Doesn't it say who the author is in the footer?
Not sure how I missed that. I think Medium's need for frames fucks with my reading.
How do you know this much about Back to the Future?
I know this much about BttF because it is one of my favorite movies of all time AND perhaps the single most stultifyingly-complex-yet-outwardly-simple movie ever made. It is a screenwriting master class in one film.
Consider: By the end of BttF there's an angry Libyan terrorist faction with grenade launchers stalking the suburbs of Los Angeles for a mad scientist that stole their plutonium. It can be assumed that they wanted the scientist to use a bomb against the United States. They've been forcibly removed from the plot by driving into a photomat in a VW bus at something less than 88mph on a weeknight - probably not a fatality and it does nothing to erase the whole Libyan terrorists - grenade launchers - machine guns - Los Angeles-ness of it all. This is 1985. That's a fucking Chuck Norris movie waiting to happen, not a well-spackled loophole. We wouldn't forgive that sort of SNAFU in a Michael Bay movie... yet audiences (including myself!) will respond to that last paragraph with "Oh yeah! Well, sure, Libyans. Whatever. The movie wasn't about the Libyans."
This showed up on Reddit yesterday (your link is orders of magnitude better). It's a thousand words basically outlining the plot loophole that fuckin' A George McFly knew Marty was a time traveler. It finishes with a gushing "but it's such a great movie." I've probably seen five or six similar analyses on any number of the loose ends scattered all over BttF and every single one of them ends with a similar (and correct) "but it's such a great movie so who cares?"
The amount of goodwill that movie buys, simply by being superlative in structure, is astounding. And it's a time travel movie. Know what movie the geeks drag out when they want to discuss structure in time travel movies?
If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.
- Albert Einstein
Here's the structure of BttF: Marty goes back in time by accident, saves his father when he shouldn't have, then has to get his parents back together while waiting for his time machine to be fixed. You could write that shit on the back of a matchbook. It's completely simple.
It's deceptively simple.
Marty Isn't The Hero
There are very few films that pull this off: make a movie in which the person you follow around the whole time isn't the one with the arc. Isn't the one the important stuff happens to. Isn't the one you have to root for. It's A Wonderful Life is not about Clarence. The Last King of Scotland is not about the doctor. BttF took a rising television star and turned him into one of the most passive protagonists in film so that the son of that weird dude from Diamonds Are Forever could be heroic.
You know the Monomyth? I could drag Marty and George through all 17 stages. Know what? They both go through all 17 stages. But the 17 stages Marty goes through have nothing to do with getting back to 1985 or preventing his own extinction. George, though,
- Is set on a different course when he's saved from being hit by a car
- Refuses the call to action (Marty) to date Lorraine
- Receives supernatural aid in the form of Darth Vader
- Crosses the threshold and undergoes trials to get the girl
- Meeting with the temptress, Woman as goddess, atonement with the father (that is actually the son) - all that shit in the parking lot with Biff is this stuff for George, not Marty
... I'm getting too writerly. Here, hang on. So you've probably never even noticed that there's a pump-fake climax in which George decks the shit out of Biff but then, for some stupid reason, we have to go back and do Enchantment Under the Sea and Johnny B. Goode. You've probably never noticed because Libyans and awesomeness. It works and, aside from sub-standard SFX and an edit that doesn't hide them, it works really well. From a structural standpoint though it's fuckin' weird. Marty has succeeded. GEORGE HAS THE GIRL. But check this:
- Marty won by accident.
- And George won in the heat of passion.
It doesn't truly count until George demonstrates that yes, he's a different person now. From Marty's perspective? It probably counts fine. He got his folx back together. But from a story perspective, our hero needs to conquer his task, which isn't Marty getting "back to the future" it's George becoming a better man.
And that's the deep, lurking structure of Back to the Future. That's the ancient leviathan at the heart of a lively, trite piece of summer entertainment. It's George McFly becoming George Bailey while Marty flits around being Clarence the time-shifting angel so that in the end, he can get his Toyota-truck-shaped wings.
It took me, and maybe 20 other screenwriters I was talking with, a good week to really hammer that out. It still makes me sit here agape in a "Childs isn't breathing" sort of way. But Zemeckis new it. And Gale knew it. And Crispin Glover knew it, and called them out when they tried to cheap out on his salary. 'cuz you know what? BttF isn't BttF without George McFly. It's a trite tromp of tropes with a DeLorean in it.
Which is pretty much what BttF II and BttF III are. I love 'em, don't get me wrong. Own the box set. If I wrote something as good as BttF III I'd be insufferably proud of myself. But Back To The Future, the original Huey-Lewis-Dripping Klein Bottle of a narrative, is a masterpiece.
Believe it or not, I could go on. I'm already slightly embarrassed for having cooked off an hour on a Saturday night writing all this shit up but it's just that impressive to me. I'll say this: the only other thing I've seen come close to that level of structural beauty/contortion is Madoka Magika, and it's also fucking incredible for all those reasons and more.
Besides, that way I get to ping eightbitsamurai so that at least one other person sees this.
In an alternate universe somewhere, there are the movies Robert Zemeckis, Stephen Spielberg, Bob Gale, Michael J Fox and Crispin Glover made when Zemeckis and Glover figured out a compromise to keep George McFly at the heart of Back To The Future. And I'll never see them but I'll bet they're outstanding.