Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Craziest Things about the Back to the Future Trilogy

Instead of listing the best or the worst of something, I thought I would explore one of my favourite movie trilogies. I've heard people describe Back to the Future as the best movie about time travel and others call it the worst movie about time travel, and you know what? They're both right.

I can't count how many times I've watched these films, but no matter how many times I do, I always come away with something new to think about. Back to the Future is unfiltered entertainment, and the flaws and plot holes are all part of that fun. You'll enjoy yourself while watching and still have plenty of crazy inexplicable stuff to discuss afterwards. So, let's check out some of the more interesting aspects of the films to contemplate. There's a lot to say ... you've been warned.

5. Delicate Space Time Continuum, My Ass!
Over and over we hear Doc Brown rant about the space time continuum and how even the slightest change of past events could have major repercussions on the future. But the truth is that Doc doesn't really seem all that concerned.

The first big indication of that is in Part I when Doc reads Marty's note about the future. At first he tears it up claiming it's dangerous to know what will happen, and then later tapes the pieces back together and reads it because ... "what the hell". Way to stick to your guns, Emmett.

In Part II, while in 2015, Doc and Marty have to find Jennifer before she may encounter her older self ... because it may destroy the universe! I'm surprised that didn't cross Doc's mind before he ran up to two teenagers in a driveway, yelling at them like a lunatic about their non-existent kids, and whisking them away in a flying time machine in  broad daylight. Wasn't this the same guy who used to be super worried about knowing too much about your future?

Does telling Marty and Jennifer that they will get married and have kids affect the possibility of that outcome? If not, why doesn't he just give them a heads up about what will happen to their kids so they can prevent it? Wouldn't it have been easier to leave Jennifer behind? Or not tell her? Instead Doc seems to be frantic about getting them in the time machine and to the future. For someone who owns a time machine, Doc sure is in a damn hurry all the time.

4. Biff Tannen: Super Villain 
Biff Tannen has got to be one of my favourite antagonists in all of cinema. What's interesting about his character is how over the course of the trilogy we discover more and more what an evil guy he is.

Think about it. The first time we meet Biff we find that out that he's an alcoholic, a mooch, and a liar. He's treating the McFly family like shit from scene one. When Marty goes back to 1955 we see that Biff has been bullying George McFly his whole life, and he's an all around hot tempered prick. By the finale of the first film he's attempted to rape Marty's mother.

Since the first movie already took Biff from jerk to rapist, I'd say we've clearly established him as a terrible person. But there's more! In Part II when Biff's character is given unlimited money and power he basically ruins the entire town and leaves it a degenerate wasteland. He's abusive, adulterous, engages in illegal activity, and murders people! In fact we see two different versions of Biff trying to kill Marty in the same film.

But that's not all. Not only is Biff a horrible person in every sense, we discover that his descendants and ancestors are all psychos and assholes too. It's like Biff is constantly growing more and more evil to the point where it's eternal.

Since we're focusing on Biff, I really have to point out how crazy it is to see his character working for the McFly family at the end of Part I. Why exactly did George McFly decide the perfect person to hire to clean his car would be the man who once tried to rape his wife? I mean, honestly, at what point do you break ties with this fucker?

3. Tracking the Time Machine
Fact: The DeLorean is still the coolest time machine in cinema history. Don't deny it.

For fun I drew up a timeline for the trilogy depicting all the trips the DeLorean makes and who made them. Please print it out, laminate it, and carry it around for your reference. The time machine is mostly powered by plutonium or garbage for most of the trips it makes, but also powered once by train, and twice by lightning. I should note that both of those times were from the same lightning storm.

Throughout the trilogy there are 13 clear trips the DeLorean makes, however, there may be more since we don't know everything Doc Brown did while in the future before coming back to warn Marty of his future asshole kids. By my calculations, with all the trips made, the time machine passed through (or over?) 570+ years. Interestingly, the first trip is the shortest jump (1 minute forward) and the last trip is the longest jump (100 years forward).

Also, during Part II there are 4 versions of the DeLorean existing in Hill Valley 1955 all at once: 1) The one in Doc's workshop before Marty returns to 1985 via clock tower lightning. 2) The one Old Biff is using to give his younger self the Almanac. 3) The one hidden behind a billboard while Doc and Marty try to retrieve the Almanac. 4) The one buried in the mine left by Doc trapped in 1885. There are also at least 2 versions of the DeLorean in 2015, but we only see one of them.

2. Doc's Timeline: A Series of Unfortunate Events
One of my favourite things to consider when looking back on the trilogy is the individual timelines of the characters. Because we're viewing the events primarily from Marty's perspective, we might not imagine the absurd chain of events for other characters. Specifically I find Doc Brown's perspective pretty crazy. Here's how his life played out chronologically:

So Doc is living alone in Hill Valley in 1955 toiling away on failed invention after failed invention. One day he slips in the bathroom, bangs his head, and is struck with the idea for the flux capacitor, which makes time travel possible. The very same day some teenager shows up at his door claiming to be from the future travelling in a time machine built by his future self. Already that's pretty screwy.

So he spends the next many days with this kid (that he will one day become friends with) trying to find a way to power the time machine (that he will one day invent). Doc nearly kills himself climbing the clock tower during a thunderstorm trying to rig up a system to harness a lightning bolt. At the last minute he succeeds, the DeLorean is powered, and Marty disappears into the future.

A few seconds later another Marty runs up to him and frantically needs his help again. Doc now needs to go excavate another version of his time machine out of a mine in order to send Second Marty into the past to rescue his future self who is trapped in the old west. Oh yeah, and while retrieving the time machine, Doc stumbles upon his own grave.

But that's not all. Doc sends the Second Marty to 1885 and then finally gets to move on with his life. He spend the next 30 years building the time machine that he's already encountered twice. He becomes friends with Original Marty, and on the night he tests his invention for the first time, Libyans riddle him with bullets and Marty drives off with his car for a third goddamn time.

For me, I'm just tickled by the mind-bending bullshit Doc has to endure before even getting to try out his machine for the first time. We don't even get to see him take his first trip through time, which must have been a significant moment of triumph for his character. Nope. Instead we spend all our time watching him nearly get killed while helping a stranger.

1. Paradoxes Galore
Oh man, where to begin?


First of all, I would say the biggest paradox has to be the entire conflict of the first movie. Marty goes back in time to 1955, accidentally prevents his parents from meeting and then has to get them together, or else they never fall in love, never get married, never have kids, and *gasp* Marty wouldn't exist. But if we continue that chain of events, if Marty doesn't exist, then there is no Marty to travel back in time to interfere with his parents lives, and so they do meet, do fall in love, get married and have kids, and *gasp* Marty would exist. It's the ol' Grandfather Paradox where a person's actions are creating a never-ending loop of contradiction.


Despite the impossibility of interfering with his parents past, Marty does get them back together. As a result the circumstances in which George and Lorraine meet and fall in love are quite different and so when Marty returns to his life in 1985, his parents are now different people; they're healthier, happier, more confident, and successful. But why doesn't that make Marty not exist?!! Sure, the parents still end up together, but why would they have the exact same children in the exact same way? Why would they still live in the exact same house?!! Marty's siblings are different now as well, but why hasn't Marty changed in the process? Shouldn't he also have a new personality, or suddenly be flooded with memories of a different version of his childhood? For some reason everything changes except Marty. I'm not even going to delve into the fact that his parents don't seem to notice a similarity between Marty and that Calvin Klein fellow who got them together years ago.


While in 2015, when Doc and Marty are off trying to rescue Jennifer, Old Biff sneaks away with the time machine to alter his past. He gives his younger self the Almanac and when he returns to 2015 we see him doubling over in pain, the same way Marty did on stage as he began to fade from existence. Because he's changed his past Old Biff is dying, or "disappearing from existence". In a deleted scene we can actually see him collapse and fade away. The big issue I have with this is ... why doesn't the world start changing around him because of the altered history? When Doc, Marty, and Jennifer return to 1985 the world has changed and the town is a wasteland of crime. If  Biff created an alternate 1985, where is the alternate 2015?

And of course, like before, if Biff changes history and then doesn't exist in 2015, then how can he go back in time to change history? Also, in this alternate timeline we find out that Doc was committed to a mental institution. But if Doc is locked away, then he doesn't get to build a time machine and none of the events of the films would happen, including Old Biff's trip with the almanac.

Several times in the trilogy we see objects changing as the past is changed: Marty's family photo, the "You're Fired" fax paper, the picture of Doc's grave, and different newspaper articles. However, most of the time it doesn't make any sense. We see the fax fade away to a blank sheet of paper, but why wouldn't it fade away entirely? In the altered future, why would Jennifer pick up a blank piece of paper? Or when the newspaper articles change, they always change into a new article about the same person instead of, you know, some random article. And if Doc never gets shot in 1885, then there would be no grave and no reason to take a picture.

But there's more! Who the fuck actually wrote "Johnny B Goode"? Marty learned the song from Chuck Berry, and apparently Chuck Berry memorized it over the telephone as Marty played it. In the same line of thinking, where did the design for the time machine come from? Doc invented and built it, but that was after he saw the finished product and examined it. He may have come up with the flux capacitor alone, but using a DeLorean was probably the result of knowing that he ends up using a DeLorean. It's another paradox where an idea has no clear source.

In Part III Doc and Marty discover Emmett Brown's grave that clearly explains that Doc is shot and killed by 'Mad Dog' Tannen over a dispute about money. Shouldn't the discovery of this grave immediately change the past? There's are two Doc's: Young Doc in 1955, and Old Doc in 1885. If Young Doc learns about his death, shouldn't Old Doc now know about it too? Wouldn't he have the memory of finding his own grave more than 30 years ago? If I knew who was going to murder me, when, and why ... I'd probably do something to avoid it.

Ow! My brain hurts. There are still plenty more of these types of paradoxes, but I think you get the point. The trilogy is filled with plot holes and paradoxes, but I feel most of them don't become apparent until additional viewings, and even then they don't really hamper your enjoyment of the films. That fact is, these movies are hilarious and exciting, and filled with wonderful characters and a great story, even if the story doesn't make complete sense all the time. Like Doc Brown, it's best to just go with it and worry about the details later.

7 comments:

kingshearte said...

If you let things like paradoxes interfere with your enjoyment of time travel fiction, you'd never enjoy any time travel fiction. I've found that it's usually best to just let it roll past you and go with the flow without worrying too much about the technical glitchy things. But it is fun to ponder sometimes, when you feel like twisting your brain into Gordian knots.

Ryan said...

This is heresy! There are no plot holes in Back to the Future? It was all plotted out by time scientists and chronomages.

I wonder if there's a lost timeline where Doc Brown meets Dr. Who?

Shane said...

It's true that you can't have time travel movies without paradoxes. That would be like trying to make a romantic comedy without a gay friend character.

This list was basically just an excuse to blab about BTTF and the things I like to ponder and discuss. I honestly wouldn't change a thing about these movies, even if things don't make perfect sense upon reflection.

Also, I like to imagine that at the end of the trilogy when Doc and his family ride away in their flying train he's going to go hang with Dr. Who, and time permitting, ... Bill and Ted.

kingshearte said...

Don't forget some assortment of Star Trek characters.

cole d'arc said...

considering the many discussions you and i have had on this very subject, i'm not surprised to see you incorporate it into a list here. great stuff.

have you read this?

http://backtothefuture.wikia.com/wiki/Back_to_the_Future_timeline

Shane said...

Cole, thanks. I've wanted to write a list like this for some time now. There's nothing quite like a late night BTTF marathon to drum up some intense discussion.

Also, remember seeing a similar chart like that one, but the multiple timelines mess with my head.

cole d'arc said...

what's good about is the timelines plus the "time ripple" theory explain some of the stuff that doesn't seem to make sense that you brought up.