Saturday, July 03, 2010

Great Scott!

In hindsight, it seems like it was just downright impossible not to like "Back to the Future," which made its debut on America's movie screens 25 years ago today.

It was certainly timely, with the murderous Libyan terrorists intent upon reclaiming the stolen plutonium from Marty's sidekick, Doc Brown (who was memorably played by Christopher Lloyd) — and who played a pivotal role in telling the story.

And it was timeless, too, with its particular slant on the inevitable angst of the teen years. Each generation thinks it is unique in that department — but each generation is wrong. Nevertheless, each generation need its troubadours and story tellers, and director Robert Zemeckis was one of the best for those who came of age in the 1980s. (Personally, I think John Hughes was the best of that time, but Zemeckis, in spite of his apparent fondness for splashy film techniques and effects, deserves his share of recognition.)

In that sense, I guess it brought together two diverse movie audiences that almost never were attracted to the same movie — the angst–ridden teens and the geeky sci–fi fans, who might also be angst–ridden teens but were mostly written off by most in their teen world (not unlike the protagonists from "Revenge of the Nerds").

It was nostalgic for many viewers who actually remembered 1955 — and the groundbreaking rock 'n' roll that was being recorded around that time, yet it was up–to–date enough to incorporate a symbol of the more modern times — a DeLorean — to serve as the time machine.

And the cast was kind of a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. TV viewers (like me) who were fans of the TV series Taxi had seen Lloyd frequently as the perpetually stoned Rev. Jim who had a kind personality and a heart of gold. Thus, it probably wasn't much of a leap to accept him as the eccentric (yet personable) inventor, Doc Brown.
Doc Brown: "Tell me, Future Boy, who's president of the United States in 1985?"

Marty: "Ronald Reagan."

Doc Brown: "Ronald Reagan? The actor? Then who's vice president? Jerry Lewis? I suppose Jane Wyman is the first lady? And Jack Benny is secretary of the Treasury!"

Likewise, many in the audience had seen Michael J. Fox in his TV series, Family Ties, for the previous three years. I'm not sure if Marty McFly had a lot in common with Alex P. Keaton, but Fox was a sure draw. Family Ties had been intended to focus on the liberal parents, not the conservative children, but the viewing audience's positive response to Fox was so strong that he became the focus instead. His popularity never seemed to be about his character.

Their castmates, though not exactly newcomers, were hardly household names. Lea Thompson (who played Fox's mother) and Crispin Glover (who played his father) had been in a few movies prior to "Back to the Future." Thomas F. Wilson (who played Biff) was appearing in only his second film.

The initial draft of the film was done in 1981, and Zemeckis and co–writer Bob Gale began trying to find a studio for their project. But they soon encountered an odd dilemma — studios rejected it for not being sexual enough, then Disney rejected it because it wasn't in keeping with Disney's image to make a film about a mother who falls in love with her son.

Eventually, after Zemeckis enjoyed considerable success with "Romancing the Stone," Universal Pictures was persuaded to take on the project. And "Back to the Future" turned out to be a worthwhile investment. It was the highest–grossing film of 1985.

But on this day a quarter of a century ago, Zemeckis was worried that it would not succeed because Fox was unable to attend the premiere. He was fulfilling his contractual obligations to Family Ties and was busy with filming that was being done in London.

Looking back on it, of course, Zemeckis need not have worried. With a gross revenue of nearly $400 million, "Back to the Future" more than covered its $19 million budget.

Still, one must wonder what Lloyd and the rest of the cast must think of DirecTV's attempt to capitalize on the film's popularity a few years ago?

I'll grant you, the product was certainly futuristic. It clearly wasn't available in 1955.

But, for that matter, it wasn't available in 1985, either. And that's where that bolt of lightning was going to send Marty McFly.

So didn't that compromise the logic of the commercial?