Past Perfect: Why Back to the Future is One of the Greatest Scripts Ever

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The answers are revealed in a must-watch video essay.

When people talk about great screenplays, inevitably the conversation turns to films like Casablanca, The Godfather, and Chinatown. Those are, after all, the scripts ranked by the Writer’s Guild of America as the best three in all of movie history, and of course they are each indisputably brilliant in their own way. But there’s another brilliant script that doesn’t get as much mention – though it did end up as number 56 on the same WGA list – perhaps because of the audience it’s intended for: the under 18 crowd. I’m talking about Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale’s script for the original Back to the Future.

Not only does Back To The Future balance its narrative across three timelines – the original 1985, 1955, and the altered 1985 – it does so while developing multiple iterations of more than half a dozen characters – Marty, the McFly family, Biff, Doc Brown, Mr. Strickland – and blending elements of action, adventure, comedy, and technology-driven sci-fi that’s all been made palatable for a young audience. That’s the plotting equivalent of juggling chainsaws that have been set on fire while standing on a tightrope over a Sarlacc pit – you gotta really know what you’re doing.

But here’s the kicker: Zemeckis and Gale did know what they were doing, so much so that they made a complicated process appear seamlessly fluid onscreen, at the same time making one of the most iconic, beloved, and enduring films of its decade. It is no stretch of the imagination to call Back To The Future a near-perfect screenplay (nothing is absolutely perfect), and more importantly, it is a very accessible script for burgeoning screenwriters to pore over and learn from, especially in regards to its structure and how the plot is deployed across it.

In the following video from Jack’s Movie Reviews, the storytelling of Back to the Future is put under the microscope to analyze just what makes it so effective, from its time-management skills to its patterns of introducing then reintroducing (and in some cases re-reintroducing) characters, and its tempered exposition that lingers just long enough in each its many genres to convince the audience the film belongs there, but not long enough to mire them in clichéd trappings. Too often the BTTF trilogy is dismissed as mere popcorn escapism, but in reality it’s one of the smartest franchises of the last half-century and deserves to be regarded with a more analytical eye. This is the perfect video to start the study.

Novelist, Screenwriter, Video Essayist