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