 2015, was an indication that Back to the Future Part II had done just that.

Even if I, personally, am not a huge fan of that film, I can certainly get behind that. Or, as Doc Brown put it at the end of Back to the Future Part III: “Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has. Your future is whatever you make it. So make it a good one…”

*Other notable fish-out-of-water movies in the 80s include Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Crocodile Dundee, Tootsie, and Back to School.

**For what it’s worth, Back to the Future‘s representations of the 80s and 50s are fairly acceptable, if at times bordering on caricature. Back to the Future Part III‘s representation of the Old West, on the other hand, is a complete fabrication and makes the other films’ representations of the 80s and 50s look like documentaries by comparison.

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