No teen, preteen, or even adult who saw Back to the Future left the theater not wanting to get their hands on the time-traveling DeLorean automobile themselves, or shake the hand of the eccentric scientist who created it, Doctor Emmett “Doc” Brown. The film didn’t just infuse 1980s youth culture, it was 1980s youth culture. Suddenly, skateboarding, retro cars, and weird science experiments were in, and there was no shaking them off. Part of what made the film such a massive success, both in the critical and commercial eye, was because it was so “cool”, so effortlessly enjoyable, and yes, so knowingly dumb. And admittedly, this dumbness comes as both a blessing and a curse.
The story of Marty McFly, a geeky, electric-guitar-playing teen who secretly spends lots of time with Doc, literally driving himself into 1955 with the Delorean clearly isn’t meant to be taken seriously, so the light, playful tone is much appreciated, and makes the fairly unrealistic portrayal of 1950s America far more forgivable. What’s far less forgivable, however, is just how badly some of the film has aged.
If the cartoonishly stereotypical portrayal of a Libyan terrorist group (the characters’ main antagonist in the present day) was all there was to this, then I would barely even be mentioning it here. Unfortunately, it extends all the way to ridiculous trivializations of incest and rape (not making that up, I swear), which admittedly make Back to the Future slightly cringe-worthy to watch today.
Since the film is as outlandishly silly as it is, I can begrudgingly forgive the major subplot of Marty’s mother, who’s a teenager herself in ‘55, becoming sexually attracted to her future son, but the class bully attempting to force himself on her in a car? Really? Did that have to be the “big thing” that Marty’s future dad had to stop in order for her to fall in love with him, preventing Marty from completely fading out of history as a result? What kind of studio executive would watch that particular scene and go “Yup, that’s perfectly appropriate to leave in a film intended for children.” Good Lord.*
As undeniably misjudged as it may be in those areas, and as obnoxious as it is with its foreshadowing of later events (so much of that was bashed over my head, in fact, that less than 20 minutes in, I knew everything that was going to happen in the rest of the film), I still can’t help but enjoy Back to the Future nevertheless.
For every single moment that had me rolling my eyes, there was another one that was so clever, technically impressive (for ‘85, that is), or just plain fun that it completely made up for that. None of the characters are particularly deep or anything, but they’re still an utter blast to watch—in fact, all 116 minutes of Back to the Future are a blast to watch, pure and simple. Even with its irritatingly dated aspects weighing it down, you simply can’t deny how effortlessly entertaining this movie is.
When trying to pick out individual great moments in Back to the Future, one particularly engaging one that springs to mind is the climatic bell tower scene. I can’t disclose too much about it for fear of spoiling something, but let’s just say that it is so perfectly executed that I couldn’t look away, even while fully knowing how goofy and over-the-top it was. And that’s probably the best way to describe this movie: as a piece of Hollywood cheese you know is shallow and manufactured, but you just can’t look away from nevertheless. Every single ‘80s kid worth their salt certainly didn’t.
*Yes, I know the PG rating was different back then since PG-13 wasn’t out yet, but it was generally still considered a kid-friendly rating. A shame it wound up harboring very non-kid-friendly material like that, particularly since it was handled as badly as it was.