2 October 2010

BACK TO THE FUTURE (Dir. Robert Zemeckis, 1985, US, 25th Anniversary Re-release) - Imagining Suburbia

Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown & Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly

To mark the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, the film opened in cinemas on Friday in a new digital print for a limited release. Making a welcomed return to the big screen, this Spielbergian offspring directed by Robert Zemeckis, has certainly lost none of its infantile charm since it’s debut in 1985. Along with The Goonies, E.T., Gremlins, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many other films that were directly nurtured by Spielberg’s illustrious Amblin Entertainment mini studio in the eighties, they came to collectively colonise the very conscious of youth imagination. It is hard to believe that many of these films including Back to the Future were at one time considered blockbusters yet unlike the cynicism of high concept cinema today, the Spielberg produced films of the eighties not only reconstituted the notion of juvenile entertainment by ensuring the very soul of a script remained intact but also remained committed to offering infinite genre pleasures. Though one could criticise Spielberg and Zemeckis for milking the first film by expanding the concept of time travel via a Delorean into a highly successful trilogy and franchise, Back to the Future’s status as one of the best loved films of the eighties perhaps underlines the difficulty of marrying narrative demands with spectacle and not making it look contrived or laboured in anyway. It is still Zemeckis’s best film to date and its position as one of the key films of American mainstream cinema in the eighties has lately been acknowledged by film academia with the recent publication of a book by the BFI that approaches the film via a series of critical perspectives.

Steven Spielberg's production company Amblin Entertainment was founded in 1981.

Like many of the best American films and the ones which seemed to have cast a spell over audiences, it is the integrity and intelligence of the screenplay that has been the overwhelming factor in determining longevity. Like many of Spielberg’s best films, the narrative storytelling and plot development are characterised by a high level of ingenuity and events established in the first act of Back to the Future are done so with an economy that reiterates the efficiency of classical Hollywood narrative. Contextually, the film’s satirical and at times dark edged ideological examination of American suburbia not only echoes the nightmarish disturbances of David Lynch but similarly like E.T., The Goonies and Gremlins, the middle class politics of suburbia are shown to come under attack for the failings of adults/parents. It is largely the children of suburbia upon whom it falls to reconstitute and resolve such tensions, restoring a semblance of normality at the end by usually surrendering a degree of their innocence. In many ways, by going back in time to 1955, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is shown to not only alter the relationship between his parents but more importantly his intervention bringing forth the ‘Florence Nightingale’ effect brings about a wider ideological change so that his parents conservative Reaganite attitudes are exchanged for a utopian liberalism and a projection of Marty’s own youthful fantasies.

In terms of genre accents, the eccentricities of Christopher Lloyd as madcap scientist Doc Brown is a familiar science fiction archetype yet whilst the teen figure of Marty McFly may at first recall Jimmy Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, his awkwardness brings him closer to the film nerds that gave birth to him including both Spielberg and Zemeckis. In the landscapes of eighties American suburbia conjured up in films such as The Goonies, E.T. and Gremlins, Back to the Future also presents us with a similarly dystopian vision in which Marty McFly, a symbol of middle American youth, is faced with the prospect of remaining imprisoned in the conservatism of suburbia. Marty’s desire to escape from suburbia not only results in the potential destruction of the family but articulates a veiled censure of the effects of suburbanisation on the psyche of the American teenager. Whilst many of the representations of male teenagers in the films of Spielberg are often shown in relationships, the absence of parents engenders a loneliness that is masked by an external connection with a realm of fantasy, imagination and genuine strangeness as is the case with Marty who sees Doc Brown as somewhat of a surrogate father figure and close friend. In The Goonies, it is the imaginary existence of One Eyed Willy whilst in E.T. the lovable alien literally becomes a part of Elliott’s life. In this sense, Back to the Future uses elements of horror, fantasy, science fiction and the high school film interchangeably to create a film fraught with endless suburban anxieties, many of which are played out in the cold war era of 1955. A high level of intertextual cinephilia and audience pleasure operates in Back to the Future that comes out of the films and directors which influenced Zemeckis ranging from George Lucas and Star Wars, 1950s Science Fiction films, the work of Spielberg and Frank Capra. However, what really makes Back To The Future stand out as an example of exemplary popular American cinema is its genuine love of imagination and the audience’s willingness to suspend disbelief. It has been a while since an audience applauded at the end of the film and it was reassuring to know that some movies can still have an impact on the emotional response of today's movie going audience.


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