Back to the Future is 1.21 Gigawatts of unabashed teenage cool.
The 1980s were the decade teenagers fueled the box office, and we’ve never recovered. Before John Hughes exposed an actual depth of emotion to the hell of childhood transitioning into adulthood, the teen was either fodder for the cautionary tale (Rebel Without A Cause) or the personification of sexual insanity (Grease). Sixteen Candles said that the pain of teenage life was just as valid as the misery of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Once recognized, teen dollars flooded the market, demanding dominant representation on the big screen. “I want my MTV!” And we’ll take your big screen too.
Back to the Future took teen-rule one step further. The world does not simply revolve around Marty McFly’s wants and desires; he actually understands it better than the chumps who birthed him. He won’t be confined by Hill Valley like them, and his dreams extend beyond surviving the hassles of routine office life. Marty doesn’t have an attitude problem. He has a healthy distrust of authority figures because the parental dominance in his home is impotent. Marty is not the slacker. That label brands Mom and Dad.
With a light flourish of science-fiction, director Robert Zemeckis and writer Bob Gale shrewdly pulled back the veil on the secret lives of parents and children. Given access to a nuclear-powered, time-traveling DeLorean, the teenager is propelled back to the glory days of his parents’ youth, when malt shops were battlegrounds and a single high school dance could determine the trajectory for the rest of your life.
Based on the trauma of dutiful visits back home, Gale postulated Back to the Future when he dared to ask himself if he would have hung out with the high school version of his father. Who was (not is) this person across from me at the dinner table? Did we share the same hornball thoughts? Did he ever dare to dream of something beyond the ordinary life he achieved? Parents, by biological default, are pathetic.
As Marty McFly, Michael J. Fox was the epitome of cool. From his amplifier shredding introduction to his confident combination of jean jacket and two-tone puffer vest, the kid’s got serious rock ‘n’ roll style. His post-opening credits race back to the halls of high school is electrified by the music of Huey Lewis and the News. He is a master of the decade’s preferred ride of choice, the skateboard, and as he uses car bumpers to pull him through town, the women of jazzercise wave from their classroom windows. Good luck ever reaching peak Marty McFly.
Back home, in the living room glued to re-run television, Crispin Glover’s George McFly is his exact opposite. His style is decades old if it was ever existent at all. His posture is that of an ostrich forever searching for that hole in the sand. He’s a loser, worthy of his “butthead” title, willingly accepting the knock-knock knuckles of Biff, the bully-turned-coworker. Worse yet, George sees the disgusted glare of Marty and is helpless to deflect it.
That teenage horror at the previous batch of failed DNA is the only logic that could bring Marty McFly and Doc Brown together (unless the paradoxes of time travel predestined their encounter). Christopher Lloyd’s father-figure portrayal is as equally cartoonish as that of Glover’s dweeb. He’s wild in his mannerisms and gains acceptance through force of will. Brown is a mad scientist with more aborted ideas than successful inventions. He’s a neurotic spurned on by the righteous pursuit of can-do. Forget whether or not he should, time travel via the aid of Libyan terrorists is possible.
Plot shenanigans put bullets in Brown’s chest and Marty behind the wheel of the DeLorean. Going back in time to the year 1955 (the year of Rebel Without A Cause), the son comes face-to-face with the humanity of his parents. And it is gross. Not only is his dad a spaz, he’s a peeping tom. A fact that originally didn’t bother his mother because she’s as oversexed as the next teenager.
Rescuing his father from a collision, Marty takes George’s place under the wheels of his grandfather’s car and wakes up in his mother’s bed. She has not-at-all creepily removed his underwear and ascertained his incorrect name based on the Calvin Klein logo. Lea Thompson’s entire motivation in the film can be summed up with one word – “thirsty.” She’s ready to pounce her son, and the audience is recoiling. This ain’t right.
Confronted by the sexuality of his parents, Marty’s universe begins to shake…or fade. The family photograph he keeps in his back pocket is slowly erasing from existence. If he doesn’t fend off his mother’s advances, not only will we be confronted with a taboo we wouldn’t accept as a plot device until Game of Thrones, Marty will be erased from the timeline.
“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” This mantra cherished by Doc Brown becomes the rallying cry for Marty McFly. He uses it to convince George to action, embrace his density/destiny, and sweep Lorraine off her feet. Acting as Cyrano de Bergerac to his father does not necessarily transition George into a place of respect for Marty, but the kid does discover empathy for the man who once conjured nothing but apathy.
Back to the Future positioned the teenager as societal savior. With his knowledge of what will come to be, Marty brings confidence to the doubtful. Goldie Wilson is not doomed to a life sweeping floors. Doc Brown’s inventions have purpose. Chuck Berry will duck walk into infamy, and George McFly does have a novel inside of him. Progress is not only possible, it’s probable.