The first thing you need to know about me is that I like to watch movies multiple times. Given the choice between watching something again or watching something I’ve never seen before, I’ll often choose to rewatch a movie I love even though I can damn near quote every line.
With that in mind, I’d like to start things off with a look back at a little something called Back to the Future (1985). Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it tells the story of … oh, never mind the plot summary — you’ve all seen it, right?
I first saw it at the Solano Drive-In in Concord, California. It was double-billed with The Last Starfighter (1984), another one of those movies I enjoy watching multiple times. (Which reminds me — I’m about due for another viewing of Starfighter.) Like most drive-ins, the Solano eventually closed down, but the good news is that it reopened in 2007. So if you miss the drive-in and you live in the Bay Area … You know what? Revisiting the drive-in sounds like a good topic for another time.
The thing I’ve always found most impressive about Back to the Future is Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s near-perfect screenplay. The setup, which takes place in 1985, is so beautiful. Within a span of 17 minutes we learn everything we need to know to enjoy the rest of the show: the high school dance in 1955 where George (Crispin Glover) kissed Lorraine (Lea Thompson) for the first time; Uncle “Jailbird” Joey; the flux capacitor; and of course the clock tower. All of these things are masterfully established. Exposition isn’t an easy thing to pull off gracefully, but Zemeckis and Gale handle it in clever ways, such as Jennifer (Claudia Wells) writing her phone number on the back of a “Save the Clock Tower” flyer for her boyfriend, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a passing van that says “Re-elect Mayor Goldie Wilson,” and even Marty skateboarding through the Lyon Estates gateway that leads to his home.
Zemeckis had previously directed I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), Used Cars (1980), and Romancing the Stone (1984), the latter film being the only one he didn’t cowrite with Gale and that didn’t have Steven Spielberg attached as an executive producer. (Zemeckis and Gale also wrote Spielberg’s war comedy 1941.) He went on to direct Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), the two Back to the Future sequels (1989-1990), Contact (1997), and Cast Away (2000), among others, and in 1995 he took home the Best Director Oscar for Forrest Gump, which also won Best Picture.
Zemeckis loves to shoot scenes in one long take, typically with the camera moving around in a very precise manner that catches everything he wants the audience to see. One of my favorite scenes in Back to the Future plays entirely in a two-shot: Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) has just successfully tested his DeLorean time machine and sent his dog into the future, leaving him and Marty to have a funny and energetic exchange in the wake of the flames the car has left behind. It’s about a minute long and plays in one continuous shot (with one brief insert shot of the car’s license plate spinning around in the flames). Zemeckis plays with long takes in many of his films, notably the Back to the Future sequels and Forrest Gump, which opens with the iconic “feather shot.”
The long take is a throwback of sorts to the silent-film era, in which comic stunts would often play out in a master shot. Consider the famous gag in Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) in which the front of a house’s frame falls on Buster Keaton, who narrowly escapes harm by standing exactly in the path of an empty window frame. Speaking of silent comedies, fans of 1923’s Safety Last!, in which Harold Lloyd dangles precariously from a clock, will no doubt notice similarities in Back to the Future, where Christopher Lloyd dangles precariously from the Hill Valley clock tower near the end of the film. (Curious how the actors even share the same last name!)
But none of this explains why I love watching movies multiple times. When films are as good as Back to the Future, with each viewing I pick up on things I hadn’t previously noticed. My fifth or sixth time watching it, before the sequels had even come out, I focused on the perspective of Doc Brown — 1955 Doc, to be specific. Imagine cracking your head on a toilet and having a vision of a device that would make time travel possible, and the very next day a kid shows up at your door claiming to be from the future in a time machine that you invented. And then you actually get to see the thing work. As Marty might say, that would be “heavy.”
I love how quickly 1955 Doc warms up to Marty, and I love how the movie even becomes serious for a moment when Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) tries to take advantage of Lorraine and George finally takes a stand. The kiss at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance always gets me, especially the look on Lorraine’s face when the camera pulls back, recalling what she’d said in the film’s opening scenes: “It was then that I realized I was going to spend the rest of my life with him.”
The first act of 1989’s Back to the Future Part II takes place in 2015, which is now only six years away. Somehow I don’t think we’ll have flying cars by then, or a Mr. Fusion home energy reactor, or even self-drying jackets, as depicted in Part II. But in 2015 we’ll be able to look back 30 years to 1985 and possibly reflect upon the ’80s in the same kind of goofy way that Zemeckis and Gale’s screenplay for Back to the Future reflected upon the ’50s — which will make those of us who grew up in the ’80s feel just a little bit older. And seriously, Marty, what’s with the life preserver?
(By the way, in writing this, I am in no way condoning a remake of Back to the Future, which is rumored to currently be in the works. Faced with the choice of seeing a brand-new remake or rewatching the original again, take a wild guess what my choice would be.)