The Rear-View Mirror: Back to the Future (1985)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, and in the spirit of society’s collective post-venereal fugue, I’m going to come clean: I thought it would be cheeky to write a Rear-View Mirror post about a movie that literally stars a time-travelling car.

Because, let’s face it, there’s no more obvious vehicle for one of popular culture’s most famous movies than the DeLorean that, in a beautiful visual gag, tips up and takes to the sky at the end of Back to the Future. But first, in the spirit of the movie, let’s rewind.

I was a wee tot about yay high and barely past his 8th birthday when I first saw Back to the Future with its young Michael J. Fox as a happy-go-lucky teen with an old scientist friend. I wasn’t old enough to understand the intricacies of being zapped back to the past and unintentionally having your teenage mom fall in love with you, or fixing that mess by appearing to take it further and getting your future dad to intervene (a sequence which gets even messier in ways that are fairly disturbing to my adult brain). What I did understand was that time-travel was possible, there was a car that moved so fast it sparked its passengers into the past and left flaming tyre trails where it used to be, and that I was in love: in love with the idea of travelling to any time you could think of, and the genre that enabled this idea, something called ‘science fiction’.

Back to the Future both is and isn’t a great science-fiction movie. It’s not interested in the science or plausibility of time-travel and its attendant paradoxes so much as what people are capable of if given a push at the right time and the right place. Or, indeed, the wrong time, and the wrong place. It’s a theme that the trilogy would go on to explore, with Back to the Future II in 1989 and its sequel in 1990. What started off with Marty McFly and his friend Doc Brown trying to fix the past and get Marty back to the future expands into a trilogy about the rippling consequences that intentional and unintentional actions have on you and the people around you.

It’s also about having a gas and playing with some genre tropes – which Back to the Future II starts off by visiting the actual future this time.

In many ways, Back to the Future II is my favourite of the three despite part one being conceptually tighter and ingenious in its cyclical callbacks. BttF II shows us its vision of 2015 from the lens of 1989, and its predictions of what the future would look like are a tad… off in some ways.

Here are some of the things BttF II predicted that have not quite happened as foreseen in this the Year of Our Lord 2019:

  • There have only been three sequels to Jaws.
  • Flying cars are still a distant dream, and Mr. Fusion nuclear engines powered by garbage are even further off.
  • Our hoverboards are decidedly less cool.
  • We’re not half as enamoured with Technicolor pastels and jackets as Zemeckis thought we’d be.

But at the same time, here are some of the things that have become possible in our future that BttF II didn’t foresee:

(One future prediction BttF II got right though: we did get cool power-lacing shoes, maybe a year later than expected, but directly inspired by the movie!)

It is perhaps telling that the core prediction of BttF II beyond technological concerns is the one that rings truest: Marty’s desolate future is a mirror image of his parents’ failing domestic situation in the original movie, and in trying to fix it he manages to make his present day a dark, tragic dystopia overseen by the trilogy’s principal antagonist and bully. It is, of course, all sorted by the end of the movie’s run by going right back to 1955, where everything began. It also has a cliffhanger ending in keeping with the gag from the original – but this time, the sequel was planned.

Back to the Future III is a direct continuation and deals with saving Doc Brown by going even further into the past, to 1855; at this point there’s more past in the trilogy than future, but Back to the Future: Back to the Past probably doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. BttF III is perhaps the least celebrated of the trilogy, because while seeing Hill Valley’s changing faces through three time periods was one of the charms of the previous two films, the Hill Valley of 1855 is an old frontier town laced with tired Western tropes and less of the ingenuity that preceded it. There’s still some flashy build-up and a corker of a train robbery, but at this point the cyclical nature of the narrative had run its course and become repetitive.

It’s around this time, though, that BttF III remembers it’s a science fiction franchise, and comes around to make the series’ over-arching point. In an understated moment, Marty is challenged to a race by Needles, a jackass who knows Marty always gets triggered when he hears the word ‘chicken’. Just as the lights turn green, Marty switches gears and reverses the car back down the road, just in time to see Needles almost hit a Rolls Royce – the one that would have scuppered Marty’s future all the way to 2015 if he’d smashed into it.

I said earlier in this piece that Back to the Future both is and isn’t a great science fiction movie. The reason for this is that most great science fiction isn’t actually about the science – it’s about what people do with it. Back to the Future‘s science and paradoxes are sketchy at best, but what makes it a great science fiction film – and franchise – is where it goes with its characters when you throw a time-travelling car into the mix. You get love, confusion, good intentions and unexpected consequences, comic coincidences, bleak tragedy, festering greed, and a series of perfectly timed comeuppances.

You also get characters that learn something from their experiences and put it to use. In the end, Marty learns that the future isn’t something you can fix by using a time-travelling, flying car. The future is always something you make by choosing for yourself in the here, and the now.

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.


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