Time travel is always a difficult theme to play with in films, requiring either mind-bending logic to explain what happens when they kill Hitler (or their own grandparents), or a fingers-in-ears approach to the consequences of messing with the past. Back to the Future straddles these two extremes like a dream first date, alternately ignoring the Big Questions and showing how small changes in the past can affect the present.
The attention to detail across the trilogy borders on the autistic. From small touches endlessly screenshotted on the internet (McFly destroys a tree in 1955, so the Twin Pines Mall in 1985 becomes the Lone Pine Mall), to repeated gags across the series (different generations of the Tannen family ending up covered in piles of manure), it’s a series that you will gain more and more from on each repeat viewing.
The series variously takes place in 1985, 1955, 1885 and 2015, each offering a different generation of the central McFly and Tannen families, with parallels running along them – the Tannens as bullies, McFlys (McFlies?) as victims, and Doc Brown as the one constant – no matter where in time Marty ended up, there was a Doc Brown waiting for him.
When dealing with time travel, BTTF is fairly similar to perennial favourite Goodnight Sweetheart. Marty is able to change specific things in the present by titting about with them the past, with very few consequences. By the end of the first film, he’s reversed his dad and Biff Tannen’s positions, with Biff winding up as the family’s bitch – a minor degree of satisfaction for the bullied – but the world in general remains unchanged around him. The closest they even get to creating a paradox in the past is Marty’s world premiere of Johnny B. Goode. Chuck Berry hears it over the phone and then records it, but if Marty hadn’t played it, then Chuck wouldn’t have recorded it so how could Marty have hea- OH GOD THIS IS WHY TIME TRAVEL DOESN’T WORK.
Film one of the trilogy deals with this dicking-with-the-past problem, with sinister incestuous undertones as Marty’s mother develops a crush on him. These are underplayed, and Marty’s dad George never questions why his son looks EXACTLY like a boy who briefly went to high school with them. By film two, George has been all but written out, and Marty heads to the future.
This has the weakest plot of the three, struggling over an “alternate” 1985 created when Biff steals the DeLorean time machine and changes the past. Somehow Marty and the Doc have to recover a sports betting almanac and restore their original 1985. Because of the rules established in the first film, they’re side-stepping the butterfly effect completely, and any small changes they make are COMPLETELY IGNORED. Retrieve the almanac and everything will be okay. The plot is so convoluted that halfway through, the Doc gets out a blackboard and explains it for us. Weirdly, a lot of the time is spent fannying around in the background of scenes from the first film, specially reshot from different angles to show another Marty hiding from himself.
Part three is almost a straight western parody, with McFly taking on the name Clint Eastwood and trying to prevent the Doc’s death – because the death happened in the past, future Marty knows he’ll die, but he can go back and stop him dying and then PARADOX ALERT, so they just don’t mention it.
But it’s fine, BTTF has more than enough charm and genuine humour, and even the numerous fish out of water scenes with characters adjusting to different eras are far better than they should be. The many, many references across the three films make it a trilogy worth watching and re-watching.