Okay, so I’m going to preface this by saying that I know that Back to the Future (or BTTF from now on) isn’t THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME™.
There are many films that are better works of art, which asked more profound questions, which pushed the boundaries of cinema as a storytelling medium, or just had better special effects.
But BBTF isn’t trying to be a work of art, or a solemn meditation on the human condition. It’s a popcorn flick. The mere fact that it cannibalises so many genres (sci-fi, rom-com, high school drama) tells you exactly where it stands on the scale of high/low culture.
Yet I sincerely believe that Back to The Future is a perfect movie. It’s not trying to do everything a film can do, but it achieves complete perfection in almost every aspect of its execution. Most of that comes down to its screenplay.
When people think about great screenplays, they probably think of someone like Aaron Sorkin or Charlie Kaufman. I adore both of them but BBTF’s screenplay is criminally underrated and technically brilliant. The first act is an absolute a masterclass in how to set up exposition, reveal character, and entertain an audience simultaneously.
I’ve watched this film dozens of times. I’ve talked about it for hours. I’ve made anyone I know who hasn’t seen it watch it. Which seems daft: it’s a movie about a time-travelling car for fuck sake. But if you trust me, and read on, I’ll prove to you that there’s not one single wasted line in this script. Every piece of dialogue counts: either setting something up, moving something forward, or paying something off.
However, before we delve into the actual story (in great and tedious detail) we need to look at where this film came from, and how several careful redrafts turned it from ‘summer blockbuster’ to ‘timeless classic.’
WHERE DOES THIS COME FROM?
When talking about movies as ubiquitous and over-referenced this one, it can be difficult to enjoy it as a fresh experience, the way moviegoers in July 1985 would have. This movie has been homaged and parodied so often, that everyone knows it. It’s a bit like that old quote about seeing Hamlet for the first time: “It was just a bunch of famous quotes strung together!”
So we need to give ourselves selective amnesia. Forget Deloreans and incest jokes and hoverboards. Picture yourself as an average schmuck sitting down to watch this movie, and pretend you know nothing about it. If you do I promise you’ll get more out of this deep-dive.
It’s easy to forget about what an elegantly intriguing premise BTTF actually has. It was following a trend; 1950s nostalgia was everywhere in Regan’s cynical America, and lots of movies released at the time were harkening back to the good old days. But if this movie, or anything else like it, hadn’t been made, you could pitch it now and it would still be a genius idea:
A teenager goes back in time and gets stuck in the past. He screws up his mum and dad’s courtship. Now he has to get them back together and get home before he’s erased from existence.
The stakes are high, the goals are clear, the clock is ticking.
Most good stories stem from one moment of inspiration. BTTF came about when writer and producer Bob Gale found his dad’s yearbook, and discovered that his father had been very different as a kid to how he imagined. This lead him to wonder: ‘if I met my dad at the same age that I am now, and he didn’t know I was his son, would we have been friends?’
That’s basically the heart of BTTF. Everything else: the time machine, the mad scientist, the bolt of lightning, the terrorists, they’re all plot devices that Bob Gale invented to get a son to meet his parents as kids. What’s amazing is that all of the plot points that get Marty to that place are interesting, entertaining, and creative, and they all enhance that simple conceit.
Central to BTTF is the idea of compliment and contrast. Most of the jokes in the film are essentially either ‘the past is a foreign country’ or ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’ They’re funny because we have the benefit of hindsight. But that’s not something we start the film with.
Remember, if you’re a dude from 1985 and you’re seeing this for the first time, you know nothing about Marty McFly, or his weird car, or his goggly-eyed pensioner mate. All the dramatic irony, the stuff that makes the script sing, is set up in Act One, and it gets to work right away in the very first scene.