NOV / DEC 2017: BY RACHEL SEXTON
Time travel is a well-used and familiar trope of science-fiction narratives. It is such a useful plot device that the concept of time travel has appeared in stories with no other science-fiction elements in them. Often, the characters operate under the rule that any changes to the past will have a detrimental effect on the present. One exception to this is also one of the most successful and beloved films of all time. The Back to the Future trilogy allows its protagonists to not only change but improve the past, present, and future within the story.
Released July 3, 1985, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale, Back to the Future stars Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly, a typical American teenager who is close friends with local eccentric scientist Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). One night, Doc reveals he has invented a time machine (out of a Delorean car!) and Marty finds himself sent to the past. It was the highest-grossing film of the year, so everyone expected a sequel. The filmmakers went bigger than that, filming two sequels back-to-back; they released Part 2 in 1989 and Part 3 in 1990.
In the tale that started it all, Marty ends up in 1955 with a damaged Delorean. On the way to enlist 1955 Doc to help repair the time machine, Marty encounters his parents as teens. The change that comes about because of Marty’s presence in the past is inadvertent. Through is his interactions with his future parents, Marty unintentionally directs his mother’s attention to himself! He and Doc must make sure George and Lorraine McFly end up together to ensure Marty and his brother and sister’s existence.
When Marty returns to 1985, the audience recognizes that things are now better for the McFly family. Encouraging his father to stand up for himself results in a positive alteration for both of Marty’s parents and, by extension, their children. George’s newfound confidence leads to a more satisfying career as a published author and Lorraine is no longer a drinker. Marty’s parents do more things together and his siblings have better jobs and romantic prospects. At the end of Back to the Future, Marty and his family are in a good place.
That’s not the end of the adventure, though. Part 2 has Doc take Marty forward to the year 2015. This time, there is a deliberate attempt by the pair to make a change. Doc has discovered Marty’s children end up is desperate circumstances, and he and Marty try to prevent their bad choices. They accomplish their goal but villain Biff causes another problem they have to fix. He uses a casual idea of Marty’s—betting on sporting events—to change the 1985 Doc and Marty know into a reality where he is rich and powerful. It is difficult to stop Biff, and they have to return to 1955 to do it, but they pull it off in the nick of time. By now, Doc and Marty have improved the future and the present for the second time.
Our heroes still aren’t finished. As Marty finds out in a letter Doc left for him, an unexpected lightning strike at the end of Part 2 sends Doc back to 1885, so in Part 3, Marty once again has to appeal to the 1955 Doc for help. They retrieve the time machine Doc hid and, because Doc doesn’t want Marty to come after him, prepare to send Marty home to 1985. However, when a gravestone shows that Doc dies in the past, Marty travels back in time to save his friend. Again, this is a conscious effort to effect a difference in how events will play out. Things come down to the wire as usual, but this time-travelling duo achieve what they set out to do once more. This adjustment of the past may not be a historically significant event but it has high stakes for Marty, Doc, and the viewer.
Mostly, the lead characters in stories involving time travel try not to change anything for fear of unpredictable consequences, but the three films in the Back to the Future series permit Marty McFly and Doc Brown to alter events in all timelines. The films are more exciting and entertaining for it. And even though 2015 didn’t turn out like version Marty and Doc experience (where’s my flying car?), audiences will keep coming back to Back to the Future.