I’m watching and writing about the Top 100 Movies of All-Time this year, based on multiple film publication lists. You can read more about how I came to rank and place the films on the list at my introduction post here.
Back to the Future
List Appearances: 6/10
Average Rank: 33
Highest Rank: 11, on Empire‘s 100 Greatest Movies
Total Final Score: 5310
In 1985, Robert Zemeckis and the folks over at Universal and Amblin Entertainment released a little movie called Back to the Future. It was the first in the trilogy to come and would create a culture zeitgeist. The script, written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and story should never have worked – the idea of a teenager returning to the past to meet his mom who would instantly fall in love with him – but somehow, it worked, and it became an instant classic, in it’s own right. While the sequels are weak by comparison, this first outing in the Time-Machine DeLorean has the right mixture of charm, suspense, and heart. And it holds up even today, 34 years later!
I’ve seen the movie so much over my life. I used to love it as a child, and that love has never diminished. While my interest has shifted over the years (what’s important in a child’s lens is far different than that of an adult), I cannot specifically fault the movie. Of course, some logical questions come to mind now: like why Marty’s parents didn’t get a nicer house at the end of the movie, how Emmett managed to connect the cable to send the lightning into the car at the exact right moment when there are 60 seconds in the minute window given, and how would Marty cope with not knowing a past life he never led. I get in trouble a lot with my husband for overthinking in movies, but I can’t switch off that way. Still, all of this seems secondary. The power of the movie far outweighs these logic flaws.
Back to the Future opens with a camera pan around the mechanisms in Dr Emmett Brown’s home/lab. The burnt toast and piles of disgusting dog food indicate a man who has not been home for days. Through TV broadcasts, a conversation on the phone with Marty, and a yellow canister of plutonium, we get the first clues to Emmett’s state-of-mind, and his dogged focus to see his dream become a reality.
We follow Marty through his day. His band plays and is too loud for a group of tight-mouthed judges. His girlfriend encourages him to release a demo tape of his band, which he is reluctant to do, quoting what we later discover is the same line his father uses. We hear about the clocktower, and how it was struck by lightning 30 years before. We meet the remaining McFlys and the bully, Biff. Little nuggets of information about the past make their way into these events, painting a picture about the way things were, laying the groundwork for Marty’s travel into the 50s, not to mention some of the biggest laughs of the film.
Michael J Fox does an amazing job bringing both credibility and charisma to his role as Marty. Through those first scenes when he lands in 1955, you can honestly believe he is stumbling through a younger Hill Valley. His interactions with the locals are hilarious, and his blank glances at bizarre questions about his life preserver land with perfect comedic timing. I like Eric Stolz (famously replaced by Fox after several scenes had been shot) as an actor, but I cannot see him being able to pull off the part as well as Fox did.
Further to that, I think there are equally great performances from Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, and Thomas F Wilson. Lloyd shines as Emmett, and his acting is filled with the perfect balance of eccentric and lovable goofiness. Thompson as Lorraine is just adorable with her doey eyes and pseudo-innocence. She doesn’t get much to work with, but she spends a chunk of the movie batting her eyes at Marty. I find myself believing her when she kisses Marty in the car, and the awkward encounter is lifted by her admittance that it felt wrong. It just rings true. On the other end, Thomas F Wilson hams up his scenes with all the best screen-chewing villainy he can muster, and you hate him in every scene as the womanizing, buff bully he is.
Crispin Glover, as George McFly, embodies the stereotypical geek that was found in too many 80s movies. He grows through the movie, though, and despite first glance, the film is really to showcase his character arc. Marty doesn’t really change through the whole movie. Instead, he helps George develop a backbone and get the girl. It’s through his actions that the future is ultimately changed.
There is a lot to love about Back to the Future outside its well-paced story and characters (stereotypes and all), including the practical effects, the incredible sound work (for which it won an Oscar – specifically Best Sound Effects Editing), and editing and direction. The music is top-notch, with the iconic “Power of Love” instantly transporting you to the film any time it plays. And it’s a movie for any age, really.
Back to the Future holds up today and there is zero doubt that it is a classic and will remain one for decades to come. While, the other two films cannot quite say the same thing, the first, the original, is among the greatest films ever made, and it deserves its placement on this list.
Lord help anyone who decides to reboot it!