Right from the opening shot, we know what the film is about: time. The camera slowly reveals an abundance of clocks scattered all around a room to create a mesmerising effect, as if time itself is being tracked. Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future was the highest grossing film in the year of its release. The highly celebrated 1985 film has permanently etched its legacy on the popular discourse of science fiction narratives. Despite the fact that it has been 35 years since the film was first released, it manages to captivate newer generations of viewers year after year. What makes Back to the Future so special?
I remember being instantly drawn to the film the first time I watched it, probably a decade ago. Looking back at the picture, it is fascinating to observe how Zemeckis manages to seamlessly blend the obtuse world of advanced scientific theory with the familiar comfort of school and teenage angst. We see a box of an extremely controlled substance, Plutonium, in a domestic space, under a bed and we start to feel a little more at home despite being confronted with the dangerous. When the protagonist, teenager Marty McFly (played by Michael J. Fox) looks at all those clocks, he does not think of the metaphorical significance of time travel. All he can do is exclaim, “I’m late for school!” As Power of Love by Huey Lewis and the News starts playing, we forget about every problematic thing we have seen so far and just hum along.
Building on the myth of small town America, Zemeckis launches a bittersweet investigation of how the same hopes and fears are passed down from one generation to the next and he does this through the simplistic but effective trope of time travel. In the film, there exists a constant conflict between symbols of popular American culture and specialised sci-fi innovations. One of the great institutions of ‘80s America, the shopping mall, is turned into a battleground between terrorists and an eccentric scientist, Doc Brown (played by Christopher Lloyd). It also becomes the site of a time jump. However, the most significant and interesting manifestation of this conflict is visible in the time machine itself, a modified DeLorean which became a memorable symbol in popular culture, thanks to the film.
Even though Marty travels back through time in a car, we suspend our disbelief because certain things in the film come across as universal truths. Marty’s fear of being rejected speaks to almost everyone in the audience and we forget the implausibility of the events on screen. His paradoxical battle cry, “History is going to change”, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as he struggles to get back to his own time, rectifying whatever he can along the way. When he finally makes it back to the future, he finds himself in a different universe where his family is rich and successful. It is this cheerful denouement that becomes a source of hope for so many viewers. We are living in the future that Doc Brown speaks of at the end of the film. Ours might seem like a dystopian version of that future marked by its absence of flying cars and the emergence of a pandemic but it is precisely why revisiting the film, after all these years, is so important.
If there is anything that Back to the Future teaches us, it is that there is always a future to look forward to. The present might appear bleak but, in Marty McFly’s immortal words, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything”.