‘Back to the Future’ turns 30: Time sure does McFly
If you were to hop into your DeLorean time machine today, get the flux capacitor “fluxing,” and drive 30 years back, you’d be in the midst of — Great Scott! — a summer blockbuster that would change the way we look at time travel and movies.
Those were the days when 88 miles per hour drove an unassuming teenager into the past, when “gigawatt” was pronounced “jigawatt,” and a timeless movie — about time — rocked the box office.
“There’s no way we could have predicted the success,” said writer and producer Bob Gale, who created the movie with director Robert Zemeckis. “We were just hoping it would make more than a penny.”
Neither could Gale have predicted how busy he would be in 2015; he’s shelved his current projects — including writing a musical production of “Back the the Future” — to spend the year attending celebrations for the film’s 30th anniversary.
Gale conceived “Back to the Future” while visiting his parents’ house in 1980. He was thumbing through his dad’s high school yearbook and learned his father was the senior class president.
“That had me thinking about the guy who was president of my senior class,” Gale said. “And then I wondered, ‘Gee, what was my dad like in high school? Would I have been friends with him?’ Who hasn’t wondered what their parents were like in high school? … No one had ever made a movie like that before.”
Gale took those questions back to Zemeckis, and they had their premise.
With two sequels, several video games, and continuous sellout showings 30 years later, it’s hard to believe “Back to the Future” was rejected 40 times before being made.
“No one wanted to touch it,” says Gale. Most movie studios thought the movie was too light and suggested the team take it to Disney. But Disney thought it was “too incestuous,” Gale said, with the plot device of a mother falling in love with her time-traveling son.
“We couldn’t get the thing made to save our lives,” he said.
Then, in 1984, Zemeckis landed his first big box-office success with “Romancing the Stone,” giving him enough clout to make any movie he wanted; “Back to the Future’s” timing was finally right. The film hit theaters July 3, 1985, and topped the box office for 11 weekends.
It was an instant classic.
After Ronald Reagan quoted the film in speeches, one of his writers told Gale that when the president first watched it in the White House movie theater, he couldn’t stop laughing when 1955 Doc Brown, played by a delightfully theatrical Christopher Lloyd, is shocked to hear that Reagan is president in 1985.
“The actor?” Doc exclaims. “Who’s the vice president? Jerry Lewis?”
Reagan laughed so hard that he asked the projectionist to stop the movie, back it up, and run it again.
In the 30 years since, “Back to the Future” continues earning lifelong megafans, including Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, who used the movie’s theme music to open every show during the band’s 2012 world tour; director Seth MacFarlane (“Ted”), who owns a replica DeLorean time machine; musician John Mayer, who began taking guitar lessons as a child after seeing Michael J. Fox’s on-screen performance of “Johnny B. Goode”; and filmmaker Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), who says the film has served as his movie-making reference.
“‘Back to the Future’ is a smart, funny and unpretentious film,” Gondry said, adding that the movie is “grounded in a tangible reality, in the present time, and from there, the magic happens, something extraordinary happens.”
There’s a lot that sets this fate-interrupting journey of a 1980s teenager and a wiryhaired scientist apart, including tight writing, spot-on casting, clever planning and laugh-out-loud humor, but what “Back to the Future” tackles best is its use of the time paradox — the probability of interference with one’s own fate through time travel.
Marty McFly — a sort of brash and lovable everykid played by a bouncy 24-year-old Michael J. Fox — accidentally transports himself 30 years into the past, to 1955, when his parents were in high school. Marty’s interference with his parents’ love story intervenes with the chances of his own birth, pushing him to do anything to get back “home” to 1985. Armed with a fading family photograph, Marty helps his wimpy father become brave, turns the town bully Biff into a laughingstock, saves Doc Brown from an imminent death in 1985, and along the way invents the skateboard and rock ‘n’ roll.
The trilogy’s smart take on time travel paved the way for Joseph Gordon-Levitt to hunt his older self (played by Bruce Willis) in “Looper,” for Will Smith to prevent an alien invasion in “Men in Black 3,” and for a pair of engineers to manipulate each other’s fates in “Primer.”
Still, fans are eager to turn back the clock and revisit the 1985 classic. Anniversary celebrations are gearing up across the country as the clock ticks down to Oct. 21, 2015, 4:29 p.m — the date and time Doc, Marty and Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer (Elisabeth Shue) arrive in “Back to the Future Part II,” welcomed by flying cars, hoverboards and “Jaws 19" in Holomax movie theaters.
The film’s version of 2015 certainly doesn’t look like 2015 today — which is exactly what the creators intended.
“We knew we were going to get it wrong because everyone is wrong when they predict the future,” Gale said. “So we thought, ‘Let’s make it funny.’”
Thirty years later, audiences are still enjoying the ride.
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.