Chapters 1 & 2. “Main Titles” / “Late for School” (0:00 – 6:47)
Logline: A teenager wants to sneak in a little guitar practice before school.
The Sequence. That famous, virtuoso one take pan across all kinds of clocks and Rube Goldberg gadgets. Everything is synced perfectly. But no one has has collected the toast, so it continues to burn. The dog isn’t home, so his food piles up in his bowl. It speaks to the film as a whole. Everything ought to be precise and calibrated, but human error is always going to screw it all up. Time is rigid, people are not.
Blah blah fucking blah. It’s not a sequence about People, it’s a sequence about Things. It’s hard to care about Things. Even when Marty McFly turns up, his face is hidden from us until near the end of the scene. We learn nothing about him, all the information we get is about Doc Brown. (And the picture that’s painted is a bit menacing… who has stolen plutonium in his lab?)
That said, it’s an opening credits sequence, and opening credit sequences are where you get leeway to do sequences about Things. More and more modern movies don’t have credits at the start, or if they do it’s after an attention grabbing opening teaser. It’s kind of nice to have a movie that’s like “Here’s some clocks. Here’s the people who worked on the movie. Relax. Settle in. There’s plutonium later. And incest.”
The Big Picture. I only know the 80s through the movies, but there’s so much about the decade that appeals to me. Teenagers getting killed by dudes in masks. Arnold/Sly/Chan type action stars with something to prove. Zucker Brother style joke-per-second comedies that were actually funny. So much synth and smoke and neon. And Back to the Future, which itself is a fusion of two 80s staples. It’s got that slightly desaturated aesthetic of a John Hughes type teen comedy, and the tone and scope of a Spielberg/Lucas adventure. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like it. It’s a unique film, yet it’s familiar and comforting.
At first, the obvious starting point for Back to the Future would seem to be the origin of Marty and Doc Brown’s friendship. Without seeing them meet, we risk wondering why a teenager with buddies his own age and a girlfriend is hanging out with an elderly kooky scientist. The filmmakers take a gamble — that they’ve got two actors with chemistry sufficient to sell their relationship — and it pays off. That gives Doc Brown’s death later in the movie all the more impact because it’s someone Marty has known for a long time.
0:30 – “Steven Spielberg Presents.” “A Robert Zemeckis Film.” Come on. If you’re a blockbuster lover you’ve got to be excited about that.
1:19 – A headline reading “BROWN MANSION DESTROYED.” I actually don’t remember at all if this is a plot point, or if it’s heading off a future question about why Doc Brown doesn’t live in the mansion anymore, or if it’s to establish that he’s a careless dude who burned down his home in an experiment. Or all three. I’ll find out in due time. (tiiiime)
1:52 – “The Senate is expected to vote on this today. In other news…” I love this, it’s like a child writer’s idea of what a grown-up newscaster would say. Or a placeholder line in a script they never bothered changing.
3:02 – Marty dropping the key under the mat. One of those little details screenwriters obsess over, a level of trust is established in about two seconds.
5:19 – Never noticed, but Doc has a jukebox in his house. There’s a lot of tiny glimpses of what this character is like beyond his relationship with Marty in the scenes ahead.
6:45 – There is so much product placement for clocks, sodas, and fast food in this opening sequence. It’s harmless I guess.
Behind the Scenes
-For our inaugural commentary track, we’re joined by co-producers Neil Canton and Bob Gale, who promise to avoid duplicating information heard elsewhere on the set. Men after my own heart.
-The glimpses of the plutonium are there to let you know that, in Gale’s words, “Something is going to happen later.” As often as we’ll see these blockbusters open with a bang, Back to the Future would have had to contort its narrative into a pretzel in order to start off with some excitement. Showing up front that there’s plutonium in the story is really the only way of letting us know that we’re not watching another 80s comedy.
-In keeping with product placement, the mirrored sunglasses Marty wears are contractually obliged to be in the movie. But they reflected cameramen and crew so the filmmakers got rid of them as early as possible.
Chapter 3. “The Slacker” (6:47 – 11:45)
Logline: Marty struggles with his self worth when his band is met with rejection.
The Sequence. The last sequence was about, well again, clocks. But it was also about Doc Brown, even if he didn’t physically appear. Now we meet Marty McFly, who ought to be the mascot for this website because he may be cinema’s first In-Betweener. He’s a guy with traditionally cool interests like skateboarding and rock music. He’s got a hot girlfriend. The school principal doesn’t like him. But he’s also known as a guy who hangs around a weird scientist. His band gets rejected, and he’s got some confidence issues. He’s creative and we’re told he’s gifted, but he’s a little scared of putting his art into the world.
This stretch of the movie is kind of the day to day life of this character who I think is pretty unique as far as protagonists go. There’s a tendency to pigeonhole movie teenagers as either dorks or jocks, but this movie needs a hero who participates in nerdy science experiments, is believably attractive to at least two beautiful women, and who stands up to bullies but is still in danger of them. Maybe Marty was created to serve the needs of a script that blends a lot of genres and story threads together, but in the process he’s comes across as a guy who contains multitudes.
The Big Picture. We’ll get into some more specifics below, but the sequence is layered with foreshadowing and worldbuilding. Some of it you’re primed to notice, some of it you’re meant to forget about until later on.
What we can’t know on the first viewing is that Marty is being paralleled with his old man, a character we haven’t met yet. The sequence has to be engaging on its own, but it won’t fully resonate until we watch it for a second time.
6:59 – I freeze framed the high school graffiti for the first time. Any hardcore fans know the meaning of “BBH TRANZ X PAXMATER WE JAM”? “H.V.H.S. SUCKS” is easy enough to figure out but are the rest just inside jokes?
7:44 – Mr. Strickland is inappropriately handsy, even for the 80s.
7:54 – The old age make-up on Strickland doesn’t hold up in high def. Or closeup for that matter. He should get that looked after.
7:59 – “History is going to change.” There are lines that you notice more the second time, and lines that are meant to be dramatic irony the first time around. This one straddles the line.
8:30 – It’s never occurred to me to be curious about Marty’s social circle beyond Jennifer, but looking at this band (and later hearing about him going camping with “the guys”) I am like, what kind of person does Marty McFly hang out with?
8:42 – Like how distorted Huey Lewis’s voice is even through the loudspeaker. There’s something funny about someone mumbling through a bullhorn.
8:59 – Attention is drawn to posters of Mayor Goldie Wilson. Here’s where being the only black character in a movie is a good thing from a story structure perspective (if not a socially responsible one). He’s the first black guy we see in the past, and thereby instantly recognizable.
9:56 – The ledge above the clock tower ISN’T broken yet. Choke on that, causality!
11:24 – Jennifer writing the number on the back of the “Save the Clock Tower” flyer is tiny, beautiful storytelling. The clock tower is nothing that has any significance for Marty and he would have likely tossed the flier first chance he got, but Jennifer’s phone number causes him to hang onto it long enough for the information to become useful later in the film.
Behind the Scenes
-Huey Lewis rejecting the song was his idea.
-Melora Hardin was originally cast as Marty’s girlfriend back when he was played by Eric Stoltz, but was a couple inches taller than Michael J. Fox and was recast for that reason. In the long run this might have made her too recognizable to be cast as Jan in The Office, though I’m sure that’d be cold comfort to her in 1985, “Don’t worry you’ll get this really awesome part in 20 years.”
-I’m tickled that they’re talking about the intact ledge too, which is meant to be a sign that the time travel rules are going to be consistent. I’ll be interested to hear what if anything Bob Gale says about Marty planting the idea that Goldie should run for mayor later in the movie.
-Aerobics are happening in one of the buildings in the background, just to really solidify that this is the present. Gale says it would have been a Starbucks today, which is actually as representative as a perpetual present as I can think of.
Chapter 4. “The Family McFly” (11:45 – 18:04)
Logline: Marty must make it through another dinner with his washed up family.
The Sequence. It’s a quick, though pretty complete picture of a family that’s accepted kind of a mediocre status quo. But there’s still love here. It could be a whole lot darker and bleaker, the house could be a lot more ramshackle, Lorraine’s seeming alcoholism could be a much bigger issue, but things are just… not great. It’s a lot more interesting than had they done the easy thing and just made the McFly’s a family who snipes at each other. You would have had less reason to care about them later on. As it is, they seem like decent people and you want them to have a better life.
That said, very distracting to watch a scene in which all the intended grown-ups are clearly just young people in old age make-up, and in which every other line is really specific exposition about things that happened when they were teenagers themselves. By the time Lorraine is describing in detail how she met George, it becomes obvious that we’ll be seeing these stories (or contradictions of these stories) with our own eyes later, just from how the dialogue is written.
The Big Picture. The dinner walks a very fine line between hiding foreshadowing and being like “Hey, wake up. You need to know this for later. Here’s a question, or even an experiment to run on someone who’s never heard of movies. If someone came in with no knowledge of Back to the Future, could they figure out it’s a time travel movie based on what the characters are talking about?
There’s something a little heartbreaking about the way George is just walked over by Biff. Not only because it’s been happening for thirty years, but because this is a guy who wound up calcifying as a teenager. Because he never stood up for himself at a formative age, that’s just the guy George is now. He does change and get a better life later on, but only thanks to the impossible device of time travel. It’s kind of depressing.
12:06 – A garage door opens in the house across the street. That’s the kind of unpredictable element that comes from shooting in a real neighbourhood, it has potential to distract but this must have otherwise been the best take.
13:22 – I’m interested in this private little look and head shake Biff gives Marty. He seems to think that the two of are sharing a joke about how pitiful George is, but Marty ain’t havin’ it.
13:46 – I kind of like how Biff stops in his tracks at seeing Marty. He’s a bit stymied by the idea of a McFly who isn’t under his thumb.
13:52 – “What are you looking at, butthead?” That’s in the script to be a touchstone for the younger Biff later, but how crazy is it for a 47 year old to call someone “Butthead?” It still kind of works both for him as a character, the guy was never challenged by George and never had to grow up.
14:33 – There’s a bandage on George’s thumb, wonder what that’s about?
14:40 – A lot of BTTF fans already know the family is eating peanut brittle because of a deleted scene in which George is talked into buying excess boxes from a girl scout’s father. What do you think of this if you don’t know about that scene? Does it just make the McFlys seem weirder?
16:37 – I do like how although there seems to be regrets about how life turned out in the McFly house, Lorraine still speaks about the meeting with George with affection. The spark has gone out but there’s love here.
16:46 – “You’ve told us this story a million times.” The whole “As you know” device in stories is repellent to any writer but it’s believable here. What family doesn’t retell the same story over and over again at the dinner table?
Behind the Scenes
-Gale praises the “Joey Jailbird” cake in particular for being something that’s funny by itself while not coming across like a piece of foreshadowing, but otherwise seems to feel like the scene is necessary, bald faced exposition.
-Because of Michael J. Fox’s shooting schedule, he’s not physically present pretty much any time the camera is not on him in the dinner scene.
Chapters 5 – 6. “A Time Machine?” / “Escape to the Past” (18:04 – 31:30)
Logline: Marty and his friend Doc Brown are embarking upon a time travel experiment when they’re attacked by angry Libyans with a score to settle.
The Sequence. I’d never realized how long this entire sequence is, which is a testament to both how engaging the Doc Brown character is, and how time travel is in and of itself something to be interested in. It’s even more just straight up exposition than anything else in the movie, but it’s told visually. And more important, it’s fun.
It’s fun because Doc Brown not only provides a sudden jolt of energy to the picture, he’s clearly got great showman instincts. He doesn’t simply explain to Marty that he’s invented time travel. He deliberately gives himself a dramatic entrance by appearing out of a foggy truck. He creates intrigue by setting up an experiment in which a dog is seemingly vaporized in a speeding DeLorean. And when Marty’s curiosity (and ours) is fully piqued, he explains what just happened.
No matter the movie it’s a guarantee that the writers struggled with scenes that involve a lot of explanations, and Back to the Future has as good a solution I’ve ever seen; a character whose natural instinct is to show off their accomplishment in as flashy a manner as possible.
Then the Libyans! show up, and before they chase Marty to 1955, Doc Brown is killed. It lends some tragedy and stakes to the picture, though at this point you’ve more than likely realized that we’re going to see Doc Brown at some point earlier in his life, But does it occur to you at this point that Marty might have the means to save the old Doc too?
The Big Picture. It’s a lot quicker to talk about what DOESN’T play into the movie as a whole. This is clearly the most important scene of the picture in terms of laying down the story, and you’ve really got to pay attention to every word. In fact the scene feels even more invaluable if you’re going to immediately go into watching Back to the Future 2 and 3. The Doc’s explanation is so detailed, it’s more befitting of a 5+ hour epic than a two hour movie.
18:30 – If you’re filming a scene in a parking lot, ALWAYS wet down the pavement. Even if it hasn’t rained in your movie, do it. It looks so much cooler.
19:13 – Marty flips the skateboard up on one side, in the background and out of focus. You’d have to be looking for it to notice but it’s something that probably took a lot of practice.
19:22 – Nice entrance for Doc. There’s lights and smoke, it’s all very dramatic. But he fumbles his way out of the machine and isn’t even facing Marty.
21:13 – “You’re going to see some serious shit.” That’s a line you can’t really imagine the 1955 Doc saying. Has Marty had some influence on him?
21:22 – The remote control DeLorean seems like it could come in handy at some point through the trilogy, is the car ever driven like that again?
22:39 – Check out how gradually the flaming trails die out behind Marty and the Doc.
25:15 – The Doc discovered time travel on Guy Fawkes day? I hadn’t realized we’re going to talk about two movies this year that are set on November 5th.
27:23 – I like Marty’s flinch as the plutonium suddenly falls into the time machine. Realistic reaction.
28:50 – Einstein ducks out of sight as the terrorists appear. Quick shot, it never registered for me.
29:59 – Never watched with subtitles, when the Libyan’s gun misfires he says “Damn Soviet gun.” There’s an entire geopolitical conflict that’s inches away from invading this frothy 1985 movie about a guy who almost has sex with his mom.
Behind the Scenes
-In some driving shots, Einstein is a man in a dog costume. You can spot him at around 20:38 and will never be able to unspot it.
-I was never quite sure whether or not Marty went back in time accidentally or if it was a last desperate move to escape the Libyans. Bob Gale says it’s the former on this track.