The evolution of blockbusters reached their apex in ‘Back to the Future’ — Ultimate Movie Year

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Back to the Future”
Released July 3, 1985
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Where to Watch

We’ve spent the past few weeks charting the decade-long seismic changes in the film industry due to the emergence and profitability of big, audience-pleasing blockbusters during the summer months. “Jaws” in 1975 started the wave with Steven Spielberg crafting a tale of ordinary people thrown into thrilling adventures. George Lucas introduced science fiction and fantasy into the mix with 1977’s “Star Wars.” In 1984, Ivan Reitman helped make these adventures funny with “Ghostbusters.” These movies were three of the biggest of the era and helped set the stage for the film that found the perfect balance between all three elements, 1985’s “Back to the Future” by Robert Zemeckis.

The movie introduces us to the teenage Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) who has a mostly typical lower-middle-class life for a high school kid in the 80s: Girlfriend, rock and roll, and continuously trying to borrow a car from his melancholy parents, George (Crispin Glover) and Lorraine (Lea Thompson). On the other hand, he’s friends with an older mad scientist named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who managed to turn a DeLorean into a time machine. A violent confrontation forces Marty into the car and a trip back to 1955, where he runs into his parents as teenagers and undoes the circumstances that lead to his own birth.

In addition to directing, Zemeckis also co-wrote the movie with his longtime screenwriting partner, Bob Gale. The two dreamed about developing a time travel story for a while but couldn’t find the right hook for it until inspiration struck.

“What turned the light on for me was coming across my dad’s old high school yearbook and thinking, ‘Would we have been friends if we’d been at school together?’” Gale said in 2014. “All of us have that revelation when we understand that our parents were young once, too. That’s a big moment.”

However, even though they had a hook, the “Back to the Future” script when through many changes and modifications along the way (for example, the original time machine device was a refrigerator instead of a DeLorean). The script was passed around several studios as well, including Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment company, which had worked with the screenwriters before on unsuccessful projects. Spielberg loved the concept, but also passed because of their past failures in collaborating. Fortunately, during that time, Zemeckis directed 1984’s “Romancing the Stone,” which became a hit, and brought Spielberg back on as a producer.

It would be hard to underestimate how famous and influential Spielberg was back in the early 80s. In addition to directing massive hits like “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” Spielberg was also producing other pictures like “Poltergeist,” “Gremlins,” and “The Goonies.” It wasn’t an accident that his name was usually more prominent on the movie poster than the director. Spielberg became a brand that, for a time, promised success at the box office.

That may have been helpful for the marketing of “Back to the Future,” but the filmmakers experienced another problem. When the film couldn’t cast Fox originally due to his commitments to the NBC hit sitcom, “Family Ties,” they turned to a young Eric Stoltz as Marty McFly. But after filming for five weeks, Stoltz delivered a more subdued performance than Zemeckis was hoping for. Becoming concerned that the humor of the script wasn’t coming through, the filmmakers decided to replace Stoltz and take one more shot at casting Fox, who was able to film on nights and weekends.

Fox became the final piece of the puzzle that sent “Back to the Future” into the stratosphere. As Marty, Fox is funny, charming, and, most importantly, easily relatable as a teenage kid not only thrown into the past and into a romantic triangle he wants no part of because the other two individuals are his parents. Zemeckis and Gale built this time travel story around deeply personal (and literally existential) stakes. Fox kept the mood light and exciting before the audience squeaks out of the movie because of the oedipal implications involved. He also has terrific chemistry with the four other principal actors Lloyd, Thompson, Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson, as the bully Biff. All of them are excellent in their individual roles.

Frankly, everybody involved is putting in career-best work in “Back to the Future.” The script artfully establishes the critical story points of the entire movie within the first 20 minutes while introducing us to the key players. Everything set up is paid off without a wasted second. Zemeckis does a marvelous job directing, the editing is on point, composer Alan Silvestri composes one of the most memorable non-John Williams scores of the 80s, and even Huey Lewis and the News, at the height of their popularity, scores with their best single for the soundtrack, “The Power of Love.”

“Back to the Future” was an immediate hit upon release in the summer of 1985. It dominated the box office with minimal drop off from week-to-week, easily remaining as the top draw well into September outside of two weeks. It earned $210 million domestically at the box office, easily becoming the biggest grossing movie of the year and one of the most successful films of the decade. Everybody was in love with it.

“Zemeckis exploits its possibilities with delicious abandon, deriving considerable humor from the situation’s unseen generation gap,” wrote Kirk Ellis for The Hollywood Reporter. “Adding to the pleasure is an attractive, energetic young cast, led by the appealing Fox, easily one of the more intelligent-looking young actors to cross a screen recently. But it’s Christopher Lloyd who walks away with the movie in a gloriously uncontrolled, fright-wigged performance that redefines the mad scientist for modern movie audiences.”

I was one of the young fans going mad for “Back to the Future.” Its flavor of personal science fiction comedy was extremely my jam and was my favorite movie of my childhood (Yes, even over “Star Wars” and “Raiders”). The home video edition was the first VHS I bought, and the soundtrack the first CD I looked for. By the time the sequels rolled around, I probably watched the original at least once a week and even wrote fan fiction as the possibilities of time travel stories opened up. It’s a miraculously perfect piece of pop entertainment, after being raised on all those popular movies from 1975 to 1985, “Back to the Future” was the graduation and victory lap in my development as a film buff.

It felt like everybody else thought the same thing at the time. After a few years of fantasy family films dominating popular culture, it mostly stopped after “Back to the Future.” The hits of the later 1980s leaned more into harder science fiction with “Aliens,” “The Running Man,” and “Total Recall,” or the more grounded action of “Lethal Weapon” and “Die Hard.” Spielberg himself was moving into the next stage of his career as a respectable adult director, working on “The Color Purple,” “Empire of the Sun,” and “Always.” However, his family fantasy spirit would eventually return.

“Back to the Future” is the Swiss watch of movies: Impossible to improve upon, but works endlessly. While rewatching the film for this column, I introduced my eldest daughter to the original, and like me at her age, she was entranced. By the time the film arrived at its climax, she was almost leaping out of her seat, which is no surprise, because it’s a spectacular sequence that stacks multiple complications against Marty’s attempt to get back to the future. The characters (and audience) know that lightning will strike the clock tower at 10:04 p.m. to send Marty back (and we presume that will happen), but so many known and unknown things go wrong that we legitimately have no idea how Marty and Doc are going to pull it off. It’s a masterwork in cinematic finales that work at any age.

Given its cliffhanger ending (and more to the point, massive box office grosses), it was inevitable that “Back to the Future” spawned sequels. But as the team returned for “Part II” in 1989 and “Part III” in 1990, something unexpected happened to this 80s product: They just stopped. Virtually every other movie hit from the decade has returned in one form or another, whether sequels, prequels, or reboots. “Back to the Future” remains untouched, and seems likely to stay that way for now.

Oddly enough, given the premise and rock-solid spine of a story, you could just update the cultural reference jokes and pump out a new version. However, I doubt you’ll get as many people laughing at President Ronald Reagan jokes with the current occupant at the White House. Maybe that’s for the best. “Back to the Future” is just like time travel; change one thing, and you’ll screw everything up.

“Back to the Future” was the capper to a decade of flicks that promised fun, thrills, laughs, adventure, and excitement at every turn, and as good as many of those films are in our memories, the Zemeckis time travel fantasy might be the best of them all at delivering a great time at the movies.

The Weekend: America tends to go big during Independence Day, and movies similarly follow suit, as some of the most popular films ever were released during the long holiday weekend. “Back to the Future” may be unassailable as a perfect piece of popcorn entertainment to lead the weekend, but this roster has an imposing starting lineup and a deep bench.

For most of the 80s, director Jim Cameron was gaining credibility as a master of cinematic sci-fi with “The Terminator,” “Aliens,” and “The Abyss.” Meanwhile, “Terminator” star Arnold Schwarzenegger had become one of the biggest action stars in the world thanks to “Commando,” “Predator,” and “Total Recall.” Director and actor reunited for 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” and the result was an action-packed, mayhem-filled monster hit. Cameron and Schwarzenegger are so good here that “T2” is their victory lap. Still, the show-stealers are the ground-breaking special effects that helped bring Robert Patrick’s morphing T-1000 villain to life, and Linda Hamilton’s return as the transformed modern warrior Sarah Connor.

“Back to the Future” wasn’t the only Zemeckis film that became a modern classic. In 1994’s “Forrest Gump,” Zemeckis eliminated the science fiction fantasy from the story but kept the nostalgic crowd-pleasing. Tom Hanks starred as the title character, a sweet but slow-witted man who grows up and connects within the turbulent second half of the 20th century. “Forrest Gump” was a must-see in the summer of 1994, and would go on to win Best Picture, Best Actor for Hanks, and Best Director for Zemeckis at the Academy Awards the following year.

Two of the most recognized classic movies ever also bowed on the first weekend of July. Billy Wilder had one of the most prolific directing careers in Hollywood thanks to films like 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” a noir mystery thriller about a murderous affair and insurance scam. Alfred Hitchcock is another notable name in film history, and his “North by Northwest” from 1959 puts Cary Grant on the run across the country.

Shifting to comedy, two all-time classics made their debuts in Week 27. Released in 1980, “Airplane!” is packed the gills with all kinds of jokes and is a strong contender for the silliest movie of all time. As the 80s continued, Eddie Murphy became the iconic comedy star of the decade, and his “Coming to America,” released in 1988, is one of his best.

Penny Marshall’s “A League of Their Own,” released in 1992, remains one of the best baseball movies of all time. Set during the World War II era that saw baseball owners form an all-women league to offset the loss of male players serving in the military, the comedy/drama manages to capture the appeal of the game better than virtually any other film. “A League of Their Own” also features a stacked cast, including Tom Hanks, Geena Davis, and Madonna, who are all at the peak of their powers. The end result is, again, just a great time at the movies.

In the late 90s, movies returned with high stakes science fiction for the masses during the Fourth of July weekend. “Independence Day” in 1996 saw an alien invasion blow up nearly half the cities on Earth before humans were able to fight back. “Men in Black” teamed Will Smith (breakout star of “ID4” from the year prior) with Tommy Lee Jones as agents covertly dealing with alien threats on the planet. The danger in 1998’s “Armageddon” wasn’t from aliens, but a giant space meteor, forcing a team of oil drillers lead by Bruce Willis into space to destroy it. Dumb but oddly watchable, and sometimes we all need that kind of movie.

As the century turned, superhero films would begin to dominate the marketplace. One of the best ever debuted in 2004, as Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man 2” launched Tobey Maguire’s web-slinger into battle with Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus. For my money, Raimi was the first director to translate all of the appeal of early Marvel comics into cinema, and “Spider-Man 2” remains straight up one of the best live-action superhero films ever. Spidey’s Marvel Cinematic Universe counterpart, played by Tom Holland, would return to this weekend with two headline films, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” in 2017 and “Spider-Man: Far From Home” in 2019. Another MCU film, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” debuted here in 2018.

Some of the more recent movies that stood out to me include 2015’s “Magic Mike XXL,” a surprisingly comforting, enjoyable sequel about male strippers. 2019’s “Midsommar,” about a group of college students naively attending an isolated community festival in Sweden, is another one that impressed me as a chilling mood setter.

Other films released on this weekend include 1945’s “Naughty Nineties” (with Abbott and Costello performing the famous “Who’s on first?” routine), “Big Trouble in Little China” in 1986, “The Firm” in 1993, “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” in 1999, “But I’m a Cheerleader” in 2000, “Before Sunset” in 2004, “Transformers” in 2007, and “Sorry to Bother You” in 2018.

Next Week: “When Harry Met Sally …”

Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on July 2, 2020.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

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