Back to the Future was the first time travel movie I saw. Well, it took two tries, because the first time, the wrong tape was in the case from Blockbuster and so we ended up watching the worn out tape of Return of the Jedi for the hundredth time. Or maybe it took a dozen tries the first time through the timeline and then I travelled back in time to fix things. That’s the type of dangerous thinking that movies like Back to the Future get you.
Marty McFly travels back in time inadvertantaly and manages to prevent his parents from getting married and making a little baby McFly. He insinuates himself into their lives in order to get them back together so he and his siblings are still born on schedule. Needless to say, hilarity ensues as he gets hit on by his mother, befriends the local eccentric inventor and invents rock and roll a few years early.
Of course no review would be complete without at least paying lip service to the host of cultural references grounded in the film. Who of a certain age doesn’t know exactly what you mean when you reference 1.21 gigawatts and 88 miles per hour? And how many twenty and thirty somethings didn’t first hear Johnny B. Goode played at a certain Enchantment Under the Sea dance?
The film revolves around Marty’s disappointment with his parents. He travels back in time and fixes them, makes them better than they ever were by themselves. His father is a loser, bossed around at work, nothing but a pushover. His mother is an overweight alcoholic. They both live in the past, obsessed with the one perfect moment they shared, the moment that they met. Marty loathes them because he loves them. When he goes back in time and teaches them everything they could be, it’s more Freudian than a store room full of cigars on the Titanic. He goes back in time, finds his father a worthless weakling and his mother a slut who wants to sleep with him. And he fixes them. He inspires his father to throw a mean right cross and swings his mom towards his dad.
But you want to really blow your mind? Marty is born of his mom and dad. He is them. They save themselves, if indirectly. It’s like a Rube Goldberg way of fixing your own life. Don’t worry Doctor, I’ll just have a son, raise him to hate his life, and make sure he goes back in time to fix my life before he was a twinkle in my eye.
The irony is that there are knots within knots. Marty at the beginning of the film is every eighties loser kid, bitching about how his parents aren’t living up to the decade of greed, aren’t giving him the fancy black pick up and every commercialized piece of crap he needs to be happy. What changes when he goes back in time? He turns his parents into successes so that he gets the exact materialistic shit that he thinks he needs at the beginning of the film. There’s something so terribly cynical about this film, because it’s the opposite of what a story is supposed to be. The main character doesn’t evolve, everyone else evolves so that the world meets the protagonist’s expectations of what he should have. Marty himself does not change.
This point of view becomes even more pronounced when one looks at the sequels, in which Marty’s kids are failures, and his future self is as worthless as his original father was. The only functional human being is 1985 Marty. Everyone else, even his future self, owes their success or failure to him.
It’s a particularly unique film within the context of generations because it seems so precisely to fall between them. Marty’s parents were going to their senior prom right around 1955, which put them at being born right around 1937, while Marty is about 18 in 1985, which gives him a birthdate right around 1967. So Marty is firmly Gen X, while his parents are in that weird grey area that’s not quite Boomer, but a little late for Greatest Generation. And Gen X is exactly who this film aims at, the step children of history. We never protested any great war or fought in one, but the dirty little secret of the culture wars is that neither did most of our fathers. The film serves as a counterpoint to that assumption that entire generations of individuals are defined by the events of a few years, when most of them were probably too old or young to have played any role at all. For every group that was part of the charge onto Normandy or the protests against Vietnam, there were a dozen more who were already thirty when that stuff went down.
But for all that, and for all the snarkiness that can be unrolled at Marty as a sort of time travelling Mary Sue, the film is a defender of the notion of agency, of the idea that what we do matters. After all, the difference between George McFly, pissant drone and George McFly, successful science fiction author is not how he was raised or some vague statement on society or the times of which he is a product..The difference rests solely on whether George McFly will clench a fist and swing at the monster.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.