In celebration of the film’s 25th anniversary (and also, not coincidentally, to promote yesterday’s release of the trilogy on blu-ray), movie theatres across this great nation of ours screened Back to the Future this past Monday night. I’m thrilled to say that I had tickets to the showing here in Boston, and it was an absolutely magnificent event. It’s been a long time since I’ve had more fun in a movie theatre!!
What a delight it was to get to see this spectacular film on the big screen! The film played like gangbusters — the audience I was in was captivated by the movie from minute one. Of course everyone in the theatre knew the movie backwards and forwards, but that could lead to an audience laughing at the film, and the experience becoming more like watching the Rocky Horror Picture Show. (Not necessarily a bad thing, but certainly a different experience from when an audience is really engaged by a film’s story.) But the audience I was with was kept spellbound by the film all the way through — laughing hard at all the jokes (even the subtle ones) and cheering at all the key places.
It’s hard to believe that Back to the Future is a quarter-century old. The film holds up remarkably well. The acting, the direction, the score, the visual effects — everything works almost exactly as well as it did back in 1985 when the film was released. OK, there are one or two dodgy moments (like the effects shot when Marty & Doc whip around to look at the fire tracks left by the just-vanished DeLorean in the Twin Pines Mall — if you look closely, Marty and the Doc appear to be floating in the frame) but these are barely noticeable and, really, sort of endearing if you do pick up on any of those tiny flaws.
At the screening, the film looked and sounded amazing. The print that we were shown had been gorgeously restored. The image was sharp and with vibrant colors. The dialogue was clear, the music was rocking, and the effects were booming (especially the climactic clock tower lightning strike!).
There were so many aspects of the film that were really highlighted when seeing it on the big screen. First and foremost is the eyeball-acting of Christopher Lloyd. Seriously, I could spend the entire run-time of the film just watching Mr. Lloyd’s eyeballs pop and squint and wriggle. Lloyd is a riot, and he makes then most of every single second he has on screen. Take the scene in the Doc’s garage, when Lorraine shows up (having trailed Marty there). Doc has maybe one line of dialogue in the whole scene, but he absolutely kills as he skulks about the edges of the frame, listening with growing concern to Lorraine’s infatuation with Marty, until he finally slumps against the covered DeLorean behind Marty at the end of the exchange. If you just go by the dialogue, this is a fairly dry scene, but Lloyd turns it into one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Genius. Has there ever been a more perfect pairing of actor and character?
I also love how director Robert Zemeckis’ staging plays into Lloyd’s larger-than-life mannerisms. Watch carefully the scene in the mall parking lot when the Doc reveals the workings of the DeLorean to Marty, or the scene in 1955 when the Doc and Marty hatch their plan to capture the energy (1.21 gigowatts!) from the clock tower lightning strike to send Marty back to the future. In both instances, the two characters are constantly moving from the front to the back of the space on screen with increasingly manic energy. Mr. Zemeckis was also completely unafraid to have his characters directly address the camera lens. In lesser hands that could totally throw an audience out of the rhythm of a scene, but here in Back to the Future it just enhances the comedic energy. And getting to see those sequences unfold on the big screen only made them more wonderful, in my mind!
But all the actors are great, not just Christopher Lloyd. It’s a thrill watching the young Michael J. Fox at work. (Well, he’s young, but I highly doubt he was actually as young as the 17 years of age he was supposed to be in the film!) (A quick internet check reveals that Mr. Fox was actually 24 years old in 1985.) Mr. Fox’s energy and comic timing mesh perfectly with Mr. Lloyd’s, and the two form one of the great screen duos of all time. Lea Thompson is beautiful and also a hoot in the film. She can nail a punchline, and more importantly she’s able to sell the emotional side of the film’s story. You believe both her crush on Marty as well as her eventual falling for George. Speaking of George, let’s all take a minute and pay homage to the vastly-underrated bizarre insanity of Crispin Glover. He imbues the hapless George McFly with a veritable cornucopia of ticks and weird characteristics, but somehow he’s able to keep his performance just contained enough to still be credible. (This might also reflect the skills of director Zemeckis.) The George McFly character could so easily have been a totally annoying creation, but watching the film on Monday night I was surprised by how much I loved all of the George scenes, whether he was ordering a “milk… chocolate!” to up his confidence or guffawing at the Honeymooners in 1985 while ignoring his family.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Thomas F. Wilson might lay it on a little thick as the super-friendly 1985 version of Biff we meet at the end of the film, but his 1955 Biff is pure gold. Could any other actor have made as much of a meal out of “make like a tree… and get out of here!” than Mr. Wilson? I highly doubt it. I think Claudia Wells is solid here in her small role as Marty’s girlfriend, and it’s a shame that she was unable to participate in the sequels (from what I’ve read, due to her mother’s ill health). Then there’s Marc McClure (Jimmy Olsen!) as Marty’s brother Dave, Donald Fullilove as (Mayor) Goldie Wilson, James Tolkan as Mr. Strickland… are these not all iconic performances? My brother even pointed out to me that Billy Zane plays one of Biff’s cronies (“Match,” according to imdb.com).
The visual effects hold up well, too. (It probably helps that there are actually far fewer special effects shots in the movie than you might think.) The DeLorean time-travel effect — the visual centerpiece of the film — still plays great. I’ve heard the old-age make-up in the film knocked by some, but I thought the make-up looked just fine, even on the big screen. Some shots looked really terrific to me, and even the weaker ones (like the close-up of Doc’s face when he revives in the mall parking lot at the end of the film) are still workable and not something that an audience will laugh at.
For a film that I don’t think was made for a heck of a lot of money, the production design is top-notch. All of the sets are filled to overflowing with a million tiny little details — which you could really soak in when seeing the film on the big screen. On TV, for instance, it’s hard to notice that the Twin Pines Mall has become the Lone Pine Mall when Marty returns to 1985 at the end of the film (because Marty knocked over one of Old Man Peabody’s pine trees with the DeLorean back in 1955, of course!). On the big screen you could also really get a look at the newspaper clippings in Doc’s home at the very beginning of the film. One of them — a reference to Doc Brown’s mansion having burnt down — has always perplexed me, and it caught my attention again when seeing the film on Monday night. [NOTE: In an interview with screenwriter Bob Gale that I just read yesterday, he actually addresses that very point! Mr. Gale comments: "The opening shot, when the camera is going through Doc's laboratory, there's a newspaper on the wall that says the Brown mansion was destroyed in a fire. You can infer from that that maybe Doc set his house on fire to collect the insurance money." Awesome!]
And the score — what can I say? I waxed poetic about Alan Silvestri’s score a few months ago when it was released in complete form on CD, and it still gets me every time I hear it. The manic energy of the score is a perfect match for the crazy tone of the film, and that main theme is just perfection. Icing on the cake.
Boy, I could go on and on in praise of this film. For instance — it struck me, watching the film again on Monday, what a clever choice the Johnny B. Goode sequence is. Dramatically, the film is pretty much over once George and Lorraine have kissed on the dance floor and all the figures in Marty’s photograph have returned. You’d think, from that point, the filmmakers would just rush to the movie’s conclusion. But instead, Mr. Zemeckis and co. hang around at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance and stage that rocking rendition of Johnny B. Goode. It’s totally unnecessary to the plot, and yet, I’d argue that it’s probably the most famous scene in the movie! And deservedly so, because it embodies the sense of fun and playfulness that runs throughout Back to the Future — key reasons for the film being as beloved as it is.
Back to the Future is truly one of the finest movies ever made. (And the sequels are pretty great, too! It’s funny, I’ve seen Part II so many times that, when watching Part I, there were so many scenes — like when Marty is parking with Lorraine, or when the Doc is getting the DeLorean set up on the street by the clock tower — where I kept waiting to see the second Marty or Doc pop into the frame, the way they do in Part II! And another thing — I found myself thinking about the scene in Part II, when Lorraine and Marty are in the car together, and she says something to the effect of how she’ll let her kids, once she has some, do whatever they want, and Marty comments “I’d like to get that in writing” and then the second Marty, crawling beside the car, mutters “yeah, me too.” I totally thought that that scene –minus the second Marty’s comments, of course — was in Part I, but it’s not! That’s a testament to how tightly the three films are connected, and how well-made all three films are. But I digress!)
It was an amazing privilege to get to see this great film back on the big screen. Now how about re-releasing Parts II and III next month??