Is this yet another Gen Y/early “Millenial” (ugh) article about the movies people of my age watched as children back in the 1980s? Of course it is.
To clarify: I do not identify as a Millenial. I have previously written on this site about my dislike of how people of my generation have been conflated with Millenials, even though I have very little in common with that generational grouping. Millenials, to me, are people who weren’t adults when 9/11 happened and couldn’t consciously appreciate the magnitude of the events of that day, mostly because they were in middle school or younger. No, I prefer to belong to the now-rarified “Gen Y” label: people born between 1980 and 1986 that grew up with slow dial-up modem internet, burgeoning cable TV, video stores and VHS, and lived an adolescence without social media or cell phones or even a coherent version of the internet.
Other various terms have come up to describe this demographically marketed-to narrow (but quite large) generation, including the “Oregon Trail Generation,” which I like because it references an experience only people of a particular age group in a certain time period would have experienced. But whatever it is, we are the demographic that existed between Gen X and Millenials. We were Gen Y, and our childhood was the 1980s.
About the 1980s: it was kind of an amazing decade in America. I have written quite a bit about that era’s media output on this site and growing up it had a huge influence on me. A memory that encapsulates the 1980s for me is waking up early on weekends before everybody else in my house and playing Atari (my parents didn’t buy us Nintendo until the early 90s) for an hour, and then pouring myself a bowl or five of sugary cereal and watching Saturday morning cartoons until noon.
My memories of the 80s are filled with endless perfect days when the sun shone bright in the summer and winter was filled with snow days; going to video stores and the mall with my parents; seeing movies in the theaters that are now stone-cold classics, like Batman and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; playing with my Ghostbusters and He-Man action figures; and in general having what some could consider a perfect childhood, before the culture became an uncensored, never-ending cesspool. In my opinion, of course.
For good or ill, the cultural products of the 1980s had an incredible ability to represent the ideal: sitcoms were all about presenting the audience with fantastically hyper-stylized situations where characters existed in ultra-comfort, while movies codified many ‘types’ and largely provided the template that mainstream film would follow both structurally and narrative-wise. In short, American media found its aesthetic and attitude—or at least crystallized its late-20th century attitude—in the 1980s. Even in the early 21st century, American media still heavily depends upon the iconography 80s films established, to the point where we’re doubling down and echoing the decade’s aesthetics in many cultural artifacts, from Stranger Things to Ready Player One. In many ways, 21st-century America has enshrined the 1980s as the “best” decade of its recent past, followed closely by the 1990s
What is this article about, again? Oh right: the best movie of the 1980s, Back to the Future. As previously stated, I am a child of the 80s and Back to the Future was a seminal event in my life. Thanks to my genius/crazy person father, we had an arsenal of advanced technology at our disposal in the family and as such he dubbed off numerous movies for us over the years during that decade that we rented from the video store, before anti-piracy devices were employed to stop people from doing such things. As a result, I was a movies-obsessed kid—to the point that I ended up creating my own website about movies—and watched my favorite movie ever (from 5-8), Back to the Future, hundreds of times as a child.
What is it about Back to the Future that speaks to boys? For me, it was that Marty McFly was the coolest guy ever that I could reasonably imagine myself emulating: he rode a skateboard, was a guitarist with his own band, had an attractive girlfriend, and was the sidekick to a mad scientist on the side for fun. Hell, as a guy in his mid-30s, I would still love to live that life.
But the movie’s general escapist appeal has a lot to do with indulging and furthering this fantasy: not only was Marty an incredibly relatable character but he also had access to a time machine made out of a DeLorean. He travels 30 years into the past and ends up having to steer his parents towards each other while also having to deal with the ass of a man Biff that’s been bullying his dad for decades, and somehow hit the exact moment a lightning strike hits the clock tower to travel back to the future (TITLE DROP!). It’s an adventure, a comedy, a suspense film, and sci-fi at its most mainstream best. It’s for these reasons and more that makes Back to the Future a perfect movie.
Back to the Future – A Perfect Movie
What is a better movie to represent 1980s America than Back to the Future? Released at the height of Reagan-era America, Back to the Future is an unabashedly American movie, celebrating both the present and past of American culture, populated by super-catchy pop songs from the commercial-centric Huey Lewis and the News and made with the charismatic, crowd-pleasing aesthetic that defined blockbusters of the decade. Every frame is a celebration of just how gosh-darn awesome the USA is and always has been. And boy, do Americans love this movie.
But how couldn’t you love this movie? There’s something in it for everyone—which is what the blockbuster mentality is all about. It’s a comedy. It’s a sci-fi film. It’s suspenseful, action-packed, and even has a few love stories tucked beneath the weird Oedipal storyline between Marty and his 1955-era mother. Every scene seems instantly iconic, and even after watching this film for over 30 years I uncover something new with every viewing. The sheer quality infused in every scene—from dialogue to cinematography to soundtrack to wardrobe to set design—captures exactly what director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg envisioned and is transmitted to the audience without a loss in meaning or emphasis.
A perfect example of this is Marty’s initial re-entry into Hill Valley in 1955, having accidentally launched himself back 30 years into the past in Doc Brown’s time machine (“..out of a DeLorean?”). As the jaunty, cheery, and delightfully bland 1950’s pop song “Mr. Sandman” plays on the soundtrack, the camera zooms in on Marty’s expression—which is understandably bewildered—as he stumbles into the picturesque downtown square of Hill Valley. The camera pans out with a crane shot to reveal the town and Marty’s figure stumbling into the town, revealing a much different downtown than we saw in 1985: with a large park still existing in front of the court house, a full-service gas station where three men in matching jumpsuits spring to action to service a vehicle, and—of course—the clock tower, still in perfect operation because (of course) lightening has not yet struck it.
It’s a revelatory scene that works because every element is in place to make it feel like a real place. But that’s because they built a real-life downtown set to place this in, which terrifically translates on-screen. In fact, I was lucky enough to have seen this set before it burned to the ground on the Universal Studios Hollywood Tour, which was itself an incredibly surreal moment in my life.
“I’m sure in 1985 plutonium is in every corner drug store, but in 1955, it’s a little hard to come by!”
Now for the academic bit of the article, which is a warning for those that don’t care about this kind of stuff to scroll to the next section: Back to the Future is a great example of the postmodern turn, which was first elucidated in 1997 by academics Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, but is a concept that had been floating around for decades and had been informing the mixed-media, self-referential outputs of culture that the Western world had begun to experience once television—or even radio—or hell, even newspapers—began presenting as a recurrent feedback loop, wherein the culture at large became not only aware but brought with it a neurosis about its place within the grand narrative of history.
With the internet and the gigantic technological jump the world has experienced in the past 15 years, this has created a present-day reality that we now all live in and simultaneously experience every single thing that occurs on the planet at any given second but are also aware of the roaring volume of history and culture that has itself built upon itself over the centuries, now leaving us in a postmodern nightmare of sorts where every reference, intertextual reference, meta-narrative, and self-reflexive comment is not only immediately available but so intertwined into our present narrative that unless you are fully adapted to this insanely complex form of communication, you would be lost.
Back to the Future is an early inkling of how our modern world would soon operate, although—in true ironic fashion—the creators of the film couldn’t possibly know this at the time. Imagine this: Marty McFly exists in 1985 and 1955 at the same time, only he is aware of all events that occurred in the (to him) distant past. So while existing in 1955, he is like a near-god in many ways in this circumstance. And he is aware of this fact, to the point that a major plot engine is that he must be extremely careful not to somehow affect the past with this knowledge (and, in a more meta example, this becomes central to the sequels to BttF). Meanwhile, we the audience are aware of both 1985 and the historical significance of 1955 in American culture, so we can follow Marty on this time-bending jaunt and enjoy the irony of the situation he finds himself in when travelling back to the past.
But wait! There’s more: the film series itself becomes even more ironic in each sequel, where the second film travels to the future (from the perspective of circa 1989 but in fictive universe 1985, adding yet another meta layer to the film/audience relationship), where 2015 seemingly blends 1955 and 1985 stylistics and aesthetics to create the very postmodern nightmare that we would experience by that year.
This speaks to how brilliant Back to the Future is and how fertile the high-concept idea behind it is. We could read all of history into the film, from a certain perspective, and it would ring true in postmodern theory. Of course, this is the sort of idea that makes people like me movie fanatics and try to find the truth of the world in cinema—which, honestly, isn’t the worst approach. I’ve read so many philosophical tracts from so many different perspectives in my life, from stoicism to existentialism to nihilism, that I can honestly say the Philosophy of Film is the truest star that I can guide my wandering mind.
The Power of Love
Back to the Future oozes charisma. From the razor-sharp direction by master storyteller Robert Zemeckis to Michael J. Fox’s boyish charm, Christopher Lloyd’s pitch-perfect depiction of a mad scientist, Huey Lewis and the News’ ebullient original songs (“The Power of Love,” which opens the movie, and “Back In Time”), and Alan Silvestri’s grandiose score create a dynamic, high-concept delight that aims to please everyone—and succeeds in seamless, spectacular fashion.
The unabashed positivism of 1980s American mainstream culture are writ large in Back to the Future, where the ideal of America—past and present—is located in the suburbs of California. It is here where a skateboarding, rock-and-roll loving teenager is unexpectedly launched into the past, where he finds himself struggling to play matchmaker to his parents, finding his father a hapless nerd and his mother unexpectedly attractive and more than eager for “Calvin Kline,” to both humorous and cringe-worthy results.
But this film is soaked in positivity—for America’s past, for its own wonderful idea, and for the power of love. Because ultimately, Back to the Future is a love story: between Marty’s parents, George and Loraine, and between Marty and his girlfriend. It also gets across a very American ideal: that confidence in yourself and self-determination is what makes your future.
Some have criticized the film for being materialistic, which, duh: it was made in 1985, the most 80s of years. But America is also a pretty materialistic place: after all, it’s built into the capitalist paradigm, and material wealth is conflated with either happiness–or at least success–here. At the very least, it’s an objective metric that works as a guide. Besides that, materialism rules. Who doesn’t like having a bunch of shiny new stuff and nice clothes?
And that’s another aspect of why Back to the Future still rings true, now over 30 years after its release, to American audiences: it still feels very American. On a Platonic level, it reflects core American values: of how there are second, third, and fourth chapters and chances for everybody in America, so long as they’re willing to work for them; of American Exceptionalism (after all, it’s an American that builds a time machine—out of a car by an independent American car mogul—by suckering some Libyans out of some plutonium in trade for a bogus bomb) and how America’s history and present alike have a continuity in experience and individualistic attitude; and how even the most far-flung ideas, dreams, and desires are only a few steps away from coming true.
Is Back to the Future the most American movie? Maybe. It was made with the intention to capture the widest audience possible (see my previous article about Blockbusters for further elucidation on this concept) and wildly succeeded in this regard. It was made in possibly the most “American” decade—the 1980s—and also depicts and celebrates the second-most American decade, the 1950s, incredibly spanning across time to present a cogent ideal of what “America” means to its citizens. It’s a slick, well-made cultural artifact with an enduring charm that nobody—particularly those that were born and raised in a certain time period (labels be damned) can resist.
Although my tastes have matured and my interests have divested over the years (my favorite movie now is Jacques Tati’s PlayTime, a movie obsessed with the present and its innfuriating minutia), in some ways every time I re-watch Back to the Future and the opening tinkling piano lines begin to play on the soundtrack as the credits fade in, a part of me becomes the 5-year-old boy again, whose favorite movie ever was Back to the Future.
Ironically, a movie steeped in nostalgia has become incredibly nostalgic for many viewers. Maybe that’s what makes it a perfect movie: while the movie looks back in time, when we watch this movie, we’re also looking back in time, remembering the time and place first watching this movie. Maybe just based on its remarkable ability to be such a thing—a time capsule of nostalgia that has since become its own time capsule for many—that I consider Back to the Future a perfect movie.