Wednesday, October 27, 2010

This is heavy! Five random things I noticed while watching "Back to the Future" on Monday

If you haven't heard or read already "Back to the Future" just turned 25 recently and in addition to the new press, internet buzz, awkward cast reunions, and blu ray releases, the first film was brought back into select theaters nationwide for a brief two night engagement (last Saturday and Monday). Fortunately I found out about the limited run in time to catch the Monday night showing. While I had seen the "Back to the Future" trilogy (particularly the first and second one), far and away, more than any other movies in my life (I'm talking by a huge margin like Gretzky to Messier on the all-time points list), I never got to see it in an actual theater. Considering how the first movie is so deeply ingrained in my mind that I could probably do a one man scene for scene monologue of the entire film ("We enter to the ticking cacophony of the myriad of clocks in Doc Brown's cluttered home...") I really didn't expect any surprises from watching the big screen print of the film aside from the enhanced audio and visual experience (that old person makeup for Marty's parents, Biff, and Doc in 1985 did look a lot less convincing in high def). However, as is the case with all truly great and timeless works of art repeat viewings still manage to reveal new unseen subtitles and nuances.

I want to preface that my following observations have less to do with the endless number of complex and hypothetical issues and consequences regarding time travel that always arise from watching the film. As anyone who has enjoyed the films will agree, those complicated questions of why didn't this happen to Marty or what Doc could have done or how the time line really should have changed are a given (and part of the enduring nature of the trilogy). The following are more plot and character touches that I never considered in prior watchings (with maybe a few space time continuum issue sprinkled in there):

Doc Brown is a disturbing, dangerous way
Watching the film as a kid, Doc Brown was hands down my favorite character, and really what kid wouldn't find him to be the coolest character? He's charismatic, lovably manic, entertainingly hyperbolic, has a Bill Nye-esque way of explaining situations with ease and amusement, and after all it's his creation of the time machine that sets all the events of the movie into motion. He's the classic friendly mad scientist. However, looking at his actions throughout the film I noticed he also carries the all too common mad scientist trait of extreme recklessness and utter lack of scientific ethics. Without even getting into his questionable actions in the sequels (excessive time altering, knocking people out with his date rape gun thing, train hijacking) over the course of the original film he:
  • Conspires with deadly Libyan terrorists in obtaining illegal stolen plutonium. Even before the post 9-11 era this is a monstrously unethical act. It's bad enough that the Doc is illegally possessing stolen plutonium, the fact that he negotiated with a terrorist group (even in bad faith) probably qualifies him for the highest level of treason.
  • Initially tests his time machine on his pet dog. Call it hubris or recklessness, but the Doc seems totally caviler with possibly vaporizing his loyal dog in dangerous new plutonium powered time machine. It's not like it's strongly implied that he has ever made an invention that worked up to this point.
  • Unnecessarily risks his and Marty's life. Once Doc puts Einstein in the Delorean he sets the car via remote to come barreling directly towards them with the assumption that the car will disappear into the future and not crush both him and Marty. Couldn't they just observe the experiment safely from the side? Once again, hubris or recklessness?
  • Total lack of lab safety training. Aside from the above noted examples of careless behavior, Doc does not even maintain a safe laboratory environment. In 1955, while he is showing his plan via models to get Marty back to 1985, he causes his model toy car to burst into flames and go straight into a highly dangerous piles of oily rags and flammable chemicals. Luckily he manages to get the flames out in time, but as we learn by 1985 he eventually ends up burning his entire house down sometime in the next three decades. At least he wears goggles?
  • Proves himself to be a total hypocrite. Doc gives Marty plenty of shit for trying to telling him one crucial piece of news about him in the future and lecturing him about the horrible dangers of messing with the time space continuum, yet he's the one who still irresponsibly builds a time machine so he can learn everything about the future. If Doc really cared about the ethical dangers of time travel he would have immediately stopped himself from devoting the next 30 years of his life to making a time machine! He sort of starts to get the idea that time traveling maybe irresponsible and prohibitively risky in the sequels but obviously abandons it at the end when he makes another time machine out of a locomotive to replace the Delorean.
Gee Mr. Strickland, that was kind of uncalled for.
Mr. Strickland is a fairly one note, single purpose character. He's a dick authority figure that pisses on the dreams of current day Marty and sort of shows the lousiness of his current situation. It's also amusing to see that he has remained unchanged since his father attended high school in 1955. When he catches Marty being late for school again at the beginning of the film he basically reads him the standard riot act. He issues Marty a tardy slip. Reasonable. Advises Marty to quit hanging around that dangerous lunatic Doc Brown. More and reasonable given the above points. Tells him to ship up and quit being a slacker like his old man. Fine. Then things get weird. He gets progressively angrier and unsettlingly up close and face to face with Marty (yeah like Hall & Oates H2O album cover close) and, in an excessively petty display, starts trashing Marty's band, telling him he has no chance in to succeed in the auditions for the school dance. Finally, he then goes a step farther by stating that no McFly has ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley, thus stating that Marty is destined for failure. Those last two statements seem quite inappropriate for a school principal to be making to a student. It's almost as if he has a personal vendetta against Marty to the point where he keeps tabs on him (like his band trying out for the dance) so he can belittle him later. His disdain for all McFlys may indicate some sort of personal anti-Irish sentiment. Well, at least he's not pointing a gun at him.

Biff is a lot more evil then I remember
We all know series antagonist Biff Tannen is simply and irredeemably evil (as are his alternate reality incarnations, descendents, and ancestors). The evilest incarnation of Biff is arguably his powerful and rich alternate 1985 version in part 2 who kills George McFly; marries, beats, and cheats on Lorraine, and somehow manages to turn Hill Valley into a Sammy Hagar blasting hell on earth. In light of the later incarnation, it's easy to write off original 1955 Biff as just a cruel, petty, bully; but really he's almost as heinous. In the famous skateboarding chase scene midway through the film where Marty cleverly causes Biff and his gang to crash the car they're in into a manure truck; I never realized that Biff probably intended to kill Marty by running him over with his car...essentially over tripping him and pushing him over at the cafe earlier, fairly psychotic. Then of course there is the obvious attempted rape of Lorriane at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance at the end of the film that was only prevented due to George's timely intervention (given this ugly incident you'd think George or Lorraine would have some objection to ever seeing him again let alone hiring him to wax their cars in 1985). Attempted murderer and attempted rapist, I can't believe I ever felt sympathy for his neutered sycophantic 1985 incarnation at the end.

What was up with that jerk at the dance?
Obviously Biff and his band of hoodlums are the main antagonists of the film, but almost no one gives any notice to the one other villain in the film: that douchey, red headed, jerk that cuts in on George and Lorraine's dance and nearly ruins everything. You'd think after conquering all the obstacles to Marty's parents finally getting together and George finally standing up to Biff, everything would be smooth sailing but then this dude comes along and before you know it they're playing that "Sonic the Hedgehog"-like drowning music and Marty's hand is disappearing; that's some scary shit. The whole sequence barely lasts a minute before George reasserts himself, pushes red aside, and subsequently seals the deal with Lorraine by kissing her but man it would have been something else if after all that some totally absurd unforeseen factor came in and ruined everything (perhaps if it was directed David Lynch or something). Unfortunately the guy is so overlooked that I couldn't even find a picture of him, so I had to substitute him with a shot of Rick Astley (which he does sort of resemble).

Marty, such a nice name...for our third child.
So at the end of the dance everything has worked out well: Marty got his parents to fall in love and ensured his existence, Biff got his comeuppance, and rock n' roll was inadvertently invented. Marty bids a hurried but heartfelt goodbye to his young parents before he has to ride the lightening back to 1985. After he leaves the couple briefly reflect on the exceedingly bizarre week they had with this mysterious stranger and Loraine thinks out loud that Marty is "such a nice name". You'd think that after that they would name their first son after this remarkable figure they briefly met who got them to fall in love and suddenly disappeared without a trace; but no they name him Dave. It's only by their second son and third child overall that they decide to settle on Marty. Obviously Marty wasn't as nice a name as Dave.

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