What makes Back to the Future so Beloved?

It’s the late night of October 21, 2015, the day that Marty McFly visits the “future” in Back to the Future Part II. It’s being celebrated and laughed about in all corners of the internet, mixing nostalgia for a beloved trilogy of films with amusement at the inaccuracies of its predictions. I think it’s causing some reflection upon the state of society and technology today compared to our expectations.

No, nothing hovers, but you do have WiFi on your cell phone. I’d say we’re good.

But what makes these films (notably the first two) such touchstones in our culture? Why are they so endlessly memorable and entertaining?

I just watched the first two films again tonight, and I’m still struck by how different the direction, filming, writing, and tone are compared to many films today. I remember first rewatching them several years ago, probably for the first time since childhood. They stuck out as friendly, charming, but yet detailed, elegant and witty. They strike similar notes to Doctor Who in creating deeply dramatic situations while still maintaining lighthearted fun.

I think in that may lie much of why these films stand the test of time. When I saw them as a child, I only understood the most obvious characters and visuals of the film: the spacey DeLorean, the hip Marty, the mad genius Doc, the coward George, the bully Biff. I remember feeling weird feelings when Lorraine looked at Marty like that. I remember “Johnny B. Goode”. And I remember being inspired to think about time travel and the paradoxes that could occur, especially after seeing Part II.

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On seeing them again as an adult, I can appreciate the massive amounts of detail that went into Hill Valley in so many timelines. The first film’s opening scene perfectly encapsulates who Doc Brown is, even though we don’t see him for another ten minutes. Dozens of clocks, precisely incorrectly timed, point to an obsessive, thorough, and quirky nature. Machines made to automate his morning routine that are left running while he’s away complete the picture of a technical and imaginative genius who is prone to careless mistakes.

You know who Marty is from his first, catastrophic guitar strum. You hate Biff in mere seconds, no matter which one throughout the series.

Dozens of environment gags, especially around Hill Valley square in 1885, 1955, 1985, and 2015, characterize the setting based on fiddling with existing expectations. The Texaco gas station in 2015 fuels flying cars. The strip joint in 1985 is a theater in 1955 showing a film starring Ronald Reagan, and it’s showing Jaws 19 in 2015. The vital clock tower is being built in 1885.

Every major plot point, from the clock tower lightning to the importance of the school dance, is telegraphed. There are details about these films, about things that change between timelines, that had to be explained to me before I saw. These are big reasons why rewatching is so enjoyable.

Even character traits are established early in the films, ahead of time jumps, making it easy to keep track of which people are interacting. Marty’s mom Lorraine is a surprising exception in that she embodies in 1955 everything she warns her children against in 1985.

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But all this elegance and charm wouldn’t create something memorable by itself. That’s where the stakes and the drama come in.

Much of what makes the films important to me is in imagining what’s left out. In Part II especially, we get an entirely different perspective on the night of November 12, 1955: the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance. The antics of the second Marty offer a glimpse of the lives of others at the event, following Biff instead of Lorraine and George. We learn that Marty had… his own back through his guitar performance by defeating Biff’s goons: something completely unknown to us until the second film.

This introduces an element of sonder, a recognition that each and every character in this world has a life as complicated and complex as every other, and that we as the audience only get to see a selected bit of this rich world. Maybe I want to follow “I think he stole that guy’s wallet” man for the evening, but I simply can’t. He’s a bit character whose remaining life is left only to imagination.

On the question of the emotional depth of the films, for me nothing quite matches the feeling of loneliness when a character is left behind or stuck after a time jump. Before coming up with a plan, Marty in 1955 is stuck facing thirty years of isolation from what he knew. Once that passed, he’d be a different, older person in 1985, so he’d effectively lost anything resembling his old life. In Part II, also in 1955, Marty nearly gets home with Doc but gets suddenly left behind. In the moments before a letter arrives, we feel the loss of the guidance of Doc as Marty faces the same fate as before.

When Marty does come up with a plan, or when that letter does arrive, though, it feels like a massive triumph, a restoration of hope that home can be returned to.

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Finally, at the end of the first film, Doc does wait 30 years to meet Marty again and test his time machine. (Though, yes, Parts II and III change this statement a bit.) I ponder what that must have felt like to live through: having the confidence that you will succeed in your invention, but knowing so much time will pass before you do so. Having to wait roughly 30 years to again meet the most important person in your life, whom you helped save and inspired you, is an array of feelings and a process I can’t name but sit in awe at what’s required to endure it.

I involuntarily focus on the emotions of seeing people for the last time when I encounter changes in my life. The end of a school semester, a job change, a move of a friend, neighbor, or myself, all to varying degrees imply the last time I will see certain people. I feel the same way when I unfriend people I barely remember on Facebook, or delete their contact information from my phone. I consider that in my finite existence, their role in my experience may be completely over.

And maybe I’m uncommon in this sentiment, but I don’t really like “over”. Or “done”. I don’t like facing the fact that things end, be it relationships, stories, or life itself. It’s a dilemma to have to balance that with keeping my digital life manageable and sorted.

So the emotions of distance or separation really grab me, as these films do.

In the end, the message of the films is one we hear endlessly, but it strikes home more deeply after seeing Goldie become mayor and George write successful novels. We see these people at their lowest and see that inflection point that changed their course. It’s encouraging to believe that in our own lives we can do the same, especially without a flux capacitor.

We’re allowed to see some of these characters make different choices and then relish the outcome with a quick jump forward in time. This is a superpower we don’t have in reality, but it certainly serves to inspire action and self-actualization. Of course, real change requires constant choices, not just one point of change, but it all starts somewhere.

The Back to the Future trilogy is a series of films with a solid aspirational message, an all-ages appeal, with details galore and a fun, layered plot. It’s elegant in foreshadowing, teasing, and fitting in neatly (and playing) with actual history. Finally, of course, it portrayed the near future in a way that for a long time we waited to compare to. Now, it’s all in the past!

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