Great Scott! The timeless writing of Back to the Future
Mark Harrison | On 14, Dec 2017Reading time: 5 mins
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Cast: Michael J Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Thomas F. Wilson
Watch Back to the Future online in the UK: Amazon Prime / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Google Play
As a romantic, time-travelling teen comedy, Back To The Future has fingers in many different pies, and in most genres, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that it’s not one of the best of its kind. It is certainly the greatest time travel movie ever made, in part because of the grounding of the existential sci-fi stakes in an irresistible comedy premise – if you knew your parents when they were your age, how would you get on with them?
Writers Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale had wanted to make a time travel movie since the 1970s, under the working title “Professor Brown Visits The Future”, but it wasn’t until Gale hit upon that premise that the duo really got to work on what would become Back To The Future. But their story of Marty McFly matchmaking for his 17-year-old parents, by way of a time-travelling DeLorean, was a hard sell in the studio system.
As detailed in the documentary Back In Time (also available on Netflix UK at the time of writing) the duo had a development deal with Columbia Pictures, which eventually put the film into turnaround because it “wasn’t sexual enough”, at a time when raunchier comedies found favour with teen audiences. On the other hand, when they finally took it to Disney, it was far too rich for their taste.
“Are you insane?” squawked the House Of Mouse exec that Zemeckis and Gale met. “You’ve written a movie about incest!”
The film eventually found a home at Universal Pictures, following the success of Zemeckis’ Romancing The Stone in 1984, but the long development period was crucial to the screenplay. There were small changes, such as Professor Brown becoming Doc Brown, but also massive omissions, cutting out the original, action-packed finale at a Nevada nuclear test site (which Spielberg would later revisit for an oft-maligned sequence in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) and concentrating the story in the town of Hill Valley instead.
The time taken to hone the script to perfection over a period of seven years before production is what makes the 1985 film a classic. It’s smarter, funnier and more quotable than most other movies ever made. Zemeckis and Gale furiously set up and pay off gags throughout, and their effortless hopping between different genre tropes is unmatched.
As a time travel movie, it’s a stroke of genius to set the film between the 1950s, when teenagers were just starting to become a more important demographic, and the 1980s, when the next generation are most definitely the centre of attention, culturally and economically. The culture clash that ensues is local to those two time periods, but still funny enough to feel timeless – you could do that joke about who the President is, if you were making it today and setting it between the 2010s and the 1980s.
With Michael J Fox (then best known as young yuppy Alex P. Keaton from TV’s Family Ties) playing Marty, the hero is the ideal of a carefree teen who just wants to play guitar and drive his girlfriend around in a nice car. In both of his incarnations, as boss and bully, Thomas F. Wilson’s Biff makes an ideal nemesis.
You can kind of see why the studios were nervous about the Oedipal theme, which the script goes quite far in pursuing and then inverting. Culturally speaking, Marty does want to replace the wimpy, jittery father he knows from 1985, but that’s entirely platonic, on his side at least. As Lea Thompson plays it, Lorraine is ravenously attracted to the son she thinks is called Calvin Klein, and, although the comedy that arises from that gets potentially problematic, it’s handled deftly by the screenwriters. Your heart still soars when George finally kisses Lorraine to the chorus of Earth Angel, so the romance is there in spades.
This more mischievous aspect makes it two teen movies in one, with Marty’s plan to take Jennifer out to the lake being waylaid by the period-set romantic comedy into which he is thrust by Doc’s shenanigans. The invention of Doc Brown, so marvellously played by Christopher Lloyd, aids the sci-fi side of things massively too. We’re given lots of exposition about how everything works, and the rules by which the story operates, but it never feels spoon-fed because it’s just so gosh-darn entertaining.
Aside from the script, it helps that they also found the perfect cast (after an unfortunate hiccup with Eric Stoltz in the lead role), that Zemeckis directed it so well, and that composer Alan Silvestri was on hand to score the film, creating the single greatest adventure theme this side of John Williams in the process. All of that adds up to this perfect film, but Back to the Future’s real magic is in that dizzyingly original screenplay, which so narrowly avoided nuking the fridge 20 years early, and still bursts with invention and humour, no matter how many times you go back to it.
Back to the Future is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.