When it comes to 1980s science fiction film-making, does it get any better than Back to the Future? It became a cultural phenomenon in 1985, spawning two sequels, a theme park ride, and a whole lot of best films of all-time rankings.
Back to the Future boasts a fun time travel plot, a ton of likable characters, and subject matter that appeals to adults and children alike. However, it’s also 34 years old and not everything about it holds up as well as you might think. Here are 5 reasons Back to the Future has aged poorly, and 5 reasons why it’s still as incredible as ever.
10 Aged Poorly: Making DeLoreans Look Cooler Than They Are
“If you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?” This is Doc Brown’s rationale for building his time machine out of a 1982 DeLorean DMC-12 and it’s not hard to understand his reasoning. With its brushed stainless steel exterior and gull-wing doors, the DeLorean is visually striking even to this day.
What Doc Brown fails to note is the car itself is kind of junky. While it looks like a sports car from the outside, underneath the hood it’s anything but. The DMC-12 takes a lethargic 8.8 seconds to reach 60 mph, meaning there’s no way Doc’s ride could have hit the 88 mph required to travel through time during his parking lot demonstration. Back to the Future may have put the DeLorean on the map, but it also likely led to a lot of disappointed buyers.
9 Timeless: Uses The Ticking Clock Device Perfectly
The ticking clock is a common plot device used in blockbuster film-making, in which the protagonist(s) must complete a task by a certain deadline or suffer fateful consequences. While ticking clocks can be a cheap way to build suspense, it’s a device Back to the Future employs with aplomb.
The reason for this is that nearly every conflict in the film operates on a ticking clock — Marty’s quest to unite his parents, saving Doc’s life, the literal ticking clock at the clock tower — and those are just the major ones. As a result, Back to the Future is always racing towards some kind of time-based resolution, which makes for a heck of a well-paced film.
8 Aged Poorly: Marty “Inventing” Rock N’ Roll
Back to the Future’s third act musical number is a ton of fun, but it’s also quite problematic when you stop and think about it. You know the scene: Marty leads the band hired to play the 1955 school dance through a rip-roaring version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, which of course hadn’t been written yet. This fact is hammered home during the performance when one of the musicians, Marvin Berry, calls up his cousin Chuck to let him hear Marty making music history.
Berry, a black musician, is credited with helping pioneer rock and roll music and while the scene is still fun, it’s pretty racially-insensitive too. Music history has enough of an optics problem as it is when it comes to white musicians stealing from people of color; we don’t need Marty McFly doing it too!
7 Timeless: “The Power of Love” is a Banger
Written and performed by Huey Lewis & the News, “The Power of Love” has little to do with Back to the Future itself, but this was intentional. Director Robert Zemeckis asked Lewis to write a song for the movie, believing that his band’s sound would work well for Back to the Future’s dual time periods of 1955 and 1985. Lewis had little interest in writing a song called “Back to the Future”, but Zemeckis told him the song didn’t have to be about the movie.
Fun fact: Marty McFly and his band The Pinheads begin playing “The Power of Love” during their audition to play the school dance. The teacher who cuts them off and tells them, “I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud,” is none other than Huey Lewis.
6 Aged Poorly: George the Voyeur
Back to the Future gets a lot of mileage out of Crispin Glover’s pitch-perfectly awkward George McFly. Along with his son Marty, George is the underdog of the story and much of the drama revolves around him gaining enough self-confidence to ask his future wife Lorraine to the school dance. What’s easy to overlook is that George is kind of a creep - and what’s worse, the film plays it for laughs.
At one point, Marty spots his father in a tree with a pair of binoculars watching a woman undress, prompting Marty to exclaim, “He’s a Peeping Tom!” There’s an element of derision in Marty’s voice, indicating he’s at least a little disgusted by his father’s actions, but the film doesn’t really invite us to think ill of George. Rather, his status as a “Peeping Tom” is presented as a quirk that is quickly swept under the rug.
5 Timeless: Double Dose of Nostalgia
From a modern perspective, Back to the Future feels like an 80s time capsule. Of course, when the film was released in 1985, it served up a time capsule of its own. The 1955 version of Hill Valley is very much depicted through the lens of what people in the 80s remembered the 50s being like.
In this way, Back to the Future makes for a fascinating nostalgia trip, as it effectively provides a look back at two distinct time periods in American history. The franchise’s mystique has diminished somewhat now that we know 2015 didn’t have flying cars, but the original film has the advantage of offering depictions of two bygone eras that are worth revisiting again and again.
4 Aged Poorly: Those Incest Undertones
One of the most uncomfortable Back to the Future subplots involves Marty being hit on by the teenage version of his mother. The whole dynamic is played for laughs, as Marty tries to let his mom off easy (without revealing he’s her son of course). But Lorraine’s infatuation with “Calvin” lasts for much of the movie, culminating in her kissing him while parked outside the school dance.
Thankfully, Lorraine quickly realizes something is off before anything else can happen, but Back to the Future is the rare blockbuster film to feature an incestuous mother-son relationship, which is probably for the best.
3 Timeless: The Excellent Cast
A great script would only carry Back to the Future so far if the characters were miscast. Fortunately, the film nails every casting choice for its main players. Michael J. Fox is arguably one of the most charming actors ever and the studio’s decision to dismiss Eric Stoltz so Fox could play Marty instead has to be one of the wisest casting decisions of the 1980s.
Elsewhere, you have Christopher Lloyd giving his most iconic performance as the neurotic Doc Brown, while Thomas F. Wilson turns in one of blockbuster cinema’s all-time great villain performances as Biff Tannen. As great as those performances are, Lea Thompson may be Back to the Future’s MVP as Marty’s not-so-innocent mother, Lorraine.
2 Aged Poorly: Lorraine Being an Object to “Win”
As mentioned previously, Lea Thompson is so darn good in Back to the Future. Unfortunately, as fun as it is to watch her play the surprisingly rebellious Lorraine McFly, it’s hard to overlook how little agency the film affords her. While Marty hatches a plan with the younger George McFly to woo Lorraine, he never clues his mother into what he’s doing.
Making matters worse, Marty’s plan involves faking “taking advantage” of her. As timeless as Back to the Future may be in other areas, its handling of its female characters definitely wouldn’t fly if the film were made today.
1 Timeless: The Script
Great writing never goes out of style and it’s something Back to the Future has in spades. Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis’s Oscar-nominated screenplay is a tightly-constructed wonder. While the film’s structure is pretty basic, it’s filled with delightful world-building and a ton of great setups and payoffs.
Go watch the first 10 minutes and look at how many little bits of foreshadowing are baked in organically to each scene. Pepper in some great bits of comedic timing and you have one of the greatest scripts in blockbuster history.