Back to the Future premiered on Fourth of July weekend thirty years ago. The essays in this Avidly collection, guest edited by Wendy Lee and Stephen Vider, revisit the movie and its two sequels to reconsider their deeper workings and lasting appeal. Read their introduction.
By the time we see the first digital clock in Back to the Future, we’ve already seen dozens of analog ones: the broken clocktower on the Hill Valley Courthouse, Marty’s alarm, and the seemingly endless display of timepieces and watch-powered Rube Goldberg devices that play over the opening credits.
The first digital clock, the sign at the Twin Pines Mall, changes from 1:15 to 1:16AM just as Marty arrives, cluing us to the fact that Marty is almost punctual, that getting somewhere at the precise moment is the movie’s action and drama. But by the time we see the sign at the Twin Pines Mall, we’ve also seen enough analog clocks that we’re primed to see the next digital clock as strange and wondrous: the DeLorean’s time circuits. Which is only right. At its core, Back to the Future is a movie about our fascination with technological progress — and our feeling that we already live in the future.
Back to the Future was the moment Hollywood decided that understanding the science and technology was one of the joys of the time travel genre. In The Time Machine, George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of the H.G. Wells’ classic, time travel is a literal mystery box. An ornate box shields a working, scale model. The inventor explains the concept of time travel and the nuances of the fourth dimension, but we have no idea how the time machine works beyond its controller—a lever. Push forward to send it into the future, back to send it into the past. In The Terminator, released a year before, time travel just happens. Back to the Future’s technical explanation of time travel was part of its celebration of pulp science fiction: allusions to old comics, UFO’s and Doc Brown, the epitome of the mad scientist. But the movie made time travel explanations mainstream. There is more discussion of how the “slingshot effect” works in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, released the year after Back to the Future than in any of the original series’ time travel episodes.
It’s only on repeat viewing that we realize how much the action of Back to the Future turns on the technical logistics of time travel. Doc Brown jokes that he chose a DeLorean for its flash— “The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car why not do it with some style”—before starting to add that the stainless steel construction facilitates the flux dispersal. In 1955, Doc’s central conundrum is where they will get the requisite 1.21 gigawatts of electricity needed to initiate the time circuits.
The answer itself is a kind of meta-joke: a bolt of lightning, a cartoon symbol for inspiration. Yet it leads to another technical problem: Doc has to choreograph the DeLorean’s ride through the tight Courthouse square based on the acceleration and distance needed to reach 88 miles per hour—a feat made trickier still when a fallen tree branch pulls the power cords minutes before Marty departs.
In the film’s final sequence—when Doc Brown arrives back from the future—the excitement is, in turn, the thrill of the upgrade. Now that the DeLorean has cold fusion, they no longer need plutonium. Now that the DeLorean can fly, they no longer need roads. The Flux Capacitor is itself a kind of mystery box, but it’s one that we experience on a daily basis. The Flux Capacitor is like the processors that power our computers and phones: we understand that they do so, though few of us understand how.
But the technology of time travel also serves to make us aware of how magical and futuristic our own world is. Marty uses a walkman to torture George McFly, and Doc Brown is amazed by Marty’s JVC camcorder: “This is truly amazing. A portable television studio! No wonder your president has got to be an actor.”
Indeed, nowhere was that sense of limitless possibility truer than filmmaking. The scene at the Twin Pines Mall, the scene that began with the film’s first digital clock, is an unrestrained, and self-referential, celebration of the joys of modern moviemaking. Marty films the DeLorean’s journey through time with his camcorder. He’s there to document the fact that time travel is now technologically possible. But the scene really documents what’s now cinematically possible. It melds green screens with miniatures, forced perspective, pyro effects, full-size DeLoreans, guns — everything all at once. It captures the creative madhouse of ILM in its early years. There’s even a joke about effects work later in the movie when Doc Brown apologizes for not having had the time to build his model of Hill Valley to scale.
Back to the Future’s eagerness to jump into discussions of science and technology may also be a product of its time. The Apple Macintosh was released in 1984. The Macintosh was not the first personal computer, but it was one of the most accessible—more affordable, easier-to-use, with one of the first graphic interfaces. The first Macintosh even included a piece of cutting-edge technology that writers would come to love and despise: the word processor.
Computers, however, are nowhere to be found in Back to the Future. The DeLorean’s controller is a simple telephone keypad. Perhaps it’s because computers were still mostly used for work (see 1986’s The Boy Who Could Fly) and a computer would have taken away from the movie’s escapism; perhaps it’s because many people were still paranoid of about what computers could do—see 1983’s “War Games”. Or perhaps it’s because, of the fact that, no matter how magical and futuristic our world was, we still didn’t fully understand in which direction we were headed. Back to the Future II still imagines flying cars, not super-powered, hand-sized computers. The only personal computer in the film—an original Macintosh—is relegated to the antiques shop alongside a Dustbuster. With it’s1955 sci-fi wonder revived in 1985, Back to the Future Part I was the pinnacle of our analog vision of the future.
Eitan Kensky: Sometime book reviewer for a beer website.