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.
We don’t always think of Back to the Future as a classic of Cold War cinema. It doesn’t even seem immediately like science fiction: its cheerful, nostalgic romance hides the technological and the political behind a veneer of the everyday. But in its journey back to 1950s Cold War culture, the first film explores Reagan-era anxieties precisely by showing how the technological and the everyday combine. In Cold War America, nuclear apocalypse seemed both absurd and commonplace: in the American imagination, recollections of 1950s domesticity easily warp into images of the chilling model houses at nuclear test sites. Back to the Future’s 1955 setting may not showcase fallout shelters, gas masks, or Russians, but efforts to protect the home drive the science fiction storyline. In fact, Back to the Future is best read — through the romance, as well as through its technology — as a nuclear apocalypse story.
1985, like 1955, had its share of Cold War anxieties. Reagan had recently unveiled his space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed “Star Wars” by a dubious public who wondered about the feasibility of blasting foreign nuclear weapons out of the sky with laser technology that had yet to be invented. Nuclear tensions were high when the film debuted, particularly around the “unholy trinity” of Cuba, the USSR, and Libya—the homeland of the terrorists from whom Doc acquires plutonium.
Back to the Future’s nuclear storyline takes off in a parking lot at the Twin Pines Mall, where Doc reenacts the Space Race by testing his time machine on his dog, Einstein. The experiment mirrors the Soviet launchings of dogs into space, most famously the mutt Laika aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957, a feat that incited anti-communism in America. Einstein the dog, happily, survives the flight test; Laika’s remains burned up in the atmosphere five months after she died from overheating and stress. (Marty mistakenly accuses Doc, “You disintegrated Einstein!”—recalling both the fate of the cosmonaut dog and Einstein’s conclusion that time travel is impossible.) Doc’s successful test is a triumph not only of Doc but also of the Reaganite individualist fantasy: one man making history defeats Soviet collectivism.
But Doc has no time to revel in his all-American achievement because Libyan nationalists infiltrate the mall and assassinate him. (He’d promised to make them a bomb, but traded the plutonium for pinball machine parts.) The Libyan invasion previews and triggers the film’s dominant espionage plot: Marty’s invasion of 1955. As the Libyan terrorists track a rocket launcher on Marty, he jumps in the car and tries to outrun them—hitting 88 mph and crashing into the past.
Once there, Marty is viewed with suspicion and sometimes fear: he is twice mistaken for an extraterrestrial while actually being an obnoxious teenager. Case in point: he promptly crashes Doc’s car into Old Man Peabody’s barn. The Peabody family mistakes the DeLorean for a UFO, and Marty’s radiation gear for a space suit. Clutching a comic book featuring “space aliens from Pluto,” the son shouts, “It’s already mutated into human form! Shoot it!” The father, livid at having his property and planet invaded, complies. (The original title for Back to the Future—Spaceman from Pluto—highlights the importance of this brief scene.)
Marty is again taken for an extraterrestrial when he creeps into his sleeping father’s teenage bedroom. After inadvertently disrupting his parents’ chance meeting, Marty must play matchmaker—only to find his dad too geeky and shy to pursue the woman he loves. So Marty capitalizes on his dad’s obsession with alien visitors, disguising himself as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan” and threatening to melt George’s brain unless he asks Lorraine to the dance.
Both scenes spoof the 1950s alien invasion teen flick—the teenager recast as an invading alien. 1959’s Teenagers from Outer Space epitomized the genre, but the threat of the teenager figured in many 50s films; in 1958’s The Blob, teenagers must save their town by convincing the authorities that the creeping “blob” entity (read: communist threat) is a real alien force and not one of their own pranks. (Marty, similarly, must fight to save his family by convincing Doc that his time travel story is not a practical joke.) Lest we miss the teenager-as-invading-alien trope, Marty blasts Van Halen to wake up his father, with George perceiving the heavy metal as “brain melting” extraterrestrial noise.
In an unusual genre twist, Marty’s invasive adolescent behavior repairs rather than destroys his home life, bringing about a nostalgic return to 1950s domestic life. Marty’s original 1985 home life is dysfunctional, overseen by a spineless dad and vodka-guzzling mom who are unsuccessfully raising teenagers. (In contrast, the 1955 home curbs rebellious teenage behavior: when Lorraine comes on to Marty in her bedroom, Marty’s grandmother polices the encounter through her casually conventional femininity — by announcing family dinnertime — thereby temporarily averting a family apocalypse.) The plot corrects this “nuclear” disaster, ensuring not only the continuation but also the improvement of Marty’s family. After successfully reuniting his parents, Marty returns to 1985 to a burger-flipping brother turned office worker, a formerly frumpy sister now with a lively love life, and much cooler parents who have bought him the 4×4 pick-up truck of his dreams.
Meanwhile, George (who has morphed from nerd to acclaimed science fiction author) welcomes his latest novel in the mail. A Match Made in Space, with its cover depicting a humanoid clad in a radiation suit flanked by two young lovers, represents the culmination of Marty’s efforts: he has advanced the economic and social status of his nuclear family in a Reaganite progress narrative that reaches from the home to the cosmos.
I can’t help but find this ending perversely charming, for the same reason that 1985 audiences laughed at the 1955 Doc’s naïve assumption that the future has been decimated by atomic wars. Unlike Marty, I was a teenager during the War on Terror rather than the Cold War. The film’s alien invasion and nuclear apocalypse storylines seem less like Cold War solutions than premonitions of post-9/11 homeland security measures. It’s both gratifying and ominous that Back to the Future ages so well.
Maggie Greaves: Missing Pluto since 2006
Thanks for helping us think about what hides behind the lines and the plot of a popular movie. Great Scott, what a nice review. Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd should weigh in on this, but no doubt they would be flattered.