We all have a favorite big, dumb, fun movie that's loud and raucous and less interested in any thematic depth than in giving us a great time. Such movies exhaust any critical objections and simply leave you spinning around, with a giddy smile on your face.
For me, that movie is and always shall be Back to the Future, a movie I consider literally perfect. Tell me about its imperfections. Point out to me its plot holes. Lecture me on how time travel doesn't work like that. I don't care. It's a weird little science-fiction incest comedy that, to me, sets the standard all other popcorn movies must match, the one that leaves them all feeling a little bit lacking.
Thus, on the 31st anniversary of its release — the movie debuted on July 3, 1985 — I give you five reasons why Back to the Future is perfect.
1) It boasts the best blockbuster script ever written
From start to finish, Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis's Oscar-nominated screenplay is a marvel. Its structure is an elaborately constructed concoction that winds itself as tight as it possibly can in its first half, then unleashes all of that pent-up energy in a second half that never once pauses for breath yet still manages to cram in a full musical sequence.
Marty McFly (a perfectly breezy Michael J. Fox) travels back in time to see his parents as teenagers, and then he must find a way to travel forward again. That's pretty much it, but Gale and Zemeckis build the story in such a way that everything that occurs early on serves as a setup for a payoff you might not realize is going to come later. Back to the Future sets up all the pieces on its board, then knocks them over one by one — and with great flair.
Why, for instance, is some woman pressing a flyer about fixing Hill Valley's clock tower on Marty? Well, because he'll eventually need to know exactly when lightning will strike. The movie even reveals exactly how it's going to use this constant series of setups and payoffs in its opening scene, when a long pan around time-machine inventor Doc Brown's room full of ticking clocks and misbegotten inventions ends with a shot of the case of plutonium a newscaster was talking about just a few moments prior. The way such moments are buried is so elegant that you might not even notice some of them until your fourth or fifth viewing of the film.
And Back to the Future is no slouch in the character development or world-building departments, either. Hill Valley feels like a real town, with a real history, where Marty's adventures might change the name of the mall or disrupt the carefully established status quo. Meanwhile, both Marty and his parents begin the film as seeming caricatures and gain depth as the plot moves along and we realize that the sad-sack parents Marty started out with are a far cry from the hopeful teenagers they once were.
Finally, as if all that weren't enough, Back to the Future is also a really great movie for sharp, comedic dialogue, something that few blockbusters can brag about. Yeah, by now you've probably heard all of the most famous lines too many times for them to really register, but then something like George McFly (Crispin Glover, in one of the greatest weirdo screen performances ever) demanding, "Lou, give me a milk ... [dramatic pause] ... Chocolate," sinks in, and you realize anew just how crammed full of great lines the film is.
2) Everything in the movie is a ticking clock. Everything.
One of the greatest things about Back to the Future's construction is how the movie is completely centered on the idea of running out of time. Literally everything is a ticking clock, counting down to the moment when Marty will be stranded forever in 1955, or even to the moment when Marty will literally cease to exist because he's interfered with his parents getting the chance to fall in love.
For example, there's one scene — when Marty is briefly locked in the trunk of a car by Biff's gang — where Gale and Zemeckis have wrapped seven (and possibly more) countdowns around one another, like some sort of nesting doll. They begin with Marty escaping the trunk (which he does shortly after being stuck inside of it) and then, working from the inside out (and in successive scenes, no less), they are resolved one by one until we arrive at the question of whether Marty will make it to the mall in time to save Doc Brown (the manic, brilliant Christopher Lloyd) from Libyan terrorists.
All things considered, ticking clocks are often a cheap way to build suspense. But Back to the Future makes them work, both because the film piles them on with reckless aplomb and because the very idea of a countdown is so integral to a time-travel movie that it has some extra room to maneuver.
But even if you ignore those allowances, Back to the Future's countdowns work because the movie is, on some level, about adolescence, about the idea that when we're teenagers, we're all racing against the clock of impending, boring adulthood. There's never enough time because maturity catches up to all of us sooner or later.
3) Director Robert Zemeckis had something to prove
As revealed in the new book We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy, Zemeckis — who would go on to produce numerous beloved big-screen hits, including Forrest Gump and Cast Away — was young, hungry, and intent on not leaning on his mentor Steven Spielberg to get his film made. Anyone who takes a moment to read Back to the Future's opening credits will see Zemeckis failed in this endeavor; Spielberg is credited as a producer, and his production company, Amblin Entertainment, signed on to help shepherd the film through the studio system.
But Zemeckis's desire to prove himself filters out to almost every element of his direction. He shoots even normally prosaic sequences — like a school dance — as if they were car chases. When it comes time for the bells of Back to the Future's ticking clocks to start ringing, his editing leaps to a breathless level of intensity. Even something like Marty's final conversation with his parents before he returns to the future is afforded a kind of armrest-gripping excitement you wouldn't typically expect.
Throughout the film, Zemeckis displays an admirable level of expertise in turning the movie into a kind of living pinball machine, steadily ramping up the pace of his action sequences to train you for the all-out assault of the final half-hour. But all along, he builds in necessary respites, like Marty's alien arrival in 1955 Hill Valley or that musical sequence, to lift up the final act until it's rocketing into the sky.
4) Back to the Future is now a double period piece
To watch Back to the Future now doesn't just offer a glimpse of 1955. It allows us to understand what people in 1985 thought about 1955 and what they thought about 1985, as well. The film is about as squarely positioned within the Ronald Reagan era as one could possibly imagine, and it reflects that era's fascination with the supposedly idyllic life of the 1950s, even as it's constantly undercutting those notions at every turn.
To watch Back to the Future 30 years after it was released is to watch a movie that very earnestly wishes to reclaim the present (of 1985) as a place worth being nostalgic about. Indeed, the film's first sequel (which is set partially in 2015, no less) deliberately goes about creating a world where the 1980s are remembered with the hushed fervor assigned to the 1950s in the original film.
But the message is clear: you can never force time to stand still, any more than you can keep teenagers from growing up. All you can do is live in the time you've been deposited in as best as you can (and, okay, occasionally warn the mad scientist you hang out with that he's going to die on a specific night 30 years in the future).
5) The movie features wonderful themes of reconciliation
Adolescence involves realizing that your parents were once just like you and that you will someday be like them. They are, after all, human beings, just like yourself.
Ultimately, that's what Back to the Future is about: realizing that your parents had hopes and dreams of their own before you came along and that those hopes and dreams may remain long-buried. Marty inadvertently gives his parents a second chance to live a life that wasn't suddenly interrupted by him and his siblings, one where they actually achieved some of the things they'd always hoped they would.
Nobody's ever going to claim that Back to the Future is a movie of unparalleled depth, but in both the original film and its two sequels, the idea of generations reconciling with one another returns, again and again. Children are reconciled with their parents, then become parents themselves.
Back to the Future has never been remade. There are no plans, so far as I know, to produce a latter-day sequel to the film. That's probably for the best. A modern version would almost certainly be tempted to send Marty and Doc Brown caroming through history to several different time periods, like Bill and Ted. But that would obscure what made the original so successful.
Back to the Future works because, in the end, its stakes are so very small. Beneath all the jokes and the moments where a mother unknowingly flirts with her son and the time travel and the action-packed countdown sequences, all that remains is a theme so universal that we keep returning to it in story after story after story: can you ever understand your parents? And perhaps even harder: can they ever understand you?