Teenage Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) arrives at the home of his friend Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to find that he's not in, and as far as he can see he hasn't been back for a while: even his dog Einstein is missing. As a budding rock musician, he takes the opportunity to try out the enormous speaker that the scientist has built for him, but it's far too powerful and knocks him off his feet, collapsing in a heap. Then a phone call as he surveys the damage, from Doc telling him that he is wrapped up in an important experiment and could Marty meet him after midnight tonight at the mall parking lot?
One of the biggest hits of the eighties, the script by director Robert Zemeckis and producer Bob Gale was by no means seen as a sure thing at the time, but it took Steven Spielberg and his team to understand the value in what was actually quite brilliantly written. From a time where the word "blockbuster" is often synonymous with less than intelligent entertainment, looking back on this is where we can see the potential in the concept, a film that proved a crowdpleaser while still offering something to set the mind racing. If anything, the critics of the day were almost grudging in their praise, as if to say, yeah, it's a lot of fun, but there must be something wrong in its popularity somewhere.
Yet audiences knew a good thing when they saw it, a science fiction movie that looked to the values of Frank Capra instead of slavishly responding to the traditions of the fantastical, while acknowledging that the whole time travel notion threw up more problems than it answered. With a plot constructed with the precision of a Swiss watch, the sheer pleasure to be gained from seeing how it all fit together and played out contributed to the film's rewatchable quality, and made it a favourite of a generation growing up with video, which practically invited such activity. Once Marty (Fox was never better) reaches the parking lot, we might as well be sitting in the DeLorean time machine Doc made too.
There was more to the experience than the cleverness of its set up and premise, as there were two sides that offered light and shade. The shade comes early when we see that Marty's parents, George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine (Lea Thompson, whose ageing makeup isn't half as good as her partner's) are deadbeats, with dad pushed around by life and a failure, and mother a hopeless alchoholic, telling the same stores of the days when she had the promise of making more of her life. Once Marty goes back thirty years to 1955, he meets them as teenagers, and accidentally ends up the object of his mother's romantic infatuation instead of George - and no wonder, as he is the hapless wimp personified.
So mother is outwardly demure but sexually aggressive with her own son, and father hasn't a chance of winning her back - shouldn't this be seriously queasy, or at the very least uncomfortable? However, this was the strength of the light, as the idea is presented as the source for laughter which the film easily achieved. As Marty waits for the lightning strike which will power the DeLorean to send him back to 1985 with the younger Doc's assistance, he must work out how to get his parents together: it could almost be the plot of the world's most ambitious sitcom. There's trouble from local bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) to contend with, not to mention the complications of messing up the timeline which are ingeniously portrayed, so much so that the movie spends the last quarter trying to sort out the threads, which it does with immense skill. As much as Back to the Future's humour was the key to its success, it was also the amount of cheek that buoyed it along, deservedly one of the most beloved films of its decade. Music by Alan Silvestri (and that Huey Lewis and the News song, inescapable when this came out).
But come the Oscar-winning Forrest Gump, he grew more earnest and consequently less entertaining, although just as successful: Contact, What Lies Beneath, Cast Away and the motion capture animated efforts The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Flight, The Walk and Allied were also big productions, but failed to have the same cultural impact.
With frequent writing collaborator Bob Gale, Zemeckis also scripted 1941 and Trespass. Horror TV series Tales from the Crypt was produced by him, too.