Strange how scale is occasionally everything in a movie. If "Back to the Future" (citywide) had been about the size of, say, "Repo Man," it might have been one of those appealing films that begs to be adopted. It's not. It's big, cartoonish and empty, with an interesting premise that is underdeveloped and overproduced.
The team of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale has been associated with Steven Spielberg since "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in 1978. The earlier Zemeckis/Gale/Spielberg movies, like "Used Cars," were noisy but they were at least sassy and offhand, with a pleasant, bargain-basement air. But everything here is huge, even in this California small town with its movie-classic town square that, by now, should have a statue of Frank Capra in the center.
Director Zemeckis opens "Back to the Future" charmingly enough, in the vacant laboratory/living quarters of eccentric professor Dr. Brown ("Taxi's" frenetic Christopher Lloyd), who owns almost every clock but Big Ben, and is all set to start up his own elaborate wake-up devices. Brown's inventiveness and absent-mindedness cancel each other out: His invention does automatically open and dump a can of dog food, but the doctor and the dog aren't there, and the blue-bottle flies are. Enter Brown's young assistant, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox of "Family Ties"), big on brashness and energy, dangerously low on subtlety.
You might hope from this opening that we're in for another "Buckaroo Banzai," a movie crammed with so much visual and verbal invention and character detail that it almost burst. No such luck.
There aren't enough bits of lovely inventiveness to pad out the gimmick that McFly is accidentally sent back 30 years in the professor's time-warp car (another nod to "Buckaroo Banzai"), a plutonium-powered DeLorean. More about the plutonium later. McFly arrives in the middle of his parents' senior year at high school.
We have already seen them in 1985, almost immobilized by their mask-like "old age" makeup (they're 47). Mother (Lea Thompson) is a borderline alcoholic, Dad (Crispin Glover) a cringing near-idiot with a laugh like Mortimer Snerd. One uncle's in jail, and the town bully (Thomas F. Wilson) plays a tattoo on Dad's head every chance he gets.
Here in the past, Marty is in the dangerous position of altering the history he knows by heart: How Mom met Dad. To his horror--and absolutely to ours--he discovers that his mother (now without those pounds of makeup) is crazy about . . . not his future father, but him. She stalks Marty ceaselessly--in her bedroom, and wearing a strapless dress in the front seat of the car, lusting after him noisily.
If this delicate situation were a tightrope, our acrobats would be floundering dangerously, hanging on by one desperate elbow. Perhaps the French could manage this Oedi-pull with delicacy; this crew can't. It's an extended joke with a faintly rancid taste.
Marty's job seems to be heroic: His wimpy father has to be starched enough to turn Mom's attention from son to father. Marty must do something to keep the doctor's life from turning out as it did in 1985. And, fresh out of plutonium, he must connect with enough energy of some sort to get him safely back into the skateboarding '80s.
There is, unfortunately, never a second's doubt that he'll manage any of these feats. In between this action, which flails about mightily, there are a few nice moments of nostalgia for a sexually up-tight, unenlightened past. Writers Zemeckis and Gale spend a lot of time to create one elaborate episode for one nice offstage line, as Marty plays Chuck Berry's licks on "Johnny B. Goode" with a bunch of black musicians at his parents' high school dance. Trouble is, an all-black band could never have played a small-town high school dance in 1955.
There are a few deft moments of comment: The black reform mayor in 1985 was the "colored" soda jerk 30 years earlier, and may have been pushed into success by one chance remark from Marty. You want more of these insights, but the next time the film makers try, with the McFly family surprise ending, the outcome is hollow and materialistic.
Oh, the plutonium? It's part of the action involving a bunch of deadly, machine-gun-toting Libyan terrorists. Can't remember when terrorists were last funny, but it certainly hasn't been these last few years.
'BACK TO THE FUTURE' A Steven Spielberg presentation of a Robert Zemeckis film released by Universal Studios. Director Zemeckis. Producer Bob Gale, Neil Canton. Executive producers Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy. Screenplay, Zemeckis, Gale. Camera Dean Cunday. Production design Lawrence G. Paull. Editors Arthur Schmidt, Harry Keramidas. Music Alan Silvestri. Sound William B. Kaplan. Costumes Deborah L. Scott. Art director Todd Hallowell. Set designers Joseph E. Hubbard, Marjorie Stone McShirley, Cameron Birnie. Special effects Steve Suits, Kimberley Pike, Sam Adams, Richard Chronister, William Klinger. Visual effects Industrial Light & Magic. With Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Crispin Glover, Lea Thompson, Claudia Wells, Thomas F. Wilson, James Tolkin.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG (parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children).