Films about time travel are tricky things, and you can almost always unravel the logic with a few simple questions. Back to the Future lives up to its name during the scenes when 1955's Doctor Brown reacts to Marty's video camera as an object from the future, when modern audiences see it as incredibly outdated technology.
"No wonder your President is an actor," Brown says, referring to the news that Ronald Reagan is Commander in Chief. "He has to look good on TV!" This bit of deadpan comedy is second only to Brown's reaction to the radiation suit of his future self.
"Of course!" he says, "Because of all the fallout from the atomic wars!" Marty looks up, opens his mouth as if to say something, and thinks better of it.
This is the best Back to the Future film, and there can be no further arguments.
This is a strange movie
Watching Back to the Future in 2015, through the eyes of a father of five in his mid-30s, is a strange experience. It turns out I understood almost nothing of this film as a child, and I was shocked at how sexual and uncomfortable many parts proved to be.
Outside of the fact that Marty is forced to sit in front of a past version of his mother — in his underwear, while dealing with the fact he's kind of attracted to her, and that whole situation continues to get worse as the film goes on — the central conceit is completely bonkers and never actually addressed in the film.
The movie begins when Marty goes into Doc Brown's lab to visit and say hello, and we see what the house of a honest-to-Gygax mad scientist looks like. It includes a giant guitar amplifier that Brown apparently built for his teenaged friend, because that's what elderly men do for young boys, which promptly blows up before the two make a date to meet at one in the morning.
Marty and Doc Brown are so close that even one of Marty's teachers is aware of the relationship, and warns Marty off the elderly scientist. I mean, it's not bad advice. The guy literally stole plutonium from terrorists and is hours later gunned down in the street while showing off a time-traveling DeLorean.
Read that paragraph back to yourself and remember that this isn't a cult hit, designed to be quirky and to find a small but dedicated audience; it made $381 million worldwide from a budget of $19 million.
This odd, Oedipal film about the oddest friendship imaginable was a huge mainstream hit, one that has continued to do well on home video. It's nearly impossible to find someone who hasn't seen it, and many have seen it so many times when they were younger they lose track of just how utterly bananas the whole thing can be.
There is a romantic relationship in this film that begins with a peeping tom and ends with the foiling of an attempted rape, and in the middle it's suggested that a white man actually came up with Chuck Berry's sound, although Marty was of course trying to copy Berry himself, so it's a bit of a loop.
So what works?
The film may be strange and have some cringe-worthy sexual politics when seen with modern eyes, but there is so much to love here. The opening scene, set to "Power of Love" by Huey Lewis and the News, is absolutely perfect. Marty may not have much figured out in life, but everything goes his way when he's on his skateboard. The women working out wave to him, cars arrive just in time for him to grab on to get where he's going and the entire sequence gives us the sense that the skateboard is one of the few ways Marty can really feel free. That feeling is mirrored in a mid-film scene where he uses those skills to get away from an angry Biff and once again cause his mother to fall deeply in love, or lust, with him.
There's that weirdness again.
But still, that line, "Damn, I'm late for school!" leads into that epic synth hit just about perfectly, and the rest of the scene is blissful. At least after the camera pans down to show us the box of plutonium.
Because this movie is really, really weird.
It all leads to a stressful race against time in the final act where Doc Brown and Marty try to harness the power of a lightning strike to send Marty back to his original timeline. What neither realize is that he's already altered it, leading to one of the most unintentionally terrifying sequences in film history.
The ending also shows that even thought the relationship may seem strange to most people, Marty and Doc Brown care about each deeply. That friendship, established in the first film, fuels the rest of the movies, especially as the basic structure and story beats from this movie were repeated over and over through the two sequels. In many ways we're just treated to the same ideas from this movie twice more in different timelines as it becomes clear that there is money to be made in Zemeckis repeating himself.
Not that I'm slamming Zemeckis. The dude gave us Who Framed Roger Rabbit between the first and second Back to the Future films.
Back to the Future endures because it's an interesting thought exercise held inside a meditation of taboo sexual themes mixed with Huey Lewis and the News. If that isn't the blueprint for a surefire hit, I don't know what is.