Long before Robert Zemeckis re-envisioned the 1960s as the era America gave itself over to stupidity (to the delight of Rush Limbaugh’s dittoheads nationwide), he blasted the 1980s back into the 1950s with Back to the Future. Or, rather, he blasted the 1980s specifically for its return to a 1950s-reminiscent moral and political agenda. Looking back on it with the same sense of from-the-future assurance that informed the movie’s own creation, Back to the Future is a logistically beautiful but almost inhumanly perfect confluence of internal logic and external forces. In a justifiably Oscar-nominated screenplay, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox in a star-making performance) jumps back 30 years in time after a charter experiment executed in an empty mall parking lot is interrupted by the Libyan nationalists ripped off by the time machine’s inventor Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). If the setup is difficult, the payoff—in which Marty tries not only to return to 1985 without any of the Libyan’s DeLorean-powering plutonium but also tries to pry his horny, preteen mother’s mitts off his purple Calvin Klein waistband lest she forget to fall in love with Marty’s loser father, thereby preventing Marty from ever being born—is insane genius.
Back to the Future stands up on its own as a well-oiled, brilliantly-edited example of new-school, Spielberg-cultivated thrill-craft, one that endures even now that its visual effects and haw-haw references to Pepsi Free and reruns seem as dated as full-service gas stations apparently did in 1985. Its schematic organization of what Marty and Doc need to accomplish and its steadily mounting series of mishaps demonstrating how they can go wrong represent probably the most carefully-scripted blockbuster in Hollywood history, but the movie’s real coup (and what separates it from the increasingly fluent pack of Spielberg knockoffs) is in how it subtly mocks the political pretensions of the era—not the 1950s, but rather the 1980s.
Just as Marty and Doc’s Sisyphean plight shows how recreating a moment without some variation defies all known laws of physics, Zemeckis’s dual depictions of Hill Valley shed uncomplimentary light on the then-cresting Moral Majority’s political attempts to undo two decades of political narrative. (In practice, it takes the baton from Joe Dante’s takedown of neo-small town America in Gremlins, only here it’s more tangibly schizophrenic.) Marty’s parents’ denial of the true nature of their salad days (Mom erroneously claims she never chased boys; Dad used to spy on the nude girl across the street) stands in for America’s own ruinously deluded notion of its own legacy. In other words, it wasn’t so long ago that a black person’s primary concern in many American towns was something considerably worse than never being elected mayor. And yet, what to make of the finale, in which everything shallow and consumer-minded about the 1980s is presented as the ultimate happy ending? As Marty himself would say, “Heavy!”