This Is Our Density: Why Back to Future Is Not a Classic Movie, by David Bax
Back before I had a podcast and a website all about movies, I wasn’t really aware of movie geek culture. I had heard of Ain’t It Cool and visited the site maybe twice but most of the genre-focused “nerd”-centric fare was off my radar. I thought of myself as more of a snob than a geek. To some extent, I still do. But learning more about and becoming closer to this kind of fandom has been an incredibly rewarding and edifying experience. Geek devotion, the kind that is practically a renewable energy source for the city of San Diego for five days each summer, is a wonderful thing that can help shine a much-deserved light on worthy films and, more importantly, can generate a community for like-minded weirdoes, exactly the sort of thing that oddball, lonely me could have used back in my pre-internet childhood. There’s one major thing about the movie geek realm, though, that baffled me back when I first dipped my toes in and continues to baffle me now. Why in the world can we all not get over Back to the Future?
Other properties, like Star Wars, may inspire an obsessiveness that is easy to mock. But, at the bottom of everything, Star Wars is a wonderful, magical masterpiece of a movie. It’s a cultural milestone, an epoch. In fact, using the word “property” to categorize it feels blasphemous. It’s a word for use by greedy, myopic bean counters being applied to something that has become as purely essential to our culture as folk music or stories passed down via oral tradition. On the other hand, Back to the Future (which everyone will be watching tomorrow because of an inclusion of that date in the movie) may be among the most fitting recipients of the “property” label. It’s a competently made crowd-pleaser, to be sure; Robert Zemeckis is rarely less than competent as a director and, frustratingly, rarely more. But the film feels designed not to stick to anything but your most superficial pleasure centers. It’s a disposable cardboard cut-out of a movie that we, for some reason, refuse to actually dispose of.
It’s not that Back to the Future is bad. It’s a rollicking adventure tale with a stirring score, a pitch-perfect turn from Christopher Lloyd and a mastery of pace and editing. It even has a kernel of emotional honesty when it taps into the feeling of realizing your parents were once people too. The soulful, comparatively down-to-earth performances of Lea Thompson and Crispin Glover are key to this theme. Unfortunately, Zemeckis shows almost no interest in that thread, choosing instead to go all in on the breathless mugging of Michael J. Fox.
Fox was the breakout star of sitcom Family Ties and it certainly made good financial sense to place him in the lead role here. Indeed, most of Back to the Future seems to have been made with an eye toward good financial sense. Of course, that’s true of most movies to some extent. But most movies that have achieved this kind of status aren’t so baldly commercial. It’s not just the product placement for Pepsi (and others). It’s the way the movie treats itself as inconsequential that bothers me, as if it’s made of paper. Mostly, it’s the cheap jokes. “It’s your cousin, MARVIN BERRY!” is embarrassing and “You built a time machine… out of a DELOREAN?!” still sets my teeth on edge. Fox’s supremely hammy delivery of the latter doesn’t help. That kind of recognition humor is the same stuff we decry in the lazy Movie spoofs of Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg (Date Movie, Epic Movie). Of course, those were never built to last and neither was Back to the Future. It’s not a work of art. It’s a commodity.