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Film Review: Back to the Future

Back to the Future (1985; Directed by Robert Zemeckis)

We all know about the cool tech, the squirmy Freudian humour, the temporal irony, the over-the-top comic performances, and that cool-ass Delorean. But come now. What we really need here is some critical analysis!

Because what is Back to the Future at its core but a glossy slice of Reagan-era wish fulfillment, dotted with subtle satirical critiques of then-contemporary America? What desire drove the conservative movement of the Reagan years if not to return to the 1950s, or at least a nostalgic, glossed-over version of it? This remains the Republican dream to this day, although this return of the repressed seems even more ludicrous and impossible in the 2010s as it did in the 1980s.

I've been to the future, Doc. Apple Computers owns everything and they appear to worship a new deity known as "Snooki". Fashion's pretty much the same, though.

For all intents and purposes, Marty McFly lives out the dream of Michael J. Fox’s College Republican Family Ties character in returning to the halcyon days of high school dances and suburban wholesomeness. But in the movie’s version of the ’50s, McFly encounters a subtly different and less idealized world. Girls pursue boys, bullies tyrannize the weak and threaten rape, and a coloured man will never be mayor of Hill Valley.

Leave aside, if you can, Doc Brown’s disbelieving reaction to the thought that an actor could ever be President, or Ronald Reagan’s purported positive reaction to the line, which he insisted be rewound so he could watch it again. The Hill Valley of 1985, with its wide, empty mall parking lot and out-of-date, transient-spotted downtown, is not exactly the vision of virile economic success that the right was looking to project. Though, of course, the film’s inherent valourizing of masculine strength and virility (and its supposed correlation to economic and social success) is much more closely aligned with the rhetoric that dominates the American right to this day, as well as the rest of America through the right-wing’s debate-shifting filters.

Perhaps one of the film’s most interesting moments might initially slip by like a throwaway joke. I mean, of course, the grandfather-paradox attribution of the invention of rock and roll to Marty McFly, which was subsequently stolen by one of the musical form’s key pioneers, Chuck Berry. It’s an inversion of one of the key cultural appropriations of the past half-century, a retroactive claiming of a musical form that, even by 1985, was more closely identified with uninspired white idols like the featured Huey Lewis than with the hip, reefer-smoking black guys in matching suits that Marty meets in 1955. Even as merely a punchline, it erases one of the key cultural contributions of African-Americans and hands it over to a clean-cut white kid. What’s more redolent of Republicanism than that?

The social anxieties present in Back to the Future only crop up in minor moments and amidst background details, sure, but that doesn’t make their expression any less important. Maybe that’s part of the reason this goofy and fun and badly dated adventure continues to endure today. It’s a time machine, and its flux capacitor is still fluxing.

Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. college student
    May 23, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    I was looking for some critical analysis about the film and found another liberal on a soap box bashing republican conservatism. Spare me….

  2. May 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Spare yourself. Guess you’ll have to plagiarize someone else in your essay.

  1. June 3, 2013 at 5:23 am
  2. July 20, 2013 at 9:30 am
  3. March 14, 2016 at 2:48 pm

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