This episode we’re looking at BACK TO THE FUTURE, the great time-travel comedy from back in the 80’s. It’s been more than 30 years since that film was made, 30 years since it showed us its protagonist traveling back 30 years in his past. And now it gets the Storylanes treatment.
As usual, here’s the links.
And here’s the script to the episode:
Hi, I’m Joe Dzikiewicz, and welcome to the Storylanes Podcast, the podcast where every episode we do a deep dive into a movie or TV show. And to go along with this analysis, I publish a chart of the story we’re covering on the storylanes.com website, a chart I produced while preparing the episode. You don’t need to look at that chart – the podcast is standalone. But if you’re interested in diving a little deeper, check it out at storylanes.com.
This week we’re doing BACK TO THE FUTURE, the great 80’s time travel comedy written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, directed by Robert Zemeckis, and starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, and Crispin Glover.
As usual, this podcast assumes you’ve seen the movie. There will be spoilers. And there won’t be detailed explanations of plot points. So if you listen to this without knowing the movie, you’re out of luck: the movie will be spoiled for you, and you may not understand what I’m talking about. It’s basically the worst of all worlds. But really, if you haven’t seen BACK TO THE FUTURE, are you living in a cave? For god’s sake, see it already! It’s a classic!
BACK TO THE FUTURE is the story of Marty McFly, a teenager with a friend who’s a mad scientist. And that mad scientist, Doc Brown, invents a time machine. Using the time machine, Marty gets stranded 30 years in the past where he has to make his parents fall in love or he’ll cease to exist.
And while BACK TO THE FUTURE is a fun romp with a lot of heart in it, for our purposes it also raises some interesting questions about the nature of protagonists, and the difference between the protagonist, the hero, and the main character of a movie. So this is going to be a fun one to analyze.
And as usual, let’s start with characters. The main character of BACK TO THE FUTURE is Marty McFly. Marty is resourceful, clever, good on a skateboard, and good with a guitar. There’s some hints that he’s got some self-confidence issues, but most of that, while in the script, didn’t make it into the film. He’s a good kid, with no major flaws other than the self-confidence issue. And he keeps us engaged through a series of time-traveling hijinks.
Marty has a girlfriend, named Suzy Parker in the script but renamed to Jennifer Parker in the movie. And since this is an analysis of the script, I’ll stick to Suzy here. But beyond that, there’s not too much to her. She doesn’t appear in the bulk of the film. She’s supportive, pleasant, and quite fond of Marty. And that’s about it.
Marty’s closest relationship in the movie is Doctor Emmett Brown, played in an utterly iconic performance by Christopher Lloyd. Doc Brown is a wild-eyed hyperactive mad scientist, the kind of guy sets up a Rube Goldberg contraption to make his breakfast and feed the dog, and then goes away and forgets to turn off the device, with messy and comic consequences. Like any good mad scientist, Doc Brown is completely focused on doing whatever he must to make his latest invention work. If that means getting in trouble with a bunch of terrorists by ripping off their plutonium, so be it. After all, the gadget is the thing.
Of course, we get to see two versions of Doc Brown, as we see with many of these characters. In 1985, which was the present when this movie was made, he’s an older hyperactive mad scientist. But in 1955, where much of the movie takes place, he’s a younger hyperactive mad scientist.
Okay, so Doc Brown doesn’t change much over time. And that’s okay, because he’s a fun character to spend time with. No matter when that time is. After all, he’s the kind of guy who will put a time machine into a DeLorean. And why? “The way I figured it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?”
The next key characters we get to are Marty’s parents. Here again, we meet both 1985 and 1955 versions of each. Even more, we meet alternate 1985 versions of each.
And suddenly, we need to introduce some terminology here. Because we see two different versions of 1985. There’s the 1985 at the start of the film, and there’s the 1985 at the end of the film. Because this is a movie where you can go back and time and make changes that affect the future where you came from. So let’s call these different 1985’s Starting 1985 and Ending 1985. Starting 1985 is the 1985 we see at the start of the movie, in act one. Ending 1985 is the 1985 we see at the end. Clear enough, yes?
In Starting 1985, Marty’s Mom Lorraine is in tough shape. She’s overweight. She’s a bit of a prude, and not happy with her life. And she’s self-medicating with alcohol. All in all, a sad case.
Then we go back to 1955 and meet Lorraine then. And she’s surprisingly normal. Hot to look at, hot in her behavior. “Marty, I’m almost 18 years old. It’s not like I’ve never parked before.”
All in all, a pretty average 1955 teen, complete with active hormones and willing to stretch the rules. Someone whose whole life is ahead of her, a life that could easily go down different paths. And starting 1985 Lorraine shows the end of one of those paths, and it’s not a good one.
On the other hand, ending 1985 Lorraine has gone down a much better path. She’s fit, happy, and active. Marty’s presence in 1955 clearly made Lorraine’s life better than it would otherwise be.
But George McFly, Marty’s dad. Ah, George, now his life changes dramatically due to Marty’s presence. Starting 1985 George is hopeless. He’s an utter dweeb, bullied by his boss Biff, and utterly incapable of standing up for himself. He’s a sad case. Here’s a typical interaction with Biff:
It’s a start. And hey… where’s my reports?
Well, I haven’t finished them yet. I figured since they weren’t due till Monday…
(knocks on George’s head)
Hello? Anybody home? Think, McFly, think! I’ve gotta have time to get ‘em retyped. If I turn in my reports in your handwriting, I’ll get fired.
Okay, I’ll finish them tonight and run them over first thing in the morning.
Not too early — I sleep in on Saturday.
And really, 1955 George is pretty much the same. And so his interaction with Biff is almost exactly the same:
BIFF You got my homework finished, McFly?
GEORGE Well, no. I figured since it’s not due till Monday…
Biff knocks on George’s head.
Hello? Anybody home? Think, McFly, think! I’ve gotta have time to recopy it. Do you realize what would happen if I turned in MY homework in YOUR handwriting? I’d get kicked out of school!
(notices Marty staring at him) What are you lookin’ at, dipshit?
Biff — get a load of his shoes. This dork thinks he’s a leprechaun — he painted ‘em green!
They all laugh. Biff turns back to George.
BIFF So how about my homework, McFly?
Um, okay, Biff, I’ll do it tonight and bring it over first thing tomorrow.
Not too early — I sleep in on Sundays.
So you can easily see how 1955 George would grow up to be starting 1985 George. He’s just as sad a case, and unless there’s a major intervention, it’s not surprising that he would become starting 1985 George.
And, of course, the whole point of the movie is to bring about that intervention. Because here’s the thing: Marty McFly may be the main character of BACK TO THE FUTURE. But George McFly is the protagonist. And we’ll discuss this more shortly.
But the result of the film is that Ending 1985 George actually has it together. He’s published a book. He doesn’t let Biff bully him – he has Biff under total control. He’s happy, confident, and not particularly dorky. Time has treated him well. And that is the key character arc of BACK TO THE FUTURE, and it affects everything in Marty’s family. Marty’s siblings have it much more together, his mom is happy, and even Marty now has the car of his dreams.
The last character that we need to discuss is Biff Tannen, everyone’s antagonist. Well, not Doc Brown’s – but everyone else’s in this movie. Biff is a bully, a jerk, and, well, choose your own descriptors. And he’s the same both in Beginning 1985 and 1955. He bullies Marty, he bullies George, and he tries to rape Lorraine. Not a good guy, but a guy who gets his comeuppance when he’s totally cowed in Ending 1985.
So those are the characters. But there’s one key thing to discuss about these characters, and it comes down to the difference between protagonists, heroes, and main characters. So we’re going to have to start with a round of definitions, because although these are related, they are really three different things.
Now this is not going to be easy. There’s lots of different definitions of these terms on the web. Just google protagonist vs hero vs main character and the first few results will give you all sorts of different definitions.
But for sake of this discussion, I’m going to give my own definitions. And just for fun, I’m going to add one more to the mix: the point of view character.
The Hero is the character who the audience wants to see win. Generally, this will be a good guy. But there’s a lot of characters who do a lot of evil who win over audiences. Walter White is an example. As I argued when we did BREAKING BAD, I think Walt is amoral from the beginning of the series. But a lot of the BREAKING BAD audience wanted to see him succeed.
The main character is the character who the story is mostly about. Often, but not always, this is the title character. Think LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or BATMAN. It’s the character you’d start with if you were giving a quick synopsis of the movie.
Now the main character is often the hero, but not always. Sometimes that character is a villain, or sometimes a monster. After all, we go to see DRACULA because we want to see the story about the old vampire. But most of the time, Count Dracula is not the hero of the story, but rather the villain. And we’re on the side of the people fighting him.
Now there’s a third player to add to the mix, and that’s the protagonist. The protagonist is the one who drives the action. The one who makes the crucial decision. And the one who is changed by the story.
And again, the protagonist is often both the hero and the main character. But not always. I’d argue that Dracula is both main character and protagonist of DRACULA, but not the hero. But I’d also argue that King Kong is the main character of KING KONG, but neither the protagonist, who is probably the impresario Carl Denham, nor the hero, who is probably that guy who ends up with Fay Wray, a guy who is so forgettable that I can’t even remember his name. (It’s John Driscoll. Thank you, Mister Internet.)
And last, the point of view character is the character who we are with for most of the story. We see the story through this character’s eyes. And once again, this character isn’t necessarily protagonist, hero, or main character, but often can be. In THE GREAT GATSBY, for example, the point of view character is Nick Carraway, though Gatsby is protagonist, main character, and hero. And in the Sherlock Holmes stories, Watson is the point of view character, though Holmes is clearly all the other things.
In most stories, and in most movies, all of these are going to be the same character. So, for example, in The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is our point of view, because we spend most of the film with her. She’s also the hero – we want to see her win. She’s certainly the main character, because the story is about her. (Though curiously she’s not the title character, a violation of our title rule-of-thumb.) And she’s certainly the protagonist, because she’s the one who learns at the end that there’s no place like home and it’s her decisions that take us through the story.
But as the examples I’ve mentioned show, you can have stories where the above roles are split across multiple characters.
(And we’re not going to get into the many many cases where there are multiple heroes, or multiple protagonists, or multiple main and point of view characters.)
But the key point of all of this is that I think BACK TO THE FUTURE is one of those stories where the protagonist is a different character than the hero or main character or point of view character.
Let’s start with the easy part. Marty is clearly our point of view character. He’s in almost every scene, and we learn things as Marty learns them. He’s definitely our way into this story.
He’s also the main character. If you were to give a one-line synopsis of BACK TO THE FUTURE, you’d probably say it’s about a guy who goes back in time and has to make his parents fall in love. So clearly Marty’s the main character.
And he’s the hero. We worry that he’s going to disappear if his parents don’t fall in love. We want to see him get back to the future. It’s right there in the title of the movie. We want him to succeed.
But I would argue that the true protagonist of BACK TO THE FUTURE is George. Although Marty makes lots of decisions throughout the film, the crucial decision is made when George chooses to stand up to Biff, and then when he knocks out Biff. That’s the pivotal moment in the film, and when it happens Marty is stuck in a car trunk.
Further, George is the one who changes. As a result of his choice, George goes from being a hopeless dweeb to being a pretty cool guy. And the entire universe changes with him – Lorraine is now happy, Marty’s siblings are more successful, and Marty himself gets his dream car.
So George is the secret protagonist of BACK TO THE FUTURE. He makes the crucial decision and he undergoes the biggest change. When it comes right down to it, Marty’s main role in the film is to be George’s mentor, to guide him to the moment when George makes his big decision.
I find this to be a fascinating aspect of this film. And one that I hadn’t noticed until I sat down to do this analysis. The film seems so much about Marty that I hadn’t noticed that he doesn’t make the key decision that changes the world. And that his character arc is, compared to George’s, less important. In fact, Marty doesn’t really change at all in the course of this film. The script shows him gaining in self-confidence and more willing to take chances, but even that didn’t make it into the film. No, the major changes all derive from George, and while the rest of Marty’s family and Biff all change as well, their changes are just reflections of George’s change.
So with that in mind, let’s look at the structure of this film.
There’s actually a couple of challenging things about analyzing the structure of this film. First off, it’s broken fairly cleanly down by time units. It starts with a section in 1985, then goes to 1955, then has one more section in 1985. So nice, clean three-act structure, right?
No so fast. The ending 1985 section is hardly a full act. And while it shows how things were changed by Marty’s visit to 1955, nothing really happens in that section other than that revelation. Marty tries to stop the terrorists from killing Doc, but he gets there too late – only to find out that Doc was wearing a bullet-proof vest, having been warned by Marty’s 1955 actions. So nothing was decided here – it was only revealed.
Similarly, Marty goes home and finds how things have changed. But he doesn’t do anything to change it – he just sees and marvels at the changes.
And last, Marty and Jennifer (or Suzy in the script) go in the time machine with Doc to go into that far distant future. A far distant future that’s way ahead, in 2015. Ulp.
In effect, this latter 1985 section is just a big postscript. It’s just like in SHAUN OF THE DEAD – we see the results of the core action of the movie, but it’s not the core action.
Also note that section is only 10 pages long, a little short for an act.
So I’m going to call it a postscript, and not an act.
Does that mean that BACK TO THE FUTURE has only two acts and a postscript? Well, no.
If we want to break BACK TO THE FUTURE into time periods, there’s one more division we can make. When Marty’s in 1955, the first part of the action takes place over the course of a full week in which several actions happen. Marty arrives on Saturday, November 5, 1955. He stops George from being hit by a car and thus interferes with his parents’ meet-cute. He tracks down 1955 Doc Brown and the two develop a plan to use lightning to power the time machine and send Marty home. He meets Biff and earns his anger. And he persuades George to go after Lorraine, while simultaneously getting Lorraine to fall for him.
That’s a full week, and it could well be a full act.
But there’s still a lot of 1955 action to go. And all that takes place in one day, the day of the Enchantment Under the Sea dance. Which is the next Saturday – November 12, 1955.
On that day, Marty develops his plan with George: Marty will get fresh with Lorraine, George will rescue her and thus earn her love. Doc prepares the contraption to capture the lightning and power the time machine. Marty goes to the dance with Lorraine. Biff appears and his goons lock Marty in a trunk. George rescues Lorraine from Biff. Marty plays at the dance, getting his parents to kiss on the dancefloor, a key moment in their developing relationship. And Doc’s plan works and Marty returns to the future.
That too could well be a full act. So perhaps we have three acts and a postscript. In this telling, Act One is the initial 1985 section, Act Two is the days in 1955 leading up to the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, and act three is the day of the dance. And the postscript is the later 1985 section.
But I must admit, I’m not entirely convinced of this breakdown. Because the first few scenes on the day of the dance still feel like part of act two. Things have not yet reached the fever pitch that they’ll reach once Marty and Lorraine arrive at the dance. If it weren’t for the timing of it all, I’d say that act three starts when Marty and Lorraine arrive at the dance. So act three is all the action at the dance, plus the sequence of Marty’s return to 1985.
In any event, judge it as you will. I’ve setup lanes on the Storylanes analysis chart for both my act breakdown and the key time markers.
You can also find my sequence breakdown there.
So, how does this play out by our standard screenplay models? And again, for a review of these, listen to the first episode of this podcast.
Well, three act structure works fairly well here, especially if you go by the dramatic breakdown of structure. Though there are a couple of complications.
One of these is the inciting incident. It’s actually a fairly minor thing – and even more minor in the film than in the script. That’s when Doc Brown reminds Marty to come to the mall that night. In the script, Doc appears in the town square when Marty is with Suzy. In the film, this is done when Marty is at Doc’s house and Doc calls him there. But either way, it’s almost a throw-away moment: someone tells Marty to be somewhere with no explanation given. Still, that’s the thing that sets the action of the movie going.
Which is a good thing for a screenwriter to note. The inciting incident doesn’t have to be hugely significant. It can be something that seems fairly minor when it happens.
The acts themselves are where I note them in my own three-act breakdown. Though given that three-act structure does not recognize a postscript, the entire latter 1985 section is just part of act three, an unusually long aftermath of the main action.
The midpoint is the fight in the square between Biff and his goons and Marty, in which Biff tries to run Marty down in his car, but Marty manages to keep away with help of an improvised skateboard. And that climaxes with Biff being buried in manure – though the scene has a different climax in the script. And after this action, Biff hates Marty and is out for revenge.
But one more note on all this: the key climax of the film is when George knocks out Biff. This happens on page 73 of this 93-page script – only about three quarters of the way through. That’s quite early for the climax of a film. But there it is.
Though there’s still plenty of other key action to go, so the film doesn’t suffer from such an early climax. Still, it’s unusual, and worthy of note.
So that’s three-act structure. How’s SAVE THE CAT look here?
Most of the save-the-cat beats are present. Though as we’ve seen with many other movies, there is no debate. Which means that in hero’s journey terms, there is no refusal of the call. We’ve seen this enough times that we should note it as a trend. Often the hero is not given a chance to refuse the call. Often the hero doesn’t refuse the call even if he has the chance.
Marty doesn’t get the chance to refuse the call. Since he doesn’t choose to go back to 1955, he never has a chance to refuse the chance to go back. Instead, circumstances force him to go back.
Think of the other movies where we’ve seen a failure to refuse the call. John McClane doesn’t choose to deal with terrorists. When terrorists arrive, he has to deal with them. In GET OUT, Chris never gets the chance to deal with the weirdness that is Rose’s family. He just goes and visits them.
All in all, I think it’s safe to say that the save-the-cat debate or the hero’s journey refusal of the call is optional. A script can work just fine without it.
Similarly, an awful lot of these movies don’t use opening and closing images as prescribed by save-the-cat. The opening and closing images of a film don’t have to highlight the changes that the world has gone through. They certainly don’t here. The opening image of BACK TO THE FUTURE shows a bunch of clocks in Doc Brown’s house. That establishes the time-travel motif of the film, but it doesn’t say anything about the starting point of Marty or George. (And note that in the script, the opening image is film of a nuclear bomb exploding, which says even less about anything in this film.)
Similarly, the closing image here is of the DeLorean flying off into the future. Which says nothing about the events of this film, but instead sets up the sequel.
There are images of change here, but they are mostly the changes in Marty’s family from starting 1985 to ending 1985, most notably a change from hopeless dweeb George and frumpy unhappy Lorraine to geeky-but-cool George and fine-looking happy Lorraine. And those don’t come anywhere near the beginning and ending of the film.
But overall, and given that this is not the first time we’ve seen these beats missing, I think it’s safe to say that the opening and closing images, as prescribed by Save the Cat, are completely optional.
The other save-the-cat beats are largely present. There’s some variation due to the climax coming so early. But they’re here. Just check out the save-the-cat lane in the Storylanes analysis.
And now let’s take a look at the hero’s journey. And here I think we find something quite interesting.
First, Marty does have a hero’s journey. As I mentioned, there’s no refusal of the call. But other than that, things all line up fairly nicely for his journey, where he travels into the world of the past, undergoes a great adventure, and returns to his home with a reward in hand. Doc Brown is the mentor on his journey, both in 1985 and 1955. All fairly standard.
Where things get interesting is that George is on his own hero’s journey. Perhaps fitting, for as I noted above, I think George is the key character arc of this film.
George’s status quo, his ordinary pre-journey world, is established in 1985. He’s socially awkward, under the thumb of the bully Biff, and has an unsuccessful life with an unhappy wife.
Then we go back to 1955. Now George is not the one that goes back on that journey – it’s his past. So there’s a little fudging of the hero’s journey there.
But when Marty tries to persuade George to ask out Lorraine, it acts as a call to adventure. In this case, George’s adventure is the romance with Lorraine. And at first, he refuses it. Marty has to trick George into thinking that aliens are demanding he ask out Lorraine before George accepts the call.
Also note that throughout this, Marty is George’s mentor. It’s an interesting trick: the hero of one plotline serving as the mentor of another.
Finally, George must meet his ordeal. This happens when he opens the car door to rescue Lorraine, expecting this to be facing Marty, and a Marty who is in on the plan. Only instead, he finds Biff, George’s nemesis. And there’s nothing fake about this confrontation.
But George makes his key choice: he doesn’t back down. He will rescue Lorraine, stand up to Biff. It’s a powerful moment, the climax of the film.
And George meets his moment. He knocks out Biff, thus earning the love of Lorraine and the respect of his classmates. And his own self-respect.
But he’s not in the clear yet. He still needs to kiss Lorraine on the dance floor. And there’s one more jerk in his high school who tries to cut George out. George must step up, overcome this last obstacle, and kiss the girl.
And now he’s home free. And George’s reward is that in the ending 1985, he is happy and successful. He’s even a published author, something he wanted all along.
I’ve set up two lanes for the hero’s journey on the storylanes analysis, one for Marty’s journey and one for George. Take a look – it’s interesting how well both work.
And this, of course, is a key lesson for screenwriters. You can use these models in various ways and for multiple characters. George has his own entire hero’s journey. And, in some ways, it’s the more important hero’s journey of this piece.
So now we’ve dealt with story structure, let’s dive into theme.
I believe that the theme of BACK TO THE FUTURE is that a moment of courage can change your life. And the key example of this theme is George. When he stands up to Biff in defending Lorraine, he changes his entire life. He goes from being the dweeb of starting 1985 to the successful man of ending 1985. And all because of that one moment.
In a way, BACK TO THE FUTURE follows the Mazin/LeFauvre model that we discussed in the JO JO RABBIT episode. Though admittedly in an abridged form. In George, the debate is between the importance of courage and its antithesis. And the antithesis is that one shouldn’t take risks.
Early on, we hear George say a number of things that boil down to, don’t make waves. Don’t confront. Here’s some examples:
“I know what you’re going to say, son, and you’re right. You’re right. But he happens to be my supervisor, and I’m afraid I’m just not very good at confrontations.”
“Believe me, son, you’re better off not having the aggravation of dealing with that YMCA dance. You’d have to worry about getting all your equipment there, making contingency plans in case someone got sick, making sure you got paid correctly, settling with the Musician’s union…”
So George firmly believes in the antithesis, that one shouldn’t confront, shouldn’t make waves, shouldn’t put yourself out there. Even later, we see him show that attitude in 1955:
“What if they didn’t like ‘em? What if they told me I was not good? I couldn’t take that kind of rejection.”
But all that changes when George has his big moment, when he knocks out Biff in defense of Lorraine. And so when we get to the new George, in ending 1985, he’s an entirely different person. A person who says things like, “I always said, if you set your mind to it you can accomplish anything.”
Now we don’t spend a huge amount of time with George in this film. So we don’t see as much of the Mazin/LeFauvre model play out as described by those two.
But we do see the key moments, and we see the results. It’s good stuff, the way it all plays out, almost in the background of Marty’s story, only stepping up and becoming key at critical moments.
But we’re left with that theme: a moment of courage changes George’s life, and with his new confidence he can accomplish anything.
Okay, so much for theme. On to subplots.
BACK TO THE FUTURE is rich with subplots. In fact, it’s kind of hard to decide what is the main plot, given how rich the subplots are. There’s a lane for each of these in the Storylanes analysis, but let’s do a quick review of them.
The most obvious of the subplots is Marty’s travels in time. The key challenge here is that Marty is stranded in 1955 and has to get home. The subplot really starts when Marty goes back to 1955. He then approaches 1955 Doc Brown, who helps him get back. There’s complications, especially in the big sequence where Marty returns to 1985, when Doc has to deal with getting all the wiring correct. It’s all quite exciting, but Marty eventually gets home.
Then we have the romance between Marty’s parents. At first, this seems here because if Marty’s parents don’t get together, Marty will cease to exist. And there’s also what Marty learns about his parents – how Lorraine had a healthy teenage sense of adventure and libido, how George was a little creepy. Marty: “He’s a peeping tom!” But also imaginative and creative. “I never knew you wrote stories! Get out!”
And there’s some fun moments when Lorraine is obviously turned on by Marty.
Marty, why are you so nervous?
Marty takes a deep breath.
Well, have you ever been in a situation where, well, you know you have to act a certain way, but when you get there, you don’t know if you can go through with it?
You mean like how you’re supposed to act with someone on a first date?
Well, sort of…
I think I know exactly what you mean.
And you know what I do in those situations?
Marty looks at her.
I don’t worry about it!
Some good Oedipal playing around there that is short-circuited after one kiss:
I don’t know what it is, but… when I kiss you, something’s wrong. I almost feel like… like I was kissing my brother… or my father. I don’t understand it, but I just know it’s wrong. I guess that doesn’t make any sense, does it?
Believe me, it makes perfect sense.
But, of course, this subplot turns out to the central to George’s development. The movie really slips this in on us – most viewers won’t see it coming until Marty returns to 1985 and sees his parents there. So this is at the heart of George’s hero’s journey, which is the central story of this film.
Biff himself provides his own subplot. His relationship with George, bullying in most of the timelines, but ultimately cowed in ending 1985. And his ongoing fights with Marty, with the high point being the chase in the town square, culminating in Biff’s car being buried in manure.
We’ve already heard the clips where Biff bullies George. He is truly a jerk, in both starting 1985 and in 1955. But it all ends poorly for Biff in ending 1985.
Hey, Biff, don’t forget to wax the inside of the wheel covers. You forgot that last time.
Yes, sir, you’re the boss, sir!
Next we have Doc vs the Terrorists. Doc Brown got the plutonium to power the time machine by promising to make a nuclear bomb out of it for terrorists. But he ripped them off. So they’re coming to kill him.
This is introduced early, when we learn about the missing plutonium and see that Doc has it. Then the terrorists kill Doc right before Marty escapes to the past. This leads to a lot of interactions between Marty and Doc as Marty tries to let Doc know what happens so that Doc can keep from being killed. But Doc resists – he won’t take warnings from the future as they may lead to paradoxes. Finally, Marty returns to 1985, finds that Doc did read his letter after all, and thus saved himself.
And one last subplot: Marty’s music. Marty plays the guitar, but his band loses in the audition to play for a school dance. But he finally gets to play at a school dance, only one in 1955, when he stands in for Marvin Berry as lead guitar for his band.
There’s a couple of things to note about these subplots. First, they are all quite entertaining. But most important, they all come together to cause the action of the film. If any were left out, it would leave behind plot holes.
For sake of argument, let’s say that the chief plot here is the story of George’s hero’s journey. Every other subplot has a key impact on that main story.
First, the romance subplot is George’s key adventure. By winning Lorraine the way he does in this alternate timeline, winning her by defeating Biff, George gains the confidence needed to complete his character arc, to live a good and fulfilling life. So the romance is key to George’s arc.
But if Marty weren’t there to first, interrupt George’s meet-cute with Lorraine, and later, to set up the conditions for George’s big confrontation with Biff, then George wouldn’t win Lorraine the way he does. And Marty’s only there because of the time travel subplot. So the time travel subplot is also key to this main story.
Biff’s subplot is obviously crucial for George’s arc. Because defeating Biff is the key moment in George’s arc.
Even the Doc and the terrorists subplot plays a key role. Because Doc was only able to build the time machine because he got the plutonium from the terrorists, so without this plot, Marty would never have gone back in time.
And finally, even Marty’s music is crucial, because without Marty playing guitar at the dance, George and Lorraine would not have their dance and thus their kiss, another critical milestone in their romance.
The way all these subplots are tied together is masterful. And it doesn’t hurt that they all provide moments of pure entertainment. It’s a great job.
So a key lesson for the screenwriter: if you can weave a web of entertaining subplots, your script will be a whole lot better. It’s a wonderful way of making a movie. But those subplots should have a critical tie to the central story of your film. Otherwise, why are they there?
But note the other thing that this movie does: it buries George’s arc, the central story, under all these layers of delightful subplots. George’s arc gives the story its heart, but all those subplots keep things entertaining throughout.
And, of course, George’s arc is a simple but satisfying one: the awkward kid who earns self-respect and love by defeating the local bully. That’s a story with a lot of heart, and that gives the entire film so much meaning.
We’re nearing the end, but there’s one more thing I want to address, and that’s time travel. There’s a couple of things to note about the use of time travel in this film.
The first is how well the rules of time travel are established, rules that make for a wonderfully entertaining film. To travel in time, you have to get in the DeLorean, supplemented with the flux capacitor, set the device accordingly, and take it up to 88 miles per hour.
That does a lot of things. First, the DeLorean time machine is just plain cool. No more need to be said on that front.
But having the 88 miles per hour be the threshold means that when Marty is speeding away from the terrorists, he can accidentally send himself back in time. He doesn’t want to go to 1955 – it just sort of happens.
Next, the power requirements for the time machine are also critical. As Doc Brown tells us, “Electrical. But I need a nuclear reaction to generate the 1.21 jigowatts of electricity I need. The T.F.C. stores it, then discharges it all at once, like a gigantic bolt of lightning. Oh, you’d better put on this radiation suit before I reload. Not that there’s any danger, but it never hurts to take precautions.“
This makes for two wonderful complications. First, it gets the Libyan terrorists involved. If Doc didn’t need the plutonium, the terrorists wouldn’t come into play.
But second, it causes Marty to be stranded back in 1955. Because he didn’t bring any spare plutonium. And it means the only way for him to get home is through the lightning bolt on the clock tower, something that gives him enough time in the past to get into trouble, but also sets a timer for how long he has to resolve things. And a timer always adds to tension.
And, of course, a timer leads to lots of fun complications when it comes time to try to send Marty home.
As I noted before in the episode on GET OUT, a screenwriter can pretty much come up with any rules for weird technology. What is critical is that the rules support the story. And you can see that here in the way that time travel works.
But perhaps the most important aspect to how time travel works here is that it is possible to change the timeline. When Marty goes back, his presence in the past changes the world in the present. And that’s crucial to this story: if Marty’s presence in the past had no impact, then there would be no consequences or stakes in his actions beyond his own fate. Certainly George’s new choices then would not have an impact on the present. There would be no point to BACK TO THE FUTURE if time travelers couldn’t go back in time and make a change that affects the present.
Now this is not a requirement for time travel stories. There’s lots of great time travel stories that take the fixed timeline view. See TWELVE MONKEYS.
But this set of rules works for this story.
Now a side note: when Marty comes back to 1985, the first sign that things have changed is that the mall where Doc Brown was shot has a different name. In starting 1985, it was the Twin Pines Mall. But when Marty goes back in time, he runs over one of the pines. So in ending 1985, the mall is now the Lone Pine Mall.
I’ll admit: I never would have noticed that if I hadn’t read it in the script. But having read the script, I went back to the film and saw that the sign for the mall has actually changed. It’s one of those subtle little details that filmmakers slip into their films but that almost nobody ever notices. Ask me sometime about the GOODFELLAS oner and the utterly unnecessary trip through the kitchen!
There is one place where I think BACK TO THE FUTURE fails in its time travel. Sometimes Marty seems to have an impact when he’s in the past, but the things he seems to cause are true for both 1985’s, the one where he was in the past and the one where he is not. And that doesn’t make sense: if something is caused by Marty’s presence in 1955, that thing should not be true in starting 1985.
An example is Goldie Wilson, who is mayor of the town in both versions of 1985. When Marty meets young Goldie in 1955, he suggests that Goldie will be mayor. This seems to inspire Goldie, to give him the idea to run for mayor. But Goldie was mayor in starting 1985, so either Marty’s presence didn’t matter, which is unsatisfying, or Goldie shouldn’t have been mayor in beginning 1985.
Similarly, when given a chance to play at the dance, Marty plays “Johnny B. Goode.” This inspires Marvin Berry to call his cousin Chuck. “Hey Chuck, you know that new sound you’re looking for? Listen to this!”
So, did Marty just inspire the birth of rock and roll, which clearly exists in both versions of 1985? If so, how did he know the song? Again, we have the satisfying answer, and the idea that Marty’s presence didn’t matter.
Some people claim that BACK TO THE FUTURE is a perfect film, with no logic mistakes. I do love this film, and admire it. But I’m afraid that due to these two holes, I can’t call it perfect.
There is one other thing I find a little shaky, but perhaps okay. There’s a key coincidence at the heart of this movie.
Marty goes back to November,1955, because that’s the time Doc sets on the time machine. And Doc sets that time because it’s the week that he invented the idea of the flux capacitor.
But that also happens to be the week when Marty’s parents met and fell in love. And it’s also the week when lightning struck the clock tower.
That’s all pure coincidence. Three key events happen in the same week, with two happening on the same night, the night of the dance and the lightning strike. A bit far-fetched, though I’m willing to give it a pass.
Anyway, let’s look at three screenwriter lessons from BACK TO THE FUTURE.
First, the fact that the key emotional story of the film is actually fairly buried, that the film is all about George’s character arc, but this is something we don’t really see until the very end, when we see how much George has changed in ending 1985, is masterful screenwriting. I love how the central story largely plays out in the corners of the main action, only stepping to the front in a couple of key moments. And that it seems like part of a different story: Marty has to bring his parents together or he will cease to exist. That’s important, sure. But the way it plays out changes George’s life. And that’s well done indeed.
Also, particularly note the way that George’s arc follows the Hero’s Journey, even though he seems like a secondary character. That’s another key part of this lesson.
Second, the way that all the subplots are tied together is terrific. Every critical subplot introduces tension, conflict, and entertainment value. But each also makes a key contribution to the central story. It’s a great example of how to pull together several subplots to be key parts of the story.
Third, I think it’s worth examining the design of the rules for time travel in this film. Most importantly, the details of the technology support the story, the story does not depend on those details. That’s an important thing for anyone who writes science fiction to consider. Story comes first, details of world later. Screenwriter, take note.
And that’s BACK TO THE FUTURE. I very much enjoyed this one, and I hope you did too.
Next week, I’m going to dive into PARASITE, last year’s Oscar winner for BEST PICTURE and BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY.
Until then, check us out at Storylanes.com, where you’ll find the script of this episode, a link to the BACK TO THE FUTURE screenplay, and the Storylanes chart on this movie.
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This is Joe Dzikiewicz and the Storylanes podcast. Talk at you later.