Film Dunce is a weekly series in which one of our writers finally succumbs to the lure of a movie that has long been a big part of our culture that they have never seen. Seen through fresh eyes, we evaluate, enjoy and sometimes get bored by these titans of mental real estate.


I’d checked the DVD out of the library only moments before I’d walked into Sonic Boom, Seattle’s requisite hipster/snob-run record store. At the counter, I’d set my things down to purchase Portishead’s self-titled (wholly respectable) and the tight-shirted clerk said, “Hey, Back to the Future.” In an attempt to preemptively deflect any over-my-head references, I’d explained Spectrum Culture’s new Film Dunce feature, that it’s taken for granted that anyone within a certain age bracket and/or possessing of cultural know-what has seen the thing, though there are a few of us who might see it with fresh eyes since we haven’t. The clerk, at first uncharacteristically agreeable and approachable, quickly drew that Sonic Boom curtain of aloofness once more; he had nothing more to say to me.

Back to the Future’s release in the mid-’80s came at a time when my hometown- and I’m sure many more like it across the nation- had one nearby theater with maybe six screens. Before the ubiquity of the shopping mall megaplex or the threat from the digital cable market, blockbuster movies were pretty huge common cultural denominators. This was especially true during the ’80s, when even a Steven Spielberg production-only credit ensured a movie was a must-see, PG thrill ride; a movie that was cool enough for most teenagers, novel enough for adults and wholesome enough for the kids you couldn’t find a sitter for. Back to the Future itself was capitalizing on another cultural denominator, the success of NBC’s “Family Ties”- specifically its breakout star, Michael J. Fox. In his first blockbuster vehicle, director/co-writer/Spielberg protégée Robert Zemeckis casts Fox as 17 year-old Marty McFly, your typical Cool ’80s Kid whom unwittingly travels 30 years back in time.

As man has always fantasized about the impossible, time travel remains a familiar flight of fancy since at least the days of H.G. Wells. Zemeckis, a special effects devotee, takes his time travel one step further. Rather than simply having his characters as temporal tourists, Zemeckis and co-writing partner Bob Gale create a deus ex machina in Doctor Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), a mad scientist whose relationship to Marty or anyone else is never explained. His brand of whimsical mad science is harmless, existing solely as a doorway for Zemeckis to explore the notion of an angsty Generation X teen confronting his ineffectual parents at his own age. The camera does not stare too long into McFly’s initial home life; though brief, we see the disgust and hopelessness on Marty’s face, as he sits down to dinner with Crispin Glover’s spineless George McFly and Lea Thompson’s alcoholic, deeply dissatisfied Lorraine.


When thrust backward to 1955, however, Marty must make peace with his anxiety, as he quickly realizes his own mother, at 17, is creepily fawning over him and not George as history should dictate, running the very real risk of erasing he and his siblings from existence. Marty though, keeps his cool and spurns the overripe sexual advances of his teenaged mother, urging his nerd father to become man enough to eventually stop Lorraine’s sexual assault at the hands of bully Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson). As though this weren’t enough, Marty’s got to play the rockin’-est guitar at the school dance to ensure his parents have time enough to get amorous with one another, thereby ensuring his place in the world.

The Zemeckis we know from Forrest Gump and Contact is introduced here, where the Huey Lewis-loving man-child Fox shreds so hot on a Gibson hollow-body that Chuck Berry is inspired to follow suit. History, and later, reality, with the all-digital Polar Express, are turned into Zemeckis’ own playground of gee-whiz what-ifs, and the suggestion that Chuck Berry’s guitar playing somehow had to be legitimized via time travel by some white bread white kid from the ‘burbs gets my nuts in much more of a twist than I’d like to admit. Though this is missing the point; after Marty saves the day and makes it back to 1985, he sees he was granted the rare opportunity to actually improve his parents’ lives; Dad’s a best-selling sci fi author, and Mom’s, well, thin and sober. The subtext is what’s most interesting here and it no doubt resonated with dissatisfied, Nike-clad, River’s Edge kids throughout the 50 states; were their Moms and Dads, those sad-seeming, immediate avatars of authority, ever worth saving?

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