Serious Shit: On the Reagan-era weirdness of "Back To The Future"
By By Andrew Holter
Oct 20, 2015 at 12:21 PM
Thirty minutes into "Back To The Future," the highest-grossing film of 1985, Christopher Lloyd is being gangland murdered in the parking lot of a J.C. Penney by "Libyan nationalists" piloting a VW van. One of the Libyans is just spraying shells into his body at almost point-blank range with an AKM assault rifle as Michael J. Fox watches in horror less than one hundred yards from the (albeit closed) J.C. Penney in this PG-rated film that Roger Ebert praised for its likeness to "It's a Wonderful Life." You remember that famous scene where George and Clarence run a Seal Team Six on Mr. Potter, right?
How the hell did we get here? Only moments ago, young Fox was skitching his skateboard through another Morning Again in America, waving at Jazzercise classes, and listening to a dope track on his Walkman called 'Power of Love' by Huey Lewis and the News. The real question is where can this movie possibly go from here, from the wet asphalt killing fields of a shopping mall in fictional Hill Valley, California? Back to the Future, of course! And 86 more minutes of similarly exhilarating and politically objectionable sci-fi comedy that's fun for the whole family, especially families with a lot of taboo sexual history—which is actually a very serious subject.
In essence, "Back to the Future" is the story of an unpaid internship gone horribly wrong. Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is in some kind of vague arrangement, possibly for high school credit, with Dr. Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who ropes Marty into helping with his latest experiment to travel through time via DeLorean car. The magic of the DeLorean lies in its "flux capacitor," which runs on plutonium Doc Brown acquired the same way plenty of people got weapons from the Reagan administration in those days: extralegal means and trickery. Cue the Libyan "terrorists" in the parking lot, decked out in regulation sinister Third World-ist hats and scarves and barking everything short of "Allahu Akbar." Edward Said may not have been an executive producer, but Steven Spielberg was, so with maximum suspense Marty escapes death by Richard Pettying the nuclear whip back in time to the Hill Valley of the 1950s, soda jerks and all.
Instantly, Marty meets his teenage not-yet-mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and accidentally gets her feeling some kind of way about him to the exclusion of his not-yet-father George (Crispin Glover). At this point, the job of making it back to 1985 becomes a mere subplot—a pretext for indulging the simple, brilliant, icky idea of what it would it be like to have to act as the architect of your own conception by playing matchmaker for your own parents. Between Lorraine's advances and George's contraceptive dorkiness stands the town bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) and his squad of nameless hoods, all of whom look like they just walked out of Old Bank Barbers on 36th Street and one of whom, for reasons we are left to fathom, is always wearing a pair of 3-D glasses.
There's plenty to keep Marty busy here, in other words, and it's impressive that for a movie hailed at the time for its special effects, "Back to the Future" gets so much done without them. In our Marvel-"Transformers" era, when every minute of every blockbuster is saturated with CGI, we can only imagine how a 1985 audience would have really anticipated the spectacle of a DeLorean vanishing down a strip of pavement. "When this baby hits 88 miles per hour," Doc Brown tells Marty, "you're going to see some serious shit." That shit might not look like very much today, but it's a reminder that movies can still draw without piling on the explosions, collapsing infrastructure, and undulating hordes of robots/orcs/apes. "Back to Future" gets plenty of mileage from a low-speed chase here, a lightning strike there, a Rube Goldberg take, and great costumes and makeup.
Comedy, too: There's infinite potential for jokes in these circumstances, and the script enthusiastically detonates 'em off the tee one after another. Marty's name must be Calvin, Lorraine thinks, because "it's written all over your underwear"; faced with his father's ineptitude, Marty mumbles, "Jesus, George, it's a wonder I was even born"; etc., etc. Ronald Reagan is just a name on a marquee. A Tab, which is a Coke, is just a tab (which is a check). Guess you had to be there.
"Back to the Future" shows its age in more than its cultural references, though, and a 2015 audience should have the language to talk about why. Many more of us in the theater now than in 1985 will notice, for example, that Marty's scheme to secure his parents' union involves orchestrating a fake sexual assault which turns into a real sexual assault that's in turn thwarted by an assertion of paternal authority through violence. Great Scott! An American classic is born. "I can't imagine anyone not liking this movie," said Gene Siskel, who probably never met Edward Said and did not live to see Twitter.
On one level, it's tempting to think of "Back to the Future" as an allegory of white America's incestuous relationship with its own past, one of many cultural expressions of the politics of nostalgia that reached its apex during the Reagan era. The good old days—whether the '50s, the '80s, or the 1780s—are never invoked simply to be remembered; people court and flirt with them all the time to authorize themselves in the present. (Even the famous scene where Marty thrills the high school dance with a preview of Chuck Berry neatly suggests the white co-opting of rock 'n' roll before it even began.) The second-highest-grossing film of 1985? The homoerotic Vietnam revenge-porn extravaganza known as "Rambo: First Blood Part II." Third highest? Stallone again, in "Rocky IV," squaring off with a Soviet. While those movies worked the same shaft of imperial entitlement brandished worldwide by American foreign policy in 1985, "Back to the Future" spoke in its way to the domestic front with a family-centered story that made light of the generation gap instead of stuffing it full of tinder and balled-up American flags.
On another level, "Back to the Future" is a damn delight. It deserves to be remade, not for the sake of updating its special effects but because its basic formula is so clever and winning that bumping the decades forward would be enough to make it fresh. How about a teenage girl who drives a Nissan Juke back to the mid-'90s? And what if she's not white? Needless to say, the Hill Valley of 1955 would have received Eddie Murphy a little differently than Michael J. Fox (though, somehow, the town elected its sole black resident mayor by 1985). If it followed its premise even a little bit beyond the safe and superficial aspects of the past, a new version of "Back to the Future" would have the potential to be really edifying as well as entertaining. Hollywood execs reading City Paper: I'll pick up my check at The Sun building. And start by making the Libyans white this time; if someone's firing an assault weapon in a mall parking lot in 2015, odds are decent they're from Hill Valley to begin with.