Chapter 17. “Back to the Future” (1:31:12 – 1:41:41)
Logline: Literally racing against the clock, Doc Brown must contend with some last minute problems before he can send Marty back to 1985.
The Sequence. Here we are, the highlight of the whole damn trilogy. This final push to get Marty back to 1985 is all things; suspenseful, exciting, funny, dramatic, and heartwarming. And although it’s all the stronger for the groundwork the movie has laid beforehand, after you’ve seen Back to the Future once you can revisit this sequence by itself and enjoy it just as much. That’s because its a sequence with its own internal structure and conflicts. There’s a beginning, middle, and end; problems arise and are resolved over the course of ten minutes.
The clock tower scene seems constructed to have as many dramatic elements built into it as possible, but in a way that feels natural. There’s lightning, because the whole plan revolves around needing a bolt of electricity. There’s wind, because with lightning comes a storm. The bolt could have struck any old building but the writers make it a clock tower, which is not only on theme, it also places a great big literal ticking clock front and centre the entire scene. And we see that the choice to have the bolt strike at 10:04 was not random either, because the clock strikes ten and distracts the Doc in a crucial moment. And now there’s a loud bell on top of everything else that’s dramatic in the scene. The soundtrack is just incredible too, it’s playful and urgent, then triumphant when the moment calls for it.
Doc Brown fully comes into his own. You can’t help but love the secondary character who puts his own life at risk to save the hero, even when he doesn’t really need to. Think about this too; he’s actively making his own life worse. The guy doesn’t get out much, and if Marty doesn’t make it back to 1955, the Doc has a friend to hang out with. Even so, he’s just as invested in getting Marty home.
George’s story has been played out, but I come away from the scene feeling like Doc has life in him. He deserves a couple more movies on the basis of this sequence.
The Big Picture. Even this late in the movie, the story is still introducing a hook that’ll keep us invested; Marty’s plan to save the Doc by going back ten minutes early. After Doc risks his life to save Marty, we want to see Marty return the favour. It doesn’t matter that we’ve already had one crowd pleasing climax (George winning over Lorraine) and this scene is giving us another another; you’d better believe we’re not going home until we know the Doc is ok.
1:31:43 – Marty has taken the time to change back into his classic outfit for this classic scene.
1:33:00 – The shouting over the wind gives the scene urgency even though nothing bad has happened yet.
1:35:17 – You know those are pretty awesome lightning effects over the clock tower. Doesn’t have that composited look 80s effects often have (like Marty’s hand in the last scene).
1:36:03 – That purple light on the silver DeLorean sums up this entire trilogy for me.
1:36:51 – There’s no real reason not to have the rod already on the car, but Marty needs to get out of the car and run around to keep the momentum of the scene going. If we intercut Doc nearly falling off the clock tower with Marty just sitting there you’d lose steam.
1:37:24 – It’s a good notion, going back early ten minutes early to save the Doc, but it wouldn’t have worked out. He would have had to reveal himself to the earlier Marty too, who then probably wouldn’t have gone back in time in the first place, meaning Marty wouldn’t have the knowledge needed to save the Doc and oh no I’ve gone cross eyed.
1:37:25 – Actually Marty could have gone back like a couple weeks early, warned Doc, then hid out for a bit until the other Marty went home… ten minutes beforehand is the worst time he could have picked. Between this and the “Hey I’ll have sex with my Mom” thing, Marty really needs to leave the planning to Doc Brown.
1:39:04 – The cliche had been avoided earlier, but NOW Marty bangs on the car and it comes to life.
1:39:35 – Knowing when to intercut parallel action can make a scene all the better. Marty already racing towards the town square with the Doc being nowhere close to having the experiment ready to go increases the suspense.
1:39:41 – The plug coming loose from the other end is a pretty diabolical moment. At that point it really does seem like the plan will fail.
1:39:53 – Now there’s two ticking clocks. The clock and the odometer marching towards 88 miles per hour.
1:40:30 – If you ask me, the moment the Doc slides down the cable to save the day is when a franchise is born.
Chapter 18. “Doc’s Decision” (1:41:41 – 1:46:41)
Logline: Arriving back in 1985, Marty races to save Doc Brown’s life.
The Big Picture. On the heels of all these climactic moments and with some loose ends still to wrap up, Back to the Future doesn’t waste time. It doesn’t milk suspense in the way the clock tower scene did. And the opportunities were there. Maybe the DeLorean could have gotten so far before stalling, maybe Marty could try to hail a cab, maybe he could grab a skateboard and try to race to the rescue. It could have been a whole thing. But instead you start on Marty running away from the town square, then cut to him getting to the mall. You’d really be playing the odds to try and top the previous scene from an action/drama perspective, so it’s best to just have a very quick and very direct resolution.
The Doc has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Christopher Lloyd plays the character as less wound up, even compared to how he came off in the previous 1985 sequence. Maybe gaining knowledge in 1955 that he’d make something of himself made him less manic.
1:41:43 – I’ve never questioned why a helicopter is flying over Hill Valley at 1:30 in the morning. For the purposes of the movie it’s there because helicopters weren’t around in 1955 and it’s a way to show we’re back in the 80s, but in the context of the film what’s it doing there? Looking for the Libyan terrorists?
1:42:38 – One of the more confusing moments, Marty calls the bum (who we haven’t seen before) Red. And since nothing is a throwaway in BttF I thought it was the 1955 mayor of Hill Valley Red Thompson. But it was just an improv from Michael J. Fox.
1:44:23 – Do the Libyans die in the crash? There’s problems either way, if they’re alive they’re going to come after the Doc again. If they die Hill Valley wakes up to find that there’s a van full of dead Libyan terrorists in their town, which I imagine would cause a stir even in a more innocent time.
1:44:57 – Doc’s bullet proof vest looks a lot like the T-1000’s chest after taking a lot of bullets.
Behind the Scenes
-People went to the Hill Valley mall at 1:35 on this day in 1985, just in case something happened.
Chapter 19. “Future Shock” (1:46:41 – 1:51:51)
Logline: Marty discovers that his actions in the past have impacted the future, and meets his new and improved family.
The Sequence. I’m not going to be the first to make hay of the existential dread that’s just under the surface of Back to the Future. That Marty has returned to a life that’s not his, that by changing the lives of five people (his family and Biff) so dramatically, the effects must have rippled out all across the town and beyond. How different would Marty himself be, having been raised by such different parents? Will the McFly parents even know their son anymore? Who even is Marty?
Eh. It’s all just shorthand. Given the tone of the movie, all we’re really meant to take away is that the McFly family is happier now, and the nemesis of their family is now a loser (though he still has his own company). It may seem like the movie is shallow and materialistic by showing that the nicer home improved their live. That Marty’s parents are thinner and therefore better people. But really, we’ve just got to wrap up this movie as quickly as possible. It’s the fastest way to dramatize the concept of a happier family.
I’m sure the intention of the writers is simply that the family is doing better, Biff sucks now, and everything else is the same. But if we wonder about the implications beyond that, it’s because the movie does spend some time getting us to consider how even small actions can ripple out and change destinies. There’s something troubling under this scene, but I don’t know if we’re meant to feel that.
The far bigger problem is how comfortable the McFlys are having Lorraine’s attempted high school rapist around. He even comes into their house without knocking like he’s a 90s sitcom neighbour. But I guess we don’t know what’s happened in the 30 years since 1955. We don’t know what may have convinced the McFlys that Biff has changed.
In the end, I guess its their business. But if Biff ever gets nominated for the Supreme Court don’t think I won’t forget about this.
The Big Picture. I know it’s just a joke, but what do you make of Doc wanting to do something about Marty and Jennifer’s kids? Is this really irresponsible of him? What’s the difference between altering the past and altering the future? Is it all playing God with fate, or do you not care if it’s the future because you’re not impacting a world you haven’t experienced? And what about YOU? Have you ever thought about how your actions are changing the future right now?
When I ask questions, it means I don’t want something to be over. It’s been so much fun having a closer look at Back to the Future that I’m not ready to leave. Fortunately I can go watch Back to the Future Part 2. And then say “Later I’ll watch Back to the Future Part 3” only to forget all about it. That sounds about right
1:47:04 – Who sets their alarm for 10:28?
1:47:09 – You only glimpse it for a moment but Marty has got that now iconic photo of he and his siblings on his wall.
1:48:01 – My parents have been together for 30 years and they go golfing every morning, so I love that that’s shorthand in BttF for “Lorraine and George are a solid couple.”
1:48:08 – This is by far the most normal Crispin Glover has ever seemed on film. And the movie is like “Lorraine has still got it at age 47” but the real life Lea Thompson looks even better.
1:48:56 – Biff has even got a combover in 1985 that he didn’t have before. Maybe he can afford a wig in the other 1985.
1:50:10 – I’d actually never noticed how few scenes Jennifer was in. They couldn’t have dug a hole in the ground for Melora Hardin to stand if they really were that concerned about her height?
1:50:34 – Freeze frame on the stuntman who races into Marty’s driveway. It looks like Chevy Chase is driving the DeLorean (modern day Chevy Chase.)
1:51:44 – Those windy trees makes the final shot more dramatic, and even more of an impressive feat that they managed to composite a flying car into it.