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'Back to the Future' revisited: The Michael J. Fox classic still seems smart and fresh

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Universal

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Universal Pictures' 1985 "Back to the Future" Credit: Universal Home Entertainment

Smack in the middle of the bright and shiny 1980s, Universal Pictures released “Back to the Future,” the story of a supercool teenager transported to the ultra-square 1950s. Released July 3, 1985, it was a movie for its moment, featuring a cocky-cute Michael J. Fox (then of TV’s “Family Ties”), a horns ‘n’ synths theme song by Huey Lewis & the News (“The Power of Love”) and, of course, a time-traveling DeLorean. Created by some of the decade’s hottest talents — director Robert Zemeckis and producer Steven Spielberg, plus special effects by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic — “Back to the Future” seemed predestined to become a $389 million hit.

Fast-forward 35 years: Aside from Fox’s denim tuxedo, “Back to the Future” has aged barely at all. Kids today won’t get every reference (who’s Eddie Van Halen?) and they may be quick to notice blind spots on race and gender. But the film’s universal appeal — a clever mix of summery teen comedy, science fiction and hormonally charged fantasy — remains undiminished. (The two sequels aren’t bad, either.)

Even today, it’s hard to separate the stars from their iconic roles. Fox, who replaced a miscast Eric Stoltz, seems born to play Marty McFly, a confident kid with a snazzy skateboard and a knockout girlfriend (Claudia Wells). An endearing Lea Thompson and the indelibly strange Crispin Glover play both the older and younger versions of Marty’s parents, Lorraine and George. Thomas F. Wilson is terrific as the school bully Biff (he nearly out-villains Bill Paxton in “Weird Science”), but it’s Christopher Lloyd, as the mad scientist Emmett “Doc” Brown, who really hits the heights with his Looney Tunes-style performance. (No wonder Zemeckis recast Lloyd in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” a 1988 hybrid of live action and cartoon. Lloyd is both!)

Made before the dawn of CGI, “Back to the Future” feels rich with tactile detail, from the checkerboard linoleum of Lou’s Diner to the town’s quaint clock-tower, where Lloyd will dangle perilously like his cinematic ancestor, the silent star Harold Lloyd. Most delightful, though, is that souped-up DeLorean. Today's filmmakers tend to concoct sleek vehicles that exist only inside a computer's memory bank, but Doc’s stainless-steel marvel — tricked out with LED lights, a telephone keypad and oodles of cables — is 100% real. (You can see it, at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.)

With its largely Caucasian cast, “Back to the Future” can feel a little exclusionary. One minor black character, a busboy named Goldie (Donald Fullilove), will become the town’s mayor — a nod, at least, to notions of race and progress. The movie indulges in a bit of white saviorism when Marty straps on a guitar and plays “Johnny B. Goode” for his pre-rock classmates — thereby inspiring Chuck Berry to write it! (Berry's cousin, the leader of the band playing at the high school dance,tips off Chuck about the "new sound" he's been searching for.) Not the most respectful treatment of a black musical pioneer, perhaps. Still, that concert scene is one of the movie’s most ebullient moments, and it’s framed as absurdity, not revisionist history.

The real elephant in the room is the movie’s frankly Oedipal plot, in which Marty realizes that his pretty young mother is sexually attracted to him. (Danger! Not only is this taboo, but Marty will cease to exist if mom doesn’t fall for dad.) Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale have great fun with this boyish fantasy, playing the weirdness for laughs and pushing it to the limit, only to pull back and reassure us that all will be right with the world.

Tributes to “Back to the Future” still pop up everywhere: the English boy-band McFly, the sci-fi novel “Ready Player One,” the animated series “Rick and Morty” (clearly inspired by Doc and Marty). Zemeckis even borrowed from his own movie in “Welcome to Marwen” (2018), which featured an awfully familiar-looking time-machine. “Back to the Future” still feels smart and fresh, with little that cries out for an update. Thirty-five years from now, today’s movies will be lucky to hold up so well.

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