ACT ONE: Marty at Home
Marty McFly seems like an alright kid thus far, but his home life leaves much to be desired. All four of his family members seem to be stunted and dissatisfied, none of them living up their full potential. The moment Marty comes home he discovers that the car he’d been meaning to take Jennifer out in has been left totalled in the driveway, wrecking the date he’d been planning for weeks. This scene also establishes what Marty’s suburban cul-de-sac looks like, which will be important when he first travels to 1955 and discovers it hasn’t been built yet.
Then we meet Marty’s father George, and the movie’s main antagonist, Biff. Biff is apparently based on Donald Trump, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about what kind of person he is. He crashed George’s car while drinking, but blames George for his crashing it, and every word he says establishes him as a petty, entitled, bullying, tosser.
We also get the most blatant example of mirrored dialogue: Biff berating George for not finishing his report, is almost word-for-word identical to what his teenage self says to George in the diner about his homework. It even ends with Biff saying “What are you looking at butthead?” to Marty. Check out out:
Biff leaves after helping himself to one of George’s beers (seriously, what an asshole) and makes a comment about Lorraine (“Say hi to your mom for me”) which establishes his teenage self’s crush on her. Marty then admonishes his dad for acting like such a doormat, and though his dad regrets his lack of backbone, he’s too wimpy to do much except mumble excuses.
Now here’s an interesting point to note, and it’s one of the reasons why the sequels (although good movies) never quite reach the same heights as this film. Lots of people find fault with the character of Marty, since he never really changes all that much in the course of the narrative. He starts out cool and nice and reckless, and ends the film that way.
But here’s something you might have missed: the real character development happens to George. He’s almost the deuteragonist, more so (arguably) than Doc. You could say the same for Lorraine, but her growth is incumbent upon George’s, so he’s still the focus in terms of personal development.
The movie establishes the characters of George and Lorraine (and Marty’s siblings, although their personal flaws are really just reflections of their parents) with one of my other favourites scenes, with the McFly family around the dinner table, having one of those typical, seemingly-innocuous, family conversations, with a boring anecdote everyone’s heard countless times thrown in for good measure. Everyone in this scene feels dejected: it’s like a miniature Chekov play, with lots of dark domestic comedy and characters who are either frustrated by their life of quiet desperation, or lack the proper self-awareness.
Again, this scene is only three minutes long, but there’s a hell of a lot more important exposition here, so stay awake!
The scene starts with Marty’s brother Dave and his dad telling him not to worry about his rejection for the Battle of the Bands because “he doesn’t need the hassle.” Dave appears to be a lazy slacker (and a college graduate, if a prop in one shot is to be believed) content to work as a burger flipper.
George spends the meal alternating between frantically doing Biff’s reports at the dinner table, and laughing inanely at an old episode of ‘The Honeymooners.’ The inclusion of this reference is an important one that sets up three (count em) plot points. Firstly, it’s the same episode that Lorraine’s family watches over dinner in 1955 (another example of ironic mirroring), it provides an opportunity for Marty to make two anachronistic references (to reruns and having two televisions), and the episode’s premise (someone pretending to a spaceman) gives him the idea to pretend to be ‘Darth Vader from Planet Vulcan’ in a bid to convince George to take Lorraine to the dance later.
Lorraine then sets up another gag by dumping a cake on the table, and telling her kids that their uncle Joey didn’t make parole (we’ll meet a baby version of Joey in a later scene). Lorraine is by far the most interesting character in the scene, and Lea Thompson plays her like some kind of Tennessee Williams heroine who only barely masks her contempt for her own life (witness the way she says: “We all make mistakes in life children” while staring darkly at her milquetoast husband).
The screenplay describes her as: “Once very attractive. Now she’s overweight, in a rut, a victim of suburban stagnation. She has more food on her plate than anyone else and a glass of vodka.” Her drinking is something that’s taken its toll on her, and sets up Marty’s dismay over her boozing when they park together before the dance in 1955 (also explaining why he says that she might ‘regret it’ later in life, as he knows she will.)
It’s interesting to note that, apart from her anecdote, almost everything Lorraine says at the dinner table is either hypocritical or a misrepresentation of the truth. She’s clearly the most conservative member of the household, and the person harbouring the most romanticised and idealised notion of the past.
Her conservatism expresses itself in her behaviour towards other women. She seems distrustful of Jennifer, verging on slut-shaming when she says that “any girl who calls up a boy is looking for trouble.” This seems to be at odds with the audience’s understanding of Jennifer, who seems to be a sweet and supportive partner for Marty who genuinely likes him (just look at how she lights up when he’s playing with his band – she’s clearly very smitten and proud of him).
Lorraine’s sexually repressive attitudes are mirrored in her daughter Linda, who also seems to also resent Jennifer for no good reason, saying sarcastically: “I’m not your answering service, but while you were outside pouting over the car, Jennifer Parker called twice.” However, she later subtly confesses to being lonely and sexually inhibited, asking her mother: “Then how am I supposed to meet anyone?” Much like Dave, Linda’s life will be much improved as a result of Marty’s temporal interference at the end of the film.
Lorraine continues to go off on one, listing several things she claims she never did with boys that we will see her do in 1955: “I never chased a boy or asked out a boy or sat in a parked car with a boy.”
When Linda asks how she’s ever going to land a date with anyone, Lorraine launches into her favourite, careworn anecdote about how George and her met and fell in love. This is all important exposition, but the way that Linda and Marty seem bored with it makes it appear to be a funny character moment – especially with the way the anecdotes ends by showing George (the world’s crappiest Prince Charming) guffawing over a bowl of cereal. Thus, it passes us by completely, but it’s one of the most inventive deliveries of exposition I’ve ever seen.
Lorraine tells Marty and Linda that she first met George when her father hit him with his car. Lorraine took care of him and was attracted to his cute helplessness. Their first date was at the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance, where George kissed her on the dance floor, leading to them falling in love, getting married, and having kids. The end.
Since we see that Lorraine was pretty proactive when it came to courting, we can assume that she pressured George into a relationship, inadvertently denying him a chance to ever be assertive and keeping him spineless well into his late 40s. It’s probably the reason why George seems to take his wife for granted as well, since he never had to work very hard to earn her affection initially, and has been coasting on his teenage success ever since.
Much like the clock tower woman, this story is a way of framing established history, so we can subvert it later on. We never see the original timeline, sans Marty, but with this anecdote we almost feel as though we have been there, making things tense when it all goes wrong.
But it also shows that home is not a happy place for Marty. Frankly, it’s no wonder he spends so much time with Doc, Jennifer, or his band. Any escape at all would be preferable to this suburban ennui. Marty’s interactions with his mom show us why he is so attracted to Jennifer. Where Lorraine McFly is self-righteous, judgemental and sanctimonious, Jennifer is supportive, rebellious, and laid-back. Lorraine clearly resents Jennifer for enjoying far more freedoms than she ever did, and for the youth she reminds her of.
Meanwhile, Marty’s interactions with his dad tell us a lot about why he’s close friends with Doc. George has passed a lot of his self-esteem issues onto his son: the McFly men seem to view success as something that only belongs to other people, and are resigned to having their creativity stymied. But Doc Brown, (who tells Marty repeatedly that ‘If he puts his mind to it, he can accomplish anything’) acts as an encouraging mentor. He’s inspirational: even though his inventions never seem to work as planned, this never stops Doc from working his utmost to fulfil his scientific dream. As we see later, it’s Doc’s idealistic worldview that wins out in the end, not George’s defeatist one.
Okay, so since the opening scene, we’ve had basically three others, plus a montage. That’s about fifteen minutes of story. But let’s list the devices we’ve been given:
- The skateboard.
- The plutonium.
- The Walkman.
- The clocktower.
- The flyer.
- The Toyota.
- The videocamera.
- The Delorean.
- The Flux Capacitor
- “Re-elect Mayor [X]. Progress is his middle name.”
- “You’re a slacker McFly.”
- “What if they don’t like me? What if they said I was no good?”
- “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”
- “Hello? Hello? Anybody home? Think McFly! Think!”
- “Do you realise what would happen if I handed in my [X] in your handwriting? I’d get [X]. You wouldn’t want that to happen, would ya?”
- “I’ll finish [X] tonight and run it on over to you first thing [X].”
- “Hey McFly, your shoes are untied… Don’t be so gullible McFly!”
- “What are you looking at butthead?”
- Doc Brown
- Marty McFly
- Jennifer Parker
- Principal Strickland
- George McFly
- Biff Tanner
- Lorraine McFly (Neé Baines)
- Dave and Linda McFly
Seriously, that is some tight, efficient scripting, and as someone who struggles with overwriting and tautology, it’s really amazing to analyse a screenplay where so much is set up before the inciting incident. But, as we all know, Act Two is where things get really interesting…
2 thoughts on “Why ‘Back to the Future’ is My Favourite Screenplay: Part One”
This is really in-depth. I agree the Back to the Future movies are really good popcorn flicks. They’re entertaining, but there’s a lot of thought put into them
Agree that BTTF is a perfect movie. It’s also a masterclass in story. If you take away all the science fiction elements, the heart of the story is something universal, relatable and even touching. It’s about understanding who your parents are, which on some deep psychological level is probably the defining question of many people’s childhoods and even lives. Then, the story asks, given the chance, could you make your parents (and by extension, yourself) happier, healthier, more well-adjusted? It’s some pretty deep Freudian %^&*, really.