You can’t get anything by me, Back to the Future!
Like most geeks of my generation, I’ve seen this classic time-travel movie countless times, and over the years, I’ve compiled a modest list of tiny details I’ve noticed and would like to expound upon. These minor details span a range of categories. In some cases, they’re simply powerful moments that have lingered with me, and in other cases, they’re rich details that I only recently noticed – and that I very well might be imagining. I’ll leave it to you to help me decide.
But first, a concession: By no means do I think I’m the first person to have noticed any of this stuff. I haven’t done the research online to see if anyone else has noticed these things, so if you’ve already written about something below, go easy on me, and please feel free to share your writing!
Now, before I get to the minutiae, let’s talk about where this movie fits into my consciousness as a geek. I can remember seeing it in the theaters – front row, Litchfield Cinemas, Hixson, Tenn. – and in the years since, I’ve assigned it an esteemed place in my internal pantheon of geek. Specifically, BTTF is the second chapter in what I call the Robert Zemeckis Hat-Trick – a triplex of unforgettable, perfect movies that hit me throughout the 80s and turned me into a movie geek:
1984: Romancing the Stone
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
To be sure, dozens of other movies contributed to my movie geekdom – Star Wars, Superman, the Indy movies – but I’ve always sensed an aura of import surrounding Zemeckis’ three classics, probably because the third chapter, WFRR?, tapped into my earliest dream (to be a Disney animator), and the first helped fuel my lifelong dream – to be a novelist.
But BTTF stands out (for me) because of the overwhelming reaction I had to the characters. I know I’m not alone in this – and I don’t mean to suggest I didn’t connect with the characters in the other two Hat-Trick movies – but I remember caring so much about everyone in BTTF that my stomach hurt.
• I thought Marty was the coolest guy around, and I really needed him to get back to his family (and his totally foxy girlfriend).
• And Doc Brown! He was also the coolest, and I needed him to read that letter from Marty. Looking back, BTTF has an incredibly intricate script. Screenwriters Zemeckis and Bob Gale successfully balance three storylines:
• The clock tower. Marty has to get back to the future.
• The photograph. Marty has to reunite his parents and make sure he’ll still exist.
• The letter. Marty has to warn Doc Brown of the calamity that awaits him.
And they did it all in less than two hours!
• I also cared deeply for George McFly. I dealt with a bully back in the day, and it was a fucking nightmare. The whole George subplot was tense enough from Marty’s perspective alone, but on top of that, the filmmakers weren’t afraid to dig deep when it counted. Biff may be a funny villain, but he’s also a mean drunk who beats up on the weak and abuses women, and Marty’s influence on his father underlines what remains the most powerful message I get from this movie:
That everyone – no matter who you are – can use a little help sometimes.
But I promised minutiae in this essay, and minutiae you shall get. So let’s go!
The moment when Marty countenances his own death still haunts me.
You know the moment. It’s right after the terrorists appear and gun down Doc Brown. They get the drop on Marty, who squeezes his eyes shut and takes a deep breath. The gunman’s weapon jams, and Marty lives to fight another day.
When I was a kid, this moment scared the living shit out of me. Of course, I wasn’t yet smart enough to entertain any complex thoughts about it, but I felt terrible for Marty. He looked so scared.
(Side note: I think this level of kooky empathy runs in my family. I remember asking my sister an exceptionally geeky question about The Iliad once, and in her response, she told me how much she disliked Odysseus for conjuring the Trojan Horse plan. I’m paraphrasing her answer, but she told me that it bothers her how for Odysseus, the plan was a lark, some sleight of hand that won the war but resulted in the destruction of such a beautiful city. In other news, my sister recently told her son about the origin of Superman, and apparently, the little guy got really, really sad – and I don’t blame him. Good thing Clark has so many close friends, huh?)
Poor Uncle Joey!
This bit of minutiae involves the second and third movies, of course, but it seems like no matter what universe Marty visits, Uncle Joey always winds up in the slammer.
Whoops! No matter what “universe” Marty visits? What am I talking about? Well, it’s shameless plug time! Astrophysicist J. Richard Gott’s awesome book Time Travel in Einstein’s Universe opens with a jaunty, pop-culture-fried tour through the some of the portrayals of time-travel in movies, and for each movie he mentions, he explains a different part of time-travel theory:
• For Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, he talks about self-consistency. Remember how they agree to go back and leave useful items for themselves? That’s the idea.
• For Somewhere in Time, he talks about jinns, or objects that have a circular timeline. Remember how Christopher Reeve receives a watch from an old woman, and he goes back in time to give it to her? That’s a jinn.
• For BTTF, he explains how multiverse theory could not only make time-travel possible, but it would also explain how Marty could return to a future that’s different while not remembering any of his changed childhood himself. Multiverse theory holds that all possible universes exist, and that includes an infinite number of copies of our own universe at different ages. So it isn’t that Marty travels back in time, it’s that he leaps into a parallel reality that’s 30 years younger than our own.
Also, the thesis of Gott’s book is pretty much, “Time-travel is possible, and here’s how to do it.” Read it.
Holy crap! Jimmy Olsen is Marty’s brother!
Hear me out on this one. I was well into my 20s before I noticed that Mark McClure, the original Jimmy Olsen from the Christopher Reeve Superman movies, was also Marty’s older brother. I know, I know – it sounds ridiculous. How on earth could I miss that detail? Well, let me explain:
I think it took me so long to notice McClure’s presence because he simply looks so different when compared to the lead actors in the two movies. In Superman, he appears alongside the six-foot, four-inch Reeve, while in BTTF, he appears alongside the five-foot, four-inch Fox. In the former, he looks tiny; in the latter, he looks like a giant.
The temporal experiment in the parking lot wasn’t the first experiment.
Why are all of Doc Brown’s clocks 25 minutes fast? I have an idea, but I wanted to tip my hat first. Fellow geek Matthew Mira wrote a wonderful essay about BTTF minutiae over at Chris Hardwick’s eminent blog Nerdist. I encourage you to go over and read the whole thing, but he also wondered about this detail:
I’m not even going to ask the obvious question of what a 17 year old is doing at the 70 year old scientists house at 8AM on a school-day, no that would be too easy. The first question is and must be, what kind of experiment is Doc running to see if his clocks are all running precisely 25 minutes slow? None, if you ask me. I think he was just trying to mess with Marty. I mean, great, all of your clocks are slow. Did your entire garage/apartment/lab travel 25 minutes into the future? Or did you painstakingly put each clock into the Delorean one at time? No. I’ll tell you what you did, you took every clock in your garage/apartment/lab and turned them 25 minutes back. Like a dick. You knew all along that would make 4 tardys in a row for Marty. Didn’t you!?By the way what happens after 4 tardys in a row?
I think Mira’s probably right, but I had another thought. One way or the other, Doc Brown had already tested his time machine before he invited Marty out to Twin Pine Mall that night. I base this supposition mostly on how Doc Brown insists on testing the DeLorean by driving it directly at himself and Marty. Of course, I know that the filmmakers simply wanted to create the iconic image of the flaming tire-tracks running under their feet, but let’s face it: If Doc Brown had been wrong … well, just imagine what would happen when their bodies were discovered the next morning:
“How’d these two guys get hit by a car doing 90?”
“No idea. Who was driving?”
So let’s go back to my idea that Doc Brown had already tested the machine. Here are the facts:
• At the beginning of the movie, Doc Brown has been gone for a week. When Marty asks him where he’s been, he cryptically responds, “Working.”
• The clocks are all 25 minutes slow.
Here is my insane and overly detailed hypothesis:
When Doc Brown first activated the flux capacitor, it bumped his whole lab 25 minutes into the future. That’s why he had to house the time machine in a stainless steel vehicle. Most likely, he used a high-powered centrifuge in his lab to accelerate the device to 88mph, but after the 25 minutes mishap, he decided to build it into a car. Remember, right before Einstein reappears after the experiment in the parking lot, Brown explains his choice of the DeLorean by saying, “Besides, the stainless steel construction makes the flux dispersal—”
So unless you put the flux capacitor into a stainless steel housing, it’ll create an unwieldy time-bubble. After Doc Brown learned that the hard way in his lab, he went out to the desert to test the machine by going seven days into the future. That’s why he had been AWOL for a week.
George and Lorraine were meant to be together, and the filmmakers go out of their way to show us that.
I adore the moment when George goes into the malt shop and tells Lorraine that he’s her destiny. Remember that bit? It’s the morning after the whole “Darth Vader will melt my brain” incident, and George needs advice on how to talk to women. Marty suggests he say something like, “Destiny has brought you together,” and George scribbles it down and ventures into the malt shop. Inside, he stumbles over his words – “My density has popped me to you” – but he eventually manages to tell her, “Yes. Yes. I’m George, George McFly. I’m your density. I mean … your destiny.”
And Zemeckis holds on Lorraine a moment. I believe she says, “Oh. Wow.”
Righteous. It might have been easy to write off George and Lorraine’s relationship as mere coincidence, but I like that the filmmakers suggest that fate is indeed afoot in the reality of this movie; that some kind of conservation principle is at work to inexorably bring them together.
I don’t believe in that kind of shit, but it’s a nice thought.
I hope Doc Brown’s life improved in the new timeline, too.
OK. Walk with me on this one.
Very likely, this is one of those details that everyone and their mother noticed before I did. So don’t make fun of me! But here goes: I never noticed until recently that Doc Brown moved into his garage/laboratory. If you look at his lab in 1985 and then at his garage/lab in 1955, they’re clearly the same building. In addition, you can see in 1985 that the address for Doc Brown’s home is 1646, and in 1955, his home is located at 1640 Riverside Drive.
On top of that, we see a newspaper headline that reads, “Brown Mansion Destroyed.” For most of my childhood, I thought that Doc Brown’s house had burned down, but upon closer, DVD freeze-frame inspection, the newspaper article says that Brown sold his house to local developers. That makes sense. Brown says at one point that he spent his entire family fortune, so it follows that he’d sell his house to finance his research. It also explains why his garage is surrounded by commercial development.
That said, we’re still left with the reality that Doc Brown lives in a pretty ramshackle home that looks even more modest after we see his impressive 1955 accommodations. That calls to mind the narrative that over the years, Doc Brown was forced to cram his entire life into that garage. Indeed, at the beginning of the movie, we see a bed, along with a couch and the kitchenette he’s constructed over near the Rube Goldberg that feeds Einstein.
In the Nerdist article linked above, the author wonders why Marty would drop by a 70-somehing’s home before school, and pursuant to that, I wonder why – and how – they became friends in the first place, and when I see Doc Brown’s lab, I wonder what that friendship was like.
Presumably, Brown and Marty had been friends for some time. They’re such good friends that Marty has a key to his place and occasionally likes to drop by to practice his guitar on the Doc’s killer sound-system.
For some reason, when I realized that the Doc had moved into his own garage, I got really sad. It made me think of all the weekend nights that Marty would spend at Doc Brown’s. I imagined them hanging out. Maybe Doc Brown helped Marty with his homework. Maybe Doc Brown instilled a love for science in Marty.
I also can’t imagine why the Doc would have such an insane sound system in his home, and it occurred to me: I bet it was a dang gift. A birthday present. Marty mentioned how much he liked music, so Doc Brown built him the world’s most amazing sound-system.
In any event, Doc Brown’s home reminded me of Marty’s own dingy home in the pre-DeLorean universe, and it occurred to me that we never got to see how (or if) Doc Brown’s life changed after Marty traveled back in time. To be sure, we know that Brown eventually finds his way into a delightfully steampunk existence with his family as they travel through the ages in a time-traveling locomotive, but I hope that after meeting Marty in 1955, Doc Brown’s life felt a little bit brighter as he marked the years until he would meet Marty again.