Time flies: Back to the Future at 30

As Robert Zemeckis’ time travel blockbuster celebrates its 30th birthday, we explore its legacy both onscreen and off.

Neil Mitchell

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

When a film reaches a milestone anniversary, the effect on those old enough to remember its original release can be quite profound. Waves of nostalgia jostle for space with the sobering recognition that life can often pass by in what feels like the blink of an eye. When the film in question is Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 smash hit Back to the Future, which turns 30 this year, those feelings are just that little bit more apt.

Familial ties, friendship, love, destiny and the nature of time itself are the weighty concepts at the heart of a gloriously genre-bending, light-hearted Hollywood blockbuster that is equal parts sci-fi adventure, family drama, romantic comedy and high school movie. That it eschewed the toughness of James Cameron’s time travel-themed The Terminator (1984) and the lewd antics that dominated many of the era’s teen movies worked in its favour, enabling viewers of all ages to appreciate its dazzling technical and storytelling craft.

The combination of Zemeckis’ sense of frenetic fun, co-writer Bob Gale’s ear for dialogue and producer Steven Spielberg’s penchant for nostalgia and sentimentality proved a winning formula. While its fantastical time travel plot device added the ‘what if’ factor to the tale, its underlying themes are universally recognisable, and Back to the Future’s huge global box office success is testament to its impact both on audiences and contemporary popular culture.

Robert Zemeckis, actor Michael J. Fox, producer Steven Spielberg and crew during production of Back to the Future (1985)

Robert Zemeckis, actor Michael J. Fox, producer Steven Spielberg and crew during production of Back to the Future (1985)

Having had the kernel of Back to the Future’s story kicking around since the turn of the decade, Zemeckis, Gale and Spielberg finally brought the film to the big screen on 3 July 1985. Michael J. Fox’s Marty McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s Emmett ‘Doc’ Brown, the former full of impish charm and boyish wonder and the latter one of cinema’s long line of memorable mad scientists, instantly achieved beloved icon status among cinemagoers. Add to the mix the acting talents of Crispin Glover as Marty’s sad sack dad, George, the visually striking modified DeLorean time machine and a beautifully constructed, zippy narrative that plays out in both the mid-80s and 1955, and the film’s widespread critical acclaim is easy to understand.

Back to the Future was 1985’s highest grossing film, and swiftly became a bona fide cultural phenomenon. It spawned two successful sequels, with the first partly set in the here and now of 2015. It also initiated a wave of merchandise, paratextual media and cultural paraphernalia that tapped into audiences’ growing desires for extended narrative universes and a sense of shared, communal attachment. It had been a decade since Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) had ushered in the modern blockbuster era, and those involved in Back to the Future’s production reaped the lucrative rewards in financial and cultural capital. Retrospectively, the film and its sequels were a prominent marker in the evolution of the now seemingly ubiquitous film franchise, both onscreen and off.

Back to the Future (1985)

Back to the Future (1985)

There’s a certain life-imitating-art element to Back to the Future’s place in popular culture and a pleasingly synchronous feeling that we’ve now reached the year in which Marty and Doc find themselves in Back to the Future Part II (1989). Articles have been written comparing the sequel’s vision of 2015 with life as it really is, while Lexus recently unveiled a teaser video for SLIDE, an apparently functional hoverboard that could well be the ultimate fan accessory. Spin-off video games, an animated TV show that ran for two seasons, a comic book series and Back to the Future: The Ride, Universal Studios’ 15-minute simulator ride that acts as a mini-sequel to Back to the Future Part III (1990), are all instances of the narrative world being expanded upon across media platforms with varying levels of interactivity. For those wishing to delve into an alternate reality of ‘what ifs’, some of the scenes shot with Back to the Future’s original Marty McFly, Eric Stoltz, can be seen on YouTube. In a fitting example of cause-and-effect, Stoltz being replaced by the diminutive Fox saw Melora Hardin, the film’s original, and crucially much taller, Jennifer Parker, being replaced by Claudia Wells before shooting began.

Last year, Back to the Future received the Secret Cinema treatment in London, raising the stakes for the kind of immersive experience film lovers can expect to be offered. The Back to the Future universe rolls on, as news of a proposed musical based on the original film surfaced in 2014 and the long-standing rumour of a third sequel once again reared its head. Alongside the standard movie tie-ins such as action figures, t-shirts and die-cast models, diehard fans can purchase prop replicas including a near $300 flux capacitor, and copies of the letter Marty writes to Doc warning him of future events.

In celebration of Back to the Future’s 30th anniversary, screenings accompanied by a live orchestra are taking place in the US and UK, including one at the Royal Albert Hall on 4 July. Two documentaries, Out of Time: Saving the DeLorean Time Machine and Back in Time, which will assess the film’s cultural impact, are being readied for release. The latter of these is set to be unveiled during the We’re Going Back fan convention in Los Angeles, on 21 October 2015 – the very date that Doc, Marty, Jennifer and Einstein the dog set off for at the end of the first film.

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