This Is Our Density: Why Back to Future Is Not a Classic Movie, by David Bax

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14 Responses

  1. Jackson H. says:

    We could get into a discussion of “What is art?” but I don’t think that would be very fruitful.

    In the past few years I think I too have mostly gotten over this movie, except when it’s on, in which case I usually watch it because it’s extremely watchable. But it doesn’t live in my head the way it once did, or in the way it still does for many others.

    However, I think you just need to suck it up at this point and let people call this movie a classic, because it pretty much is. That doesn’t mean you have to like it. That doesn’t even mean it’s a great work of art. It only means that this is a film that lives on and continues to entertain most of those who watch it today. That may seem like a shallow thing, but I think if we’re defining the word “classic” that’s one possibility.

    And remember, assigning classic status to a film is a democratic process. You may disagree with the outcome, but on some level you have to respect the process and allow it to happen however it will. There are plenty of classics I don’t like (and believe me, if I told you some of them you may shun me until the end of days). That doesn’t mean I get to strip them of that status. Maybe in another thirty years your opinion of the film will prevail and people will finally forget about it, but until that happens there isn’t much you can do other than respectfully disagree and move on.

    • Battleship Pretension says:

      I don’t feel like something that’s clearly an editorial needs to include a disclaimer that this is just my opinion. I’m not under the illusion that I’m an arbiter here.

      – David

      • Jackson H. says:

        The bone I’m picking here is more semantic than anything else. If you had titled the piece “Why Back to the Future is Not a Good Movie” or even “Why Back to the Future is Not Worthy of Classic Status” I might not have bothered. But when you say it’s not a classic movie, even though society at large regards it as such and that’s really the only criteria one needs to be a classic, then in a sense this piece is factually inaccurate.

        • Dan says:

          You can state subjective positions like they’re fact, because they’re not. It’s not possible for the statement to be “factually inaccurate”, so the thing conveyed is how much the writer believes it.

  2. Dan says:

    Starting with the obvious – all of the great works of popular art are/were also commodities. Loony Tunes, Rio Bravo, The Wizard of Oz, Jaws, Kiss Me Deadly, Sherlock Jr., Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, American Grafitti, The Maltese Falcon, Rear Window, etc. etc.

    If you mean that it is *merely* a commodity, that still isn’t enough to dismiss it from classic status, unless you’re going to say that movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, North by Northwest, and The Adventures of Robin Hood aren’t classics either.

    This piece would be a lot more worthy of its title if it wasn’t full of flimsy assertions. Zemeckis says he hired Michael J Fox because he felt like he was better at comedy than Eric Stoltz, which is very believable. If you want to know how he feels about product placement, just look at the first sequel, which he did not want to make and which is wall-to-wall product placement (the unofficial theme being “here’s a whole bunch of what you already like”, to the point where it eventually starts showing scenes from the original), and I don’t think it would be a surprise if he set the third movie 100 years in the past in part to make product placement impossible, aside from a few cute jokes. The reference humor is definitely not nearly as clever as it seemed when I was younger, but the reason people those kinds of jokes in Seltzer/Friedman movies is because that’s all there is.

    What is the point of a statement like this: “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.”

    Aside from “cultural milestone”, how many people would disagree with that assessment even when the movie came out; and you don’t even bother to be explicit about what you mean by “wonderful”, “magical” or “masterpiece”, terms that could just as easily be used to describe BTTF. Also, of course, Star Wars blasphemed itself by becoming most lucrative and exploited property in movie history.

    And movies that treat themselves as inconsequential – like Rio Bravo, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, and I would say Back to the Future – have the advantage of not being burdened by anything, which can give the artist the freedom to paint a portrait rather than live up to a promise.

    I like Back to the Future, but not as much as I admire and appreciate Robert Zemeckis. He’s burdened by a lack of serious critical assessment, because between his popular success and his Oscars it appears all the bases have been covered. Personally I agree with Dave Kehr that he’s the most underrated working American director, and a contender for the greatest. The sheer amount of contradiction and counterpoint in his work can be summed up by the ending of BTTF, when Zemeckis steps in on his perfect happy ending to remind you that the thing Marty thought he wanted in the beginning was a truck.

    I suggest this prompt: “Things Robert Zemeckis has in common with Mark Twain”.

    Ending with the less-obvious, you had already lost me at Comic-Con being “practically a renewable energy source for the city of San Diego for five days each summer”. I live in San Diego, and while it is a renewable *revenue* source, I would wager that most San Diegans don’t like Comic-Con very much. There’s a reason there’s some many BNBs available, because most people who live here would rather be somewhere else while downtown is being rented out to a bunch of dorks.

  3. Woods Hole Oceanographic says:

    David, don’t you listen to the howwid men. I love your piece. Crisp without being crispy, fresh without getting fresh. Good work. Here at the WHOI we especially await your pieces from BP. Sometimes we are weeks away and thousands of feet down in a bathyscaphe. BAX! we cry when a new slice pings on the telex. ‘No, just Smith’, if it’s the other guy, and we disconsolately turn back to our Boggle simulators. Keep it up dry man.

    • Battleship Pretension says:

      Hey! Why shit on me?

      • Woods Hole Oceanographic says:

        Ha ha, tee hee! No direct or indirect slight intended Tyler. I think you’re much better than that other guy. I just said all that to cheer him up. He’s rubbish. Also, don’t listen to anything I say. Here at the WHOI we often ascend and descend from and to great ocean depths via bathysphere and the bubbles of gas emerging in our blood can lead to babbly ramblings. Next step is the bends so I may disappear at any moment. Also, I’ve never even seen two of the films featured in your Slasher commentary but have forked out anyway (under a different name). The Alien one was great. This is not the nitrogen bubbles speaking. Oh, gotta go, there’s a gang of coelacanths off the port bow.

  4. Chris Mosher says:

    Your article brings up an interesting question, what makes a classic? I never much cared for these movies either but they do resonate with a lot of people. Despite what you and I think about any movie what makes something a classic is the love so many people have for the film.

  5. Robin says:

    Happy Back To The Future Day, David! Grumpy thinkpieces? Where we’re going we won’t need grumpy thinkpieces! I’m marathoning through all three today and will be appreciating them for the CLASSICS they are! Sorry you don’t feel the same way. :/

    • Nick S. says:

      I for one am looking forward to David’s new podcast “Someone’s Enjoying Something? I Have To Stop Them!”

  6. Dayne says:

    I was excited to read this article, but all in all it’s pretty disappointing. I feel like you have more thought than what’s here behind your opinion of the film, but perhaps got tired of writing about something you don’t enjoy, which is understandable. Personally, I think the crux of the essay, or rather, it’s potential, is around the phrase “Robert Zemeckis is rarely less than competent as a director and, frustratingly, rarely more.” I would love to hear more in that vein – what makes BTTF less rewarding than when Zemeckis is more than competent, how does it show his competency but not his art, what is similar to his less competent films and this one? I think expanding the piece to be more about Zemeckis and less about BTTF is what’s interesting and gives you some meaty context to work with.

    I also object, as others, to the notion that the movie is disposable simply because it treats itself as slight. I usually prefer my comedy with a little meat on it, in the form of even small social or genre criticisms, thematic throughlines, etc., but I don’t know that the slightness of the film is really much of a flaw. It might be a limitation, but a diversion can be enjoyable. My preference is a more robust piece, personally, but BTTF is fun, often funny, and moves nicely. An enjoyable watch, at the least.

    So it ultimately feels like what you’re bristling at is less the film and more the fandom, which is fine, but if you’re going to dip into social analysis, you have to finish up that trial and often some kind of critique beyond the film. Otherwise, it just feels like you didn’t like it quite as much as all these other people did, but don’t have a very strong position to stand on when arguing against it, other than a distinction of degrees. Personally, I feel like this topic has a lot more to offer for you in terms of film and social criticism than this piece, which eventually ends up feeling like what you hated about the film: slight.

  7. Dayne says:


  8. David says:

    I feel like Back to the Future became popular on the Internet the same way bacon did. A handful of people decided it was awesome, and the obsession spread meme-like to everyone else. However, unlike bacon, I’m willing to go along with this one for the fun of it, and am on my way to a BTTF marathon in NoHo.

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