The movie studios who initially rejected Back to the Future must’ve been kicking themselves back in 1985 (no pun intended) when it won over the critics, grossed $381 million, and became a cultural phenomenon. If you want to know how to tell a story or how to make a movie, just watch Back to the Future. All the tools are there. It’s a timeless classic (no pun intended) and a prime example of the power of great storytelling. Back to the Future is simply a masterpiece. Here are 10 things that make it the perfect cinematic gem that it is.
10. Nothing is throwaway
You’re not supposed to put anything in your movie that doesn’t either advance the plot or develop the character. Stick on any recent comedy movie and you’ll see just how flagrantly filmmakers ignore that these days. They’ll throw in any old gag if they think it’ll get a chuckle, even if it has nothing to do with the plot or the characters. Back to the Future doesn’t do that. In Back to the Future, everything is essential and nothing is throwaway. If there’s a line near the beginning that doesn’t seem important, then pay attention to it, because it will come back in a major way at the end. If there is anything that might seem like a throwaway gag, then it’s probably Marty getting confused by the culture of the 1950s, which is actually important for the plot to reinforce the idea that Marty is a fish out of water. Without all of those jokes about his jacket looking like a life preserver and the confusion over Pepsi Free, it would all seem too familiar to him and we wouldn’t get the sense of “Holy shit, he’s been sent thirty years into the past!” So, still, everything that’s in that movie is there because it needs to be there to tell that story and develop those characters. Too many movies pad out their runtime with nonsense and allow their plot to be cliched and their characters to be undeveloped.
9. It captures the zeitgeists of both the ‘50s and ‘80s perfectly
Very few movies are able to exist as a sign of their times. Most movies could’ve been made within a few years’ radius of when they were actually made. They don’t mark themselves as being from a certain era and depict that era’s zeitgeist in any kind of accurate way. They don’t capture the culture and the feeling and language and the people of their own time. Most movies can’t even do that for the actual era that they’re in when they make it, let alone another one on top of that. But Back to the Future captures the attitudes and the style and the music and the trends of the 1980s beautifully – and then it does the same for the 1950s! So many time travel movies make the mistake of mixing up historical accuracy with historical figures. They won’t depict the colors and the towns and the people of 1865 – they’ll just show Abraham Lincoln on his way to the theater. Robert Zemeckis knew he didn’t have to have Barbara Stanwyck and Ronald Reagan walk past to capture the 1950s on screen – he just put one of their movies on the theater marquee. Back to the Future captures the zeitgeists of both the ‘50s and ‘80s perfectly.
8. The jokes are hilarious
The problem with most comedy movies is that their jokes suck, which sounds like a pretty basic complaint, but it’s true. As a comedy, it’s not necessarily a deal breaking if you tell a cliched story with one dimensional character if you can also make us a laugh, but once that’s gone, all is lost. And Back to the Future isn’t even primarily a comedy movie. It’s a science fiction movie and it also has elements of adventure and romance, and as all of those things, it succeeds with flying colors and tells a brilliantly unique and original and fresh story. So, it didn’t even really need jokes. A lot of humor comes from the situations and the character moments, so even without jokes, it would still be a funny movie. But then Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale went that extra mile and wrote hilarious jokes. Ronald Reagan, who was the President at the time, was reportedly a huge fan of the movie. In fact, when he was having it screened at the White House and Doc Brown responded to Marty’s claim that Reagan is the President in 1985 by joking, “Ronald Reagan? The actor? Ha! Then who’s Vice President, Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the First Lady?” apparently Reagan laughed so hard that the projectionist had to go back to catch him up on what he had missed in his fit of hysterics.
7. It came from a very real and relatable place
Another thing that makes Back to the Future so great is its origin. The concept came from a very simple idea – a very human and relatable idea. Screenwriter Bob Gale got the initial idea for the movie when he saw his dad’s old high school yearbook and wondered whether or not he and his dad would’ve been friends if they were both teenagers at the same time. All the high concept science fiction type stuff with the time machine and the flux capacitor and 88 mph came later as tools to tell that story. It’s something that we’ve all wondered about or at least something that you wonder about once someone tells you about it and you realize it’s an interesting angle to consider your relationship with your parents from, but since they’re your parents, how do you tell that story? How do you get your character to be a teenager in a teenage environment with his parents when they’re teenagers? Time travel! But that only came when Gale had to figure out how to tell a very human and down to Earth and relatable story, and that’s what’s so great about Back to the Future, because that’s what it’s really about.
6. Plant and payoff
The idea of “plant and payoff” is one of the first things that gets taught in screenwriting classes and how-to books. It basically says that if you set something up in your script, you have to pay it off at some point later in the script. If you’re in one of these classes and you’re not quite sure what they mean by that and you ask the teacher for an example, they will almost certainly give you an example from Back to the Future. There is hardly a scene in Back to the Future that doesn’t set something up to be paid off later or pay something off that was set up earlier. It has one of the tightest screenplays ever written. For example, in the very first minute of the movie, as the camera pans across Doc Brown’s lab, we see a clock based on the Harold Lloyd movie Safety Last! with Lloyd hanging off the minute hand. Later on in the movie, sure enough, we’ll see the Doc hanging off the minute hand of a big clock. This one actually crosses over with another “plant and payoff” in the narrative. In 1985, Marty is told about how the clock tower hasn’t worked since a lightning bolt destroyed it in 1955. Then he goes back in time to 1955, where he needs the electrical charge of a lightning bolt to send him home, and he puts two and two together. This is a “plant and payoff” inside a “plant and payoff.” It’s fantastic.
5. It’s a human story told through a sci-fi lens
So many filmmakers who attempt a movie in the science fiction genre make the mistake of making the stakes too high. They put the entire world at risk, because apparently we won’t root for someone if they’re fighting to save anything less than all of human existence. It used to be so much simpler than that, and Back to the Future is a prime example of that. Back to the Future is living proof that a movie that involves the element of time travel doesn’t need to be about saving the world or thwarting the terrorists who stole the time machine or stopping 9/11 or killing Hitler or anything like that. This movie is just about a kid who’s trying to make sure his parents get together so that he and his siblings won’t be erased from existence – and that’s enough! We can put ourselves in Marty’s shoes and imagine him being stuck thirty years in the past, or worse yet, getting wiped from existence, and so we root for him. He’s not saving the world, but he’s saving his world, and in a way, that makes him seem even more heroic, because we can picture all the people he’s saving and see the effects of it. It’s brilliant stuff.
4. Everything gets wrapped up in a neat bow
There are no loose ends left behind after the events of Back to the Future. There are no plot holes or unanswered questions. These days, that alone could make it a masterpiece, because there are so many crappy ambiguous movies getting made that don’t explain all the stuff they set up and don’t resolve all of their plot points. In Back to the Future, everything gets wrapped up. The new version of the future that Marty has created is better in every way: Marty has the car he’s always wanted to take Jennifer on vacation, Biff is at George’s mercy instead of it being the other way around, the Doc read Marty’s letter and wore a bulletproof vest, George is a successful author, everything’s perfect! Okay, there is a cliffhanger ending. That part doesn’t get resolved in this movie, because it’s the end of the movie. But it does get resolved in the sequel, and even if there wasn’t a sequel and that was all we got, it could be seen as simply the start of Doc and Marty’s next adventure. It shows that now that the Doc has a time machine, there will always be complications for them to deal with, and that’s interesting.
3. The actors suit their roles perfectly
Every actor that was cast in this movie fits their role perfectly. Eric Stoltz was almost cast in the role of Marty McFly and it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. It had to be Michael J. Fox. He’s so cool and likable and charming and funny. And Christopher Lloyd plays the madcap Doc Brown in such a wacky, erratic, Jerry Lewis-esque way that from a comedic point of view, it’s just beautiful. And in addition to all of this, Fox and Lloyd have fantastic on-screen chemistry together. They’re one of the greatest duos in movie history. Plus, Lea Thompson really sells all of Lorraine’s emotions, and gives her a bright-eyed optimism as a teenager and a tired cynicism as an adult – it’s quite brilliant. Crispin Glover is so believable as the loser George McFly and Thomas F. Wilson dives right into the role of bully Biff Tannen. Most actors would hold back on being a total asshole, but Wilson smartly goes all the way with it to the point that he becomes a cartoonish caricature – and that’s what makes the character so funny and not just disgusting. Even small supporting roles like James Tolkan’s turn as Mr. Strickland, the strict and stuffy principal of Hill Valley High School, are brilliant. Tolkan captures all of those cold-hearted, straight-laced, ball-breaking teachers we all know from our youth perfectly.
2. Robert Zemeckis doesn’t underestimate his audience
As a film director, you should never underestimate your audience. All of the best directors out their trust their audience’s intellect: Quentin Tarantino, Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, they all do it and it works wonders for them. With Back to the Future, that’s the approach that Robert Zemeckis took and it made the movie a masterpiece. He doesn’t overexplain anything or give us too much exposition. He trusts the audience to be following the plot and only gives them the actions and the lines and the little hints here and there that the story really needs. Zemeckis’ relationship with the audience can actually be represented in Doc Brown’s relationship with Marty. The Doc knows that Marty doesn’t fully understand the science of time travel and all of his inventions, so he explains them to him, but he doesn’t think he’s a total idiot, so he only has to explain these things once, and whenever there’s a new development or obstacle or challenge, then he trusts Marty to figure it out for himself. That is essentially what Zemeckis does with us – he explains how the time travel in the movie works, how much power the time machine needs and the radioactive chemical that fuels it, and then he just lets us follow the plot with him.
1. It has everything you could possibly want from a movie
The thing that makes Back to the Future the quintessential movie, above all, is simply that it has everything that you could possible want from a movie. It has a love story at the heart of it and it’s also a story about family and bringing a family together. The lead character is likable and charming and he’s easy to root for, and at the end of the movie, when he rediscovers what’s truly important in life, so do we. It’s a movie that has a lot of action and suspense and thrills. When you’ve got Biff attacking Lorraine in the car and Marty locked in the trunk of another car and George none the wiser, you’re right on the edge of your seat. How are the characters we have come to know and love going to get out of this one?! And in the end, it’s not a well timed meteor or a bullet that saves them – it’s just a pure act of heroism. With the likes of Eric Clapton and Huey Lewis and Chuck Berry providing songs to back up scenes in the movie, it has a soundtrack to die for. Everyone likes to laugh and there are a lot of laughs in this movie. It has a strong emotional core. Simply put, Back to the Future has everything you could possibly want from a movie.