Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Recap: "Back to the Future" Part 1: Tense Present

I said I was disappointed by Age of Ultron.

I said I enjoyed Hulk.

And now, I'm taking a look at one of the sacred cows of science fiction and nerd culture.

No pressure.

It's not like the internet takes people's opinions on movies personally, or anything....
The movie opens up with a metric butt-ton of clocks set up around a room. Everything from those creepy cat clocks with the moving eyes to simple, circular, everyday wall clocks. As a radio turns on and lets us know that the year is 1985 by way of a car commercial, a Rube Goldberg breakfast machine activates. But alas, the coffee water pours directly onto the heating element, the toast gets burned to Hell and back for the nth time, and a can of dog food is deposited onto a large pile pouring over the top of a food dish. Clearly, somebody's been out for a while.

As this all happens, a TV turns on and shows a news report assuring the people of Hill Valley that there was definitely no plutonium stolen during that incident at that nuclear research facility to weeks ago. Nope. Not at all. Move along.

The door to this unkempt living area opens and a young man with a skateboard calls out to see if "Doc" is home. As he inspects the mound of rotting dog food, his skateboard rolls over to the cot and bumps a lead-lined case of that plutonium that certainly isn't missing. After this young man turns on some menacingly-buzzing technical-looking equipment, we get to see a few things.
  1. This young man is played by Michael J. Fox.
  2. That equipment was a sound system.
3. He should be losing his hearing any second.
A single chord is enough to send him flying across the room, whereupon the phone rings. Doc Brown, the guy who lives here (played by Christopher Lloyd), has just ringed up his own house to tell Marty that he'll need his help for a science experiment tomorrow at 1:15 AM at the Twin Pines Mall.

They named a mall after these two?
Not only that, but there's something wrong with the amplifier, so perhaps Marty shouldn't borrow it today.

Marty: "Yeah, I'll keep that in mind."

All the clocks in the room toll 8 AM, and Doc is ecstatic that all of his clocks have been successfully set to be 25 minutes slow.

Marty: "I'm late for school!"

Ah, yes, it wouldn't be an 80's movie without one of the main characters having to deal with the tyranny of high school. Hopefully, he can find a way to outsmart and/or publicly humiliate the strict authority figure!

As the power chords of Huey Lewis's "Power of Love" play, Marty skates off, hitching a few rides off the backs of various cars, giving us a good view of Hill Valley, California. Once Marty gets to school, he's met by his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker (played by Claudia Wells) who takes him around back to sneak him in. But alas, once inside, the resident strict authority figure with the fitting name of Strickland (James Tolkan) catches them both and hands them a couple tardy slips.

Lex Luthor was going through rough times in the 80's.
And he heard Marty explain to Jennifer that Doc's clocks were slow, and that riles him even more.

Strickland: "Now let me give you a nickel's worth of free advice, young man."

Mathematically speaking, that's an infinite amount of advice.

Strickland: "This so-called Dr. Brown is dangerous. He's a real nutcase. You hang out with him, you're gonna end up in big trouble."
Marty: "Ooh, yes, sir."
Strickland: "You've got a real attitude problem, McFly, you're a slacker. You remind me of you're father when he went here, he was a slacker, too."

Marty tries to blow off Strickland and get to class, but Strickland grabs him and pulls him back just so he can insult a high school student some more. Say what you will about the current failings of the education system, but at least it's generally recognized that manhandling a student and telling them that they're genetically predisposed to failure might not be the best way to treat students.

Strickland: "I noticed your band is on the roster for dance auditions today. Why even bother, McFly? You don't have a chance, you're too much like your old man. No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley."
Marty: "Yeah, well, history is gonna change."


We then cut to the auditions after school, where a Huey Lewis cameo is acting as head judge. Marty and his band, the Pinheads, start playing "Power of Love," but they don't even get to finish before they're dismissed.

Judge: "I'm afraid you're just too darn loud."

Don't blame them, Huey. You wrote it.
As the campaign cars for Mayor Goldie Wilson's re-election drive through the streets, Marty and Jennifer walk through town discussing Marty's future as a musician. He's upset, but she still believes in him. She urges him to send his audition tape into the record company.

Jennifer: "It's like Doc's always saying...."
Marty: "I know, I know, if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything."

Huh. Funny that he's one of the few characters who never says that during the trilogy.

Marty's still worried about possible rejection, but when he sees a brand new 1985 Toyota on the back of a truck, he vows that someday they'll take a truck like that up to the lake, bring some sleeping bags, and presumably not do very much sleeping. Speaking of such activities, Marty and Jennifer have a trip planned for tomorrow that he's keeping hidden from his parents because he doesn't want to be lectured by his mom on how she never did that kind of thing at his age.

Marty: "I mean, look. I think the woman was born a nun."

A kiss between the two is broken up by an old lady shaking a can in their face to get a donation for the fund to save the clock tower.

Aw, come on, let him kiss her before she turns into Elizabeth Shue.
It seems that Mayor Wilson wants to replace the clock. Apparently, lightning struck it thirty years ago and it hasn't moved since. Which means that they're asking for donations so they can... not fix the clock. Wouldn't keeping the clock broken be the thing that actually costs no money? I like to think that this lady's just running a huge scam.

After they placate the lady with a quarter, Jennifer's dad drives up to take her home. She'll be at her Grandma's tonight, so she writes her Grandma's phone number on the back of Marty's "Save the Clock Tower" flyer.

Marty skates home, finding a tow truck and a wrecked pickup in the driveway. Inside the house, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) is yelling at Marty's dad, George McFly (Crispin Glover), about the wreck. Biff's angry because when George let him borrow his truck, he didn't say anything about the blind spot.

George: "Biff, um, can I- can I assume that your, uh, insurance is gonna pay for the damage?"
Biff: "My insurance? It's your car. Your insurance'll pay for it."

Well, actually, yes. Insurance covers the car, not the driver. That's how it works. Think, McFly, think.

Biff: "I wanna know who's gonna pay for this! I spilled beer all over when that car smashed into me."

That is not how it works, though.
Biff then asks about those reports that George was doing of Biff's behalf. They're not quite done yet, so Biff takes George by the tie and knocks some sense into his head.

Biff: "Think, McFly, think! I gotta have time to get 'em retyped. Do you realize what would happen if I hand in my reports in your handwriting? I'll get fired."

And so, we set up the personalities of these two. George McFly is a weenie, and Biff... well....

Did I just create a time paradox by using this picture?
Biff grabs a can of beer for the ride home, and Marty has a talk with his dad. I mean, without the car, how's Marty going to go camping with Jennifer the guys?

We then cut to dinner, where George pours himself a big bowl of peanut brittle. This might seem random, but it's the punchline to a scene that was left on the cutting room floor where George gets pressured by a kid to buy all the peanut brittle he was selling. It was cut because... well, it's already pretty evident how much of a pushover George is.

George tells Marty that perhaps not playing at the dance is a good thing. After all, it's less of a hassle and he doesn't have to worry about messing anything up. Marty's older brother, Dave (Marc McClure, who you might recognize as Jimmy Olsen), dressed in his finest Burger King uniform, agrees. Speaking of messing up, as George and Dave laugh at a rerun of The Honeymooners, George's wife, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) comes in from the kitchen with the cake she made to celebrate Uncle Joey making parole. Except he didn't make it. Again.

Marty's sister, Linda mentions how much of an embarrassment it is to have an uncle in prison. And... that's basically half of what she does in this movie. Suddenly, when Dave realizes how late for work he is, his first instinct is to let out a loud "Damn!" Geez, Dave, do you kiss you mother with that mouth?

Lorriane: "You come here and kiss your mother before you go, come here."

Well, I guess he does.
Also, the phrase "kiss your mother before you go" is going to take one heck of a turn.
Speaking of kissing, Linda tells Marty that she's not going to be Marty's answering service for when his girlfriend calls.

Lorraine: "I don't like her, Marty. Any girl who calls up a boy is just asking for trouble."

When Linda disagrees, Lorraine uses that same old speech that every parent's whipped out at least once.

Lorraine: "When I was your age, I never chased a boy, or called a boy, or sat in a parked car with a boy."

Even if that is true, Lorraine, that still leaves a lot of things you can do with boys.

Between sips of her special "mommy juice," Lorraine reminisces about how she and George first met.

Linda: "That was so stupid; Grandpa hit hit him with the car!"
Lorraine: "It was meant to be."

After George deflects the question of what exactly George was doing in the middle of the street, she goes on to tell the tale of how she nursed him back to health and they went to the dance together. And yes, they had their first kiss.

Lorraine: "It was then that I realized I was going to spend the rest of my life with him."

God, no wonder she drinks.
Later that night, Marty is catching some Z's in his room when Doc calls about that whole deal at the mall they have scheduled.

Doc Brown: "Marty, you didn't fall asleep, did you?"
Marty: "Uh, Doc? Uh, no, don't- don't be silly."

Following instructions, Marty soon arrives at the Twin Pines Mall with Doc's camcorder, finding Doc's van, Einstein, and the real star of the movie.

However... I'm sorry, but it needs to be said. The DeLorean is a piece of crap.

Wait! Wait! Before an angry, nostalgic mob tries to string me up, let me explain.

It's a statement of fact. The DeLorean was a notorious lemon. The gullwing doors are a safety hazard if the car rolls over, the mechanisms propping the doors up stop working at colder temperatures, and the alternator was always failing. Marty McFly's continual bonking of his head on the door wasn't in the script; the door kept drooping, necessitating people with hairdryers to keep the mechanism warm.

But having said that, Doc Brown's time-traveling 1981 DMC-12 is my second favorite car in all of fiction. Screw the safety hazards, this thing's gorgeous.

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.
My absolute favorite car?

Oh, yeah.
Doc is very excited to get started and has Marty begin recording right away.

Doc Brown: "Good evening, I'm Dr. Emmett Brown. I'm standing in the parking lot at Twin Pines Mall it's Saturday morning, October 26th, 1985, 1:18 AM. And this is temporal experiment number one."

He puts his dog in the car, worrying the test audiences who weren't told this was a comedy, and narrates to the camera as he syncs the stopwatch around his own neck to the watch around Einstein's. He shuts the door and uses an R/C hookup to drive the car remotely. And he aims it at himself and Marty.

Doc Brown: "If my calculations are correct, when this baby hits 88 miles per hour... you're going to see some serious shit."

And he punches the gas. Right before the car hits the two of them, it hits 88. Sparks fly.

A sonic boom. A second sonic boom. A third.

Suddenly, the car disappears as flaming skid marks appear where the car should have run them both down.

There's a theory that Doc is suicidal, having spent thirty years and his family fortune on this experiment, which is why he aims the car at himself. I prefer to think that he's eccentric and overconfident. After all, not only would he be endangering Marty, too, but why do you think all his clocks are off at home? He's already experimented with desynchronizing from the time stream. He knows his theory is sound.

Also, Marty just filmed one heck of a shot.
Anyway, Doc is ecstatic, but Marty is freaked out.

Marty: "Jeez Louise, Doc, you just disintegrated Einstein!"

Doc excitedly insists that Einstein is fine and that Marty shouldn't worry about where the hell they are.

Doc Brown: "The appropriate question is when the hell are they?! You see, Einstein has just become the world's first time traveler!"

The world's first time traveler... is a dog.

"You say that like it's a bad thing."
Einstein has been sent a minute into the future. And finally realizing the full implications of the situation, Marty has to ask the most important question.

Marty: "Are you telling me that you built a time machine... out of a DeLorean?"
Doc Brown: "The way I see it, if you're gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?"

"You call that style? Heh. Humans are adorable."
But soon enough, Marty and Doc have taken the slow path to the exact point in time that Einstein was sent to and the car reappears, a fine layer of frost covering the shiny car. This detail will never come up again any time the car travels through time. Except once at the end.

Possibly coincidentally, both times the car freezes over, it's going forwards in time. So maybe that only happens when you go forwards? Or maybe I should repeat to myself that it's just a movie and I should really just relax.

Einstein is fine and his clock is exactly one minute behind Doc's.

Doc Brown: "Come here! I'll show you how it works!"

All right, movie. Technobabble me.

Doc Brown: "First, we turn the time circuits on."

Whoa, slow down, buddy, you lost me already.

Doc explains that the readouts tell you where you are, where you were, and where you're going, with a convenient keypad to enter in your dates.

Leading to quite a few Photoshopped readouts. Remember this hoax?
Doc Brown: "Say you want to see the signing of the Declaration of Independence!"

Okay. Then why are you typing in July 4th, 1776? Independence was declared on July 2nd and the actual document was signed in August. He mentions the birth of Christ as he punches in December 25th, year 0, when technically, not only is there no year 0, but December 25th was an arbitrary date chosen to repurpose the pagan tradition of celebrating the Winter Solstice.

"Dammit, Newt, I'm a doctor, not an historian!"
Yeah, yeah, you and Doctor Bashir, buddy.

In fact, the only date Doc gets right is November 5th, 1955.

Doc Brown: "That was the day I invented time travel!"

Are you telling us you invented time travel... on Guy Fawkes Night?

Uh... No reason, it's just random is all.

Doc Brown goes on to Remember Remember that Fifth of November where he fell off his toilet while hanging something up in the bathroom. He knocked himself out cold after hitting his head on the sink, and when he woke up, he had the design for the Flux Capacitor in his head. It took him thirty years and almost his entire family fortune to make it, but hey, it works. It works very well. And exactly how it works is never explained beyond that, which is the right way to go with this sort of technobabble.

Throwing made-up jargon around is what made later seasons of Star Trek: TNG and Voyager so laughable. I mean, what the heck does "multi-modal reflection sorting" or "inverse tachyon pulse" mean? I like Back to the Future's approach. How does time travel work? Only with a Flux Capacitor. No made-up nonsense, just a made-up device. Easy-peasy.

Ask the filmmakers no questions, they shall tell you no lies.
Anyway, Doc gets into full memory lane mode, remembering when the mall itself was just a tree farm owned by Old Man Peabody.


Not you.

Marty, however, is now wondering exactly what it runs on. After all, if it runs on gas, then anytime you wanted to fill the tank, you could just go back in time to when gas was ten cents. But Doc explains that it runs on plutonium. Not like that.

Doc Brown: "No, this sucker's electrical. But I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 jigowatts of electricity I need."
Marty: "Doc, you don't just walk into a store and buy plutonium!"

Doc admits that he stole the stuff from some Libyan nationalists. But he....

Wait, Doc, are you telling me you made a deal... with Muammar Gaddafi?

"...I'd like to plead the fifth."
Luckily, he scammed them. He told them he'd build a nuclear bomb for them, but all he gave them was a bomb casing full of used pinball machine parts. And about 23 years later, these same terrorists decided that the only way to ensure that somebody would build them a weapon would be to kidnap them.

Of course, they still didn't get the weapon they wanted in the end....
Marty and Doc suit up in hazmat gear to reload the plutonium into the DeLorean, and Doc prepares to travel 25 years into the future to the year 2010. In my opinion, he should go see Inception in theatres. That mess is going to blow his mind. Oh, man, wait until he sees the first iPad!  ...He might want to avoid the Middle East in December, though. And maybe he shouldn't let it slip about his deal with the Libyans no matter where he goes.

Doc Brown: "I'll also be able to see who wins the next 25 World Series!"

24, Doc. There wasn't a World Series in 1994. Besides, America always wins the World Series. (Except for those times when Canada won it, as has been pointed out to me. Still, there sure is a lack of international presence for something called the "World Series.")

But alas, Doc's trip is cut short before it begins. As Doc speechifies to the camera, he suddenly remembers that he didn't pack plutonium for the trip back. But before he can, he spots the Libyans arriving.

Doc Brown: "Oh, my God, they found me. I don't know how, but they found me."

Yeah, you were really keeping a low profile, Doc.
Doc gets gunned down in cold blood by the men he ripped off. Before Marty can follow suit, the terrorist's gun jams, allowing Marty to make a getaway in the DeLorean, occasionally turning into Eric Stoltz in the footage where you can't see the driver's face.

After a bit of fancy driving, Marty successfully escapes in a way he never intended. By hitting 88 miles an hour. He also hits a scarecrow, because he suddenly finds himself in a field. And even sooner, he finds himself crashing into a barn. Yes, Marty has traveled through time to the last place the time circuits were set to: November 5th, 1955.

Old Man Peabody and his wife and kids find the car in the barn and have no idea what it could possibly be until Young Boy Peabody declares that it must be an alien spacecraft. After all, it looks just like the one from his comic magazine. And when Marty emerges in his hazmat suit, that doesn't help matters.

Fun Fact: The DeLorean was chosen because it looked the most like a spaceship.
When Old Man Peabody runs off and returns with a shotgun, Marty decides that it might be a good idea to drive off. And he does, running over one of Old Man Peabody's twin pines in the process.

As he drives down the road, Marty decides that all this must be a dream.

Marty: "It's just a very... intense dream."

But when he finally arrives at his neighborhood to find a billboard advertising the fact that his house will soon be built... yeah, that's pretty hard evidence. His hazmat suit freaks out the wife of a passing motorist, so Marty decides to go back to 1985. Except the car won't start. And there's no backup plutonium. With no other choice, Marty ditches the car and suit behind the Lyon Estates billboard and walks the two miles to Hill Valley.

"Mr. Sandman" plays as Marty takes in the sights of 1955. Future president Ronald Reagan is still an actor, and his latest flick is still in theatres. The gas station has a team of attendants in uniform. Gas is 19 1/2 cents a gallon. The campaign to re-elect Mayor Red Thomas is in full force. And most telling of all, the Hill Valley clock tower still works. Of course, an issue of the local paper dated November 5th, 1955 is what makes it really sink in for Marty. I mean, all that other stuff could have just been coincidence.

Coming up in Part 2: Parent traps, paradoxes, and power shortages!


  1. Well the Toronto Blue Jays won the world series a couple of times so unless you count all of North America than America did not win them all.

    1. Noted and fixed. Dang ol' Canada. Always ruining everything.

      Nah, just kidding. All Canada ever ruined was bacon. But they gave us Dave Foley and Michael J. Fox, so all is forgiven.

    2. I was getting over the shock that Seth Rogen is Canadian, and now this!?