THE FU­TURE IS BACK

On Wed­nes­day, time will stand still for fans of pop­u­lar cul­ture. Au­thor Matthew Reilly cel­e­brates a very spe­cial an­niver­sary.

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page - MARTY McFLY

Afew years ago, a mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist con­tacted me and asked if he could drive my DeLorean for a se­ries of ar­ti­cles he was writ­ing on fa­mous au­to­mo­biles. I said sure. I love my D. It’s my pride and joy. It was the low-slung, stain­less-steel, gull-wing­doored car made fa­mous in the Back to the Fu­ture movies — a film se­ries that has inspired much of my own writ­ing and that has be­come a pop-cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. I’m al­ways happy to spread the unique love that the DeLorean ex­udes.

So the mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist comes to my house, drives my DeLorean and in the en­su­ing ar­ti­cle … he trashed my D. It was ti­tled “Slack to the fu­ture”.

My DeLorean rat­tled, he wrote. (It does.) Its per­for­mance was slug­gish. (It is.) The sun bounced off the stain­less-steel bon­net. (Um, that’s the sun’s fault …) And he didn’t like the gull-wing doors. (Are you kid­ding me?)

What he didn’t re­alise was that he was eval­u­at­ing my DeLorean as a car. He was driv­ing it and com­par­ing it to other cars in off-the-rack, car-jour­nal­ist terms (“The ceil­ing is low, the top of the wind­screen is close to your fore­head …”).

But a DeLorean is not a car. It is much, much more than that.

It is a 1980s work of automotive art and the glit­ter­ing em­bod­i­ment of one of the most suc­cess­ful and de­light­ful movie fran­chises in history. He didn’t un­der­stand what it means to own a DeLorean. This is what it means: Ev­ery time I see that car, I smile broadly. Ev­ery time I open those spec­tac­u­lar gull-wing doors, I grin like an idiot. And ev­ery time I drive it, I feel like Marty McFly.

Ev­ery time I get petrol from the ser­vice sta­tion, peo­ple ask me if they can have their photo taken with it. They call out, “Where’s the flux ca­pac­i­tor?” or “Where’s Doc Brown?”

I don’t hear the rat­tles or no­tice the lack of speed. I’m hav­ing way too much fun be­cause I’m in a time ma­chine.

The Back to the Fu­ture films are, for me, one of the finest ex­am­ples of mod­ern sto­ry­telling, and just days out from the an­niver­sary of the date Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) trav­elled to 2015 — Oc­to­ber 21 — I’d like to in­vite you on a jour­ney of ex­am­i­na­tion as we take a look at this won­der­ful se­ries.

Come with me, and imag­ine you’re in my won­der­ful DeLorean, hurtling down the road at 88 miles per hour, and trust me when I say, where we’re go­ing, we don’t need roads.

MARTY McFLY, HERO

It has been said there is a kind of story that ap­peals to all hu­man be­ings on a ge­netic level. That kind of story is known as the hero’s jour­ney. It goes like this: to rec­tify an im­bal­ance in his or­di­nary world, a hero must ven­ture out of that com­fort­able, known world into a new, “ex­tra­or­di­nary world”.

The ex­tra­or­di­nary world is a dif­fer­ent and dan­ger­ous place and there the hero meets friends, en­coun­ters en­e­mies, over­comes tests and tri­als, and even­tu­ally re­turns (of­ten via a car chase) back to his or­di­nary world, with the means to fix the im­bal­ance that set him off on his heroic jour­ney in the first place.

Im­por­tantly, the hero is changed by the jour­ney. He or she grows from the ex­pe­ri­ence. Sound fa­mil­iar? Sound like Star Wars? (Farm boy leaves his or­di­nary desert planet to res­cue a princess. En­ter­ing the ex­tra­or­di­nary world of the em­pire and the re­bel­lion, he flees from TIE fight­ers and en­ters the dreaded Death Star, he be­friends Han Solo, Chew­bacca and Princess Leia, he en­coun­ters Darth Vader, and he re­turns with the plans for the Death Star and saves the day.)

Does it sound like Harry Pot­ter? (Or­di­nary boy who lives with his aw­ful aunt and un­cle goes through a por­tal at King’s Cross sta­tion and en­ters the ex­tra­or­di­nary world of witches and wizards where he is the most fa­mous per­son in that world. There he makes new friends in Ron and Hermione, and fights the big­gest en­emy of all, Volde­mort. At the end of al­most ev­ery book, Harry re­turns home to the or­di­nary world, al­ways changed a lit­tle.) Ev­ery ma­jor Hol­ly­wood block­buster ad­heres to the Hero’s Jour­ney struc­ture: Star Wars,

Harry Pot­ter, The Lord of the Rings, they are all per­fect ren­di­tions of this struc­ture.

Back to the Fu­ture is no dif­fer­ent. In fact, it is a sin­gu­larly bril­liant ver­sion of this kind of story.

In the year 1985, Marty McFly, an or­di­nary teenager from an or­di­nary home in the very or­di­nary sub­urbs, gets sent to the ex­tra­or­di­nary world of 1955, the world of his teenage par­ents.

There he be­friends a younger ver­sion of his good friend, Doc Brown (Christo­pher Lloyd), he makes an en­emy of the lo­cal bully, Biff Tannen (who in 1985 bul­lies Marty’s fa­ther, Ge­orge), and he in­ad­ver­tently de­rails his par­ents’ love­match, im­per­illing his own fu­ture ex­is­tence.

Marty ul­ti­mately re­unites his par­ents and, in one of the movie’s most elec­tri­fy­ing scenes, to re­turn to the or­di­nary world of 1985, he races against an in­com­ing bolt of light­ning in the DeLorean time ma­chine. He gets there in the nick of time, launches him­self back to the fu­ture and re­turns to his or­di­nary world.

In Back to the Fu­ture, how­ever, it’s not just the hero, Marty, who re­turns changed to the or­di­nary world. The whole or­di­nary world is changed. His par­ents are now slim­mer, fit­ter, more suc­cess­ful. His pre­vi­ously timid fa­ther is now con­fi­dent and the pre­vi­ously nasty Biff has been re­duced to a sniv­el­ling car washer.

Our young hero has ven­tured into a strange new world and re­turned cleansed, changed, wiser. But not ev­ery such tale be­comes a cul­tural phe­nom­e­non. So how did Back to the Fu

ture do it?

THE WIS­DOM OF TIME TRAVEL

“Then tell me, fu­ture boy! Who’s pres­i­dent of

YOU BUILT A TIME MA­CHINE … OUT OF A DELOREAN?

the United States in 1985?” Doc Brown de­mands of Marty when they meet in 1955. Marty says firmly: “Ron­ald Rea­gan.”

“Ron­ald Rea­gan!” the Doc ex­claims. “The ac­tor? And who’s the vice-pres­i­dent? Jerry Lewis? I sup­pose Jane Wyman is the first lady?”

The fun of writ­ing a time-travel story is us­ing the quirks of history to your ad­van­tage.

There’s great hu­mour to be found in the no­tion of “If they knew then what we know now”. The Rea­gan-as-pres­i­dent gag is sim­ply per­fect. (Later in his ca­reer, the di­rec­tor of Back to the Fu­ture, Robert Ze­meckis, would win a clutch of Os­cars for For­rest Gump, another film that bril­liantly in­serted a fic­tional char­ac­ter into ma­jor his­tor­i­cal events. I still laugh when I see For­rest, stay­ing at the Water­gate Ho­tel, call­ing se­cu­rity when he sees some men with flash­lights in another room, sug­gest­ing that dopey For­rest Gump brought down Richard Nixon.)

I used this no­tion in my his­tor­i­cal novel, The Tour­na­ment, where I framed the story around an in­ci­dent in the early life of Queen El­iz­a­beth I. We all know that El­iz­a­beth never mar­ried; in my story, I sug­gested a few rea­sons why.

My other favourite his­tor­i­cal gag in Back to the Fu­ture is when the singer of the band play­ing at the En­chant­ment Un­der the Sea dance in 1955, Marvin Gaye, lis­tens to Marty play John­nie B. Goode and makes a phone call:

“Chuck! Chuck! It’s your cousin, Marvin … Marvin Berry. You know that new sound you’re look­ing for, well, take a lis­ten to this.”

Of course, Chuck Berry wrote John­nie B. Goode. But what if he got the idea from hear­ing a time-trav­el­ling teenager in 1955?

(By the way, from a hero’s jour­ney point of view, Marty’s per­for­mance at the En­chant­ment Un­der the Sea Dance is cru­cial for Marty as a char­ac­ter: in the open­ing scenes in 1985, he is turned down at an au­di­tion to per­form at his own school’s dance be­cause he is “too darned loud”. In 1955, he fi­nally gets a chance to per­form in front of a crowd and he crushes it.)

GREAT MO­MENTS, GREAT LINES

Great movies have great mo­ments and mem­o­rable lines. And Back to the Fu­ture has no short­age of those. In­deed, it pos­sesses many of my favourite mo­ments in cin­ema: when Ge­orge McFly clenches his fin­gers into the tight­est of fists and de­liv­ers a knock­out punch to Biff.

Then there’s when Marty, flee­ing from Biff and his goons in 1955, takes a child’s wooden scooter and rips off the han­dle­bars, trans­form­ing it into a proto-skate­board. He pro­ceeds to en­gage with Biff in a skate­board-vs-car chase around the town square, a chase that ends with Biff slam­ming into a ma­nure truck.

And Doc Brown’s great line: “When this baby hits eighty-eight miles per hour, you’re gonna see some se­ri­ous shit.”

Or Marty in Part II say­ing about Jaws 19: “The shark still looks fake.”

HIT SONGS AND A BRAVURA THEME

Think of ev­ery ma­jor hit movie you know … and then think of its theme mu­sic. When I think of In­di­ana Jones, I find my­self hum­ming its won­der­fully up­beat, al­most jaunty, Wil­liam Tell­style march: dum-de-dum-dum, dum-de-daah.

Star Wars has its grandiose op­er­atic theme. Jaws has its haunting, heart­beat-like pump­ing.

Even the Harry Pot­ter films and Juras­sic Park have in­stantly recog­nis­able themes. (In­ter­est­ingly, all the above themes were writ­ten by John Wil­liams, the undis­puted master of the block­buster score.)

Back to the Fu­ture’s score was writ­ten by Alan Sil­vestri. Not only is it one of the clas­sic movie themes, it also stands apart from those listed above. It is a sweep­ing, ad­ven­tur­ous tune, call­ing us to board Doc Brown’s DeLorean, get to 88 miles an hour and blast away to another time. In a few bars, it calls us to join Marty on an ad­ven­ture that is grand and en­ter­tain­ing, fast and fun.

In ad­di­tion to its com­pelling score, Back to the Fu­ture also fea­tured a hit theme song by one of the big­gest bands of the 1980s: Huey Lewis and the News. That song was The Power of Love and while some may say (per­haps rightly) that it is a song of its time — it’s a mid-80s power tune — it was the per­fect song for a movie about that time. And if you’re like me and you think pop mu­sic peaked in the 80s, then you’ll agree that The Power of Love is one of the great­est songs of all time and that any­one who dis­agrees is a crazy moron from outer space with no taste in mu­sic. There, I said it.

THE SE­QUELS: PART II

OK. Here’s where the rub­ber hits the road. The se­quels to Back to the Fu­ture po­larise peo­ple. They love ’em or hate ’em. There were two se­quels, one set in the fu­ture, in Oc­to­ber 2015, and one in the past, in the Old West of 1885.

Both se­quels were ex­cep­tion­ally clever and in the case of Part II, per­haps too clever for its own good. But like The Em­pire Strikes Back and Re­turn of the Jedi did for Star Wars, they es­tab­lished the long-term legacy of Back to the Fu­ture.

In the sec­ond film, Marty trav­els to three time pe­ri­ods: he starts off by go­ing to the bright and gleam­ing world of 2015, then he heads back to 1985 (which has now changed be­cause of the ne­far­i­ous Biff), and then back to 1955, where he must creep through the ma­jor scenes of the first movie, all the while be­ing care­ful not to meet his “other self” and de­rail him from com­plet­ing the mis­sion he ac­com­plished in Back to the Fu­ture (which would ir­repara­bly dis­rupt the space­time con­tin­uum and de­stroy the uni­verse).

For a pop­corn block­buster film, Part II asked a lot of the viewer. Not many movies since then have asked au­di­ences to think so much: In­cep­tion is per­haps the only block­buster in re­cent mem­ory that de­manded so much. When it was re­leased, Back to the Fu­ture Part II drew plenty of crit­i­cism for the large amount of prod­uct place­ment that ap­peared in its de­pic­tion of 2015. In his conception of the world of 2015, Ze­meckis had com­mer­cials ev­ery­where: Pepsi, Nike and Tex­aco ap­peared promi­nently. The thing is: Ze­meckis was right. To­day, we are over­whelmed by advertising. Bill­boards are ev­ery­where. Advertising is ubiq­ui­tous. Cor­po­rate advertising has seeped into ev­ery­thing we watch. Pro­fes­sional foot­ballers, golfers and ten­nis play­ers are cov­ered with spon­sor­ships. The names of car and beer com­pa­nies even ap­pear on the desk of sportspanel shows.

Per­haps Ze­meckis’s best (and cheeki­est) pre­dic­tion of the fu­ture in Part II was the 3-D poster for Jaws 19. It was a cyn­i­cal joke: in the fu­ture, Hol­ly­wood will be milk­ing ev­ery last dol­lar out of its ma­jor fran­chises. Yet look at the block­buster movies that have dom­i­nated the cine­mas in our (real) 2015. Fu­ri­ous 7, Juras­sic World and the fifth in­stal­ments of Ter­mi­na­tor and Mis­sion:

Im­pos­si­ble. All old fran­chises be­ing milked for ev­ery last dol­lar by the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios. It hap­pened, in ex­actly the year Part II pre­dicted.

Per­haps the cheeki­est part of the Jaws 19 gag is Jaws was made by Steven Spiel­berg, the di­rec­tor who helped re­vive Ze­meckis’s ca­reer.

In the early 80s, Ze­meckis was on shaky ground in Hol­ly­wood af­ter a few flops. Then he made Ro­manc­ing the Stone and his for­tunes turned. He asked Spiel­berg what he should do next and Spiel­berg fa­mously said, “Do you still have that script about the teenager who goes back to the 1950s and meets his own par­ents? Make that script.” (Spiel­berg is cred­ited as ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on Back to the Fu­ture. In the open­ing cred­its it even says ‘Steven Spiel­berg presents …’, which gave the movie in­stant cred­i­bil­ity as a piece of crowd-pleas­ing en­ter­tain­ment.)

Alas, the hov­er­ing cars of Part II’s de­pic­tion of 2015 haven’t even­tu­ated, so if we were be­ing picky, we could say Ze­meckis got that one wrong, but why be picky?

THE OTHER SE­QUEL: PART III

The third movie in the se­ries was not nearly as con­tro­ver­sial.

Tak­ing place mostly in the Old West of 1885, it was far more lin­ear and tra­di­tional in its nar- ra­tive than the com­pli­cated and am­bi­tious Part II. To re­turn to the com­par­i­son with Star Wars, Part II was like The Em­pire Strikes Back: darker, more com­plex and while not em­braced as warmly by the public at the time of its re­lease, it is the movie that hard­core geeks re­ally love to an­a­lyse the most. The Em­pire Strikes Back is the film that made the Star Wars se­ries truly great. Part II did the same for Back to the Fu­ture.

In­ter­est­ingly, both The Em­pire Strikes Back and Back to the Fu­ture Part II do not end; they both fin­ish with cliffhang­ers, with more story to be told.

By con­trast, Re­turn of the Jedi and Part III are more straight­for­ward, ac­tion-ori­ented, crowd-pleas­ing sto­ries that fin­ish their re­spect- ive se­ries with a flour­ish. The cli­mac­tic train chase of Part III is sim­ply awe­some.

My favourite gag of Part III is the scene in which Bu­ford Tannen (the de­light­ful an­ces­tor of Biff Tannen played by the re­mark­able Thomas F. Wil­son) asks Marty his name. Seek­ing to re­ply with a tough-guy name, Marty says evenly, “East­wood. Clint East­wood.” Bu­ford spits, “What kinda stupid name is that!?” If you watch the cred­its at the end of Part III, you will see that Clint East­wood gets a spe­cial thank you.

WHAT IS A FLUX CA­PAC­I­TOR? WHO CARES!

Of course, fans of the Back to the Fu­ture movies know what a flux ca­pac­i­tor is: it is the de­vice that makes time travel pos­si­ble. It is what turns a reg­u­lar awe­some DeLorean into a su­per-awe­some time-trav­el­ling DeLorean.

But think of the name: flux ca­pac­i­tor. It’s a weird com­bi­na­tion of two com­plex and me­chan­i­cal words not of­ten used by or­di­nary folk, yet they are yelled out to me by plum­bers and uni stu­dents and guys in Porsches.

We may not know what a flux ca­pac­i­tor is or how it could pos­si­bly work, but it has en­tered our vo­cab­u­lary. This is the tri­umph of the Back to the Fu­ture films. Thirty years af­ter the first movie ap­peared in cine­mas, the lingo of Back to the Fu­ture has be­come part of our lan­guage. It has be­come part of the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness.

THE FU­TURE IS HERE — IT’S IN THE SHOES

A few years ago, the sneaker com­pany Nike helped Fox raise money for Fox’s Parkin­son’s dis­ease char­ity by pro­duc­ing the self-lac­ing “Nike Mags” that ap­peared in the fu­tur­is­tic scenes of Part II. I bought a pair.

They are al­most as awe­some as my DeLorean. They have bat­ter­ies in­side them that light up some colour­ful LEDS on the shoe. Alas, they do not lace them­selves up — that was a bridge too far for Nike at the time.

I don’t wear them of­ten, but I have worn them at science fic­tion themed events such as Su­per­nova. (You gotta pick your au­di­ence, kids. When I walked on to the stage wear­ing my il­lu­mi­nated Back to the Fu­ture Part II Nikes, the crowd roared.) This year, Nike has promised to re­lease a pair of those same shoes that will lace them­selves up, just as they did in Part II.

WILL I GET A PAIR?

Of course. Those shoes — and those movies — of­fered a glimpse of the fu­ture that we, my friends, are liv­ing in. And hey, if noth­ing else, they’ll match my car.

Matthew Reilly is the in­ter­na­tional best­selling au­thor of 13 nov­els, in­clud­ing Ice Sta­tion, Seven An­cient Won­ders, The Tour­na­ment and The Great Zoo of China. The Back to the Fu­ture tril­ogy screens to­mor­row from 6.30pm on 7Mate. In The Aus­tralian on Wed­nes­day, to co­in­cide with Marty McFly’s visit to Oc­to­ber 21, 2015, Ash­leigh Wil­son talks to Back to the Fu­ture co-cre­ator Bob Gale and com­poser Alan Sil­vestri, whose score is be­ing per­formed in Mel­bourne by the Mel­bourne Sym­phony Or­ches­tra next month.

The DeLorean time ma­chine, main pic­ture; au­thor Matthew Reilly and his beloved ‘D’, be­low left; Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in the first Back to the Fu­ture film, in which he meets Doc Brown (Christo­pher Lloyd) and his mother (Lea Thompson), rides a hov­er­board and per­forms Johnny B. Goode

Back to the Fu­ture Part III is set in the wild west

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