Zemeckis: Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future may be the quintessential American film of the 80s – in its mood and tone, in the way it captures the collective fantasy of the 50s as the driving spirit of the decade, and in the way it converges time and space in the name of a high postmodern image regime. It opens with a vision of temporal overload – a room cluttered with clocks, their various ticks and tocks heightened by the absence of any opening music. Fredric Jameson diagnosed postmodernism first and foremost as an inability to feel the historical past except as a series of images and spaces – that is, as a tendency to spatialise history, and transform it into a succession of plastic tableaux that could be moulded and remoulded at will. We see that collapse of time into space enacted in this opening scene, as the temporality of the clocks is subsumed into the contained spatiality of the single tracking-shot that connects them all. Moreover, the clocks themselves date from vastly different historical periods, while each has a different alarm mechanism, from water boiling to toast popping to cans opening to the television turning on. Rather than registering the passage of time per se, these clocks turn into the emblems of a spatialised time, each embodying a discrete period style that can be combined and recombined at will. Together, they capture the spirit of pastiche that drove postmodern architecture, reducing the past to a palette of endlessly cannibalisable objects.  

This transition from time to space reaches its apex when all the clocks strike the hour, at which point their combined intensity segues into the vibration of an enormous speaker that propels teenager Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, against the wall of his studio – a movement that in turn generates a delirious MTV aesthetic in which he skateboards to school as the whole rhythm of his small town of Hill Valley syncs around him. He catches a ride with two cars that arrive at just the right time, from which he waves to a fitness class who are exercising in motion to Huey Lewis and the News’ “The Power of Love,” which is also playing diegetically as the first song on the soundtrack. In these opening moments, we have moved from the last residues of historical time, to a new spatialised time, to a even newer MTV-styled vortex of time and space that constellates around the main backdrop to Marty’s ride to school – the town square of Hill Valley, the anchor point of all three films in the franchise. No surprise, then, that the epicentre of this town square is yet another convergence of time and space – a clock tower that was frozen in time thirty years ago when it was struck by a lightning bolt that in retrospect feels like the precursor to the electrified world of the present.  

Yet while this new postmodern spacetime continuum may be exhilarating, it also comes at a price. Touches of urban blight fringe the Hill Valley town square, while Marty’s family life is less than desirable. Everyone is slouching or overweight, suffused with the caricature and grotesquerie of a milder John Waters film. His mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic and his father, George (Crispin Glover) is half deaf, in a continual state of terror at the hands of Biff (Thomas M. Wilson), the bully of his childhood. Only Marty seems to have a line of flight from this suburban decay, via his friend Doc (Christopher Lloyd), a mad scientist who contacts him with a remarkable proposition – a time machine, in the form of a Delorean. This time machine takes the film’s spatialised time to its logical conclusion – “Where are they?’ “The more appropriate question is “when are they?” – reducing such major events as the Declaration of Independence and the birth of Jesus to spatial configurations on a dashboard.

In one of the most iconic scenes of the 80s, and a scene that has stayed with me ever since I first watched it, Doc discloses this time travelling Delorean to Marty at midnight in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot – in fact the Puente Hills Mall, in the City of Industry, Los Angeles. The mall is thus equated with the Delorean as an invention that, like the theme park, fuses time and space by internalising an older kind of American main street experience. Clad in neon, devoid of people, its asphalt slick with rain, Puente Hills Mall already feels like the future, especially when Marty inadvertently returns to the same site in the 50s, an empty field, before making his way back to the gate of his suburban community, which is merely a construction site thirty years in the past. As an epicentre of this newly spatialised time, the Twin Pines mall also brings in global conflicts that feel both spatially and temporally remote from the snugness of Southern California, in the form of the Libyan nationalists that Doc tricks into providing him with the requisite plutonium for his time travel device. As the Libyans shoot Doc, and set their sights on Marty, our hero’s only option is to get in the Delorean and gun it for a deep past, a past too remote to be contaminated by his newly globalised mid-80s world.  

Back to the Future is thus deeply ambivalent about the 80s present – both entranced and terrified by its postmodern flourishes – and this means that Marty’s project isn’t exactly to restore or disavow the 50s (he ends up in 1955) but to rehabilitate the connective tissue between the 50s and 80s. Upon arriving back in the Hill Valley of his parent’s adolescence he is faced with four burning imperatives. First, and most urgently, he needs to get back to the future, a considerable challenge given that there is no available plutonium to recharge the Delorean. Second, he has to look up Doc, and warn him about his impending death, while also soliciting his assistance in repairing the Delorean. Third, he has to re-empower his parents, and supercharge their romance, which becomes a much harder task once his mother falls in love with him instead of his father. Finally, and most notionally, Marty soon intuits that he has to get back the future – that it is somehow incumbent on him to restore the futuristic 80s that were envisaged by the 50s in his own present moment, and so transform his own time into a more seamless continuum with the Eisenhower era that so haunts and preoccupies it.  

All of these imperatives require Marty to grapple with this spatialisation of time by way of its inception in the earliest stirrings of postmodernism in the 50s. Although he has gone back in time, his parents look much the same, with a few prostheses removed, while we don’t get to know enough characters in the present to have much sense of characters being younger either. Instead, history manifests itself primarily as changes in the main set of the film – little alterations in the town square of Hill Valley, whose very name is a contradiction in terms suggestive of the impossible burden being placed upon physical space to absorb this historical pressure. Time and again, the townsfolk interpret Marty’s futuristic differences as spatial rather than temporal – “You come from a great distance” – and tend to attribute them to the coastal fringes of the continent, the furthest imaginable coordinates from the fantasmatic heartland where the film unfolds. His grandmother, for example, assumes that he’s a member of the coastguard, while another Hill Valley local just puts down his futurism to “swimming.”  

Above and beyond the story, part of the pleasure of the film thus comes from experiencing the past as a kind of theme park attraction that reifies and reduces what has changed to matters of topography, infrastructure and consumer items. In particular, director Robert Zemeckis and co-screenwriter Bob Gale focus on two inventions that collapsed time and space in radically accelerating ways between the 50s and the 80s – cars and television. We first meet Marty hacking into the slipstream of cars with his skateboard and we first meet George, who runs a towing service, grovelling to Biff about a wrecked car. Lorraine first met George when she hits him with a car, while the McFly name evokes the desire for a new kind of car travel. Of course, the time travel device itself is also a car, the Delorean, which restores the futurism of 50s car culture for an 80s context, much as an ethereal meeting between this Delorean and a 50s Ford marks (past) Doc’s first irrevocable realisation that time travel is possible. Finally, Marty expresses his yearning for the 80s future most completely through a car-skateboard chase that seems him clambering over an entire car, as his skateboard slides beneath it, and then jumping seamlessly back on again, as the theme music plays in its entirety for the first time, surprisingly late in the second act. The car is a time travel device in and of itself here, at least in its 50s incarnation, gesturing towards endless evolutions of American tech ingenuity that Marty can only maintain by returning to its mid-century source.  

Television plays a similar role in the film, especially its depiction of the McFly family home. In the 80s the McFlys sit in desuetude around reruns of The Honeymooners but when Marty arrives in 1955 he is greeted by their brand new television, which George’s father proudly wheels in and places at the head of the table. Quips ensue in which Marty inadvertently refers to The Honeymooners being a “classic,” drops references to “reruns” and casually wows the family by referring to the fact that he has two televisions. Likewise, Doc is almost as fascinated by Marty’s camcorder, which he describes as “portable television,” as in the time travel that it depicts (he instructs him to film the first flight of the Delorean back in the present) while he can barely believe that Ronald Reagan, then a well-known film star, has made the leap to the expanded media universe of the Presidency, which becomes yet another iteration of this televisual evolution, as befits the first American President to entirely acclimatise himself to the small screen. Television, like the automobile, is here a time travel mechanism in and of itself, a repository of indefinite future mediatory potential if the 50s are properly maintained.  

Of course, Marty doesn’t simply witness the evolution of automobiles and television but actively restores their fantasy potential through the fact of bearing witness to them. In the same way, Back to the Future isn’t exactly interested in comparing the 50s and the 80s, or even in “returning” to the 50s in a conventional sense, so much as continuing to generate the 80s from the 50s. Hence the paradoxical formulation of the film’s title, which describes Marty heading back to the future of the 80s but also returning to the idea of the future that sustained the 80s at its inception point in the 50s. In other words, Marty’s project is to restore the science fiction futurity of the 50s, so it makes sense that the Delorean is misrecognised as a UFO in its first encounter with mid-century locals, and that Doc first came up with the idea of time travel in the 50s – indeed, in the very week that Marty arrives – as a mechanism precisely for exploring the 80s, the horizon of his Eisenhower ruminations of what the future might entails. As in so many films from the post-war era, science fiction and suburban melodrama intermingle – Marty can only convince George to go to the prom with Lorraine by dressing up as an alien and playing Van Halen on high volume to frighten him out of his room.  

These endless feedback loops between past and present also form the backdrop for what might be described as a post-psychoanalytic narrative in which squaring the spatial schemes of 50s and 80s becomes a viable tool for resolving the Oedipal crisis of American cinema. When Marty first arrives in the 50s, he’s accompanied by “Mr. Sandman,” as if in a pre-emptive corrective to John Carpenter’s dystopian vision of American suburbia in Halloween – a reminder that the song had an optimism which both predates and exceeds the pessimism of the slasher cycle that Carpenter’s film inaugurated. A week in the 50s, Zemeckis suggests, is enough to overcome even the most horrific visions of Americana – it’s not hard to see why Reagan loved the film – and to remasculinise the connective tissue between 50s and 80s, the era of the great liberation movements of women, gay folk and non-white Americans. No surprise, then, that the quilting-point between past and present is The Honeymooners, or that Marty returns at the precise moment when his grandfather is wheeling the television into pride of place at the head of the table, since the film is temporally torn between the mass dissemination of old-fashioned masculinity at the hands of an earlier small screen hegemony, and the way in which the television in and of itself would inevitably supplant the head of the family. If The Honeymooners subsisted on Ralph Kramden’s deferred threat to hit Alice – comic so long as it remained deferred – than Back to the Future seems to indefinitely extend the space of that deferral as an alternative to the liberatory movements that ballooned from 50s to 80s. In effect, Marty seeks to liberate the American heartland from social liberation.  

The beauty and ingenuity of Back to the Future lies partly in how it condenses all these historical anxieties into Marty’s quest to return to the present, which in turn becomes an exercise in calculating distances in space rather than time. It turns out that the only viable source of energy, in the absence of plutonium, is the lightning strike that froze the clock tower, which Doc and Marty jerryrig into a series of cables that are attached to the Delorean as it speeds down main street and into the future. Even then, the storm brings the power line down, meaning that Doc has to get into the deepest interstices of the clock, map it as a discrete and intricate space, before edging precariously around its precipices as Marty sets up the final sightlines and coordinates of his drive. In the very last instance, Doc himself connects two wayward pieces of wire, lassoing one around the handle of the clock – you see a distant preview of the third film – and so literally harnessing time to bridge a discrete space.  

It is this fusion of time and space, rather than the return to the present, that is the great climactic spectacle of the film – or, rather, the fusion of time and space means that returning to the present doesn’t feel all that eventful, which is perhaps eventful itself in a second-order kind of way. Lorraine is now slim and doesn’t drink or smoke; George is suave, fashionable and has just published his first science fiction novel; and Biff is now a beta male who works on George’s car for cash. So denuded is the present – the idea of the present – by this completed space-time continuum that we’ve barely been back a beat before Doc arrives from the future and hurries Marty and his girlfriend away into what will become the second film. It’s as if Marty returns to find that the future is both restored through fantasy but more precariously visible than ever as a fantasy, forcing the franchise to depart for a further future almost immediately. In that future lies a desire for more spectacle, a better theme park, an even more elaborated spatialised time, not unlike the closing scene of the 50s school prom when Marty galvanises the teenagers with a rendition of Chuck Berry but alienates them with his version of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix, it seems, is too far in the future to be palatable, and yet the logic of the series is that even the most extreme science fiction temporality can be reduced to a spatial scheme, which is the challenge it sets the sequel in these last moments.

About Billy Stevenson (930 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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