Sooner or later, I was obliged to acknowledge Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future" for "Time Travel Time", but considering its vast popularity, what more could be said on the subject?
On the other hand, like so many iconic sagas, its fame eclipses its significance to the point where it's sometimes taken for granted. This inspired me to consider what's made the trilogy so endearing for many of us and what caught the public's fancy when the initial chapter premiered thirty years ago.
It should be noted that thematically, "Back to the Future" isn't exclusive to the hows and whys of time travel, but then, what worthy time-travel tale is? Thanks to Zemeckis and Bob Gale's scripts, the adventure is touched by something deep enough, rich enough to overshadow its "Time Machine" derivation. Alas, it's sit-com trimmings might obscure this on occasion, but as in the case of any traditional, wholesome weekly series, the essential nature of the family (including the friends adopted as such) characterizes the yarn. (In fact, Huey Lewis and the News' "Power of Love" covers not only the boyfriend/girlfriend motif, but the impact of any loved one on one's life.)
Now, I'm not referencing "family" (and its associated values) in the pretentious way either side of the political aisle does, nor in the way certain radial advocates would, where an anything-goes philosophy stands in lieu of decency. (I dread to think how the implied "incest" concept might be handled if the film were remade today.) "Back to the Future" is more basic and honest than that, and its influence stems from a fundamental, ongoing struggle: that of a close-knit group pitted against antagonists who wish to satisfy their selfish whims.
The initial film defines this theory best, its premise hinging on how Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) travels in time from 1985 to 1955 to help his mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and his sheepish dad, George (Crispin Glover) form a bond which, in turn, will ensure his existence. Individuals stand in the way of that bond, generally offering discouragement, like Principal Strickland (James Tolkan), who refers to both father and son as slackers, but none so much as a bully named Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), whose persistent presence will spell trouble for the McFlys through several time frames.
Doc Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) is the catalyst in Marty's escapade, leading the young man to occupy a refashioned DeLorean, which Doc has equipped with a time-tripping flux capacitor. Marty, in fact, scoots back in time to evade the Libyan terrorists who assassinate Doc. This event makes Marty's '55 visit more intricate, for in addition to uniting his parents, he must also zoom back to his point of '85 departure (or at least as near to such as possible) to save Doc: cleverly enough, with the help of his friend's '50s counterpart.
We can infer that Marty was meant to impact the past to fortify the present, which in turn will spawn a positive future for those he loves, including his wife-to-be, Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells, and starting in the initial sequel, Elisabeth Shue). The endeavor's steps appear predestined through insinuations and subtle circumstance. The bullies can't win; Marty's diligence, regardless of the temporal sector, seems to guarantee that.
Though Marty is the saga's hero, George is, perhaps, its most identifiable character. Like his son, he's a humble guy who deserves better than he's been dealt. His talent, grace and charm must be nurtured, so he can rise to the occasion and marry Lorraine. In a flip on an old theme, its now the son who shows the father the way. By making his dad see his worth, Marty further perpetuates (and strengthens) the McFly chain.
This concept also filters through the follow-ups. For example, in the second installment, we're bolted to a high-tech, parallel 2015. It's now Marty Jr. and Biff's obnoxious grandson, Griff, who are at odds, with the stakes running high that Marty Jr. will end up in jail. Matters then take an even more upsetting turn, resulting in another jaunt back in time and the formation of yet another alternate track.
Biff remains present throughout these sprints, but due to a series of unforeseen turns (and thanks to a particular sports almanac), ends up married to Marty's mom. Our old villain becomes, in fact, a seedy "It's a Wonderful Life" Mr. Potter surrogate, who's got money aplenty, but no compassion to share, especially when it comes to the McFlys. Of course, this gives Marty the incentive to challenge the status quo.
In the third installment, we swing to the rootin' tootin', steampunked American West, where "blacksmith" Doc finds preordained love with Miss Clara Clayton (Mary "Time After Time" Steenburgen), but he must also face Biff's great grandfather, Buford, who's likely to shoot him dead over an alleged debt, potentially scrambling the time continuum all over again. With Doc on the verge of sowing the seeds of his own legacy (albeit in a most unexpected time frame), it's the McFly pride that once more paves the way for a better day, both for his namesake (which this time includes his great-great grandparents) and the budding Browns.
Through each comically complex chapter, to some extent or another, the family thread zigzags to a promising culmination. It's, therefore, the perpetuation of collective good and the resulting principle of sticking up for oneself (i.e., championing one's lineage) that overrides the daunting obstacles. Peel away the action and slapstick, and that's what "Back to the Future" is all about: keeping family and friends free to be all they can be. The naysayers have no right to squash that--and won't--for even the greatest ripples in time can't diminish the indomitable family flow, and yes, it's this idea that sustains "Back to the Future" and will continue to mount its popularity over the years.
The nice thing is, we don't need to go through the arduous task of time travel to appreciate its message. As many of us have discovered, we only have to slip a "Back to the Future" disc into a player, let Alan Silvestri's stirring score fill our ears and know that a prosperous place awaits, as long as we embrace a good-hearted stance and support those we hold near and dear.