Things Are Heavy On November 21, 2015
November 21, 2015. We’re a month out from “Back to the Future Day”, that occasion that inspired so many revival screenings, facebook memes, and human interest articles. In the first sequel to the 1985 crowdpleasing film, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and the eccentric inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) travel to the far-flung year of 2015, giving the characters a chance to witness the shining if also plasticine future of their home town of Hill Valley, California. A good time was had by all.
Today, a month from the actual October 21, 2015, on which much hollow ado was made of the fact that we still don’t have hoverboards, but the Cubs winning the World Series was in fact in the realm of possiblity, it’s probably safe to say that we’re culturally done with celebrating Back to the Future for the time being. If nothing else, the newly released, lackluster and frustratingly shapeless documentary about the series, Back in Time, put the final nail into the moment. But if we travel back just one month, is there any more to take away from this momentary nostalgia?
In only one month, the world has already taken a turn for the heavier. Back to the Future II, by design, I’m sure, had nothing to say about the geo-political state of 2015, or the looming presidential election that awaits the U.S. Being a hotly-anticipated major-studio big budget endeavor, such prediction wasn’t expected nor arguably even appropriate. What Back to the Future II‘s 2015 did begin to show us was how Marty McFly, as a character, was prone to parlay his cocky self-assuredness into weakness.
Being a child of the 1980s, Marty, like the very image of Michael J. Fox himself, is a time-capsule portrait of the ideal American teen male of the era: Funny but cool, soft but not weak, sexually active but not overtly libidious. It is Marty’s self-imposed confidence, no doubt a conscious course-correction to avoid becoming his weak and bullied father, that ultimately enables and inspires his father-to-be, young George McFly (Crispin Glover) to stand up for himself, thereby winning a brighter future for himself and his family to come.
While 1985’s Back to the Future embraced and celebrated Marty’s qualities as virtuous, both sequels, released within six months of one another, in late 1989 and summer 1990, have enough hindsight to be willing to deconstruct these characteristics. The sequels, in their own perhaps hamfisted way, present the fact that Marty can carry his aversion to bullys too far, in that he has a snap Pavlovian response to being called “chicken”. Whatever the version his father’s one-time tormentor Biff Tannen, be it the future psychopath Griff or the Old West Buford “Mad Dog” (all played by Thomas F. Wilson), all these scowling thugs need do is utter the word “chicken”, and Marty is triggered into impulsive action. It’s all a lot of fun, even as the point is ultimately Marty’s personal over-compensation, his flaw that must be overcome.
In the end, as Marty is able to resist the temptation of a street race challenge that we’re told (via a bit of overtly glaring expository kitchen chatter) in the 2015 sequence would end in a terrible wreck that costs Marty his own bright future.
The series, besides being about thrills, comedy, and tantalizingly brain-bending time travel scenarios, also has something significant to say about balance.
Yes, it’s good that Marty was able to inspire George to stand up for himself. But on the other hand, Marty’s same cool, self-assured qualities that enable the first film to end so well are the ultimate threat that must be overcome by the end of Part III. It also telegraphs a broader transistioning of attitute, what it means to be “cool” between the 1980s and the 1990s, and beyond. Filmmakers Robert Zemekis and Bob Gale may’ve gotten hoverboards wrong, but they had the foresight that mattered in this department.
In today’s 2015, as extremes are more the order of the day than ever before, we are faced with exhaustingly ridiculous polarities in terms of left or right wing presidential options, and made to contemplate the considerable implications of U.S. border-closing rhetoric in the name of national security in the face of a tremendous refugee crisis. But, perhaps our month-ago burst of BTTFnostaligia can be of more benefit than just amusing distraction. Perhaps there’s more to Marty McFly’s balance than the ability to stay on a hoverboard: Do not be bullied by oppressors, but know that there’s a real cost in being ruled by bravado. Such perspective is difficult and challenging on any level, be it personal, national, or global. And unlike Back to the Future, we of course lack the benefit of time travel in knowing what precisely lies ahead, and in correcting any momumentally wrong decisions we may make.
Not to be simplisitic, but simply to inspire thought of our own time-space continum, I’ll echo the final dialogue of Doc Brown: Our future is whatever we make it. (At least to some degree.) So make it a good one.