Going Back to Back to the Future

Time should never march forward if you haven’t given it permission.  The problem is, it does so all the time anyway.

As a 34-year-old man, I found myself flabbergasted to realize that this year marks the 25th anniversary of one of the seminal movies of the 80’s: Back to the Future.  And considering that this is a decade chock-full of some of the most infamous, beloved and popular movies ever made, that’s saying something.  Marty McFly, the time-traveling DeLorean, Doc Brown, milk — chocolate, the Flux Capacitor, the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance, conveniently-placed manure and Huey Lewis and the News became a significant part of pop culture, even though time marches on to the point where a movie about time travel is itself a quarter of a century in the past.

So it’s last Friday morning.  I wake up, grab a cup of joe and start working through my morning routine.  A friend posts on Twitter that he’s going to see Back to the Future in theaters, and I tweeted back that he was a lucky duck.

“Why don’t you go?” he replied.  “It’s playing everywhere.”

This was news to me — I had no idea that AMC theaters was putting Back to the Future back in theaters for the 25th anniversary, nor did I know it was, yup, playing tomorrow, three miles away.  A quick and frantic phone call to my wife later, and we made it happen.

“This Saturday afternoon, I’m taking you back… to the future!” I may or may not have said to my wife before she hung up due to my supreme nerdery.

In a way, getting all worked up about going to see a film that I currently own at a movie theater is kind of silly.  It makes no sense — why am I paying good money for the inconvenience of going out, getting a babysitter, and putting up with the assorted annoyances that theater audiences present?

It’s simple.  We went for the theater effect.  We went because there’s something fundamentally fun in collectively experiencing something great, especially when you know in advance it’s going to be great.  We went because an audience has the capacity to act as a sort of emotional amplifier — kind of the same way that Doc Brown’s giant speaker took Marty’s guitar playing to a whole new level.

The theater effect is why you may love a bad movie or hate a good movie.  It’s the same film, but seen under vastly different circumstances.  I mean, I’ve seen Back to the Future dozens of times at home, and I can’t recall ever chuckling out loud (although it is an amusing flick).  This past Saturday?  I found myself bursting out with laughter along with the rest of the audience, because the little funny got magnified in a whole new dimension when you have a lot of people appreciating it.

I listened to kids — most who had never seen BTTF, I’d reckon — laugh and make excited noises as they went through the movie for the first time, which is a blast to experience vicariously.  I thrilled to the music — it’s still one of the most heart-pumping scores ever made, in my opinion — and clapped along with everyone else when George socked Biff in the parking lot.

It made me recall 1997, when the special edition of Star Wars came out in the theaters, and we went to see movies we’d watched all our life for the very first time on the big screen.  You know, the way it was originally intended to be seen.  The same with Back to the Future this weekend.  If I engaged in a little delusion, I could even imagine I was back in the mid-80’s, seeing this with the original audience instead of a crowd that had grown up with “Think, McFly, think!” tattooed on their buttocks.

Sometimes, something as simple as making a movie BIGGER and LOUDER can transform it completely.  The theater shook when the DeLorean lurched back to 1995, and I found myself seeing things I’d never noticed before.

Back to the Future wasn’t a fluke hit — the filmmakers did a lot of things right across the board.  Music, casting, genre mixing, dialogue, you name it.  But no matter how much people love to nitpick the heck out of this movie, it’s only fair to acknowledge that their greatest achievement was packing so many details into a two-hour film and arranging it all to actually make sense.

When you think about it, there’s a lot that has to be set up and explained by the filmmakers for the story of BTTF to work.  So many jokes in 1955 wouldn’t work unless they were readied in the earlier portion of the movie (Marty being a loud guitar player, Mayor Goldie Wilson’s car, the skateboarding, the portrayal of Marty’s family, the references to past events, the “Pepsi Free” product placement, the plutonium theft) so that the trigger could be pulled later on.

Past the jokes, this is a pretty dense story that doesn’t take time traveling lightly.  Time travel is one of the trickiest things for scifi movies and shows to portray in such a way that (a) it connects in a way to make sense, and (b) it’s explained in such a way that everyone watching will understand.  This is why the introduction of the DeLorean is teamed up with Doc Brown’s video tape explanation, and why 1955 Doc Brown stops the movie at various points to clarify the tricky and sticky points of cause-and-effect (not to mention creating a huge model to show us, in advance, the entire finale action sequence).

It wasn’t enough to throw Marty back in time with minimal explanation and let his wacky 80’s hijinks take over — to earn its own legitimacy, the film had to lay out how time travel works within the framework of that movie universe, the method of travel, how essential plutonium was, why Marty’s parents never meeting was causing him to fade from existence (the photo of the three siblings is an essential prop, and quite brilliant as a ticking countdown timer of sorts), how he was going to get back, how Marty could change the future and how he did already through his actions.  Again — it’s a LOT of stuff, and I think we take it for granted after watching it so many times.

I was also struck by how the filmmakers skirted a couple dark and risque topics, something that many others have picked up on over the years.  Not only is one of the key plot twists about a mother “getting the hots” for her son, but the attempted rape on Biff’s part (which is, of course, set up earlier on in the film).  Incest and rape in a family movie?  Yet somehow, they made it work by carefully skirting a line and never crossing it.

All in all, we had a blast.  I would really love to do the same thing for other classic 80’s films (and I was a little bummed they didn’t show the whole BTTF trilogy in a row), especially seeing as how packed and enthusiastic that crowd was.  One guy even dressed up as Doc Brown, and we all filed out laughing and collecting our anniversary posters from the ushers.

I haven’t had a movie-going experience quite like this in a long time, and it makes me glad to know that BTTF’s stood up to the test of time admirably, even if I’ve gone from a nine-year-old boy who heard about it from older friends who got lucky enough to see it in 1985 to a 34-year-old dad of two who still would love to take a spin into the future.


  1. I’m really glad you wrote this. It was a fun read, and without it I would have had no idea this was going on. My husband and I went tonight and had a blast. It was just like you described. People started clapping and hooting the moment the Universal logo came up, and the audience’s excitement kept up a great pace.

    I have a dirty, filthy secret: This was the first time I had ever seen the movie. I know, I KNOW. But you know what? It’s cool to say that the first time I saw this awesome film was in theaters, and that it was such a tremendously fun experience. Thanks!

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