Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Back to the Future, by Andrew Shail and Robin Stoate

Back to the Future, by Andrew Shail and Robin Stoate. London: BFI Film Classics, Palgrave Macmillan. 2010. Paperback, $15.00

In his State of the Union address of February 4, 1986, Ronald Reagan references the final line of Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future: “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads” (78). Turning his attention to the youth of the nation, Reagan sandwiches Doc Brown’s iconic line between a warning against “the temptations young people face” in a “permissive society” and a promise that the NASA space program, devastated by the Challenger explosion, would continue unimpeded. Andrew Shail, a lecturer in film at Newcastle University, and Robin Stoate, a doctoral candidate in English, quote Reagan’s speech in Back to the Future, published as part of the BFI Film Classics series. As the authors demonstrate throughout this volume, while most of Back to the Future‘s teen and sci-fi film peers of the 1980s embody the youthful rebellion and cynicism of the time, Reagan-era nostalgia for the 1950s permeates this film.

A summer blockbuster, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing film of 1985 and one of the top grossers of the decade. The film follows rebellious teenager Marty McFly, whose unwitting trip to the past, to the precise day of his parents’ meeting in 1955, upsets history and threatens his own existence. Shail and Stoate’s book, like many of the volumes of this series, offers the general reader as well as the specialist an accessible yet critically rigorous introduction to this surprisingly important film. The authors place Back to the Future within the context of ’70s and ’80s Hollywood filmmaking, analyze its formal and generic characteristics, and examine its status as a “teenpic” and as a cultural receptacle of Reagan-era conservatism, highlighting the film’s backlash against second-wave feminism, its resistance to emerging computer technologies, and its apparent ignorance of the cultural changes of ’60s and ’70s.

Shail and Stoate begin by categorizing Back to the Future as part of the “New New Hollywood.” Whereas “New Hollywood” films like Easy Rider (1969) are viewed as responses to and assimilations of the auteur-driven, experimental films of the French New Wave, “New New Hollywood” denotes a return to classical Hollywood filmmaking and marks “a recanting of such experimentation” (9). Included among Back to the Future‘s “New New Hollywood” peers are Star Wars (1977) and Jaws(1975), the film said to mark the end of New Hollywood.

The authors move to a brief but packed discussion of the film’s formal features. Highlighting Zemeckis’ preference for moving shots, the authors rush through a list of exemplar scenes: “42 percent of the shots inBack to the Future include appreciable movement. Marty’s journey to school in 1985 is all moving shots (which underlines the mobility he achieves using the skateboard), and the musical number, even Marvin’s call to Chuck Berry, is composed virtually entirely of moving shots, as is the scene where Marty and Doc retrieve the hidden DeLorean” (18). Limited by the required brevity of the BFI series and as if infected by the fast-paced mobility of this film’s camera, the writers move quickly between examples without elaboration. The discussion on genre, paired with the formal analyses of the film, however, is highly readable and well paced. Back to the Future, like many Hollywood blockbusters that seek to appeal to a wide range of audiences, mixes genres freely. As Zemeckis himself explains, the film “is a comedy adventure science-fiction time-travel love story (Shail and Stoate 27).

The film’s Oedipal drama and its anti-feminist stance have drawn the greatest attention from critics, and the authors review this critical history while pointing to similar threads running throughout Zemeckis’ work. “Rather than merely showing an image of a non-functioning contemporary family,” the authors write, “the film roots this situation in George’s failure to assert himself, against Biff in the present and over Lorraine in the past” (51). Shail and Stoate connect the film’s implicit stance to another work by Zemeckis, Forrest Gump (1994). In that film “Zemeckis dramatised the achievement of women’s liberation as the achievement of the freedom to contract AIDS” (53).

Shail and Stoate’s book offers readers a more considered experience of a film taken primarily for its easy entertainment value. Like a good beach novel, Back to the Future seems to require little critical thinking, it provides just enough conflict to keep us engaged, and its happy ending leaves us satisfied, hopeful, and wanting more. Shail and Stoate’s book adds nuance to our consumption of this film. The authors maintain the disinterested tone characteristic of academic writing, but their focus reveals that they sit ambivalently between appreciation for the film and distaste for the conservative, reactionary values it espouses. Marty McFly may be a rebellious, skateboarding teenager who fronts a “too loud” rock and roll band; he may talk back to the high school principal and lie to his parents about his plans to sneak off with his girlfriend, but as Shail and Stoate show, Back to the Future is a film that longs for the myths of an earlier era and that distrusts the social and technological progresses of its own time.