With a script as polished as a 1955 Chevy and performances as recognizable as the rollicking riffs of “Johnny B. Goode,” “Back to the Future” breaks the laws of the space time continuum but firmly adheres to the requirements of great cinematic storytelling. This is a story where every skateboard glide and visit from Vulcan bear some sort of meaning or purpose, a film packed with set-ups and foreshadows that everything unfolds as a natural sequence of its movie equation.
“Back to the Future” is also a hell of a lot of fun. George McFly’s nerdy, awkward quips are always a gas, and Marty is cool enough without being pompous that he still holds an advantage despite being an underdog. And Doc Brown is eccentric without being a cliche. Lorraine may be the most revolutionary character, one who is motivated primarily by sexual attraction, but isn’t afraid or ashamed, even in the tame 1950s.
Everyone in “Back to the Future” has a want and a need, an active desire they’re fighting for and a spiritual requirement they have to have met. Marty wants to get back to 1985 but he needs to be perceived as talented and a winner. Doc Brown wants to help Marty get back but needs to know he isn’t a failed scientist. George doesn’t want to be laughed at for his creative ideas, but needs to break out of his shell. And Lorraine wants Calvin Klein, but needs to know there is more lurking underneath that purple underwear.
The characters are emblematic, but a firm structure is why “Back to the Future” stands as a recurring favorite film among movie lovers. The film has a backbone that doesn’t call attention to itself, rigid but flexible so this sci-fi comedy can bend and adhere to the personalities and motivations of its well-crafted characters. Not to mention Alan Silvestri’s score that adds even more whimsical lightning when there was already thunder.
It’s remarkable to look back at “Back to the Future’s” production and realize this level of success almost didn’t happen. Robert Zemeckis’ tossed out his initial actor Eric Stoltz in favor of Michael J. Fox as McFly. The movie also changed from the original script, with the iconic clock amplifier opening replacing a much more forgettable intro with Marty already at school. Doc Brown doesn’t enjoy changing history, but through the process of extensive, meticulous revision did “Back to the Future” achieve its greatness.