In case you haven’t heard, this is the year to celebrate the Back to the Future trilogy. Between it being the 30th anniversary of the release of the original and also the year that much of Back to the Future Part II is set in, it’s officially a momentous occasion for both fans and brands, including the movies’ studio, Universal, plus Nike, Pepsi and other companies, to join in the fun. So this month, which happens to feature the exact date Marty McFly, Doc Brown, Jennifer Parker, and Einstein the dog travel to in 2015, I’ve compiled lists of movies to watch for each installment of the series. Here is the first, which is also appropriately timed to the wide release of the latest from writer/director Robert Zemeckis, The Walk.
One of the greatest things about Back to the Future is that it’s so original that it’s not easy to determine its influences and ancestors. There are some explicit allusions in the 1985 time-travel feature to other films, including Star Wars (when Marty visits George McFly as an alien he says he’s “Darth Vader”) and The Atomic Kid and Cattle Queen of Montana (both seen on the cinema marquee in 1955), as well as some less-obvious homages, such as an Easter egg nodding to Stanley Kubrick’s use of the alpha-numerical “CRM-114” in multiple movies. But those are all weak links in terms of their impact on the story and tone found in this classic hybrid of sci-fi and teen genres.
Not that all of the following titles were strong or even conscious influences on Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale. But they each are or at least feel related to Back to the Future in some way, and any true fan of the trilogy should be as familiar with these movies as they are with all the dates traveled to and from by their characters.
Safety Last! (1923)
When Doc (Christopher Lloyd) slips and is hanging from the courthouse clock tower during the movie’s climax, that’s a blatant tribute to silent comedy icon Harold Lloyd and his most famous scene in his most well-known movie. If that’s not clear enough, though, there’s also a foreshadowing image during the opening credits, a cutout of Lloyd hanging from one of the many clocks in Doc’s home, directly referencing that scene of the early cinema star hanging from a department store’s external clock display.
Berkeley Square (1933)
Yet another Lloyd, Frank Lloyd, directed this adaptation of a play, which itself had been inspired by the unfinished and posthumously published Henry James novel “The Sense of the Past.” As far as I can tell, it’s the first feature-length time-travel movie not based on “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” It’s also one of the few besides Back to the Future to deal with very complicated romantic entanglements involving ancestors. Leslie Howard, who was nominated for an Oscar for his performance, plays a man who travels back to the late 18th century and, mistaken for his own great-great-great-great-grandfather, manages to mess up the distant relative’s engagement with his great-great-great-great-grandmother. He actually falls in love with the woman’s sister, instead. He never says if kissing her is like kissing his own sister. Berkeley Square was remade in 1951 as I’ll Never Forget You (aka The House in the Square), in which the time travel occurs by way of lightning.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Frank Capra has often been cited as an influence on Back to the Future and on Zemeckis’s career overall, and this most famous film by the director is the most certain of those roots. Like Back to the Future, it deals with the idea of never being born – or the possibility of that becoming the case. It’s also definitely influenced by Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” which is also a big influence on Zemeckis and this movie of his in particular. Although all of the Potterville stuff is clearly more connected to the alternate 1985 Hill Valley of Back to the Future Part II, the bigger picture of It’s a Wonderful Life ties with the first movie, especially the main character’s excitement to be alive at the end.
An Act of Murder (1948)
Also known as Live Today for Tomorrow, this drama starring Fredric March is a direct ancestor of Back to the Future in terms of their sets. The courthouse square that is now mostly associated with the time-travel trilogy was first built for An Act of Murder, which unlike Back to the Future actually needed a courthouse. March plays a judge whose wife is dying of cancer and he must decide whether to euthanize her. The same actor also got to work with the iconic backlot set 12 years later, this time as a lawyer, for Inherit the Wind.
Blackboard Jungle (1955)
One of two very notable teenager movies released the year that much of Back to the Future takes place in (I’ve saved the other, Rebel Without a Cause, for my list for Back to the Future Part II), this social issue drama is the precursor to countless followers about teachers making a difference in a tough high school. Surely the bully and attempted rapist Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) and his lackeys related to the juvenile delinquents played by young Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. Blackboard Jungle, like time-traveler Marty McFly, had a big impact on the future of rock and roll. The movie features the Bill Haley and the Comets song “Rock Around the Clock” during its opening credits, and that soundtrack choice is considered one of the most important milestones in the history of popular music.
Some Like It Hot (1959)
Another one of Zemeckis’s favorite filmmakers and a stated influence on Back to the Future is Billy Wilder. Producer Steven Spielberg has also mentioned Wilder when discussing how Zemeckis and Gale’s script was “tight as a drum but, at the same time, it was loose enough to allow Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd to bring their spontaneity.” Wilder’s Some Like It Hot is the same, but with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Unlike their disguised-in-drag characters, BTTF’s Marty isn’t hiding out but he does similarly flee a bunch of guys with guns and winds up a fish out of water in a place where he pretends to be somebody else (and like Lemmon’s character is pursued by an unwanted, mistaken suitor). If you don’t see it, allow for a middle man in Hiding Out, which came out after Back to the Future and is almost literally a cross between that and Wilder’s classic comedy, minus both time travel and drag.
The Sword in the Stone (1963)
The ending of this Disney animated take on the legend of King Arthur is commonly noted as similar to the ending of Back to the Future, as it has Merlin the wizard showing up with strange clothes having just returned from the future. Merlin and Arthur are also easily seen as parallels to Doc and Marty throughout. Also, beyond the story here (including the sequels to the book this film is based on), the Arthurian tales and their legacy involve Oedipal conflicts and time travel (via Mark Twain), the former aligning George McFly (Crispin Glover) with Arthur and Marty with his son, Mordred. Doc is always Merlin, though.
Of course, there’s a documentary about John DeLorean, the guy who designed and manufactured the car made iconic by Back to the Future. But this isn’t any old profile. It’s directed by observational doc masters D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (The War Room) and it follows the automaker between 1979 and 1981 as he sets up in Northern Ireland and develops the DMC-12 (the model used as the BTTF time machine). It’s interesting to see such a film, which was released before the downfall of both DeLorean, in a cocaine-trafficking bust, and his company and years before his name would reach its peak notoriety thanks to one of the biggest blockbusters of the decade.
Class of 1984
In part an extra link between Blackboard Jungle and Back to the Future with its teacher dealing with tough teens plot and its featuring of Michael J. Fox in a minor role, this dark and ultimately very violent high school movie is also worth seeing for how dorky Fox is in it, playing the complete opposite of Marty with his bowl cut and baby fat and goody-goody manner. Main bad boy Peter (Timothy Van Patten) may seem less like Biff than his future grandson Griff (also Wilson) in Back to the Future Part II, as he’s much smarter and much more punk rock (especially if you just look at the poster art). But if you’re familiar with Biff’s home life (as revealed in the sequel), you’ll note some additional similarities between him and the villain of Class of 1984.
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)
In addition to this cult sci-fi film also co-starring Christopher Lloyd, it shares a producer (Neil Canton) and production manager (Dennis Jones) with Back to the Future, as well as a few common elements like a vehicle that features something closely resembling the DeLorean time machine’s flux capacitor (here called a oscillation overthruster) and which must go at least 88 mph in order to travel into another dimension.
Bonus: A Touch of Magic (1961)
I recommended this General Motors film a few months ago to watch after you’ve seen Tomorrowland, and in that list, I note how its opening music sounds very familiar to anyone familiar with Alan Silvestri’s Back to the Future score. Just listen to the first few seconds: