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July 21, 2015
My Ultimate Back to the Future Film Review: A Love Letter and Affectionate Look Back after 30 Years on the Cast, Crew, and Storytelling for My Favorite Time-Traveling Trilogy Ever
by William-Patrick Coleman
Oh, Back to the Future, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . .
-Part I: Marty McFly, an ambitious teen in the eighties, unintentionally hijacks his crackpot scientist friend's (Doc Brown’s) time-traveling DeLoreon, sending him back to 1955, where he must teach his younger father, George, how to stand up to the neighborhood bully, Biff, and force sparks to fly between him and his younger mother, Lorraine, who has fallen in love with Marty, unaware.
-Part II: In a continued storyline, Doc Brown must escort Marty 30 years into the future in an attempt to save his son from Biff's own family. The result sends Marty back in time through the '80s and '50s in order to fix an altered timeline caused by Biff and a sports almanac filled with keys to winning sport events.
-Part III: After a lightning storm sends Doc Brown and the DeLoreon back to the 1800s, Marty must go and save his friend from certain doom constructed by Biff’s ruthless ancestor and destroy the time machine while Doc fights to stay with a newfound love.
It’s been 30 years later and still when I pop my BTTF Blu-ray set and the titles flash, “Steven Spielberg presents,” I know I’m in for a good time. With this franchise, there are so many things I could talk about, write over, or babble on about - production design, costume design, visual effects (before the overblown world of CGI), automobile statements, loose-lip dialogue courtesy of great writing, or its guitar-screechin’, fist-in-the-air soundtrack - but this particular article belongs specifically to its performers.
Michael J. Fox plays Marty McFly like he’s having as much fun playing him as we are watching him. And, why shouldn’t he? After infamously being recast to replace Eric Stoltz (due to unconvincingly playing a younger teenager), Fox almost missed the boat on playing the now-iconic, carefree hipster protagonist and his own booming career that followed. It’s easy to observe how simple Fox slips into this role of McFly. It isn’t until you get a second viewing of the trilogy that you begin to realize that it’s the supporting cast that truly carry the series.
For example, arguably the real unsung hero might be Crispin Glover’s portrayal of patriarch George McFly. He is bizarre, loose, goofy, awkward, aloof, and fills his surroundings with heavy uncertainty and insecurity, and we love Glover for introducing this version to us. He couldn’t possibly be Marty’s father, could he? Luckily for us, that’s what part one is mostly about. Stuck in the '50s, Marty must use the best of his short amount of time to play matchmaker between his parents who haven’t even met yet, thanks to Marty’s intrusion on fate itself, hoping that their introductions to each other might spark romance or love at first sight, before Marty heads back to the '80s, courtesy of a younger Doc Brown, and him and the rest of the McFly clan catch up and cease to exist. In fact, it’s almost George’s journey here as much as it is Marty's. Not that Marty doesn’t have plenty of his own obstacles, of course.
Speaking of, does anybody ever talk about James Tolkan and his stern portrayal of Dean/Hill Valley Wasteland Warrior/western lawman Strickand. His total appearances between all three films can be counted on two fully fingered hands; he’s clearly enough to have been any of the McFlys' antagonists if his motives were as worse as his motives. Somewhere in the world, actor R. Lee Ermy must be kicking himself for accidentally missing out on a role that seems tailor made for him. Which leads us to . . .
The epic that is the great Thomas F. Wilson, and the true antagonist of the series, with his portrayal of Biff Tannen. In part one, he’s womanizing, dominating, and assertive, the quintessential movie high school bully. In part 2, he’s grumpy and . . . well, grumpy. Biff (along with his younger version, Griff) is an older, bitter man in the future who finds an opportunity to play the previous events from the first film to his favor, resulting in an alternate version of Biff in the present (1985 present), a new world where he has power and financially rules over Hill Valley and, more importantly, The McFlys. Now, any Biff is a good Biff, but let’s face it: he looks ridiculous with a gun. But, Part III Bufford “Mad Dog” Tannen is played more closely to a caveman version of Biff than its intended southern outlaw aim. But, Wilson is hilarious, whether he’s Biff with a '50s crew cut or he’s 1800s Biff, drooling through his dialogue. It’s a shame Wilson didn’t pursue much of a more physical comedy career; he’s spot on at playing a character you love to hate.
In the midst of all the Eighties' most desired pop culture, fanboy favorite females like Phoebe Cates, Mia Sara, Carrie Fisher, or even Kelley LeBrock, it was arguably Lea Thompson who might've pulled off the best 'girl-next-door' image. After a switch-a-roo between actresses Claudia Wells as Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer, in part I, to Elisabeth Shue’s version, in Part II, and Mary Steenburgen’s lovable, but structurally late, as Doc Brown’s love interest, Clara Clayton, in Part III, Thompson has the sole responsibility as positive female consistent character, playing Marty’s mother and Gorge’s wife, Lorraine, in all three installments. Thankfully for us, she never plays her as a damsel in distress, at least too much. She’s tough as nails, matching witts against Biff, brushing off future husband George, but holds onto the simple idea of marrying Marty, uh, Calvin Klein!! Is that so wrong . . . ? Oh. Well, she makes it feel so right. And, innocent.
LAST, BUT, NOT LEAST . . .
When I was a little kid, I thought one day I would grow out of that phase that Doctor Emmett L.“Doc” Brown was my absolute favorite character of all time on film. Well, it’s been 30 years since the original BTTF was released, and, sure enough, I have not grown out of that phase. Doc Brown, with his bug eyes and long, silver, flowing hair, is confidently and gleefully played by one of my favorite actors of all time, Christopher Lloyd. To me, an “audience character” is the most interesting character in a movie: specifically used to plot complications through interactions of dialogue from another character to the audience. And, nobody did it better than Christopher Lloyd and his Doc Brown. Without Doc, and his assistant, Einstein the Dog, we would not have the great, time-traveling DeLoreon, an invention run by a device he created from a head wound injury he sustained in the '50s that he calls “The Flux Capacitor.” Without him, Marty would not have a guide through the future, instructing him with suggestions on how to save the McFly family from the Tannens. Without him, we would not know the repercussions and consequences of time travel. Basically, without Christopher Lloyd and without Doc Brown, Back to the Future would not have its wisdom, heart, and soul. No matter how crazy and kooky the other characters try to make him look, he’s the most sensible and important character in movie history.
It’s important to note that the director of all three films, Robert Zemeckis, went on to accomplish many more well-known pop culture movies, from the surprisingly dark but revolutionary Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (also co-starring a scene-stealing Lloyd.) to the Academy Award-winning, historically important Forrest Gump. From the underrated (Death Becomes Her, What Lies Beneath, Flight) to the overrated (Cast Away, Contact, The Polar Express), no film - no trilogy - is as original and influential as the Back to the Future trilogy. (Okay, okay, except maybe the '80s trilogies Star Wars and Indiana Jones.) And, 30 years later, it appears that no series of film will. If I could give my final and ultimate compliment to the cast and crew of BTTF, it would be that if I ever raise a group of excited, movie-loving kids of my own, they will be raised to appreciate the near-perfect storytelling, acting, score, and wonderful structure and pacing that is the series of Back to the Future: Part I, Part II, and Part III.
Thank you to Drew Siragusa and Samm Levine for this opportunity to revisit this exciting world of time travel. Thank you, Robert Zemeckis. Thank you, Alan Silvestri, Bob Gale, and Steven Spielberg. Hell, thank you Eric Stoltz, and the entire cast mentioned, and Happy 30th Birthday, Back to the Future! Thank you for reminding us dreamers that “where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
About William-Patrick Coleman
William-Patrick Coleman was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, and now resides in Studio City, California. He quickly became co-owner of Reelin Seal Pictures, where he wrote, produced, directed, and co-starred in his hit web series, Murph and Bern: Street Cops, as well as several successful Reelin Seal production sketches. He has also starred in numerous short films such as "Tranquility," "A Night at the Ritz," and the upcoming drama short, "After Effects." He currently is a student at Second City Improv and pursuing writing and acting.