Gremlins was grim and Poltergeist paltry, but with Back to the Future executive producer Steven Spielberg presents relentlessly cheery entertainment. He’s called the film “the greatest Leave It to Beaver episode ever produced,” an achievement Spielberg pursued by putting Romancing the Stone director Robert Zemeckis in charge.
Is Back to the Future cute, sly, always in a little danger of turning smarmy? Will it be big this summer? Does a beaver bear fur? Zemeckis has made a very clean-looking, savory confection out of three cups of sugar and a palette of food coloring. In Back to the Future, young Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) has unique family problems when a time machine made out of a DeLorean sports car accidentally transports him back to 1955. “Doc,” a charmingly crazy older scientist pal (Christopher Lloyd) , has invented a vehicle that can go from zero to 55 in seconds – but can it return Marty to the era of Calvin Klein underwear again? Unhappily stranded in a past barren of diet colas, Marty seeks out the Doc in 1955, somehow persuades him of the charmingly crazy thing that’s happened, and the pair start working on sending Marty back to 1985.
Meanwhile, Marty’s still in his own small, California town, hobnobbing with his parents – the warp is that they’re the same age as he. It appears that Dad (Crispin Glover) was always a meek bumbler being preyed upon by beefy Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), a local lunkhead who became Dad’s boss in later life. Mom (Lea Thompson), however, is different.
Rather than the reproving puritan of 1985 which she became, Mom is, well, forward. Call it unknowing narcissism or bio-genetic conceit, but she falls for Marty in a big way. This makes Marty understandably nervous.
Worse yet, the local high school’s Enchantment Under the Sea dance is fast approaching. Because Marty has disruptively popped up several years before he was supposed to be born, history is not following its proper course (Mom and Dad are supposed to go to the dance together and fall in love there).
Marty must coach his inept young father on winning over his mother – otherwise, Marty will not be born. Don’t think about this too much, or the fun spoils faster than whipped cream at a picnic.
Zemeckis has the Spielberg athleticism down pat. He knows how to use shots of moving feet to suggest action, action to suggest romance, romance to suggest ideals and ideals to suggest new ways to use sporty footwear. The trick is keeping the audience enjoyably winded but not hyperventilating.
What best sustains the momentum is the bounce and humor in the acting. Glover, as Dad, is absolutely winning as the stumbler who nearly misses his minor rendezvous with destiny, and Vancouver-born Fox, as Marty, can seduce a camera lens from twenty paces. Lloyd, as the Doc, produces entertaining mischief with his darting eyes, although his fruity scientist is occasionally over-ripe.
The most impressive contribution comes from production designer Lawrence G. Paull, who concocted that visual cornucopia called Bladerunner. One knows it’s 1955 by the fact that four uniformed attendants are seen servicing a single car at the local gas station, but there are less humorous touches, too; Paull’s work here has a consciously bittersweet quality. Between the eras, the oak trees give way to the fast- food restaurants and small-town America is seen to have decayed by the time it reaches 1985. We are brought back to a contemporary terrain which Back to the Future cautiously concedes is losing its appeal.
Predictably, however, Spielberg and Zemeckis have kept all the homespun values intact. They look patronizingly back at 1955 as a time of smug complacency, but 1985 doesn’t find them very anxious either. And with Back to the Future, Spielberg restores his plastered-on grin of boyish goodness; his screen world is never so messy that it can’t be fixed by the good intentions of people who have freckles.