October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Unless you live under a rock, I’m sure it did not escape your notice that yesterday was Back to the Future Day. To celebrate, I went to a local screening of the entire trilogy. As someone who is often in bed before ten on a week night, staying up until after 1 am to watch the complete trilogy was kind of a big deal for me, but I’m so glad I did. So instead of a traditional Halloween movie for today, I’m going to to talk about Back to the Future. I’m not going to recap the movies here, because frankly, that’s been done more than enough this week, but I will offer some thoughts on seeing them on the big screen for the first time and how they hold up.
I’ve been watching these movies for as long as I can remember, first taped off basic cable as a kid and later on DVD. The overall spirit of the movies is irresistible, optimistic, and joyfully ridiculous. The give-and-take between Michael J. Fox and Christopher LLoyd is something rarely seen between two actors and their comedic timing is impeccable. The movies are full of callbacks, sometimes too much so, but it gives them familiar, comforting beats to riff off of, which increases their rewatchability. The concept, that you can change your future and your destiny, that you can remake yourself and your life, is alluring to everyone and always hopeful. These are movies to watch when you’re sick or sad or the weather is bad out, comforting and endlessly entertaining.
In truth, I’ve watched these movies so much I stopped seeing them. I know them so well I rarely pay close attention when I have them on. And I’ve only ever seen them on the small screen. So it was an incredible experience to not just view them in a larger format, which allowed me to catch details I’d never seen before, but also to watch them in a communal atmosphere and in a way that forced me to focus on them completely. To be honest, even though I knew almost every line, it was like seeing them for the first time. And seeing them in a group of people, where everyone loved them and was laughing along, made them funnier than ever.
All three movies have held up, in general, very well. The original is still the best, a near-perfect example of pacing and plotting that has tons of laughs and keeps your attention from beginning to end. The second one is the weakest link – I remember loving it as a kid, but I think it was mostly from the silliness of having multiple copies of people running around. Looking at it now though, the future looks dated, Biff’s rule of alternate 1985 is nothing more than cartoon villainy, and there was too much reliance on the split screen techniques that were far from seamless. The only thing more unbelievable than how bad Marty is at sneaking around is how bad everyone from 1955 is at noticing him. Still, Back to the Future II has its charm and although it may fray around the edges, it certainly never drags.
The third movie holds a special place in my heart, as my dad actually taped that one off TNT before the others, so I saw it a bunch of times before I saw the first two. It leans into being a western and coasts cheerfully on references to the previous films, while deepening Doc Brown as a character and providing us with the happy ending we all wanted. In some ways it’s the most outlandish of the three, but it’s also the most charming because it doesn’t care and neither do we.
I definitely have a new appreciation for the acting skills of both Fox and Lloyd, but particularly Lloyd. Even when he’s playing a scene just for laughs, his performance is never shallow and you always have a sense of the many layers and long history of Doc Brown. He’s also the master of facial expressions, capable of hitting the mark just with a head tilt or an eyebrow. Knowing him primarily from this role, it’s easy to forget he has extensive stage training and an impressive list of films under his belt, but after this rewatch I can see picking anyone less experienced would have been mistake. It’s a lighthearted role, but it needs that depth to make Doc someone that Marty, and we, would put our trust in again and again.
Seeing these movies on the big screen really made me appreciate the level of detail put into them, from jokes on background signs that are only visible for a second to the fact that Doc’s Hawaiian shirt in Back to the Future II is actually a train print, foreshadowing the last movie. There’s so much I never noticed, and probably never would have noticed, watching on my TV or laptop. I’m very grateful for the chance to see them as they were meant to be seen and anyone who loves them should do so if given the chance.
All that said, there are things about the movies that haven’t aged so well. And I’m not talking about the crude CGI. The treatment of female characters in the movies is really unforgiveable. Clara probably comes off the best out of three main female roles, being a little more realized that Lorraine or Jennife, but she is basically meant to exist as the Doc’s perfect woman and his ultimate reward. While she’s spunky and smart, she’s mostly a damsel in distress. Women in Back to the Future are prizes and motivators, nothing more.
Even worse is the use of sexual assault to motivate the male characters and provide tension. All three movies feature sexual assault or the threat of it to make the bad guy seem extra bad and to make Marty, Doc, or George more heroic. The first movie is the most egregious, but they all employ it. Lorraine’s assault by Biff is not about her at all, it’s about George standing up to Biff. It’s the moment that changes his life. Lorraine’s life is also changed, but only because she’s married to George.
Clara being manhandled and threatened by Mad Dog is about Doc Brown – first about Mad Dog trying to hurt Doc and then about whether Doc will stand up for Clara. The thoughts, feelings, and impacts of these incidents on the women involved are not considered at all. Jennifer is not assaulted or threatened, but she spends most of the movies unconscious, waiting for Marty to kiss her awake and finally take her to the lake for some lovin’. Watching as an adult, in a setting that made it impossible to tune out, this pattern was deeply disturbing and definitely marred the fun for me.
Also problematic, although a much smaller part of the movies, is the idea that Marty was the one who gave Chuck Barry the rock ‘n’ roll sound he’d been looking for. Aside from the obvious paradox, rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today originated with Black musicians and culture and was quickly co-opted and stripped of all context by white musicians, who repackaged it as their own. I’m sure the writers were just thinking it would be a funny bit, and it is on the surface, but the deeper implications are unfortunate.
I still love Back to the Future. There are still great things about it and I’m sure I’ll rewatch all the movies again and again. But I feel like it’s important not to just give our favs a pass on misogyny or racism just because we have warm fuzzy memories of them, or because we like them and don’t want to feel guilty about it. We shouldn’t just dismiss these concerns because they’re inconvenient or the work is “from another era” (which is never an excuse, but particularly in this case; it’s the 80’s, not the Middle Ages).
Our relationship with media is complex and we should be okay with that. I can recognize that the Back to the Future movies are smart and funny and inspiring, while not ignoring the problematic aspects of them. I don’t feel bad that I love them, even though I wish some things about them were different. But I’m not going to pretend they’re perfect or that there isn’t a massive problem with how they treat half the population. Instead, I prefer to focus on their underlying message: The future is whatever we make it. So let’s do better, in the future